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Pragmatic partners in middle England

Education director Brenda Bignold tells Nicholas Pyke how the county is making the best of available cash to restructure the school system and boost pupils' achievement

After five years in the job, you are doing pretty well. The Office for Standards in Education has very few criticisms. The Audit Commission has a new league table of local authorities out next month, but no one in your department is panicking. So, armed with a goodish hand and a clear strategy, what do you do next?

Director of education Brenda Bignold's answer is to throw the cards into the air with a pound;100 million overhaul of schools in Northampton. Some will be closed, new ones will open and scores of teachers will have to re-apply for jobs.

All a bit radical for a county associated more with middle England credentials than educational revolution. But there is still work to do on raising achievement in the county, particularly in more deprived parts. Ms Bignold acknowledges that children go into the county's schools scoring above the national average yet come out doing no better than the national norm (see box right). And while there are plenty of schools in the affluent rural south and east which could improve, Northampton and Corby need the greatest help.

Hence the Northampton schools review, the pound;100m private finance initiative deal at the heart of Northamptonshire's school improvement strategy. She says that the problem is partly historic. The county has never had a reputation for embracing education, perhaps due to its reliance on agriculture, shoe-making and engineering. So raising the profile of the service involves a fundamental shift.

"Maybe there hasn't been quite the motivation that says, 'Yes, you can do better'," she says. "The overall ambition is not just about raising academic standards, but about raising achievement in the round. Not all youngsters are going to get 3As at A-level. But every youngster can achieve in some way."

Recent efforts have focused on including governors and heads in the decision-making process: "The schools can't do it on their own. To shift we have to talk about the governors, the parents, the community."

A sense of trust and partnership has been particularly important as the education department attempts to sell the Northampton schools review which, for all its potential benefits, also brings disruption and political controversy. It offers specialist schools, a new Church of England school and a new city academy, nearly all funded through the private finance initiative. It also means abolishing a well-established three-tier school system in the town. Middle schools will disappear in favour of primary and secondary schools.

With so much of the educational cash now only available in government-labelled pots marked "standards" or "city academies", it is worth asking what room remains for creativity or local accountability. The elected members, for example, may not be keen on specialist schools, but might feel that they have very little in the way of choice.

Mrs Bignold's answer is that the authority has to get on with it. "Yes, PFI has problems, but it is the only source of funding available. We have got to use all the opportunities that come to hand. We want to transform education in Northampton town.

"It is difficult because the flexibility in terms of earmarked resources is pretty limited. The way forward is to be very clear about what the direction is, and clear about what outcomes you want - then pick and mix the opportunities that come your way. There's no other way of getting the focused resources.

"These initiatives are an opportunity for being very clear about what you're doing. It is not that we don't see the tension. We do. PFI would not be my preferred starting point. But it is central government's.

"And if we can get pound;100m, that is not to be ignored. This is a once-and-for-all investment for the 21st century. Who wouldn't feel proud in having helped facilitate all of that? "The critical ingredient is knowing what you want for your particular community."

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