Joy of a blank sheet of paper;York;Unitary Authorities

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
York is the place people mention when asked for a reorganisation success story, and in the civic offices there's a sense of achievement, a belief the city is pioneering a new way of doing things.

Two years old this week, it's a typical size for a new unitary - 175,000 people, 79 schools. That makes it small enough to allow the termly meetings of heads that were impossible in North Yorkshire, an authority which measures 100 miles north to south and east to west.

"Everybody felt on the outside," assistant director and chief adviser Chris Edwards says. He should know - he held the same post in North Yorkshire. "There's a very different feel in York. It's much more intense. The messages don't get diluted in a cascade of information from the centre."

Mr Edwards talks of the joy of starting with a blank sheet of paper, and the collective sense of identity which has encouraged the cross-departmental working Labour now espouses nationally.

The city's learning centres, for example, are similar to the homework clubs seen across the country but bring in education, social services, school nurses and health promotion teams.

The city admits some of the innovations have also been driven by necessity. The inspection and advisory team, for example, has just 10 members compared to North Yorkshire's 50. The city has brought in consultants from across the country and, perhaps crucially, tapped into the expertise in every classroom. Some of York's best teachers run training sessions - another local anticipation of a national initiative.

It helps that York - an average city by most social indicators - has a good crop of schools. None has yet been found to have serious weaknesses let alone to be failing. It results are in the top 10.

Mr Edwards talks of challenging schools to do even better - the target for five good GCSEs is 70 per cent by 2005.

Budgets are also up compared to North Yorkshire. But the Labour-run council is one of the lowest-funded authorities in the country, a fact which rankles with heads who are distinctly less enthusiastic about the change.

Rob Calvert at Hob Moor junior, spokesman for the National Association of Head Teachers in York, accepts some things are better but says the authority is stretched, increasing the pressure on schools of keeping up with the Labour programme.

He says there was a stronger sense of partnership in North Yorkshire than the city makes out, and argues York loses out because it can't take advantage of economies of scale. Training, for example, has become harder to organise.

Advice and inspection, considered a strength by Mr Edwards, also worries heads. "Advisers are under extreme pressure to deliver the service," Mr Calvert says. Tapping classroom expertise is a good idea which heads support, "but there's still a lot of work to do to get it running smoothly."

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