Closer to the people

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The creation of Telford amp; Wrekin has enabled its officers to deliver a better service, says its director of education. Christine Davies explains how to Nicholas Pyke

Christine Davies is already known to readers of The TES as this year's president of the Association of Chief Education Officers and the woman who keeps two donkeys at home, Ben and Wogey, acquired from an animal sanctuary. She would probably prefer to be recognised as the head of Telford amp; Wrekin's education service, an increasingly successful and innovative department working in difficult circumstances, according to the inspectors.

"It has many strengths, few weaknesses, supports its schools well and, in most activities gives good value for money," says the 2001 report on the authority.

Two schools, Wrockwardine Wood Infants and Donnington Wood C of E junior school were picked out for praise in this week's annual report by the Chief Inspector. Another, Donnington St Matthew's, an oasis of calm and colour in a difficult location, is regularly cited as one of the most improved schools in the country. Telford has also been asked to give a helping hand, to another unitary authority, Thurrock, on the outskirts of London.

The headline figures are impressive. Its schools have seen a huge rise in standards of attainment - they are now above the national average and 99 per cent of its three and four-year-olds have access to high-quality childcare or education.

But the authority is also being watched for what it gets up to in its internal organisation. It has introduced innovations that have attracted Whitehall scrutiny, measures that could change local government nationally.

Child-protection is perhaps the most obvious example, in the wake of the Victoria Climbie case. Telford amp; Wrekin is pioneering an information-sharing system that could have made a serious difference in that and many other abuse scandals. Local police, social services, education and health professionals have all agreed to share concerns about children at risk within the rules of the Data Protection Act. Problems seen by one agency are automatically registered by the others.

Anticipating a national move towards unified departments for children, the borough has created what it calls a "young person's strategic partnership".

Workers from education, health and social services are "co-located", operating from the same office. It might seem commonsense but, again in national terms, it is unusual.

Faced with the mounting cost of finding supply teachers, Telford amp; Wrekin has set up its own staffing agency, with government backing. The borough fills around 500 primary vacancies a year, at a considerable saving to those schools who use its services. In the process it makes a tidy pound;5,000 profit. At any one time there are 300 teachers on its books, a number of whom are subsequently able to find permanent or full-time work with the borough's help.

Another brave step came at the outset when the new authority resisted the temptation to split completely from Shropshire, its former boss, and agreed to establish a number of joint agencies, including advisory and special needs services. This has allowed it to retain an important pool of expertise at a potentially tricky time.

Rival education services will be curious at the lack of commitment to the private finance initiative. According to Ofsted, no other authority has been more successful at bidding for alternative sources of cash (Telford amp; Wrekin is not entitled to money earmarked for the inner cities so must look elsewhere). Very little of this has come from PFI. Until now, the school refurbishment programme has used purely public finance. Privately, people in the authority are sceptical about the PFI mechanism; but there is one in the offing:a pound;60 million public-private partnership to build a "learning campus" in the town, bringing primary, secondary and special needs schools together on the same site.

According to Christine Davies, the corporate director of education and culture, the sheer fact of the council's existence has made a big difference to the people of Telford and the surrounding area. Despite initial concerns from the schools, they rapidly learned that there are benefits in having an education service around the corner rather than in Shrewsbury.

"Here we have a focus on the intended community," says Ms Davies. "When Telford was part of Shropshire, there wasn't the focus that a rapidly growing new town required. Now the authority is closer to its people."

Despite the achievements contained in the Ofsted report, there is no doubt that Ms Davies and her colleagues still have a big job on their hands.

Telford's problems are exactly those you would expect from an economy tainted by low wages and low aspirations. "It's very hard to encourage life-long learning, for example," she explains. "Young people can get a job straight away after school, but five years later they're still in that job.

"We do need to continue to raise levels of achievement. What we're understanding is that you can't close the gaps by asking teachers and schools to do it on their own. We have to link raising achievement with community and physical regeneration."

THE CHRISTINE DAVIES CV

PERSONAL

Born: Nantwich, Cheshire

Age: 51

Lives in Shrewsbury with her two children, Simon, 16, and Katie, 12

EDUCATION

Bridgmere primary, Nantwich and Acton GS, Bradford University (Joint honours, psychology and sociology). Aberystwyth University (PGCE)

CAREER HISTORY

1974: Qualified as a teacher, then taught in Manchester, Somerset and Shropshire. Worked in Shropshire's psychological service, becoming the county's SEN Adviser.

1988: Appointed senior education officer, then head of advisory and children's services before being seconded from Shropshire to Wrekin District Council to prepare it for unitary status 1997: appointed corporate director education and culture, Telford and Wrekin Council

POSITIONS HELD

President of the Association of Chief Education Officers, 2002-2003

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