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A woman of morale principles

Christine Whatford decided early on that she didn't want to be anyone's deputy. Now she is to lead the Society of Education Officers. Nicolas Barnard met her.

Alarm bells are ringing in Hammersmith and Fulham education department - real ones. The TES is waiting outside Christine Whatford's office as they start.

Dutifully we troop into the sunshine, kicking our heels on the Tarmac and scrutinising the building for signs of smoke - all except one. It's some time later that Ms Whatford appears at the main entrance and strolls over.

"If that were a real fire you'd be dead," tuts the man with the clipboard . "I was taking a very important phonecall," Christine says. Hammersmith and Fulham's director of education has her priorities and fire alarms for sure won't disrupt them.

Prepare to hear more from Ms Whatford. Already one of inner London's longest-serving chief education officers, and chair of the Association of London CEOs, next January she becomes only the second female president of the Society of Education Officers, with a self-proclaimed mission to "raise the profile of local education authorities".

In the grey, male world of education officers, she stands out, and not just because of her shocking blonde hair, penchant for big ear-rings and bright jackets.

She pushed through some very new Labour initiatives before new Labour had even thought of them. Confronted on arrival with a long list of failing schools - Hammersmith and Fulham is England's 18th most deprived authority - she launched an early school-improvement programme and set up an early-years centre. Target-setting and data analysis are well-established. She oversaw the transformation of failing Hammersmith school into Phoenix high - the inspiration for Labour's Fresh Start scheme.

She's succeeded through a combination of pragmatism and political nous - Hammersmith school was never actually closed, for example: "We just bluffed it" - grounded in firm principles.

Philip Hunter, present SEO president, says: "She believes in kids and teaching rather than structures and politics and dogma." That's true, but her background - working-class girl from Bognor Regis, left-wing student activist in the 1960s, inner-city teacher and National Union of Teachers shop steward - have left her with a fierce belief in the comprehensive system and the importance of the local authority.

One of only a handful of female CEOs, she was also one of the few to jump straight from school head to director of education. She turned round the failing Abbey Wood comprehensive in Greenwich, before taking over the west London borough when it became responsible for education after the demise of Inner London Education Authority.

"Her appointment was a big surprise," recalls one ILEA observer. "It's a big leap if you haven't worked in administration before. The perception was that Hammersmith had made a bit of a mistake in such a highly sensitive and political job."

But while others have disappeared, Ms Whatford has prospered through an ability to listen and learn, build alliances and stay in tune with her heads - but without being afraid to act ruthlessly. Plenty of under-performing heads have gone and under-subscribed schools shut.

She does not suffer fools gladly and can be "direct". Dr Hunter says she is respected for it; others say it limits her effectiveness politically.

As an Institute of Education student she demanded teaching practice at a comprehensive instead of the grammar schools on the institute's books. Arriving at her first school, she knew almost immediately she wanted to be a head, "because it was quite clear that was where the power was and if you wanted to affect in a big way what went on that was what you had to be".

She became a CEO because she didn't want to be anybody's deputy again and thought she could do the job better than the bureaucrats. Now she wants to raise the morale of her profession as Labour offers LEAs a new role with an implicit threat if they don't deliver.

"I can't over-emphasise how demoralising it is when there's a national agenda that says your job's not worth doing or somebody else should be doing it, " she says. "This is an exciting time, a positive time and as president I want to tell my members it's a good job and you can make a difference."

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