Working Lives

Engineering, education and fostering (1960s-2018)

Location: Norwich

After a career in engineering Peter pursued his interests in education, social justice and fostering.

I was partly occupied before I left school, as when I was studying for my A levels I made a little bit of local history. Not particularly politically correct these days but I was one of the first male check-out chicks for Sainsbury’s, in St Stephens Street, quite an interesting experience.

Laurence Scott, degree level apprenticeship

My first formal position was not a job as such, it was a fully indentured degree level apprentice with Laurence Scott & Electromotors, a very telling experience for me. In those days it was what I suppose what we could call the tail end of the industrial age.

What I take from it now and have learnt since is how class structured it was. I was on a degree sandwich course which meant that I was going to be management and therefore I could eat in certain canteens that if you like the workers couldn’t. I did not think about that at the time because that was the way things were.

Over a period of time, I did the degree, did the onsite training, and I was starting to move away from the heavier side of electrical engineering and more towards electronics.

Laurence Scott’s were always considered to be top notch and they used to do things like refurbish torpedo motors, and as I was involved with testing them as part of my training, I was invited to sign the Official Secrets Act, and reflecting back on that I realise that it was quite a significant thing to be asked to do.

I must have proved my worth because they offered me a job. I was moving towards the electronics section so the job was with a small team of fellow engineers designing things like crane drives and so on. In those days that involved relay logic and because I was new and recently trained on and working with the new big thing, integrated circuits.

I had an edge on some of my older colleagues. I did fairly well and made a bit of a name for myself and in those days unlike today you could move on quite quickly, and you could progress salary wise as you always went for a slightly higher salary.

Leaving Laurence Scott & Electromotors – career progression

I moved on from Laurence Scott and moved to a small family business called Diathane which specialised in printed circuit board design. I found a niche there, and again looking back on it it was really good for me. The things that I produced were called art works, as much as science was involved, so was art.

I have since learnt that I am not a binary person, I do not fit in to the ‘do I like machines?’ or ‘do I like people?’ I like both and it was useful in many ways really, it brought that part of my character out which I have subsequently used and developed.

It also gave me the opportunity to go to Australia, commissioning. I actually overstayed my visa which was a bit worrying, especially as by that time we had two of our three girls. I went out there on my second daughter’s first birthday which was a bit of a sore point.

There was no internet in those days so it was letter writing to the wife, being the age I was at the time it was quite a difficult thing to do. I enjoyed the work but being parted from my wife and young family for a month, and feeling quite separate from them at that stage in my life was quite a difficult thing to do. It was part of the formation of the person I am now.

I also made some very good friends, one in particular, an engineer, has remained a lifelong friend. He and his family have been over here and we have been out there. The next generation have done so too, and now the third generation from his family is over here too. I fell out with the company in the end, probably over a salary issue, and I went to join another relatively small company.

From working for Diathane to joining Datron

I joined Datron, another relatively small company but a much better connected one. It was set up by two local engineers. It was a very progressive company as it had things such as bonus schemes, if the firm did well, we did well, so that was very good. They cared about their employees, paid for drinks and everything at Christmas.

In addition to the bonuses, if the firm had done particularly well the two directors would say ‘right let’s all go down the pub’ that was the way they worked. It was not a family business, but it felt like a family of likeminded people.  Almost all the engineers were around my age so there was a lot of camaraderie.

They specialised in digital instrumentation, so I could use the talents that I had gained in previous employment and ended up having my own sub department doing all that work for them.

From memory, I probably did have a debate about salaries and so on. It was the first place that I knew of that did annual reviews, most often over a meal at lunchtime. Although I felt successful and valued, the value was not in my mind at the time coming out in terms of financial remuneration.

So I looked out and found another company to work for.

From Datron to Ashlow Steel

I joined another recently set up company, and interestingly a balance between two former employers, they were part of a big organisation called Ashlow Steel, they did some of the heavier engineering stuff. They had moved to Norwich, I now realise, probably to get people who had previously worked at Laurence Scott.

At that time they were advertising for people with my sort of experience, because they had a separate electronics department, and I fitted the bill. I spent a couple of years with them, enhancing my knowledge and skills. By this time I was selling myself as a fairly experienced engineer rather than a new engineer.

With a young family to focus on, salary wise it was time to move. I started to look around and found a small firm in Fakenham, which was just starting out and looking for a research and development team leader.

I had been in charge of sub departments before but not been top man, so in terms of my personal and career development I thought that it was worth going for.

The thing I remember mostly is the interview. They guy who started the firm up came to Norwich to interview me. I subsequently found out that I got the job due to my answering the question which I will paraphrase ‘did I put my family first or do I put the firm first?’

