'This is the biggest issue we face in education'
No wonder Kevan Collins is smiling. As the man in charge of the last pot of education money in England, his job is akin to standing in an open-topped limo throwing wads of cash to the cheering crowds of grateful teachers below.
Of course, I exaggerate. A bit.
But there is a stark contrast between his previous role as chief executive of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, an organisation of 6,000 people faced with making #163;70 million in cuts, and his current job as chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, where his team of eight (which will grow to 12) is in the process of dishing out #163;125 million (which will grow to #163;200 million over 15 years).
"As a chief executive, you spend a lot of time managing," he says. "At the moment I am spending a lot of time reconnecting. I'm going back into schools and looking at things from a national level, without having to spend a lot of time managing issues. I'm exercising my brain matter again. I'm thinking, I'm reading and I'm understanding."
Dr Collins (he has a PhD in literacy development from the University of Leeds) is probably best known in education for his role as the first director of the Primary National Strategy, Labour's attempt to revitalise the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. In 2005, six months after Capita took over the contract from the CfBT Education Trust, he left that job to become the first director of children's services in Tower Hamlets, later becoming the council's chief executive.
"I had a great time in Tower Hamlets, but I never went there to be chief executive," says Dr Collins. "I went there to be DCS (director of children's services). Then someone had to leave and the next day they asked me to take over. I found it really interesting but, in the end, education is for me." And an opportunity to return appeared in the form of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
In November 2010, the government announced it was inviting bids to run its education endowment fund, which is designed to boost the attainment of poor children. It will also work with 1,400 primaries and 200 secondaries that are below the government's floor targets. The EEF, an independent charity founded by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust, won the bidding process to administer the money.
That poor children perform less well at school than their affluent peers is one of the most intractable problems in education. What worries Dr Collins is that the gap in England is one of the biggest in the world and is getting bigger. "One of the reasons I left doing what I was doing to come to this is because it is the biggest issue we face in education," he says. "Children who happen to be born into a poor family end up with fewer chances. One in five children receives free school meals, yet one in 100 who receive free school meals goes to Oxbridge - and that is less than it used to be."
In order to tackle this problem, the EEF will fund projects targeted at children on free school meals. The money is to test and incubate new ideas where there is already some proof that they will work. It will be used to scale up the idea and attach an independent evaluation project. That research will then be shared with all schools via the internet.
The EEF will not pay for schools to continue with core or well-established programmes and it expects every project to cost at least #163;50,000 and reach at least 100 pupils.
It is a very different beast from the approach under Labour, when interventions were rolled out nationally on the basis that if something worked, all children should have a crack at it.
That notion is no longer in vogue. Indeed, it got short shrift from the Commons science and technology committee, which said in a 2009 report on literacy interventions that while it recognised a willingness to base interventions on evidence, there were "worryingly low expectations regarding the quality of evidence required".
Of course, the difficulty with firing off public money in all directions is that some projects are going to do better than others - a potential problem when public spending is under such pressure. The EEF allows ministers to keep searching for a cure to the toughest problem in education, but also to keep it at arm's length.
Dr Collins knows there is one clear way to convince politicians to keep finding the money. "How do you protect the system from just being at the vagaries of a particular whim? You do it by saying, 'Show me the research,'" he says. "We are profoundly interested in research. One thing that is shocking is the paucity of research; good, hard, evidence-based research on what works.
"We will build a rigorous methodology around what we fund that allows us at the end to say the effect of doing that adds this much to children's progress. But I'm sure some of the stuff will say, 'Do you know what? You're wasting your money.' Or, worse still, 'That's sending the kids backwards.'"
Dr Collins does not want projects to fail, but he wants schools to have the most accurate information on what to spend money on - otherwise, as he puts it, it's just "glitter and lights" and he is emphatically not a glitter and lights sort of person.
He grew up the fifth of six sons in an army family. When we meet, a month after his 50th birthday, he is dressed in a school-uniform-like grey V-neck pullover and a green tie. He is friendly but not over-familiar; reassuring without being patronising.
He is someone who, despite experience of being responsible for nine-figure budgets and thousands of employees, is not averse to blending in, as he did when he took part in the Channel 4 reality show Undercover Boss, where senior executives do the jobs of more junior employees. In Dr Collins' case he tried his hand at serving meals on wheels - "with the stubbly, forgot-to-shave beard that would have ruined most people's interview chances", according to The Daily Telegraph.
Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, is noticeably pleased to have appointed the (now clean-shaven) Dr Collins. "You know," he says. "There were 125 applications for that post."
Mr Lampl is not his only fan. Lesley Staggs was director of the foundation stage for the National Strategies when Dr Collins was director of primary. "Kevan is someone with a clear vision of what he wants," she says. "He is very determined about getting there and doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he has never lost that ability to keep in touch with children, families and communities."
Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the country, but it was one that Ofsted already rated as excellent in its social services, education and children's services, as well as its capacity to improve, before Dr Collins arrived as DCS. Three and a half years later, inspectors praised the research-based approach in children's services that had led to substantial reductions in the number of young people not in education, employment and training. And the gap in educational outcomes between children in Tower Hamlets and the rest of the country was narrowing rapidly.
From the EEF's offices on the ninth floor of Millbank Tower next to the river Thames, Dr Collins can look out over the skyscrapers of the City of London to neighbouring Tower Hamlets, where he returns every evening. He has lived in the area since he started his first teaching job there and he is still involved in education, as a member of the interim executive board of Christchurch CofE Primary School in Brick Lane.
"I knew of him before I took on the headship," says the school's executive head Gerard Loughran. "I was aware of his approach in Tower Hamlets and knew he's very well thought of by Tower Hamlets' headteachers."
Mr Loughran talks about professionalism, high expectations and challenge, but then reveals it's not all paperwork and data-crunching - Dr Collins goes into classrooms. "He's interested in reading development, that's one of his big things. He's come into school to work alongside the literacy curriculum coordinator."
It seems in keeping. Three days after he was appointed chief executive of EEF in October 2011, Dr Collins gave a talk at the charity's conference. "We are in precarious times and we cannot afford to waste the talent and potential of a single child," he said. "Not a single one."
The Education Endowment Foundation announced how it would distribute #163;3.2 million of funding last week. Here are the winning projects:
- #163;209,000 to Primary Movement to test whether certain exercises can help to improve children's learning.
- #163;960,000 to Challenge Partners to help schools work in groups of three to deliver best practice.
- #163;386,000 to the University of London's Institute of Education to train schools to use teaching assistants effectively.
- #163;516,000 to the Campaign for Learning to help parents develop skills to support their child's learning.
- #163;996,000 to the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme, where outstanding teachers deliver professional development.
- #163;121,000 to Hampshire County Council to develop ways in which teachers can identify pupils who need more support.
- Attended schools in Germany, Cyprus and the UK.
- Graduated from Lancaster University in 1982 and received a PhD from the University of Leeds in 2001.
- Began a career as a teacher in east London; moved to Bradford and then Mozambique.
- Returned to England in 1998 as a regional director of the National Literacy Strategy.
- Became national director of the Primary National Strategy in 2003.
- Became director of children's services at Tower Hamlets in 2005; appointed chief executive in 2009.
- Became the first chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation in October 2011.
- He has also supported the development of a national literacy initiative in the US, working with the New York Institute for Special Education and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.