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The rise of Sir Cyril's specialist empire

Labour has handed this former Tory activist the key to the future of our secondaries. Biddy Passmore reports

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Technology Colleges Trust, could be forgiven for looking like the cat that got the cream. Creator of the original 15 city technology colleges in the 1980s and now overlord of a network of more than 600 specialist schools, as well as government adviser on education action zones and city academies, his empire keeps on growing.

Last week's Labour manifesto set a target of 1,500 specialist schools - nearly half of all secondary schools - by 2006. But Sir Cyril always looks like that proverbial cat. His neat, round, bespectacled face - curiously reminiscent of Kenneth Baker, the Education Secretary who announced the technology college plan to the Tory party conference in 1986 - has smiled through every setback and triumph for his schools over the past 14 years.

He is a great survivor: still there, as he points out, after six changes of Secretary of State - and likely to be there after the next. ("If the next Secretary of State invites me to stay, I'd be happy to do another three to four years.") The former Conservative activist and adviser is a one-time Tory member of the Greater London Council and parliamentary candidate, and certainly a shrewd political operator. Seeing Labour bound for triumph at the last election, he lost no time in securing its support for specialist schools.

He salutes the "genius" of Mr Blunkett in seeing that specialists should lose their elitist image by linking up with local schools. He resigned from the Tory party in 1997 and now describes himself as "neutral".

But he has not had to perform ideological somersaults. He was always on the left of the Tory party, has never belonged to the bring-back-grammars-and-scrap-LEAs brigade. He has stressed throughout that specialist schools should be comprehensive in intake. Only 7 per cent of specialist schools have chosen to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils according to aptitude, he points out, adding, in perfect New Labour-ese:

"This is an inclusive, not an elitist initiative."

Sir Cyril has survived as long as he has because he is an effective enthusiast - who costs the Government nothing. A wizard at attracting funds from business, as more than one specialist school head will attest, he has never demanded a penny for himself. He still works from his chairman's office at the South Kensington headquarters in London of the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS), the $150 million group of international exchange companies he set up more than 25 years ago.

The 40 full-time staff at he Technology Colleges Trust, now headed by ex-Hackney education director Liz Reid, work from Millbank. The trust is half-funded by the Government and the rest comes from school memberships and the private sector.

Sir Cyril says he spends about half his time working as trust chairman and adviser to the Secretary of State for specialist schools and action zones. But it seems to take a larger share of his enthusiasm. He regales this interviewer non-stop with facts and figures about exam success, the importance of IT, the benefits of making specialist status voluntary...Yes, yes, Sir Cyril, but what about you?

The youngest of six children of two medical missionaries in the Congo, Cyril Taylor was born after his father's death and returned with his mother and siblings to Yorkshire when he was six. Little Cyril spoke Kiluba, the language of the Katanga region. He knew no English - "a bad start", he says. His mother worked at a local hostel and as a nanny to make ends meet.

The family moved south to London in 1947, when Cyril had the "great good fortune" to win a place at St Marylebone grammar school, where he flourished. (He wouldn't have got rid of grammars, he says, but wouldn't bring them back now.) He won a scholarship to read history at Cambridge, then another to Harvard Business School. He joined Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1961, where he was responsible for advertising Gleam toothpaste, Lilt Home Wave and Secret deodorant.

When his American fiancee (now wife) June lamented that her deprived high school pupils would never learn French unless they went to France, this natural entrepreneur decided to act. With two colleagues, he took leave of absence from Procter and Gamble and set up a summer-school programme, which grew into the massive operation that is AIFS today.

He returned to the UK in 1971 because "I rather like it here" but retains a flat in New York and spends about 50 days a year in the US.

Although he is 65, Sir Cyril shows no sign of slowing down. ("You're not a retiring type, Cyril," says the trust's deputy chief executive Christine Prentice with slight weariness).

He still plays a mean game of tennis, swims every day and has taken energetic charge of the community garden in his Kensington square. (See! here is a picture of him being presented by the Queen Mum with the prize for best garden square in London.) Nor is there any sign of diminishing enthusiasm for specialist schools - although he stresses they're not the only good schools. "You will write about the schools, won't you?" he asks anxiously as he shows me out, "because the success is all down to them."

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