The city of a thousand trades once armed Cromwell's Roundheads with swords. Now it is cutting a dash on the education front. Neil Levis reports
As the train draws near Birmingham New Street station on the London line, you can see on your left a smart new building nearing completion. Millennium Point opens this autumn and, it is predicted, will receive one million visitors in its first year, 400,000 of them coming with one objective: learning. It will house four of the city's most exciting education projects, including a pupils' parliament with a chamber that can seat 200 and a science museum with exciting interactive exhibits.
And, of course, there will also be an IMAX cinema and a shopping mall, because you have to mix business with pleasure in this day and age (see box).
Birmingham, once the centre of Britain's metal industry - providing 16,000 sword blades for Cromwell's Roundheads during the Civil War - and then known as the city of a thousand trades as it reaped the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, has a new reputation: for its education service.
At the end of this month, the LEA is running a three-day conference at the National Exhibition Centre, by Birmingham International Airport. It is billed as "a leading-edge conference in Europe's biggest learning city". Take away the hype and you have is a schools service that wants to proclaim the good work it is doing.
The politicians and officers are proud of their schools. They say Birmingham is now the fastest-improving urban local education authority in Britain. Having sensed success, it aims to build on it. The teaching unions, too, feel positive towards an authority that understands the challenges teachers face and works with them.
This year, it will invest pound;580m in its 478 schools, catering for 170,000 pupils. Mori polls show that two-thirds of Birmingham's population is satisfied with the once-maligned schools service, one of the best ratings the organisation has found.
Another turning point was Tim Brighouse's appointment as chief education officer in 1993. "He came with a determination to crack the problems of urban education," says his political counterpart, Roy Pinney, Birmingham's cabinet member responsible for education. "We had to persuade headteachers that we meant business and his appointment sent out the right signals."
Brighouse is an engaging one-man whirlwind of non-stop ideas. He believes in devolving power to department officers, school heads and classroom teachers, a refreshing change from the prescriptive approach that has so restricted schools in recent years. The result is an education service with a strong work ethic and an unusual degree of confidence.
Educationally, Birmingham has been ahead of the game for a few years. It was the first to introduce target-setting - now a national norm - and superteachers, and the first to build its own city-wide computer grid to link all its schools.
The result has been a steady climb up the national league tables - from 130th to 105th. Watch this space.