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Pioneer Sir Cyril pats himself on back

CYRIL Taylor may still look the quintessential businessman in his immaculate double-breasted suit, but this week he wore the contented smile of a successful headteacher handing out end-of-year prizes, writes Warwick Mansell.

Either that, or a preacher at a rally of a snowballing religious movement. The occasion was the 10th, and by far the largest, annual conference of the Technology Colleges Trust, the organisation he has chaired for 15 years.

"Give yourself a round of applause," Sir Cyril told the 1,600 heads and teachers as he trumpeted figures showing that specialist schools again outperformed other secondaries at GCSE this year.

It did not stop there. The audience applauded as specialists were listed among the most improved or top-performers in the country.

The triumphalism is understandable. The number of delegates was double that of last year, and 10 times the 1995 attendance. (The Confederation of British Industry conference this week had only 1,000.) Speakers ranged from Tony Blair to schools minister David Miliband, Peter Housden, the Department for Education and Skills director-general of schools, chief inspector David Bell and standards supremo Michael Barber .

The trust now has 60 staff, a pound;5 million budget and swish headquarters in Millbank, the London office from where New Labour masterminded its election victory. This reflects the success of the specialist idea, launched under the Conservatives but now central to Labour's education reforms. But it must also be a testament to Sir Cyril, the businessman whose first job was as a toothpaste salesman for Procter and Gamble.

A former adviser to the Conservatives and fundraiser for the independent, state-funded city technology colleges, he persuaded Tory education secretary John Patten to back the first specialist technology colleges when the CTC programme faltered. He quit the Tory party in 1997 and positioned himself to promote Labour's specialist schools. At 67, he has not lost enthusiasm. On this week's evidence, it is is easy to see why.

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