She won't be joining the growing queue to attack the government's education policy, but Margaret Smart the new director of the Catholic Education Service still believes much can be done to improve schools. Murray White met her.
MARGARET SMART MAKES one thing clear from the start. The new director of the Catholic Education Service does not think it is her job to be political.
She is quite happy to leave policy statements to Bishop David Konstant, chairman of the bishops' education department, or Cardinal Basil Hume.
Although she will advise them privately on matters which are "in the best interest" of teachers, she will, for example, refuse to be drawn on her views on the government's controversial "opting out" policy.
In sharp contrast to her predecessor Albert Price, however, she stresses that every Catholic school, whether voluntary aided, grant maintained or independent, "has a right to be serviced by the CES". In other words, any lingering doubts that schools quitting the control of their local authority will be discriminated against, are finally put to rest.
Barely a month into her new job, Margaret Smart is showing all the signs of bringing a new proficiency to the CES. The buzzword she prefers to "political" is "professional".
With a background on both sides of the staffroom (16 years in teaching, followed by 17 in the inspectorate), the 56-year-old softly-spoken Lancastrian brings a wealth of experience to her new job.
She taught French in Birmingham and Coventry, then was in teacher training at Christ's College, Liverpool, and St Paul's College, Newbold Revel. At HMI, she rose through the ranks to become chief inspector for higher education between 1990-92.
Formal but not stuffy, she talks in revered tones about teachers
who are able to go that extra mile, who see the the job as more than just a job. You get the impression that her own career has been very much a vocation.
But such an outlook does not make Margaret Smart a worka holic. She is someone who obvi ously values the good things in life away from the office desk.
She will not be deserting her home and friends to move nearer to the CES's London offices which are soon to be shared with the bishops' conference headquarters at Eccleston Square.
Instead she prefers to commute from Brighton, where she is a primary school governor and member of her parish pastoral planning team. In between these commitments she likes nothing better than to cook especially French food and share a meal with friends. Her husband died just over a year ago.
She misses her own teaching days, and would still enjoy being in the classroom. "At its best," she contends, "you couldn't ask for a better way of spending your life".
Looking almost wistful, she says that she misses even more the solid dedication of the religious orders she was herself taught by Notre Dame nuns whose numbers have declined in Catholic schools in the past few decades. Not that she is caught up in nostalgia: Catholic education, she maintains, faces a crucial and exciting time in its history.
Nowhere is this being brought more clearly into focus, says Mrs Smart, than with the current sweep of the country's classrooms by the independent inspection body Ofsted. Every school will be examined over a four year period.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it will be quite unique to have an independent evaluation of all our schools. I will be very keen for us to do an overview of the quality of education we are offering."
Teachers will need to ensure that religious education, in particular, meets high standards of academic quality if they are to invigorate future generations, she argues. "From my limited knowledge, there may be some doubt about the rigour of some RE teaching." There is no excuse for not applying the same standards to RE as to History or English.
Throughout their school days, children should get a solid grounding in the Bible, Church teaching and liturgy, she expounds. "But they should be fully informed about what their faith is, not just learning by rote. We need to be encouraging thinking, critical Catholics."
Youngsters will only be encouraged to carry the baton onward if they are stimulated themselves, she believes, and worries about the "hidden shortage" in qualified RE teachers which could prevent this happening.
There is an air of quiet assurance about Margaret Smart and a reverence for traditional values that go beyond any nonsense about "back to basics". As far as classroom etiquette goes, she extols politeness ("I can't stand to see teachers pushing in front of children in the dinner queue") and sensitivity ("It is no use saying 'love thy neighbour' and having a totally un-Christian form of punishment"). But this is coupled with a sharp awareness-of the need to achieve and maintain high standards.
These are qualities that should steady the CES ship after what were in some quarters as some shaky maiden voyages. The service, which necessarily evolved four years ago from the old-style Catholic Education Council, is now beginning to form a solid character.
Its reputation was bolstered by some highly successful lobbying on behalf of the Church, spearheaded by CES Deputy Director Michael Power, which won crucial concessions to the 1993 Education Act. For the first time, for example, the Catholic sector's status was safeguarded by being specifically noted in legislation, while free transport to denominational schools was also preserved.
But it is on more routine matters that the CES will now consolidate its identity. The service will continue to be a mediator between schools themselves and policy-makers, but answers a huge demand for help, particularly from smaller dioceses, on a plethora of matters from legal advice and employment contracts to in-service training. The first teachers enrolled in the CES's new certificate in management and leadership of Catholic schools last week.
Margaret Smart also sees the CES playing a crucial role in helping to mould the philosophical tone of the Church school sector, restoring teachers' self confidence, and forging ahead with reinvigorating the status of religious education.
"I very much like Bishop Nichols's analogy of the school as a sign of God's presence in society. RE in its broadest sense affects the entire curriculum and management of the school." On this, she gives a thumbs-up to the recent Ofsted discussion paper which integrates spiritual, moral social and cultural factors in education.
The priorities ahead, she says, are rebuilding respect for the teaching profession while continuing to put children first. This can be hard at a time when many teachers are distracted from the essential business of teaching by being expected to be good administrators.
Then she drops her guard for a moment: "Here is one area where I am prepared to be political. If you have a Government which publicly scoffs at teachers, it can only do damage to the profession. It is not just education, nurses have been treated in exactly the same way."
She pauses and glances away, as if in thoughtful reohignation about Westminster's apparent stubbornness towards her colleagues. Then, looks up and adds: "Like anything, you get what you pay for."
But she didn't mention John Patten once.