Tough choices faced by 'impartial' judge

Sir Peter Newsam's decisions may not always have been popular but his professionalism has won him respect. Michael Shaw reports

BACKING school closures and crushing local authority plans for pupil admissions could never be a path to universal popularity.

But even those who have suffered from the decisions of the school adjudicators confess to having grudging respect for their legal-minded leader, Sir Peter Newsam.

The 73-year-old retired this week after three years in post during which he helped sort out more than 200 disputes over admissions, school closures and openings.

Sir Peter believes he and his team of 14 adjudicators succeeded in keeping a low profile, but that some controversy was inevitable.

"We tidy up situations that have already got out of hand, so the answers are never simple. Change is rarely in the interests of those who undergo it."

The Office of the Chief Schools Adjudicator was launched by the Government in 1999 to tackle the mounting mess over admissions procedures in different authorities.

Sir Peter was appointed chief adjudicator after holding a series of high-level posts including chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and director of London University's Institute of Education. Friends say he succeeded through charm, attention to detail and ambition. When he moved to London in the 1970s he vowed never to work in one job for more than five years.

But the former Inner London Education Authority chief education officer's well-known support for comprehensive schools led to accusations of bias, particularly in Kent and the Wirral.

In Kent he ruled that the authority could not delay secondary admissions to allow 11-plus students to have a second chance of picking a school.

Richard Avery of the Support Kent Schools campaign, which opposed the decision, admired Sir Peter's professionalism.

But he said: "A lot of noise was made by the anti-selection group in Kent, but scant regard was paid to other parents' views. It is hard not to suspect that Sir Peter has a political agenda."

The Wirral lost a High Court case when Sir Peter ruled its allocation of places to secondary schools was unfair.Chris Rice, its education director, said the council was still angry but added: "Sir Peter was very professional. He applied his understanding of the law, and reached a decision that was, technically, right."

Sir Peter has frequently defended his office's impartiality, and colleagues say he is too legal-minded to let his feelings sway his decisions.

Twice married and the father of six children, Sir Peter took a year out in 1995 so his youngest daughter, now aged 19, could study at a French school before attending Camden school for girls in north London.

He admits to having little patience with authorities unwilling to make tough choices, and found it frustrating he could not offer them advice.

"You come across authorities that have set about things in a feeble way," he said.

Sir Peter plans to spend his retirement working on his new garden in Salisbury, but will maintain a presence in the education world as chairman of the central London Connexions partnership.

His successor is Philip Hunter, Staffordshire's former education director and a visiting professor of education at Keele.

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