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Take a risk and talk to heads

Education authority leader turns local schools around with a little gossip and collaboration, writes Martin Whittaker

Name: Knowsley education authority

Results: The percentage of pupils achieving five or more A*-C grades at GCSE has gone up from 22.9 per cent in 1998 to over 38 per cent in 2004

Steve Munby has cards on his desk and it's not even his birthday. They are from headteachers, thanking him and his staff at Knowsley education authority for their hard work and support.

It can't be every day that heads show such gratitude to their LEA. But then again, in the past four years Knowsley - with Mr Munby's hand on the tiller - has proved itself no ordinary education authority.

In 2001 the Merseyside authority had the worst-performing secondary schools in the country, with just over 27 per cent of its pupils gaining five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C. "When that's the case, it focuses the mind somewhat," says Mr Munby.

Today, although it still has a long way to go, the authority is making progress. This summer its GCSE results exceeded the Government's target of 38 per cent.

The LEA is also a pathfinder authority for the Government's 14-19 agenda.

The Knowsley 14-19 collegiate is now three years old and it allows students to take everything from GCSE in law to NVQ in hairdressing. It is a partnership between LEA, learning and skills council, secondary schools, Knowsley college and employers and was set up to offer more curriculum choice post 14. Every pupil joins it when they reach 14 - Years 10 and 11 pupils can study outside their school at a new 14-16 vocational skills centre, at one of three learning centres, at a specialist school, with training providers, or with local employers.

Last year a third of the borough's Year 10s and 11s were engaged in learning outside their school and more children are now staying on in education after 16.

Underlying all of this has been the willingness of Mr Munby and his team to take risks. They have transformed the role of the authority to bring its schools genuine collaboration, collective decision-making and joint leadership.

The Department for Education and Skills has taken a very keen interest in the Knowsley model - it appears as a case study in the Government's five-year strategy for education.

Meanwhile Steve Munby, an amiable, gently-spoken Geordie, is getting used to policymakers knocking on his door. "When I first arrived, one of the first things I said to heads was in a few years' time, people will be coming from all over the country to see the good work we're doing," he says.

Steve Munby became the borough's director of education and lifelong learning four years ago after a varied career. A philosophy graduate, he started out as a secondary school teacher in Birmingham and Gateshead. He has since been a polytechnic lecturer, a consultant on records of achievement and assessment, and has managed the advisory service in Oldham.

Latterly he was assistant director with responsibility for school improvement at Blackburn with Darwen.

He arrived in Knowsley four years ago after a critical Ofsted report in 1999, which found the borough had a number of strengths, but also considerable weaknesses in its support for school improvement - including a failure to challenge its schools.

Knowsley is ranked the third most deprived borough in England. Four in 10 children in Knowsley are still in homes with no earned income.

Mr Munby began his new post by taking the kind of gamble that seems to have become his hallmark. He hired the Anfield football ground and organised a day's conference involving young people, headteachers and elected members to agree a vision.

He then set about making huge changes in staff. Most of his team have changed in the past four years, and he has almost halved the numbers in the school improvement team.

What followed was a complete culture change in the way the LEA operates.

The borough set up what it calls collaboratives - partnerships of authority and schools, one for its 11 secondary schools and three for primary, and devolved funding for school improvement to them.

The authority's leadership team and the school's heads make collective decisions on how to improve schools. Former headteachers are employed as consultants to support secondary schools and they report to these partnerships.

"For me, the key thing is relationships, relationships, relationships," says Mr Munby. "We had to have a relationship based on mutual trust with headteachers. They had to believe in us, and us in them."

The authority has been keen to go out and listen to schools - he calls it crafted gossip. "The most important stuff happens outside meetings - talking, understanding, listening."

And occasionally he likes to roll up his sleeves and teach.

He says the borough's culture of collaboration is far more than just paying lip service. "This is making decisions about funding, agreeing common targets and being held accountable to the group of schools for those targets."

It is also about schools helping each other. Knowsley's schools often lend or swap senior members of staff where needs arise.

As well as being well respected by headteachers, Steve Munby has also proved that he is willing to stand up to the DfES.

The department wants Knowsley to have a new academy, but Mr Munby says he is strongly against the traditional academy model of a stand-alone institution able to do its own thing. "If we're going to have an academy in Knowsley, it needs to fit in with the exciting way we're working," he says.

And he hasn't stopped thinking big. Over the next six years the borough aims to bulldoze all 11 secondary schools and replace them with well-designed learning centres under the Building Schools for the Future initiative.

"We're not even going to call them schools," he says. "We just aim to knock the whole thing down and design from the outset what learning should look like in the 21st century.

"This is about the next generation - it's about our legacy." He sits back and smiles. "And what a privilege to be director of education and to be able to do that."

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