Dame Dela Smith, the widely-respected principal of Darlington Education Village, retires today after 35 years in teaching. She talks to David Roberts about her career and how she helped set up the unique education complex.

THE sculpture outside Darlington Education Village symbolises the centre’s ethos towards learning. A skein of geese is flying in a “V” formation.

By flying together, the group is able to fly farther and faster than if they were travelling individually. The lead goose rotates with others in the formation so that the hard work is shared equally.

For the past five years, Dame Dela Smith has been the lead goose at Darlington Education Village. And as she prepares to relinquish her position after 35 years of teaching, the popular principal is justifiably proud of what she has achieved. Under her stewardship, the unique combination of a primary, secondary and special needs school all on the same site, has set an example across the country.

Asked if she has any regrets or would have done anything differently, she pauses before answering. “The only regret I have is that the Education Village wasn’t built ten years ago,”

she says. “But I always said I would do five years as head.”

There is another pause when she is asked what she considers the highlight of her career.

But this time it is probably to try to think which of her many achievements to choose. In the end, she gives two answers.

“Going to the Buckingham Palace has to be the highlight. That was in recognition of all the work that had gone on in Darlington as a whole, with all the schools working with young people with learning disabilities,” she says.

“The second highlight would have been the opening of the Education Village. It was an amazing feeling walking through the fabulous building. Everything you could wish for was here.”

IT was at the teacher training college in Middleton St George, near Darlington, that Dame Dela discovered her love for teaching children with special education needs (SEN), where she did a specialism in the subject.

After qualifying as a teacher, she started work at the residential school in Middleton St George for children with learning difficulties, one of the first teachers in the country to move straight into teaching SEN.

Her next post was at Mayfair school, in Glebe Road, Darlington. When that merged with two other SEN schools to create the Beaumont Hill School, she became its head in 1992.

Then, when the Beaumont Hill buildings needed renovating, she became the principal of the newly-built education village which combined Beaumont Hill School with Springfield Primary and Haughton Secondary School.

For Dame Dela, this was the culmination of what she had first set out to do when she began teaching special needs. Bringing children with special needs into the mainstream school community is something she believes is vitally important.

“It reflects society to have a whole range of different backgrounds and different strengths and different needs,” she says. “That society develops an ethos and culture of understanding and accepting difference.

“If you look at the village street here you have 19-year-olds with disabilities and you’ve got primary children all walking up and down.

It’s the most inclusive setting we could ever hope to come across and it’s the right thing.

Children are children and they all deserve the same high quality education.”

It is this aspect of the Education Village which sums up Dame Dela’s approach to teaching.

“A measure of society is how you look after the most vulnerable young people,” she said.

“If you make the strongest provision for your most needy, then everybody benefits. Standards will rise as a result. Every child matters really summed up what this is about.”

The Every Child Matters initiative was started by the last government and it was under that administration that Dame Dela found prominence at a national level. She served on a number of government working groups on the future of special needs.

In 2001, she was made a Dame for her services to special education, though in typically modest fashion, she jokes that she still thinks it was a mistake. “Somebody missed the ‘i’ out and it was really for Delia Smith.”

Whether her advice will be heeded by the new coalition Government is not yet known.

She admits to some concerns about its plans.

“My main concern with diversity of schools and free schools is that there needs to be an overview for vulnerable young people,” she says. “Someone needs to have an overview and the local authority is best placed to do this, working in partnership with other schools.”

Whatever their political persuasion, it would be a foolish man or woman who did not heed her advice.

It is not just the title which is a measure of Dame Dela’s quality as a headteacher. Nor is it the positive Ofsted report which Beaumont Hill received in September. Instead, it is the young pupil who has just won a competition to star in a BBC TV series who proudly proclaims that one of the reasons she was chosen was that the producers thought that her school was the nicest they had seen.

EQUALLY, it is the scores of cards and flowers which have been sent to her to mark her retirement which show the high regard in which Dame Dela is held.

“Since I arrived as the chair of the Education Village, I have been inspired by the leadership Dela has given to the school, particularly for the children at Beaumont Hill, who she holds in very high affection,” says Jim O’Neill, chairman of governors.

The new Education Village principal will be vice-principal Sue Richardson, who has taught with Dame Dela for a number of years.

Dame Dela’s own plans for the future are not so clear. She talks about doing more charity work, travelling with her husband, Colin, who also teaches at the Education Village and the many of the other usual retirement plans.

But there is something that still says she is not quite ready to give up her work in education just yet. Maybe it is just the enthusiasm with which she talks about her work, leading her to apologise on more than one occasion for, as she put it, “rabbitting on”. Maybe it’s the way she stops to talk to children in the school corridor or pick up a discarded crisp packet.

“I’m not saying no to anything, I’m keeping an open mind,” she says when asked about a return to education in some form.

So while Dame Dela may have relinquished her position at the head of the formation, it looks like she is not yet ready to leave the flock.