Vincent McDonnell faces the biggest challenge of his career at Islington's privatised education service. He talks to Geraldine Hackett.
FOR a trail-blazing education chief Vincent McDonnell is reassuringly similar to a traditional head of school services.
Despite appearances, however, there is no doubt that as the first private-sector manager of a local authority's education service he could profoundly influence the future of state education in this country.
It is still early days for the Government's high-profile experiment in Islington, where McDonnell's employer Cambridge Education Associates has won the contract to raise standards.
Much is at stake, not only for CEA, which has to hit a vast number of targets to make a profit, but also for David Blunkett, the Education Secretary.
"It is one of the most exciting opportunities around and it is do-able," says McDonnell, 48, who after only a few weeks in the job has made changes and begun to make key appointments.
He does not underestimate the scale of the task ahead. He has inherited a dysfunctional organisation.
"The IT is woeful. The schools have better technology than the education department," he says. The offices are to be re-cabled after it was discovered the system could not operate internal e-mail.
Within the schools there is resentment from a minority that people only interested in profits have taken them over.
It would be difficult to accuse Mr McDonnell of having such a motive. Apart from his current salary - he won't put a figure on it, but the performance-related part of the package probably brings his pay to the pound;100,000 mark - his career so far makes him an unlikely fat cat.
He is the fourth of five children of Irish immigrants who settled in Palmers Green, north London. His father was a French polisher and all the children went to the local Catholic primary.
The young Vincent ended up at Finchley grammar school for boys, but failed to thrive.
"I was an abysmal failure at school. I left at 16 with three O-levels," he says. He thinks he was just a late developer. "It was a good school," he says.
The job openings for the likes of Vincent amounted to labouring and van driving, which he put up with until he was 23.
"I decided I wanted to be teacher. Worked like mad for a year at further education college, driving a van to pay my way, and managed the qualifications to get to college." he says.
The three years at Trent Park in Middlesex were a revelation after years of labouring. "I put my hand up for everything. It was wonderful," he says.
The training over, Mr McDonnell opted for thetoughest of jobs: teaching in residential schools for children with behavioural and learning difficulties.
He moved to more senior posts and larger schools, before deciding to apply for a job with a local education authority.
His first officer job was in Sheffield, where he took charge of drafting policy to meet the needs of disaffected youngsters. From there he moved to Staffordshire, one of the largest local education authorities, where he rose through the ranks to be head of pupil and school services.
The reputation he made there helped him to land the job as chief education officer in Richmond, the pearl of London's education authorities.
"Standards in the schools are high and I was able to build on solid foundations. I learnt from the good practice," he says.
The challenges in Islington are of a different order. "There is a lack of systems and I am doing a lot of work with the heads of service," he says. "We have to be more responsive to the needs of schools."
McDonnell has considerably more freedom than his public sector peers. Unlike them, he does not have to work through local politicians. There are no detailed committee papers to write, though he does keep the ruling Liberal Democrats informed. "It's possible to make changes very quickly," he says. But it also means you have to be sure-footed because you have no one else to blame.
Key posts are being filled, though the chief adviser has yet to be appointed. The inspection report by the Office for Standards in Education was particularly critical of the advice and support provided to schools.
CEA faces penalties if exam and test results do not improve, but the academic targets do not operate until September next year.
"I am optimistic most of the targets will be reached," Mr McDonnell. "But in the end it will be down to the schools."
It all has been done at the same time as Mr McDonnell has to deal with such thorny problems as the Islington arts and media college, where the "superhead" resigned within two terms of the school being closed and re-opened.
So far, Mr McDonnell has not been able to gauge the reaction of his colleagues who may feel uncomfortable about the prospect of private contractors.
He has not even been invited to join the group of chief officers who meet to discuss the major standards programme in secondary schools, Excellence in the Cities. But that may just be an oversight.
The irony of the Government's policy to bring in the private sector to run education services is that the contractors have so far recruited only those with a proven track record in the public services.