Rising star of New Labour is surprise choice for chief inspector of schools

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The Independent Online

A council chief executive with impeccable New Labour connections who has mixed with showbusiness stars at Downing Street is to be the new chief inspector of schools in England.

David Bell, 43, will take over responsibility for monitoring schools in April when Mike Tomlinson retires. He was appointed interim chief after the resignation of Chris Woodhead in November 2000.

Mr Bell's appointment has surprised many in the education world, who had expected the job to go to a prominent academic or a senior member of a Government quango.

He first attracted national attention when he became the youngest director of education in the country aged 36 at Newcastle. There he was praised for helping to turn around some of the city's poorest-performing schools, although at least one has since been shut.

His views on education chimed with those of New Labour and in 1997 he attended one of Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" parties where he fraternised with stars including the actors Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

He was appointed to run Bedfordshire County Council in 2000, becoming the youngest county council chief executive in Britain. Unusually for a senior educationist, Mr Bell started his career as a primary school teacher.

The new job will pay a salary of £115,000 plus a performance-related bonus.

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, said: "I am delighted to recommend David Bell for this challenging role. We have made huge progress in raising standards in primary and secondary schools. But I know there is much more to achieve.

"With his track record and extensive knowledge, David Bell is the right person to help us lead education in an increasingly competitive world."

She also paid tribute to Mr Tomlinson, saying he had made an "important contribution".

The chief inspector's job is the second senior education post to be filled in the past ten days. Professor David Hopkins, a leading critic of "trendy" teaching methods and a close friend of Mr Woodhead, has just been appointed head of the standards and effectiveness unit in the Department for Education and Skills.

A third education vacancy – the Government's chief adviser on the curriculum and exams – has yet to be advertised after problems filling senior posts.

* More than 100,000 teachers will receive free laptop computers under a £100m scheme to be announced by the Education Secretary. The Government's Computers for Teachers plan has been dogged by complaints ever since it was announced in 1998.

The new scheme doubles the £50m announced in March 2001. Local education authorities will decide how the computers are allocated.