On to higher things: 'Sir Humphrey' can now view Michael Gove's reforms from a safe distance

As a Permanent Secretary who served four Education Secretaries – and three Prime Ministers – Sir David Bell can now view Michael Gove's reforms from a safe distance as a university vice-chancellor. How does he think they're going?

He has swapped a commute of more than an hour for life on a farm just outside Reading with a 600-head herd of cattle. There is no way that Sir David Bell, the former Permanent Secretary (or "Sir Humphrey", as he himself puts it in a foreword to the Reading University newsletter) at the Department for Education, has become a latter-day convert to "the good life".

Indeed, the farm is owned by his employers – he is now Reading's vice-chancellor – and is run as a commercial concern and for training students. Milking the cows in the morning is strictly off-limits.

What it does do is give him a 10-minute journey to work in the morning and the chance to get a life in the evening if there is nothing official on at the university. "It does involve evening work and you can work long hours," he says, "but it is about involving yourself in the social and cultural side of the university."

It is a little different to being rudely awakened early in the morning to be told of some new national crisis – criminal-record checks for teachers come quickly to his mind – and being expected to "do something".

Sir David was one of four senior officials in Michael Gove's department to resign from the civil service at the same time, fuelling speculation of a rift between them and their Tory or coalition masters. Senior Conservatives were known in the run-up to the election to be questioning whether he was too "New Labour" in his values.

"Tediously, that's still going the rounds: 'Bell pushed out by government minister'," he says. "How many times do I have to say: 'Not true'? [He said it again when being grilled by MPs on the Education Select Committee last week.]

"I told Michael when he arrived that I didn't intend to stay in the department for the whole of the Parliament," he adds. "I was quite keen to do a year or so after the election, though, to help the new Government settle in. The question was what do you do after being a Permanent Secretary – especially if you've still got energy and enthusiasm."

Sir David, who is 53, served four Education Secretaries while he was at the Education department – Ruth Kelly, Alan Johnson, Ed Balls and Michael Gove – and three Prime Ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Prior to taking on that post, he was the chief inspector of schools at Ofsted, the education-standards watchdog.

It was during that spell that the notice period for a school inspection was cut down from six weeks to just 48 hours – a reform welcomed by the teaching profession, which had complained of the agonising stress of waiting six weeks in the knowledge they would be inspected.

Now, of course, the boot is on the other foot – the current chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, would prefer "no-notice" inspections with inspectors just arriving at the school and heading straight for the classrooms. A compromise of a day's notice, though, looks likely.

Sir David's reign at Ofsted is remembered by teachers – dare one say – fondly, as a time when the watchdog and the profession could co-operate with each other. Sir Michael is generally viewed as more abrasive, with his calls to toughen up inspection procedures.

Sir David, though, comes to the defence of his successor. "I have huge admiration for Sir Michael's courage and commitment," he says.

"No chief inspector before him – going back all the way to when Ofsted was first set up – has had such an astonishing track record. It is outstanding." (Sir Michael was the head of an academy in Hackney that had been a failing school but secured 10 Oxbridge places for its A-level students last year.)

"That's a massive asset," he says. On the ongoing controversy over Sir Michael, he adds: "It is very important that the chief inspector sticks to his guns and goes on the evidence. At times, the evidence will draw him to say things that aren't welcome."

He is an enthusiastic backer of the compromise Sir Michael has reached with head teachers over "no-notice" inspections, agreeing on 24 hours. "I don't think it matters whether it's 24 or 48 hours so long as the head has an opportunity to change plans if necessary and be present," he says.

Sir David, though, reckons the timing of his escape from Ofsted to the Permanent Secretary's job was "brilliant". Soon after he arrived at Ofsted, it took over responsibility for checking early-years settings – nurseries and childminders and the like. After he left, social-care and social-services departments were added to the brief.

From his comments, you imagine he might have felt that was a brief too far, although – in an argument we are to return to later in the interview – he believes politically it might be too unwieldy to undo what has been done and just create more turmoil.

He says of the four Education Secretaries he served: "You couldn't have asked for four more different personalities. I had a soft spot for Ruth Kelly. When I arrived there, she was completely overtaken by the controversy over List 99 [the list of teachers banned because of their criminal records – some teachers were slipping through the net].

"Then there was the whole controversy over the Education and Inspections Bill, which seemed to make an enemy out of John Prescott." (It sought to establish trust schools, which would have their own sponsors and thereby loosen local-council supervision of them – very small beer compared with the reforms now being steered through by Michael Gove, which include setting up a network of "free" schools run by parents, teachers and faith groups.)

On the current reforms, he believes Michael Gove did well to seize the initiative early in the Parliament and get his legislation allowing all schools to become academies through before the summer recess after the election.

"I remember at one point thinking, 'Is this going to be seen as highly controversial?', but Michael gave it his very early priority. At one stage it was on the margins as to whether he would get it done. I have reflected and reflected with Michael on this: if that Bill had been a few months later it might have been a very different story. Look how controversial the health-service reforms became."

At present, though, there is controversy over forcing schools to adopt academy status. "You have to be able to intervene if a school is performing badly," he adds. "Labour did that, too."

He believes his move to the vice-chancellorship at Reading gives him back a bit more of the autonomy that he used to enjoy as chief schools inspector. "I'd make a decision and then it could be implemented," he says. "As a Permanent Secretary, it is up to your political masters."

Of course, higher education is the one part of the education jigsaw in which he has not played a major part in his working life up until now – though it was in the Education department's brief when he joined, only to be hived off as a responsibility of the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

"My personal preference would be to have one department including further and higher education, although having left there, whether there would be the will for further dramatic change, I don't know. Having said that, I think the university sector actually benefits from the current system because it can get more attention."

His new role at Reading University coincides with a period of expansion at Reading, which is on the verge of opening a new campus for the university in Malaysia. In contrast to many other universities, student applications this year are up by about 7 per cent, despite the rise in tuition fees to £9,000 a year. He has already met Universities minister David Willetts to discuss priorities in the years ahead and suggested he should allow universities to expand to take in as many A-level students with ABB grades as they wish.

That is to happen next year, though he is quick to stress he does not believe that the decision was down to him.

He does, however, obviously know his way around the corridors of Whitehall, which could prove an asset for Reading in the months and years ahead.

Perhaps Sir Humphrey will be visiting his old civil-service haunts sooner than you think.

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