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Open house

The open-plan system in the education offices at Chelmsford was started two years ago at Paul Lincoln's insistence.

"I saw it as an opportunity to develop a stronger sense of teamwork at a senior level," he says. "Some of my colleagues found that potentially quite threatening, because people like their private space, they like to feel they can shut themselves away and get on quietly."

"What I've been trying to achieve over the past three to four years is a greater cross-service area working towards a set of common objectives. And I think we have made more significant progress on that than many other local authorities."

So no one has a private office. There are four small rooms - two bookable and two for spontaneous use - where private meetings and phone calls can be conducted. And senior staff have circular extensions at the end of their desks with extra chairs for open, informal discussions.

"It brings senior staff into contact with each other regularly," says Lincoln. "It mens they have to relate to each other. They pick up all sort of things in an informal way and they deal with them." There are agreed protocols for staff behaviour: no loud talking that might disturb others and no interrupting others' conversations, except in an emergency.

"Everyone's treated without senior, superior status," says Lincoln. "It's quite a strong message about us working together as a team."

But it also means there can be improved coherence in the authority's response to a problem. "I've had to challenge colleagues when they want to go off in their own direction," says Lincoln. "'Doing that might conflict with this set of colleagues over here', I might say to them. 'You need to be working together. Let's have a proper debate about the issues and find a way forward'.

"At worst, schools can play different parts of the organisation off against each other.

"But that's partly our fault. This way, at best, we can be responsive coherently to a school's needs."

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