Half her colleagues thought Heather Du Quesnay was mad to choose to head the education service in a deprived London borough. Hilary Wilce asks if they were right
HEATHER Du Quesnay let her name go forward for director of education in Lambeth because she was "fascinated by how awful it was portrayed as being". And how was it when she arrived? "Worse than I could have conceivably imagined."
A year later? "Quite frustrating, really. I felt I hadn't done nearly as much as I'd like to." And now? "It still has its moments. There are some quite bad days."
When she was head-hunted from running education in Hertfordshire ("Half my colleagues said 'terrific', half treated me as if I needed certifying") just over two years ago, the deprived south London borough had suffered a decade of loony-left politics.
"The complete dysfunction of everything was impossible to imagine. None of the financial systems appeared to work, which was terrifying."
Heather Rabbatts, the borough's new chief executive, she says, got it right when she talked of pressing buttons and levers and nothing happening. "Not that there weren't some good people here. It's just that their efforts didn't join up."
Out in the field, the same was true. Good schools sat alongside truly terrible ones. Meanwhile, the physical environment was dispiriting, the borough was being inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, heads were distrustful, public meetings were poorly attended and councillors could be downright rude.
"That first year was very lonely. And completely daunting at times because it was just so awful."
But a challenge is obviously sometting the former teacher relishes. She talks - and thinks - fast and clearly, appearing both frank and tactful at the same time.
Writing in The TES she has taken on the Government about the role of local authorities, and tackled OFSTED about the anxiety levels inspections engender in schools.
Andrew Collier, general secretary of the Society of Education Officers, says: "She has a very firm sense of purpose and a determination. She listens to people, then comes to her own conclusions."
"Tough, firm and clear," says Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park School, who worked under her in Hertfordshire as head of a large school in Watford. "Very inclusive and able to make it clear to people where she is coming from and why."
Where she has come from is the North, from Withington Girls' School in Manchester, via Birmingham University and a decade of teaching in Birmingham, before building her local authority career with Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hertfordshire.
In Lambeth, her priorities were to seize the financial reins and build a team of new assistant directors and their managers. Next came following up the findings of the OFSTED inspection and speeding up the processing of special needs statements.
Hard evidence of improvement is still missing, but there are, she says, signs of progress.
"We had 13 schools on special measures after the OFSTED inspection, now we're down to eight and I'm hoping two more will come off this term." The borough has a strategic grip on special needs and is bidding for help from the Government's education action zone programme, having brokered a deal with CFBT, a Reading-based firm, to help to run some of its schools.
"There is so much to be done here that we are in a position to think the unthinkable," she says.
Yet huge problems remain: dealing with surplus school places, changing the image of secondary schooling and integrating pre-school provision among them. And that is not to mention learning the nature of the new Labour council, which replaced the borough's hung one at this month's local government elections.
Sitting in her spartan office near Brixton underground station, it is easy to see that the job might justifiably defeat lesser hands.
But Heather Du Quesnay has energy to spare. Not only has she held down top jobs while rearing a Cambridge-based family ("I commute unless I have a late meeting, I take my in-basket on the train, I'm known for the size of the bags I carry"); she has also been a council member of the former School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and became, in 1996, the first woman president of the Society of Education Officers.
More recently, she took on the chair of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, the former National Council for Educational Technology, which has also undergone fundamental restructuring.
"What I like is taking things that don't work and making them work - living on the edge, I suppose. I don't really see myself as a maintainer of systems."
Her next career step might be a chief executive's job, "although, I don't know, that's yet another level of abstraction, isn't it? And I like dealing with the sharp end, working with heads and governors."
Meantime she wants to stay in Lambeth long enough to change things "and to be sure that that change is secure and that things are not going to slip back. Because they so very easily can."