Starlight over Dockland

21st March 1997 at 00:00
For 30 years Anne Sofer has been devoted to education - first as a campaigning parent, then as a politician, and finally as director of education for Tower Hamlets. Now she is to retire.

Eight years ago, when Anne Sofer was made director of education for Tower Hamlets in east London, everyone expected her Lib-Dem-appointed head to roll the minute Labour returned to power.

"My first question was probably 'When does she go?' " says Julia Mainwaring, who took the chair of education when Labour regained control of the council five years later. "But I can tell you that when she leaves, the tears will be flowing on the Labour benches."

The handkerchiefs are due out next week, when the 60-year-old director retires, but her achievements will be honoured far beyond the boundaries of the borough.

"If I had to pick someone in the last 10 years who's plainly made a success of what they're doing, it would be her," says Sir Peter Newsam, former education officer of the Inner London Education Authority and former director of the Commission for Racial Equality. "Tower Hamlets is one of the post-ILEA success stories. She got her central thoughts right, she's very bright, and she knows how things run. She's also worked incredibly hard. She's definitely one of the brightest stars around."

For Anne Sofer has been at the centre of the education debate for the past 25 years - first as a politician, then as a policy adviser, writer and official.

And centre is the operational word. As a politician she stood mid-stream, switching to the Social Democrats when the Labour Party swung too far left for her. As an analyst she took ideas from all quarters, examined them with an open mind and often identified crucial issues long before they became common currency. As an educational leader she brought her political, intellectual and communications skills together to tackle a challenge that lies at the heart of the country's educational problems - raising educational achievement in the inner city.

She is also widely known for her honesty, approachability and ability to conjure consensus.

"Beneath everything, there's the complete integrity of the person," says Professor Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education.

All of which she needed in abundance when she took over at Tower Hamlets in 1989. The borough, which has a 70 per cent ethnic population whose educational achievements were rock bottom, was a mess. "There were clear inequalities in the system," she says. "Teachers were leaving. Only a very low proportion of Bangladeshi children was achieving in school. The staying-on rate was dire. Everyone was in despair about ILEA going." In addition, there was a massive shortfall of school places for the borough's burgeoning population and hundreds of children out of school.

"Anne came in as a teachers' chief education officer," says Michael Russell, head of Malmesbury junior school and the National Association of Head Teachers council member for north east London. "She listened and listened and listened. She went out and found teachers, Dutch teachers, Irish teachers. She was quite revolutionary about salaries and she negotiated better teacher accommodation. "

"I found her extremely supportive and knowledgeable," says Julia Mainwaring who now chairs the post-16 committee. "She was committed to quality education and very professional. And she was always very good at predicting outcomes, saying, 'If you go down this road x, y and z will happen'."

She fought for additional resources for the borough, she says, and handled sensitive racial and political issues wisely. "She's someone who is willing to walk into the lions' den. She goes to meetings with Muslim governors, with people who want single-sex schools - she's won a lot of respect in the Bangladeshi community."

Her legacy to the borough is ten new schools, a teacher turnover rate down to that of the rest of London, almost universal nursery provision and achievement levels that are climbing away from the dreadful levels of a decade before.

When she arrived, only four per cent of Bangladeshi (52 per cent of the borough's population) students got five GCSEs grades A-C. Now it's 26 per cent. Overall, only 8 per cent of students reached that benchmark in 1989, now it's 24 per cent. The average reading score at 10 was then six points below the average for London: in 1995 it was it was only two points behind an average which had itself improved.

Money has been drummed up from nearby Docklands and the City, and she has thrown herself into reshaping the borough's image from that of a "loony left . . . trendy teachers . . . bottom-of-the league-tables" stuff of tabloid headlines into that of a thriving, forward-looking authority.

"She's been excellent," says David Mallen, former education officer of the ILEA and now chief education officer of East Sussex. "Her reputation is very, very high. She targeted clearly that Tower Hamlets children could and should do better. And she's a great motivator. When she was a politician, people would walk the gang plank for her."

Inevitably, she leaves continuing problems. Many schools lack decent facilities, there is no sixth form college, some see a split between the borough's inspectorate and the administration, and there is still segregation between Catholic schools and the county schools, with their overwhelming Bangladeshi intakes.

According to Michael Russell, the authority has been so keen to embrace changes giving schools more autonomy, that "schools are feeling isolated and lonely. The community feeling seems to be going. I think she has been rather overtaken by events and I'd like to have seen more passion from her, more of a stand on principles."

Yet it was beliefs and principles that first propelled her on to the educational stage, and later forced her to make her own, sometimes isolated, way across it, although as the daughter of Lord Geoffrey Crowther, author of the 1959 Crowther Report advocating raising the school leaving age to 16 and more coherence in vocational education, it was perhaps an inevitable destination.

Her education, in post-war London, was at the leading St Paul's Girls' School. From there she went to college in the United States and then to Somerville College, Oxford, before returning to London to train as a teacher and to teach in Lambeth.

A growing family - she and her barrister husband have a daughter and two sons - kept her closer to home, in north London, where she became committed to campaigns for parental involvement in schools and for comprehensivisation. "My teacher experience had convinced me by then that the only fair way to go was the non-selective way. At the same time schools were fairly closed to parents; they weren't attuned to the idea of parents being involved in policy."

