Paul Gray has introduced a radical reform programme since his arrival six years ago but he remains true to a system that started in the county. He talks to Sue Jones.
Leading one of the country's top-performing authorities might make some people think they had the winning formula, but Paul Gray is taking Surrey through a radical re-organisation. If modernisation means backing away from the old command-and-control style of administration to work with communities and the private sector, there's one tradition Gray isn't abandoning: he is very proud of Surrey's comprehensive schools.
"LEAs have done a good job for over a century, but they've been performing roles and functions that often conflict. Externally imposed structures don't necessarily serve local functions," he says, as staff prepare to pack up and move around the county to form multi-professional teams.
The authority he inherited six years ago was divided into 18 sections. He believes it was too rigid, and inevitably gave out mixed messages to families and schools. After an initial re-organisation in 1997, education and social services are now being combined to form the Children and Young People's Directorate. Eventually, he hopes that health services will also be included.
But why interfere with a system that seems so successful when the inspectors are due next year? Because, he says, the headline figures might be good, but there's more to Surrey than meets the eye. It's not all golf courses and executive-style homes.
This is where Gray can draw on his wide experience of teaching, management and administration in such areas as Merseyside, Cambridgeshire and Devon. "It's a huge challenge to recognise and respond to the diversity in Surrey," he says. "One of my early impressions was an LEA that was solid and broadly high achieving, but in places there was an unacceptably large gap between the highest and lowest-performing schools."
He expects schools to be as independent as possible, but he makes no apologies for the money the county retains to spend on school improvement and special needs. Surrey's prosperity also means that 23.5 per cent of its children go to independent schools. Many parents had not even considered the local comprehensive, but Gray takes pride in telling them that Surrey was one of the pioneers of non-selective education; its highest-scoring comprehensives now outperform the independent sector. Competition is a fact of life, and Gray is not intimidated by the opposition.
"Like it or loathe it, the education service in England is based on competition and Surrey felt extremely competitive," he says. "There was no dialogue with those schools."
One priority has been to build bridges with independent and foundation schools. There are residential conferences for heads from all sectors and teacher and pupil exchanges. Nor is the trade all one way. The independent sector buys services from Surrey and sends some of its pupils to state schools to study ICT.
Competition makes school admissions a vexed issue so part of the education development plan is to revise procedures. Gray wants "openness and transparency about the criteria"; he hopes this can be achieved through new admissions forums.
He acknowledges the difficulties: he is against the social engineering undertaken by some authorities in the 1970s and 1980s, but he thinks it is wrong that pupils can be refused admission to their local schools. A forum may be a more acceptable way of making difficult decisions than through LEA control. "It's now about controlling less but influencing more, being an honest broker," he says. "There'll be a few bruises but it will be better."
In the end, he thinks the best way to "avert unhelpful competition" is for all parents to believe that their local school is a good school by closing the gap in performance. Surrey makes extensive use of value-added data to identify schools causing concern and to target resources. He believes better leadership in senior and middle-management can raise standards. Indeed, he has no patience with the view that children from some backgrounds cannot succeed. "There are still areas where expectations of what kids can achieve is too low," he says. "As someone who has taught at the sharp end in Liverpool, that really gets to me."
He has brokered an agreement that clarifies the circumstances when schools can expect the authority to intervene to achieve school improvement and does not shy away from taking controversial action. When he called in a private-sector company to work with - emphatically not "take over" - the troubled King's Manor school, he says that "everybody thought it was bonkers". But it got results.
He also tried a new tack to reduce school exclusions. Finding that many schools in very different circumstances had very similar exclusion rates, he persuaded the heads to let him publish the figures internally so they could compare statistics. "We managed to lay to rest a lot of ghosts, such as that GM schools just kick troublesome pupils out - not true at all," he says.
Peer pressure encouraged schools to reduce exclusions and get involved into reintegration . Behaviour support is a growing issue in the country generally, he says, and staff need training.
"I'm interested in moving away from the concentration on individual behaviour to it being a whole-school issue. We need to look at the curriculum and pastoral arrangements rather than targeting youngsters who are being difficult, getting schools to have a whole-school approach."
Indeed, this is why under reorganisation, the behaviour specialist will be based in the curriculum service and not the behaviour unit.
As an administrator, Gray believes services should be designed to respond to the needs of their communities. If pushed, he will admit that the only part of the job he is less than enthusiastic about is the mass of planning that results from "initiative overload". As a break from the mountains of paper, he has started cycling - not around the Surrey heathlands, but up and down the steeper parts of China and Brazil. Surely he he must enjoy that. "Hate it!" he grins. "It's gruelling - I got very close to my limit."
As well as keeping him fit, his cycling has already raised pound;20,000 for the learning disabilities charity Mencap.
Exercise renews his appetite for change; even though the county's reorganisation is not yet complete, he is already on to the "next big shift" in national thinking which could crack open educational structures - that rather than competing, schools and other services should co-operate in local clusters based on natural geographical communities.
Three pilots are planned. Money could be devolved and decisions made locally on education and social care. And why not add to the pool the funds for the youth service, adult education, learning support services, the youth offending team and even health?
Mr Gray speaks of forming legal foundations with joint governance. "It gives a public-service foundation and opens doors to other funds denied to schools at the moment. I really want to work it up with them - it's how you get ownership and commitment."
As a former vice-principal of an FE college, he has ideas for the 14-19 sector. The Government's latest plans are "welcome, but quite timid". Irritated that vocational education is too often seen as something for the less able, he has already broadened 16-19 provision by encouraging more vocational courses and pioneering a "graduation certificate" that includes key skills and community service. He would like to see greater co-operation between schools and colleges, even pooled resources.
He has already got permission from the Learning and Skills Council to run a pilot on joint funding and governance at post-16. Nor is he daunted by the complexity of bringing together institutions with different rules of governance and inspection systems - and especially the contentious issue of pay. "In the Act, there is freedom to innovate, to disapply pay and conditions," he says with an encouraging smile. "Joint governance might mean putting funding into one pot. It might be a tough one."