PROFILE: Barbara Lane, London Borough of Hackney - Lane to step up PR for education in Hackney - Barbara Lane aims to build confidence in the beleaguered London borough

It's a new term at Hackney's education authority, housed in a brand new building next to the Town Hall. Stand in reception, half close your eyes and it could almost be a Norman Foster creation.

A visitor is tempted to ask what a local education authority is doing in such a building. And this is exactly the point that Barbara Lane, the borough's new assistant director of education with responsibility for PR and communications, wants to address.

'This building brings all the education services together - we used to be in an old school building where we had to have meetings in classrooms.

It's all about projecting a message of confidence in the system, which will then engender trust and improved results.'

Confidence is something the LEA badly needs, with Hackney a byword for poor education standards. There have been three damning Ofsted reports in as many years and many Hackney children are now sent to schools in neighbouring boroughs by parents fed up with declining results. Much of the blame for the collapse in services has been laid at the door of the council that allowed the education authority to sink into a huge deficit and failed adequately to manage central services. The last Ofsted report, in November 2000, found that the LEA was in a 'parlous state'.

The beginnings of change came late last year when a different kind of organisation was set up to run Hackney's education authority. Previously some services had been run by a private firm, Nord Anglia. The new system dispenses with the private sector in favour of a publicly accountable organisation - Education Trust. When it takes over fully in four months time it will be run by former Ofsted CEO Mike Tomlinson.

Lane's job involves managing central services such as IT, HR and buying for schools. But she is also taking charge of making proactive communications central to the authority's mission of making Hackney's education services respected. Previously, the PR role was a reactive one, channelled through the council's press office.

Lane is refreshingly upfront about grappling with the job to be done. 'I want education to be a reason to live in Hackney. Our first priority is to promote the recruitment and then retention of teachers. If we can get this right everything else will follow.'

This is a task to which positive communications is central, Lane says: 'At the moment, teachers see an ad for a Hackney school, but then they turn a few pages and read all these terrible stories about our schools. We need to be far more proactive about how we talk about what goes on in Hackney.

For example, the gender gap (the tendency for girls to achieve higher grades) is closing faster in Hackney than in most boroughs but no-one knows that. We need to get that message out.'

As well as targeting stakeholders such as teachers and parents, Lane wants to get the education authority into a dialogue with school children who can express their own desires about where they want to go to school. One idea is to create a youth parliament to allow them to have their say.

The authority is also setting up a Stakeholder Reference Forum, a kind of PTA writ borough-wide: 'At the moment there's a lack of confidence that things can change. We need to communicate better so as to convince people we really are listening and acting on their suggestions.'

Lane is typical of a new breed of public sector managers, who have been exposed to working in public and private sectors, as well as hybrid firms.

Her background encompasses hotel and retail management, stints at The Observer and Lambeth LEA. She maintains that she is 'good at levering money out of people,' a skill honed during her time as chair of the Southwark Cathedral Millennium Trust.

She has already successfully lobbied for extra government money to research the root causes of Hackney's teacher recruitment and retention problem, and is working to build links with the business world: 'We are one of the poorest areas in Europe, but we're right next to one of the richest, in the City. There must be more we can do to share expertise.'

Despite her minimal PR experience, she is well versed in the need for communicating the imperatives of the new organisation: 'I went to the Government and said we needed money to create a new identity for this business. They asked why?' It is safe to say Lane's case was convincing enough, since she got the cash.

Lane will have a PR staff of two to aid her mission to spread better news about Hackney, but she's under no illusions that it will be easy: 'Perceptions always lag behind the reality. Our job is to quicken that pace of change.'

No doubt the pupils and parents in Hackney would agree.

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