When it became a unitary authority in April 1998, officers sent out detailed questionnaires to headteachers to find out what was going well and what could be improved. "It was very brave of them," said Mr Collins, who found they responded well to criticisms.
For example, heads were unhappy with the delays in monitoring delegated budgets as the authority had difficuly keeping pace with spending. Now there are dedicated teams of officers for groups of schools. "We get instant results and always deal with named people," he said. "We live in a competetive environment and they know that heads can buy elsewhere.
"We've had lots of meetings and it's all very positive. We've had education debates with top-class speakers - Estelle Morris (school standards minister) came to one. It's nice to the people in charge of education are enthusiastic about it."