Smooth operator basks in spotlight

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Initial fears that David Bell would be a government stooge have turned out to be baseless. Jon Slater reports

David Bell, the 46-year-old chief inspector, heads an pound;200 million department, employing 2,500 staff and is responsible for checking the consistency of school sausages, monitoring education standards for nought to 100-year-olds and scrutinising government policy.

The tasks seem to rest easily on the broad shoulders of the son of a Glaswegian railwayman.

When he took the reins at the Office for Standards in Education three years ago, some of the older guard were wary of the young, smooth-looking whippersnapper.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education select committee, admits he feared Mr Bell lacked the steel to succeed.

But since then Mr Bell has proved unafraid to criticise anything from Muslim schools to ministers' pet projects. He has quietly carved out his role in an organisation struggling for a new identity after the turbulent reign of Chris Woodhead and Sir Mike Tomlinson's spell as caretaker.

Famed within Ofsted for the speed with which he devours documents, Mr Bell, who lists Scottish country dancing among his interests, has impressed observers with his knowledge of education and his political sure-footedness.

While he is broadly sympathetic to a new Labour agenda, fears that Mr Bell would be a ministerial stooge have been dispelled by his criticism of the government plans for 14-19 education and warnings that over-emphasis on the 3Rs at primary school are creating a "two-tier" curriculum. Nor has Mr Bell, a former primary head and registered inspector, fulfilled the political right's concerns that he would be soft on schools.

Teachers and heads have reacted angrily to his insistence that "satisfactory" teaching is no longer good enough. But, unlike his predecessor Chris Woodhead, Mr Bell, whose two daughters are state educated, has also retained the respect of the education world.

One of nature's high-flyers, he is the youngest-ever chief inspector and was the youngest local authority chief executive, although the arrival of 36-year-old Ruth Kelly as Education Secretary means he is no longer the youngest kid around.

Teachers and politicians praise his personable style and willingness to listen - attributes that have helped him steer Ofsted through three challenging years.

When he arrived, Mr Bell immediately instigated a survey of the inspectorate's staff which uncovered widespread complaints about bullying and stress.

More recently, he has been expected to impose widespread efficiency savings which will see 500 jobs cut - one-fifth of the inspectorate's workforce - while introducing a new light-touch inspection regime for schools.

Even the representatives of contracted inspectors, whose livelihoods are under threat from these changes, are impressed with him.

John Chowcatt, general secretary of the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisors and Consultants, said: "He is a decent guy doing a good job."

A skilled public performer, Mr Bell has used the press to raise his own profile, whether by admitting to being turned off reading as a pupil or by publicising links with his local football team, be it Glasgow Rangers, Newcastle United, or Rushden and Diamonds.

He has grown in confidence, appearing on programmes such as Any Questions? venturing into the realms of binge drinking, euthanasia and, to his cost, royalty. Responding to a question about Prince Harry wearing a Nazi-style uniform at a party, he said: "If he had attended a state school, he would have studied the Holocaust."

This led to a rap on the knuckles from Tony Little, head of Eton college, where Prince Harry was educated, who said the school holds lectures by Holocaust survivors and regular visits to Auschwitz.

Although used to making headlines, Mr Bell's real Warhol moment came after his remarks on private Muslim schools, which he suggested were less likely than others to prepare their students with a rounded world view. His statement propelled him into one TV studio after another.

So it was a shame when The TES discovered inspectors had found some Christian schools had performed even worse in this respect. After Chris Woodhead's estimate of 15,000 failing teachers, said to have been calculated on the back of an envelope, Mr Bell does not need to be associated with non-evidence-based statements.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I detect an uncertainty of touch of late. The comments about Islamic schools came over badly and alienated sections of the Muslim community. He needs to avoid creating controversy where it is not needed."

But Mr Bell has bounced back, reputation largely intact. His opposition to the Government's rejection of Tomlinson's proposals for 14-19 education show he has lost none of his stomach for a fight - or his love of the media spotlight.



Born in Glasgow 31 March 1959. Attended Knightswood school, Glasgow.

Studied history and philosophy at Glasgow university. PGCE from Jordanhill college of education. MEd in management and administration from Glasgow university.

1982: Teacher, Cuthbertson primary, Glasgow.

1985: Deputy head, Powers Hall junior, Essex.

1988: Head of Kingston primary, Essex.

1990: Assistant director of education at Newcastle City Council. A year spent as a Harkness Fellow at Georgia State university, Atlanta, studying education and local government reform in the United States.

1993: Trained as Ofsted team inspector. Became a registered inspector in 1994 and carried out inspections in primary schools.

1995: Director of education and libraries, Newcastle City Council.

2000: Youngest local authority chief executive when appointed by Bedfordshire County Council.

1 May 2002: Took up post as Her Majesty's chief inspector.

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