But the town - population 88,500 - soon discovered that its small size was to become an advantage.
Hartlepool has just 40 schools serving a mixed but broadly disadvantaged area, with some pockets of intense poverty.
Perhaps best-known in recent years for electing its football club's mascot H'Angus the monkey as mayor, the borough has now been lauded by Jacqui Smith, the schools minister, for its primary school results.
Since 2003, schools in Hartlepool have outstripped the rest of the country, with English rising by 9 percentage points and maths by 6 percentage points.
Nationally, there has been a rise of 2 percentage points in both subjects since 2003.
The authority had the top three-star rating for its education service in December 2004.
Its most recent Ofsted report dates back to 2000, when inspectors said:
"Morale is high and many schools are rightly proud of the improvements which have been made."
A local authority spokesman said: "We have very effective primary schools - highly praised by Ofsted - with some talented headteachers, teachers and teaching assistants. Combine this with committed governors, parents and carers who are increasingly active and supportive, and a local authority that is strongly focused on raising standards, and you get improved achievement.
"If the ingredients are right and you mix them together well, you get good outcomes."