She was active in the Camden branch of CASE, the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, and for three years was secretary of the newly formed National Association of Governors and Managers, while also "becoming active in the Labour Party with a view to getting closer to the ILEA". In 1974 she was co-opted onto the central London authority where - elected onto the Greater London Council three years later - she stayed for 12 years, chairing the influential schools sub-committee for three of them.

It was the time of the capital going comprehensive, of the very first anti-racism and multicultural policies, and of getting parents more involved as governors. "And those were probably the three areas whose development had something to do with where I was trying to get to," she says.

"She was always a very committed member and a good committee chair," says Sir Ashley Bramall, former leader of the ILEA. "She was honest, efficient and everyone liked her very much personally."

She was easy to work with, and easy to work for, says Peter Mortimore, then head of the authority's research and statistics branch, whose major research project charting children's progress through junior school - the now seminal School Matters - was embarked on when she chaired the schools' sub-committee.

"Fifteen Thousand Hours (the secondary study headed by Michael Rutter) had come out, shortly before," she says, "and I thought it was the most exciting piece of research I had ever read. In fact I was rather disillusioned at the time that it didn't immediately lead to a transformation of everyone's practice! Then there was the proposal to do a similar survey of primary education and I thought it was a very good idea and steered it through the committee, although I think any credit I can take for it is marginal."

Peter Mortimore, who had been part of Rutter's team, disagrees. "She was very instrumental in getting it off the ground. In fact I think she actually said at the time that this would be useful to ILEA but could have wider implications. She was always good at taking the long view, always interested in research and in weighing up all the evidence. She was far more committed to educational outcomes than many politicians.

But weighing evidence is not always welcome in politics. Soon after she joined ILEA she resigned from the schools sub-committee in protest over what she saw as the politicians' failure to take their share of responsibility for events which had allowed William Tyndale, a north London primary school, to run out of control. Four years later, when the Labour left swept to power in London, she quickly fell out of step with its budgetary policies and what she saw as confrontational stances.

"That was the beginning of the teacher militancy that led to the years of industrial unrest and one of the issues at the time was the extent to which heads would be allowed to manage in the schools without being undermined by activists within the Labour Party. By the mid-80s this was an issue really undermining great tracts of London, and that was one of the issues I couldn't go along with. I really didn't like the way things were handled. There were constant amnesties and everybody's files being cleared of any disciplinary letters."

There was a row, she went off to the backbenches, and from there out of the Labour Party, and into the new Social Democratic Party. "I got very swept up in the excitement of the times, the feeling that politics could be different, but it was also extremely unpleasant to do something that a lot of people you know and respect and like will regard as treachery."

The sour taste of those days still lingers. Ken Livingstone, now MP for Brent East but then the new leader of the GLC, who later stood against Anne Sofer in a parliamentary election, speaks bitterly about the defection, which he says she made within weeks of having won an election standing on the radical Labour manifesto. "Anne might be a sweet person, but as a politician she's a rat, " he says.

The switch signalled a change of direction. Through the 1980s she chaired the SDP education policy group, often appearing as that party's education spokesman, a time which helped her develop new skills not least "how to address meetings, and not to be phased by hostile audiences".

She wrote regular columns for The Times and for The TES, many of which now leap off the page for the way they pin-point issues far ahead of their times. Way back in the 1970s she had been arguing for more parental involvement in schools, and by the mid-80s she was advocating league tables and pointing out problems about the way society deals with adolescent boys. When she turned to higher education, she explored credit transfer, graduate tax and student loans, and her attention increasingly focussed on the urgent need for improved 16-to-19 provision.

As the daughter of a former editor of The Economist, she was a natural communicator, but her willingness to look issues squarely in the eye and to think the unthinkable, made her writings sometimes uncomfortable. In 1987 she shocked SDP colleagues by getting serious about vouchers, and by suggesting the assisted places scheme should be converted into a sixth form scholarship. Occasionally she missed the mark, but her constant themes - the need for good teachers, properly supported, the need to be guided by facts not theories, and the need for the widest possible consultation and participation in the running of education - have all informed her actions in Tower Hamlets and paid dividends.

She also became interested in international comparisons, via the work of people such as Sig Prais and Hilary Steedman of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. "And I began to think, hang on, the real debate here is not the debate we're having at all. It's not about selective or non-selective. It's about standards of achievement."

This was possibly a decade before the country as a whole seized on the issue, but it touched an important nerve. By the time she took up the job at Tower Hamlets she was steeped in the issues, clear sighted about priorities, and anxious to put her ideas to work.

By then she had stood for Parliament twice without success, and wanted a new direction. "My husband urged me to do it. I'd never managed anything. I lay awake at night worrying about it, but at the same time the opportunity seemed too exciting to turn down."

And it has been. "I've always thought it was better to be hands-on, actually doing something,and I've always felt more comfortable in my role as a local government officer than as a politician."

However she leaves with the abiding frustration that many of the strides in achievement that she has witnessed and nurtured remain unacknowledged in a climate that is quick to hand out blame and criticism, but slow to scrutinise the evidence and applaud real success.

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