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Revolutionary at County Hall

Paul Lincoln has subverted traditional working practices at County Hall, Chelmsford, making it more open and democratic. He explains why to Neil Levis.

The first thing that strikes you when you enter County Hall in Chelmsford, is how light and spacious the place seems. An imaginative extension has turned a former road between buildings into an atrium, with stairs and corridors over what used to be the pavement. Enter the education department and you notice there are no offices. People have their names and jobs clearly displayed on their desks. There is a deliberate air of openness. "Can I help you?" is the message everywhere - from the three education hotline people on the front desk fielding enquiries, to the very undark, unrecessed desks of those staff the opponents of local education authorities would describe as the bureaucrats.

This surprising and welcome atmosphere is the creation of Paul Lincoln, who has led the authority since 1995. It is a stark contrast to the organisation he joined in 1988, after 19 years as a teacher in Sussex and Essex - the last six of which were spent as deputy head of a progressive community school in South Woodham Ferrers. The six-mile journey up the road to Chelmsford took him into a very different world: a paternalistic, old-style authority, hugging the money to its local government bosom. It did so in a manner that was almost calculated to infuriate those headteachers who were only too ready to grab some independence when Margaret Thatcher announced the escape route of grant-maintained schools that same year. More schools in Essex opted out than anywhere else, threatening the survival of the county as an education authority. Lincoln shudders at the memory.

"I spent the first six months wondering what the hell I'd done: the whole culture and way of working was pretty alien to me. There were lots of power-bases and lots of patronage. Then came the 1988 Reform Act with all that followed and a whole new world began."

Today Essex is confidently moving forward. Last month it received a fairly glowing Ofsted report which acknowledged the work it had done in building bridges with the grant-maintained brethren, now back in the fold mostly as foundation schools. It praised its strong leadership - a whole team of officers to whom Lincoln directs a lot of the credit - and its advisory work, particularly the co-ordination of the literacy and numeracy strategies in the primary years. And it commented positively on the clarity and coherence of its special educational needs service, which comes under the control of Sue Kerfoot, Paul Lincoln's wife.

The director is obviously delighted with the report, but at the same time is aware of the challenges still facing the county. "What's it's done is given us a good strong base to build further," he says. "The report has given schools confidence in us and in working with us. On the back of that we're developing all sorts of initiatives with schools, some of whom were quite sceptical about us two or three years ago."

Nor was he afraid to court controversy when, earlier this year, he felt teacher shortages were adding to the challenges teachers already face. He wrote a letter to David Blunkett, released to the local media, expressing concerns that schools could not do their jobs without enough staff of the right quality.

He has no regrets. "I saw it as a need to raise the profile of the issue - have a proper public debate. In those schools with serious weaknesses or in special measures (Essex has 17 and 19 respectively), the ability to retain and recruit teachers is fundamental to turning the places round. These staff are working against the odds anyway."

When Lincoln took over six years ago, one of his priorities was improving communications with schools. It is noticeable that he never refers to "my schools" or "my headteachers": his teamwork and democratic ethic are strong. He disciplines himself to meeting regularly with clusters or consortiums of heads and he visits at least three schools a week.

The drip-drip effect of this, plus his engaging, modest manner and his credibility as someone who cut-the-mustard as a teacher in schools for so long, have helped win over many of those who felt neglected or were critical of local authorities having any role in the running of schools.

In a strange way he feels indebted to the opting-out "gang", because their actions helped him achieve the reforms that he says are "turning this oil tanker around".

"One of the best things that happened to this authority, ironically, was the move to grant-maintained status because it challenged it in a way that nothing else was able to challenge it. The external pressure it generated was instrumental in bringing about change internally."

Respect for others is one key to understanding Lincoln's philosophy. Ofsted picked up on it when they referred to the way in which schools were treated as autonomous institutions. It must be linked to Lincoln's teaching style in his classroom days. "I've always been a great advocate of encouraging independent learners - building thinking skills so they could be more autonomous."

But he also sees great parallels between his role and that of the effective teacher. "You have to know when to intervene - neither too soon nor too late. It is exactly the same in leading an organisation like this. It's about being well in touch with the operation.

My criticism of a lot of managers is that they think they've got to be strategic and that they don't feel they need to be in touch with what's happening at the grass-roots level.

"Actually, you can't be strategic without knowing what's happening at the grass-roots, because you then know what the decisions are you've got to be making in response to that."

He is passionate about research carried out by teachers in the field, which he sees as essential to building the body of professional knowledge. He wants to create a new post to develop and shape good practice and spread its use to schools.

His other obsession is making links, which is one reason why he created the post of localities officer (see Just the Job, page 8) to spot similarities of problems and solutions throughout a disparate, vast area such as Essex.

How does he feel about privatisation? He would obviously like Essex to be at the forefront of any new thinking on ways to fund education. In 1994, the county contracted its computer technology support to Capita at a time when privatisation looked to be the way government was pushing. Since then, there has been a rethinking and the authority is now one of 11 developing different models of providing services to schools.

"We're currently looking at some of the options around quite a radical model. I think we can have some interesting, innovative partnerships between the private and public sector to better achieve what we have to achieve, and to do that in collaboration with the expertise in schools as well. So that's quite something to pull off, given the complexity of the stakeholders that need to be kept on board. But I think we can do it and it's going to be quite exciting to see how we go forward on that. I can't say any more in detail.

"In five years' time we'll have a mixed economy. We'll have some good LEAs and we'll have some working with private partners, and we'll have some people in the private sector providing services."

He would like to explore ways of getting more private-sector investment into education where it can be used to exploit the expertise that schools and teachers undoubtedly have. "We're not handing over our intellectual property to the private sector to exploit, but we're entering into a new way of working. And the private sector has got as much to learn as we have. There's a lot of thinking along tramlines going on out there.

"As we delegate more to schools, we can win significant bits back from traded services, but there's less and less at the core of the LEAs to actually sustain what we need for those services. We're often operating them on a shoestring because we believe in getting as much money as possible out to schools."

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