Once Essex seemed near to disintegration after most of its secondary schools opted out. Now it has earned plaudits from the inspectors, writes Neil Levis.
Last week, when David Blunkett opened a new secondary school in Braintree, he expected to meet the usual local lobbyists who want to catch the Secretary of State's ear. He listened to protesters against the proposed closure of a local primary, toured the new school with a blind pupil and gave interviews to the local radio. Then he bumped into Iris Pummell, the Conservative cabinet member for Essex, who gave him a piece of her mind and a dossier of charts and tables explaining why his department consistently underestimates the impact of teacher shortages on the county.
Where Whitehall calculates that Essex needs to recruit 217 classroom staff, she told him, the county, which defines vacancies based on what it sees as the real picture, says it is 322 short.
"What the Department for Education and Employment says is a camouflage of the true situation," says Mrs Pummell, who has been the Conservative driving force on education since 1989. "Without staff, our schools cannot overcome the challenges that a lot of them face."
Her feelings are echoed by Paul Lincoln, the director of learning, who caused a stir in January when he wrote to Mr Blunkett outlining how worried he was about recruitment. "Clearly standards will not rise where teacher quality is poor," he wrote, "and it is those schools in the most challenging circumstances which face the greatest difficulty in securing high-quality staff."
The letter ignited controversy locally - Mr Lincoln was accused of taking a political stance, but it helped that Mrs Pummell took exactly the same line.
A month later it was all smiles in Chelmsford when Essex received its first inspection report from Ofsted: it was generally very positive. There were some criticisms: for instance, the inspectors thought more could be done to improve anti-racist strategies and intervention in schools causing concern. But the inspectors praised the qualities of leadership shown by Mr Lincoln and his senior management team, and commented on "the immense strides" it had made in recent years in its school improvement strategy.
But the biggest challenge Essex faced was the number of schools that opted out during the 1990s: three out of four secndaries and one in ten primaries. "At one stage, I was not sure that the authority could survive," Mr Lincoln told The TES.
Ofsted likes the way grant-maintainedschools have been wooed back by Essex since they adopted foundation status in 1998. "The LEA is clear about its function in relation to schools as autonomous institutions," the report stated. But it also commented on the way that Essex is sensitive to the marketplace for services and has "explored and engaged in strategic partnerships with external service providers".
If anything, this understates the radical nature of Essex's relationship with the private sector: this after all is the county that embraced Thatcherism so enthusiastically. It is a place that confounds expectations: more people come from the top two social classes than the national average (37.6 per cent against 31 per cent). But only 12 per cent go to university (13.5 per cent nationally). Unemployment is higher than the South-east average, an indication of the real poverty that exists in pockets.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the council was solidly Conservative, as you would expect for a rural area in the era before motorways turned it into a London overspill. Control has swung between two coalitions for 20 years: Conservatives and Independents or Liberal Democrats and Labour. The slight Conservative edge was strengthened when two unitary authorities, Thurrock and Southend, broke away in 1998.
Since then the council has made ruthless cutbacks. Staffing in the education department at County Hall was reduced from 1,700 in 1990 to 1,200 in 1996 but has expanded slightly to cope with administering more schools.
Mrs Pummell tells of shaving pound;5.9 million from the pound;555m budget three years ago. "There is no meat on the bone now," she says. She proudly declares that Essex gives more money to schools than any other shire county, and its administrative costs, at pound;27 per pupil per year, are the second lowest in the country.
The teacher unions are generally positive. Jeff Fair of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers referred to an atmosphere of "mutual co-operation and respect" between Chelmsford and its schools. And Sue Anderson of the Secondary Heads Association, believes that Essex makes real efforts to rationalise the bureaucracy engulfing schools.
Additional reporting by Sue Jones