I did what I always did when in doubt, I was honest and I said ‘well Mike, I put my family first and it wouldn’t be fair for me to join you, you know without saying that at the outset’.

I found out, as we became quite good friends that that was the right answer as he was a very family focused person, I was happy working with someone like that. We both left the company at the same time, although by then he was the managing director.

Final engineering post and biological science

My final engineering post was quite a lengthy one. I moved from the Fakenham job to rather a niche position at the University of East Anglia, working in the School of Biological Sciences. My role was to provide bespoke electronic design for things such as instrumentation, because if you are working at the pinnacle of research there won’t necessarily be the piece of kit that you need to do the research.

I enjoyed that part of it, and the autonomy I had. It was like running a little side business within the school if you like, which was very good and again formative, but I cannot say that I left it totally amicably.

I had spent twenty years of my life there and had put an awful lot in to it. However leaving the way I did meant that my pension kicked in, which was helpful and gave me the opportunity to think ‘can I take this any further?’ ‘Do I want to go back to normal mainstream private sector designing?’

Whilst I had been doing all this I had also been doing other public service functions, particularly what is now children’s services. My wife was working full time and our children had grown up and moved on and I was in a very good position to say ‘well is this the only part of me?’ and I concluded that it was not.

Public sector life, political life, and education

I had already become involved with various organisations including: health positions, social housing boards, district council and parish council. I had also been a County Councillor for a year at that time, and was building up my political and public service, becoming focused on what is now known as children’s services, specifically on the education side.

I thought ‘you know this is what I want to do’ because I believed that the things I believed in could only be improved by improving people’s start in life. This wanting to be involved in education became apparent to my colleagues at the County Council and I did end up having quite a significant role in children’s services.

I took on an interim management role for a year, I cannot say that I overly enjoyed it but it was another challenge, but it did enable me to strengthen my position within the group. This meant that I had stronger support for what I really wanted to accomplish within children’s services, and I had quite a significant input in to the issues that developed.

I became quite heavily involved in the reorganisation of Norwich schools. At that time the schools were diverse in terms of infant, primary and junior. The decision made, politically, was that less transition in children’s lives would hopefully lead to less turbulence in terms of their education. I was fairly comfortable with that, I was not comfortable with the fact that it involved some private finance initiative. However it did enable the stock of Norwich schools to be improved considerably. Looking back there were bits that I did not like, but on the whole I was quite comfortable with it.

Cross party working

Unless you are on the inside I do not think that you realise there is more cooperation that goes on between the politicians than the public sees.

One instance  in particular, we were in the situation of looking at the reorganisation in Norwich, deciding where the greatest need was and where the money should be spent. This colleague from an opposite political party and I sat down with senior officers and said to me ‘Peter, you live in Norwich and were born in Norwich, what do you think?’ and that was quite a moment in my life, when I realised that you are part of a group, part of politics but more importantly you have a common interest and use the skills around you.

Creation of a new school, the first in Norfolk for more than thirty years

At that time I also became involved with Capital Projects Group along with senior officers we had to think about the best way to spend Norfolk’s capital.

One of the things that I can look forward and back on is the creation of Norfolk’s first primary school in thirty years, Dussindale School, I was a member of the formative governing body and because I was involved in its inception I am still currently a governor. It was a school designed to grow in numbers, which it has. It is on its second head teacher and is doing very well, providing a good education to young people. It is a nice school to walk into.

Politicisation of education and Ofsted

On a national level, there was certainly an increase of politicisation of education, and there were some bad sides to that. I have been a governor for long enough to remember when government inspectors would come in to schools on an advisory level to help schools develop, I am an optimist and hope that it may be going back that way.

But during this time Ofsted occurred and my point about politicisation is that all of a sudden schools were starting to be looked at as though they were businesses. What comes to mind is league tables. Schools had to be competitive, and I have just never been comfortable with that.

Different governments have said that schools need to be accountable to parents, but they are accountable to parents, their children attend those schools. Parents know whether a school is good, they see it in their children’s progress.

My own personal view is that you do not need Ofsted. I am not arguing against there being an overall inspection system, but it should not be done in the way it has been done. As I said, parents know through their children. As a governor and somebody reasonably experienced in walking in to schools, you can walk in to any school and get a feel of whether education is taking place. You can tell if the children are happy, because I know that happiness does not come in the Ofsted agenda but it does come in to people’s agenda.

I have been to many conferences and national conventions meeting leading politicians, interestingly one being Teresa May, over the years.

Attending recent conferences, with leading inspectors saying certain things and as I said I am an optimist, so hopeful for the future.

