New school organiser set to sail away
‘We have the building blocks in place for good academy’, says education chief as she reveals retirement plans
ONE of the main organisers behind Camden’s new academy project has announced plans to retire and will leave the council before a single brick is laid on the new school.
Heather Schroeder said on Thursday she would be giving up her job as director of children’s services to concentrate on one of her personal passions – sailing.
She said it had been a “difficult decision” to leave and that she had enjoyed her four and half year stint at the Town Hall.
“I hope to be invited to the first opening of the new academy,” Ms Schroeder said on Monday. “Of course, I will be sad not to see it through but it’s the nature of capital works. If I had stayed on to see everything through I would still be here in 2015.
“I think we have got the building blocks in place and it will be a good school.
“We have worked hard on it. Camden needs a new school and I think it will be a good school.”
Ms Schroeder is not an elected member but, as the department’s chief civil servant, she has had a key role in mapping forward possible ways to spend a £200 million government investment. She has appeared at press briefings and run through Camden’s scheme at a host of public and council meetings.
Part of the cash will be used to open a new academy school – sponsored by University College London – in Adelaide Road, Swiss Cottage.
It has turned out to be a controversial decision with opponents who want the new school to be located in the south of the borough and managed by the council, rather than an outside sponsor.
Ms Schroeder – who is in her 60s and has worked for local authorities for 40 years – said: “I think UCL will bring something new and extra. I think Camden would have liked me to have stayed. There was no question that they wanted me to go, and its been a very hard decision. I just felt it was the right time. Deciding to leave Camden has been a difficult decision but it’s the right time for me to move on so I can devote more time to my two great passions of travelling and sailing.”
She said she was taking a belated “gap year”, comparing herself to a student who travels the world for 12 months before starting their career.
The timing of her departure has surprised opponents to the new school project as critics believe Camden needs as many experienced operators to help steer the council away from any potential pitfalls in what has become the council’s most contentious if not high-profile projects.
Her immediate political boss, the Liberal Democrat councillor John Bryant, has already announced plans to step down from the project in May, citing health difficulties and job opportunities. The new politician and chief civil servant who take charge will need to hit the ground running.
While Camden has chosen a sponsor and a site for the academy, there is still the hurdle of convincing dissenters that the council has not messed up a “chance in the lifetime” to ease the annual rush for secondary school places by putting the school in the wrong place.
The new faces will also have to oversee new arrangements for Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children which is to be evicted from its Swiss Cottage site to make way for the new academy.
Ms Schroeder, who will leave in May, said she would not leave until Frank Barnes has been resolved.
“I wouldn’t say I was disappointed with the criticism there has been for Building Schools for the Future (government investment plan). It is good to have a lively debate but I think it can slow some things down,” she said.
Ms Schroeder is well-liked and regarded as a social services expert who helped merge the education and children’s services department together following government guidance that there needed to be a smoother link between the two.
She said: “There were challenges but I think people will see now that it has been better than they might have expected it to have gone. We started off from the platform that we wanted to make services better for children and I think that’s what’s happened.”
Ms Schroeder faced down critics when she was first appointed, as some school governors felt her expertise lay in social services and she would face difficulty dealing with crunch schools issues.
But Labour councillor Geethika Jayatilaka said: “I know there was a furore at the start but I think she did very well and people have seen she has done a good job. It is sad to see her go and she will be hard to replace.”
Yet while a string of tributes have shown the high regard that Ms Schroeder has been held in, there is concern about what might happen next and a familiar debate is beginning to bubble up.
One council source added: “The debate over who should do the job and how Camden’s education community views them is likely to resurface now.
“There is a big challenge ahead. After the disaster of turning the good news story of BSF into a bad one – educationalists want an educationalist in charge.”
Chief executive Moira Gibb, who made Ms Schroeder one of her first appointments when she first took office at Camden said: “Heather’s record really does speak for itself. Throughout her career she has been wholly committed to making a real difference to people’s lives which she should be rightly proud of. She has also made a huge contribution to our corporate management team, helping steer the council through large-scale change. She has been a close colleague and a friend and I wish her every success in her new life.”
Ms Gibb and Ms Schroeder had worked together previously in Kensington and Chelsea and were reunited after former social services director Jane Held suddenly left Camden at the end of 2004.
Liberal Democrat council leader Keith Moffitt said: “Heather has taken Camden children’s services to new heights.
“She has set up a strong management team with the directorate providing truly excellent services to Camden’s children.
“I have really enjoyed working closely with her in a period of immense change and have appreciated her thoughtful and sensitive advice.”