Reading University’s Mr Impeccable
It is surprising to discover that Sir David Bell is only 52 years old. He has held various roles including Chief Education Officer of Newcastle, Chief Executive of Bedfordshire County Council, Head of Ofsted, and most recently, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education. He is currently serving as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading and jokingly stated that he has achieved all the checkboxes on the "bingo card" of educational jobs. Not bad for someone who began as a primary school teacher in his hometown of Glasgow. Bell obtained most of his positions at unusually early ages: a deputy headship at 26, a headship at 29, and chief executive at 36. While he does not believe he is the youngest vice-chancellor the University of Reading has had, he is likely the first to have trained as a primary teacher.
When asked how he obtained these roles, many will say that it is due to his expertise in running things. A "capability review" of the education department conducted by the Cabinet Office during Bell’s tenure remarked that he was "visible, decisive, engaging and inspiring." In his position at Ofsted, the education regulator, Newcastle’s record improved remarkably, which was attributed to Bell’s appointment. Bell performed so well as Permanent Secretary that he was rumored to be in the running for Cabinet Secretary.
But which traits have been taken him so far? Perhaps it is Bell’s authoritative manner that has propelled him forward. Everything he says seems measured and balanced; he describes himself as "extreme in my moderation." He likely derives his sense of certainty and confidence, which have earned him many successes, from his Scottish Protestant upbringing, despite no longer being a churchgoer himself. A former Labour education secretary, Estelle Morris, describes Bell as "one of the calmest men I’ve ever met."
Bell is well-mannered and professional. In his office overlooking the University of Reading’s Whiteknights Park, he greets visitors with a firm handshake and addresses them by name. Although he has been in his current position for only four weeks, undergraduate applications have risen by 10%, with no apparent involvement from Bell. However, when he arrives on the scene, things appear to inevitably go smoothly.
While serving at Ofsted, the education regulator, Bell frequently stated his opinions, criticizing the Labour government for rejecting the Tomlinson report’s recommendation to abolish A-levels and GCSEs. He also lamented the effects of the "target culture" on schools. Permanent Secretaries are prohibited from expressing controversial opinions publicly, even after leaving their post. Therefore, it’s uncertain whether there were any tensions between Bell and Gove, despite reports of disagreement. Bell had always been described as "close to New Labour," although no one would dare to call him a crony. Since leaving the education department, news outlets have reported "a difficult relationship" with Gove. However, Bell disagrees with these reports, stating that he informed the Secretary of State in the summer of 2010 that he would be leaving by the end of 2011.
Bell has no qualms with either free schools or Gove’s fast-paced expansion of academies. He has consistently believed that maximizing school independence increases the likelihood of progress, making academies a logical progression of policies aimed at increasing school autonomy. Gove’s push for the Academies Act was a fantastic decision, according to Bell. Free schools are a beneficial addition to the system that will have a galvanizing effect. Bell dismisses the notion that the rise of free schools is a power grab that will make schools wholly dependent on the central government, saying that it’s a caricature. The Secretary of State will not be overseeing every micro-decision concerning schools throughout the country. Bell is quick to point out that Gove’s reforms have not elicited the same outcry as the health reforms. It’s because they haven’t been imposed system-wide, unlike the top-down reform requiring all schools to become academies.
Bell has a deep understanding of how a Whitehall administrator should present himself and his views regarding academies, free schools, and permitting profit-making providers to operate educational institutions. Although he has no inherent objection to this possibility and believes it will happen eventually, Bell avoids the political rhetoric used by his former boss Gove. While some may perceive Bell as echoing Gove’s statements, it is more likely that Gove heeded Bell’s advice.
Bell’s capacity to navigate Whitehall politics is astounding, particularly given that he did not attend a public school or an Oxbridge institution, which are commonly associated with this role. Bell’s grandfather was a guard on the Flying Scotsman, and his father started as a purser on Clyde steamers before becoming a white-collar worker in British Rail’s property division. Despite his childhood interest in football rather than academics, he was inspired by his teachers at a fledgling comprehensive in Glasgow to pursue a teaching career. Bell earned his degree in history and philosophy from Glasgow University, attended Jordanhill College to become a teacher, and married his childhood sweet-heart, with whom he has two daughters who attended state schools.
After commencing his teaching career in a Glasgow primary school, Bell was lured away by a "slightly eccentric" advertisement for a deputy head in Essex. The head was a supporter of a topic-based approach to education, which Bell meshed with a commitment to literacy and numeracy. Bell advanced to primary headship before joining Newcastle town hall for two years; he was named chief inspector in 2002. Unlike Chris Woodhead, his predecessor, Bell embraced a model of school self-evaluation put forth by the National Union of Teachers, resulting in a less confrontational and judgmental approach. Although he was the first inspector to declare that "satisfactory" was unacceptable, he stated in a 2003 lecture that "schools with large numbers of low-attaining pupils are not necessarily unsuccessful schools."
Despite criticisms of Bell’s tenure at the education department, including calls for him to handle teacher contract and working condition disagreements more effectively, Bell has no true detractors. He is lauded for his diligence, diplomatic abilities, and swiftness in assimilating information. Bell represents a dwindling group of public servants committed to disinterested public service, and he is expected to become a forceful advocate for universities. He acknowledges that today’s career trajectory starting in a local government will be difficult to replicate, noting, "Local government was a valuable foundation for many people who later entered central government. Where will the next generation of national leaders emerge?" He does not express regret for serving in the government.