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FEATURES - A STEADYING HAND

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ConfEd president, Cynthia Welbourn, is not one to rock the boat, but she plans to get things done. Mithran Samuel m...
ConfEd president, Cynthia Welbourn, is not one to rock the boat, but she plans to get things done. Mithran Samuel met her

The Confederation of Education Service Managers is not the sort of organisation to satisfy local government scribes' lust for conflict between town hall and Whitehall.

Constructive engagement is its modus operandi and president Cynthia Welbourn, like her predecessor Andrew Seber, is very much in this mould.

The North Yorkshire CC director of education says: 'As far as influencing the national agenda, it's all about relationships.'

Quietly spoken and very considered in what she says, Ms Welbourn does not seem the type to go into the Department for Education & Skills with all guns blazing.

Even on the contentious issue of the centralisation of funding, her opposition is diplomatic.

'The department is always clear that in looking for long-term solutions it's prepared to look at every option. National funding arrangements are still an option.

'At the moment children are benefiting from the additional resources generated by councils because of their commitment to education as a local priority.

'This has got to be taken into consideration as to what the best long-term arrangements are.'

Ms Welbourn spends no time harking after an apparent golden era when councils ran education.

'The fact that we don't occupy the place we did after the war is not important. You can still do something of value.'

She says she prefers the term local education service to local education authority, before citing Ofsted's annual report for 2002-03, which said that, in this service capacity, councils were doing a good and improving job (LGC, 6 February).

'It's not just those of us in the service who say these things about us. [Apart from Ofsted] people say that about us from within our schools.'

Unsurprisingly, she sees the government's children's services programme as the biggest challenge facing education departments at the moment.

Like many of her colleagues, sh e is a firm supporter of the principle of integrating universal services like education and health with targeted services, notably social care, to widen opportunity for children.

But she warns that the huge changes demanded of councils may come at a price.

'You are taking people through enormous change at a time when they also need to do the day job to the highest possible standards. We're not like an industrial plant where you shut down for a while.'

Ms Welbourn says the reforms are more about changing cultures rather than structures: 'It's about actually getting inside professions and changing what they do - changing skills and focus. That will be the hardest bit.'

As for ConfEd, which has been in existence for less than two years, she is adamant it is already a significant player in the education policy debate.

'It's grown in the respect that's given to it nationally.

I think its voice is valued.'

Mr Seber said he was looking forward to getting his weekends back after he passed the presidential seal to Ms Welbourn.

The demands of holding down a highly challenging day job while also representing your peers at a national level seem close to excessive.

She says: 'You take it on knowing that it's so. You just have to sharpen up your thinking, fast.'

The North Yorkshire CC director of education has sound credentials for her national role.

The council has one of the highest performing education departments in the country - in its last full inspection in 2000, Ofsted was particularly impressed with its ability to drive school improvement in an already high-achieving area.

As someone who has worked for the council since 1978 - in her own words doing everything from 'curriculum to outdoor toilets', before taking on the top job - Ms Welbourn can claim a good deal of credit for this.

According to chief executive Jeremy Walker: 'Cynthia is immensely committed to children and young people and to getting the best deal for schools and for rural North Yorkshire in particular.'

She say s she was always ambitious but insists her route into education management - following jobs in careers advice and adult education - and ascent up its hierarchy were not planned.

'If you had asked me then if I had thought I would have become a director I would probably have thought not.

'I haven't had a game plan. You take opportunities and you make opportunities.'

But whatever opportunities present themselves in the future, she would like to stay at North Yorkshire as director.

'My ambition, which I'm sure is the ambition of other directors, is to do this job really well for the community. That's a very strong professional ambition.'

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