David Hopkins, professor of education at the University of Nottingham, next week starts work as director of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department for Education and Skills.
Professor Hopkins, 53, will be responsible for raising educational standards in schools and helping more pupils to attain the grades they need for university entrance.
A keen mountaineer, Professor Hopkins spent a number of years at the start of his career as an instructor at the Canadian Outward Bound Mountain School, having graduated in politics from Reading University.
He got his PhD, on "organisational change in faculties of education", at the age of 31 from Simon Fraser University, and worked as a school teacher and college lecturer in Canada before returning to the United Kingdom.
In his native Wales - he was born in Cardiff - he worked as a senior lecturer in education research at the West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education before spending ten years as a tutor at the University of Cambridge Institute of Education.
He joined the University of Nottingham in 1996 and became dean of the faculty of education in 1998. He chairs the Leicester City Local Education Authority Partnership Board, where he is credited with turning around the failing authority.
Professor Hopkins describes mountaineering as "a passion" and has climbed in many of the world's great mountain ranges. He is perhaps best known among teachers as the man who saved Chris Woodhead from falling off a cliff when in 1996 he hauled his friend from the clutches of death while climbing in Cornwall.
Professor Hopkins replaces Michael Barber, who moved to the Cabinet Office in June 2001.