Warrior in a world of choice
Her distaste for the metropolitan tendency is plain. "So much education policy seems to be coming from people whose children are being educated in London or the south-east. London is so different from the rest of the country. If you live in parts of Devon you send your children to the nearest local school and then the community college. The world where you have choice is meaningless. People want their local school to be a good school: market forces are pointless."
Colleagues at CLEA variously describe her as "a good egg", "a very hard worker" and "unostentatious in public" - and well able to fight the corner for education authorities at the highest level. Her relationship with the Funding Agency for Schools may be one to watch: although she is happy to "make use of it" by suggesting names for vacancies on its ruling council, she would be delighted if a Labour government abolished it.
Mrs Spence is named after the heroine of Jack London's novel Valley of the Moon, the first present that her father, an engineer, gave her mother during their courtship. She describes her fictional namesake as "courageous but ready to put her man first", but does not invite comparisons.
She joined the Labour party at 16 while attending a girls' grammar in Ealing. After studying history at University College London, she married, had a son and daughter, and became a "professional politician", both within the Labour party and as a councillor, first for Exeter in 1972 and later for Devon where she leads the Labour group.
She also studied for a PGCE but says: "I'm not one of the world's great teachers and that didn't last." The nearest indicator of her age, which she and colleagues are reluctant to divulge, is that her eldest grandchild has just started college, On the Labour party scale of radicalism, she is probably nearer to John Prescott than Tony Blair, believing in "discussion" on Clause Four of the constitution. She does not want Labour to "get hung up" about ownership and finds it offensive that public utilities can be the property of individuals.
Her profile issued by the Association for County Councils - on which she has served for nine years - quotes membership of 10 organisations including the National Women's Commission, for which she chaired an inquiry into girls' education.
More than a decade of Conservative government, she feels, has all but destroyed the notion of public good. Guiding her in her new role will be a fierce desire for fairness in funding between grant-maintained and LEA schools, and collaboration rather than competition.
"It isn't acceptable to have winners if you have losers. Every child is entitled to a good standard of education," she said.