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Woman of steel takes up 'most difficult job'

Nicolas Barnard profiles Liz Reid who is to run Hackney's schools

Liz Reid does not like to hear her new job in charge of Hackney's schools described as "the most difficult in education".

But how many newly-appointed directors of education are called to meet the school standards minister - or find themselves interviewed by The TES at the Department for Education and Employment, with a press officer taping every word?

Both those things happened to Mrs Reid on a flying visit to London last week, three days after her appointment to run Hackney's beleaguered education service. (She left for her flight back to Edinburgh with a map of the borough tucked under her arm).

And they reflect the spotlight she is under. But she refuses to be dazzled. She does not accept Hackney is on its last chance.

That, say those who watched her in action first in the Inner London Education Authority and then as director of education in Lothian and then Edinburgh, is the measure of the woman. She gives little away, speaks cautiously, but gives a steely impression.

Although Scots-born, she has spent most of her career in London - and it has been a career of managing change and challenging underachievement. To call her "a safe pair of hands" reflects her sense of solidity but undersells both her ability to institute and deliver massive reform and her innate toughness.

"She will drive people very hard. Although she will be an extremely attractive colleague to work with, she certainly doesn't suffer fools gladly," says Neil Fletcher, ILEA's last leader who appointed her as deputy director of post-16 education.

"She has a wonderful, quiet Scottish lilt which covers sometimes the ring of clashing steel. There are many people still around who used to regard her as a very formidable lady."

He describes her as a staunch defender of ILEA, who perhaps lost the chance to move to a bigger stage when it was abolished in 1989 - she was maybe two jobs away from being the first woman to run Europe's biggest education authority.

She was not headhunted for the Hackney job, but ironically, she can be seen as picking up some of the pieces following the abolition of the body which might have made her a national figure. Many say Hackney never really got it right after ILEA disappeared. (If Mrs Reid thinks so, she is too smart to say as much.) Those who met her in Scotland, where she moved after a spell as deputy provost of the polytechnic which is now London Guildhall University, agree she has ambition, and that success at Hackney could lead to at least one final big job before she retires (she is now 50).

She was appointed Lothian's director of education in 1993 when reorganisation was already planned. She oversaw its split into four bodies (shades of a smaller-scale ILEA - she does not see this as an omen) and then ran its largest quarter, Edinburgh.

"At Lothian she didn't want to say too much at first," says one veteran Scots education-watcher. "She sussed out the lie of the land." That done, she proved herself "very determined, very organised, very successful" - and again adept at dealing with politicians. Her then chairwoman, Elizabeth Maginnis, says as much: "She is not afraid to challenge protective interests."

Edinburgh, with its areas of social problems, was a good training ground for Hackney, and proved that her experience was not limited to secondary and post-16. She targeted primary schools as the key to raising standards - successfully, observers say.

Back in the 1970s Mrs Reid's first teaching post was at a challenging south London comprehensive "with a group of staff who all believed we could make a difference". In six years, they introduced A-levels and saw their first students go to university.

"That's the basis of my belief - that no matter how unpromising the circumstances, children can learn and succeed," she says.

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