You will notice that I feel quite strongly about the politicisation of things. One of the other things that I started to do towards my last few years with Norfolk County Council was looking at some of the other issues that affect children’s lives, particularly the most disadvantaged, and that is through the social services side of things.

Social services, foster care and chairing a panel

We had had several changes of senior leadership and one of the things that I was involved with was making members aware that they are statutorily the corporate parent for children that are looked after. That is to say that the county councillors are responsible for signing off on and making decisions for children looked after by the authority, making them corporate parents with full parental responsibilities.

I worked with and was encouraged by a former Director of Children’s Services to work with county council colleagues across parties to get members involved with that responsibility directly by putting them on foster panels. What they do in simple terms is they hire and fire foster carers, which sounds like a job but it is an inordinately difficult very responsible task, putting young vulnerable children in to other people’s homes.

In those early days of my involvement it was about me learning about the gravity of that and getting fellow councillors on board, as it was a serious and difficult thing to do.

I count myself as being quite successful in that because once I stopped being a county councillor I was asked to sit on a foster panel and following that as an independent member.

Panels were made up of professional social service people and lay people.

I was asked to go back as a lay member on the fostering panel, which I did happily because I had become interested in this and I felt that I could make a contribution because by then I had learnt quite a lot about the system.

So much so that after a while a vacancy came up for a foster panel chair. It is an interesting role because in a way it is a consultancy type job, and you were paid, previously I had not been paid for anything. I was not particularly looking for anything but was asked to a formal interview to put myself forward as the chair.

The children’s act of 2011 said that independent foster panel chairs must be independent. That is important because often issues which come before them are of a quasi judicial nature and may be disputes between the Authority and foster carers, so considerable independence is required.

I was interviewed and offered the post, and ironically I was given the post because of my political background. Once in post I was told that another of the reasons I was offered the post was that I had chaired groups, political groups previously. These senior officers knew how political groups work and I can say without fear or favour that it was one of the hardest things to do.

By definition councillors and politicians can be quite high minded, have a strong character and will have their own views. And quite frankly if you can keep the peace, come to the decision, keep that private and get everyone to agree once they are outside of that meeting, that is a skill in itself. A skill which is not often recognised, but the people interviewing me understood the importance of it.

Just to reinforce the point about independence, I had a situation with a formidable acting director of children’s services, who attended my panel. They would not normally attend but they were trying to put something right. I had to demonstrate my independence by telling them to go back, do their homework and come back another time. It all ended up very amicably, but it does go to show that nobody is above you when you are chairing a panel.

I was somewhat surprised that it paid well, and I want to say that that was not my motivation. But I was quite surprised because it does mean that some people could be motivated by it.

Actually I was on the highest hourly rate that I had ever been on in my career, and I had not done too badly by this point, as I have hopefully expressed.

I have recently relinquished the position, I say relinquish advisedly because it is a bit like other quasi judicial things, you cannot be sacked unless you commit a crime, quite an extreme position.

Post County Council

I am still very young, only sixty-eight, so I am still doing things. I am still actively involved with and enjoying being able to influence schools and the way they work.

As I said previously I am still a governor at Dussindale primary school.

One final note that I will make in terms of ‘irony’ is that having being someone who consciously arguing, even going to Westminster, with my political ally Ed Balls, when he was secretary of state, about academisation. I now find myself as a trustee on a multi academy trust, so that is sort of what goes around comes around.

I do believe, powerfully, that I will always be somebody who wants to be in a position where I can influence and make a difference particularly to young people. And I guess that I will always be like that.

Peter aged about 60 with his grandson Max

Early years and the influence of good parenting

I was born at home in a council house on the Larkman estate at the end of 1949. My older brother was born on the other side of the street at an aunt’s house as he was born just after mum and dad lost their own house in an air raid. My grandparents and another aunt and uncle also lived on the same road so we had a presence.



Peter with his big brother and himself when a little older

Just after I was born my dad was diagnosed with MS and with support from the GP we moved to a flat also on the estate. This was the first home that I remember. Unfortunately there were some issues at this address that were causing additional stress in the family so just as I had got used to walking down to the Earlham nursery with my brother who attended the ‘big school’, we moved to Lakenham where ironically I had to wait for my peers at the infant school to catch up as I had had the advantage of an early start. I hadn’t realised then but this experience had probably significantly influenced my life and interest in education. Now as a trustee of a successful MAT, with all phases of education represented, I still have very strong views about early years and the influence of good parenting. The latter I have learned from my experience working with the fostering service.

Peter Harwood (b. 1949) talking to WISEArchive on 16th July 2018 in Thorpe St Andrew.

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