Veteran at the helm

Mike Fielding meets a headteacher who has now turned education officer.

Alan Bacon was once the youngest secondary head in England. Now he's probably one of the oldest to start a new career working with a local education authority. At 54, after 24 years of headship, he has just become area education officer for North Devon, where he has worked for the past 14 years.

He says that he found the prospect of a new post in "my beloved education" daunting but exciting, and the first few months have lived up to his expectations. "I've been on a very steep learning curve but I'm working with a very committed team and we all feel we are able to make a difference to what goes on in schools."

He believes that in the best education system there must be an effective partnership between the LEA and schools. This was the approach developed by his predecessor which helped convince him, when the oppportunity arose, that this was a job he wanted to take on. "I'm still spending a lot of time in schools and feel I'm keeping in touch with students and teachers." He is already half way to his target of visiting all schools in his area.

Anyone who has met the full force of Alan Bacon's passionate commitment to young people will recognise that he would not have wanted a job that was "just administrative or managerial".

During his 14 years as principal at Ilfracombe Community college and l0 years before that at Priory High School, Exeter, he was known as a fiery advocate of anything that promoted the well-being of youngsters. And he hasn't changed.

Brought up in a South Yorshire mining family, Alan was a contemporary of novelist Barry Hines at the grammar school, where he also met Anne, his wife of 33 years and one of the first teachers to promote educational drama in the south-west. He started teaching in Devon after a geography degree at Bristol and a PGCE at Exeter. A short spell as deputy to Peter Snape at Totnes led to his first headship at the Priory School at the age of 30.

"It was the sort of thing that happened in those days," he says. He feels now that, for three or four years, he paid the price of such early success. By the time he had completed l0 years at Priory and another 10 at Ilfracombe he was still only 50.

"I had no interest in early retirement but I was beginning to wonder how much longer I could stay in the job. I worried, too, that my colleagues might be wishing I would go. But one of the problems of the education service is the difficulty of changing tracks."

He is concerned that the "greying of the profession" and the limited options for heads and deputies outside school mean that many experienced senior staff are being lost to the service because there is no alternative to early retirement. Plans to block up that bolt-hole will, he thinks, paradoxically leave too many burnt-out cases longing for release.

He welcomed his own opportunity to change direction but not without trepidation. "In school, you can have a direct effect on what happens to children. In this job your influence is more arm's length."

He has also had to learn some new work habits - "I'm much more diary-focused" - and, after 24 years of being the ultimate authority in a school now has to be aware of the political and other constraints of representing the county council.

He was not new to working with the LEA. Throughout his time in Devon he has been involved in a variety of LEA-sponsored initiatives, and he also spent nearly two years as chairman of the Devon Association of Secondary Heads. "During that period we moved into more of a partnership with the LEA, both sides recognising that we could only be effective together," he says.

This is the way he wants to work now. Although he suffered some mild teasing from colleagues along "poacher-turned-game-keeper" lines, he hasn't felt there was any resentment or that he was, in any sense, seen as "betraying schools".

"Our aim," he says, "is to play our part in ensuring that all the youngsters in North Devon get the best quality education possible." He applies this equally firmly to all the other people with educational benefit to gain from the network of community colleges and other places that are such an important part of the Devon scene.

Alan Bacon looks like a man who knows he's made the right move. His energy is as prolific and his smile as broad as it was when he was a head. And, just as important from his point of view, the area office staff, many of whom have known him for a long time and welcomed his appointment, are still smiling too.

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