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Pulled up by its bootstraps

Changes at the heart of England pose major challenges for schools, says Nicholas Pyke

Most people's knowledge of Northamptonshire goes no further than the cafe at Watford Gap services. It is a county that most people just pass through on the M1 or the west coast mainline.

But increasingly the county is also a place where people are choosing to stay and live. The population - now over 600,000 - has risen by 17 per cent in the past two decades, expanding at a rate way above the national average, with workers able to commute to London and Birmingham, Cambridge and Peterborough.

And so the local authority has found itself needing to build new schools, and cramming extra pupils into its old Victorian structures.

While the head count has risen, the occupations traditionally associated with the county - agriculture, steelmaking and shoemaking - are in terminal decline. The vast landed estates such as the Spencer pile at Althorp are still there and hunting remains popular with the county set. But the thatched stone cottages are now more likely to house accountants and computer consultants than farm labourers, and the days when the local gentry chaired village primaries have gone.

While unemployment in the county overall remains low, towns like Rushden, Wellingborough, Northampton and Corby have been hard hit by manufacturing decline. Last month Dr Marten's boots, one of the few large-scale shoemakers still remaining in the county, announced they too would be transferring most of the jobs to cheap labour markets in the Far East. The arrival of vast trucking depots and supermarket distribution centres to take advantage of the transport networks has brought fresh industry, but the warehouses employ comparatively few.

It is a county of sharp geographical and social divisions, predominately rural in the south, characterised by yellow stone villages, and industrial in the Nene Valley. The prosperous north-east region around Oundle is famous for its public school and white limestone houses.

Northamptonshire's educational system is also mixed. Two school system run in tandem, a three-tier structure of lower, middle and upper schools in some areas, and standard primaries and secondaries in the rest. But, despite pockets of wealth - and an Ofsted report which praises the sound management of the local education authority - the county's academic results are average.

The large towns of Corby and Northampton need most help. Both were designated as new towns which took on thousands of families from Birmingham and London after the war, populations which were then hit by the fall of traditional industry.

Meanwhile, Northamptonshire has embarked on a pound;100 million overhaul of Northampton's school system. Middle schools will be axed, crumbling classrooms repaired and surplus places removed. An expanding population south of the town will be served by a new school close to the M1. In Corby, the emphasis is on additional support, with an education action zone, a fresh start school and out-of-hours activities, including breakfast clubs. Not that it can neglect other areas. The county admits there is room to improve despite some outstanding teaching, and a nationally-renowned county music service.

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