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Profile: Sharon Shoesmith

By Tim Donovan
BBC London's Political Editor

Sharon Shoesmith

The Baby Peter case brought an abrupt and painful end to Sharon Shoesmith's 35-year career.

Immediately after her successful Court of Appeal hearing over her sacking, Ms Shoesmith said that the sorrow of Peter's death would "stay with me for the rest of my life".

Before Peter's death, she had been widely praised for her work transforming schools in Haringey, one of the poorest parts of the UK.

She now says she hopes to continue working with children in some capacity, but has yet to find a suitable alternative.

Ms Shoesmith's solicitor, James Maurici, had told the appeal court that a highly-thought-of public servant now faced ruin.

For a while her local Jobcentre in north London allowed her to visit out-of-hours because of the attention she attracted in the media.

Seven years ago she was part of the solution, being sent in to help Haringey's schools as part of an intervention team employed by contractor Capita.

Within two years she had been made the borough's director of education, and following a restructuring, became the council's first director of children's services on a salary of more than £130,000 a year.

Under her leadership, Haringey claimed to have the highest proportion of 'good' or 'outstanding' schools in London.

Headteachers in the borough were furious at the manner of her departure, though critics locally say she was hampered in the post by having no social work background.

The council's attempts to portray the complex circumstances around the toddler's death were drowned out by reports that Ms Shoesmith had repeatedly refused to apologise for the tragedy

That was not unlike dozens of former town hall education officials who became newly-created directors of children's services after 2004. But some experts say the trend has removed vital child protection experience from the top tier of local authorities.

Nothing could have prepared her for the publicity and pressure which resulted from the case, even though she'd taken over at an authority reeling from a similar tragedy, the death of Victoria Climbie.

Haringey's leader George Meehan and chief executive Ita O'Donovan originally stood by her. But under enormous pressure they too decided she needed to go to restore confidence in the authority.

Ms Shoesmith admits that - despite intense preparations and media training - she was ill-equipped to deal with the hostility of journalists at a press conference convened after the three people were convicted over Baby Peter's death last November.

'Unprecedented'

The council's attempts to portray the complex circumstances around the toddler's death were drowned out by reports that Ms Shoesmith had repeatedly refused to apologise for the tragedy.

In fact, in her opening remarks and in subsequent interviews she offered condolences to Peter's father and family, and said the council had written to them previously doing the same.

Neither would her previous role as an HMI inspector herself - experienced at probing schools and local authorities - have prepared her for the emergency Ofsted inspection of her own department which followed.

In its haste, focus and intensity, it was unprecedented.

Ms Shoesmith was born in Belfast and spent much of her career in the north of England. A former head teacher, she went on to specialise in special educational needs provision, working for local authorities including York, Trafford and Sheffield.

In the close knit world of the country's childcare professional class, the fall from grace was merciless.

Winning her appeal is a significant personal victory for Ms Shoesmith.

After the appeal victory, Ms Shoesmith said: "I am very relieved to have won my appeal and for recognition I was treated unfairly and unlawfully."




SEE ALSO
Baby Peter sacking ruled lawful
23 Apr 10 |  Education


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