Manhattan meets Home Counties
In the centre of the county town of Hertford is a statue of the Rev Samuel Stone, a 17th-century Puritan who crossed the Atlantic to become co-founder of Hartford, Connecticut. The United States has returned the compliment in the shape of Ray Shostak, born 75 miles to the south-west in the neighbouring state of New York. He arrived in Hertfordshire four years ago as director of education and is now leading one of the country's most successful authorities through a radical merger of schools and social services.
It is not the first time that Shostak has worked in Britain's most populous county. In 1973, equipped with a masters in science and tempted by the prospect of plentiful jobs close to Europe, he left a bilingual school in California to teach English and maths in Watford. Soon, he was working at the local teachers' centre and writing for an alternative newspaper. Within a year, he became warden. A successful career in education management had been born.
By then he was married to Gill, also a teacher, and committed to life on this side of the Atlantic. However, he is not a man to deny his roots: he still holds a US passport and hankers after Manhattan. He is also a fully paid-up member of the NUT and is surprised that this might raise a few eyebrows. "My job is about children, about teaching," is his riposte. "That's where my roots lie."
When he arrived in Hertfordshire in June 1997 after four years with the schools effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment - "It was a real privilege to work there" - the new Labour government seemed to be about to continue the free-market attitude developed by the previous administration which could have sounded the death knell for local education authorities.
You sense that Shostak was relieved when the School Standards and Framework Act of 1998 laid down very clear responsibilities for councils. "Why have a local authority if it's not going to be of value to kids?" he asks.
He was quick to expand the partnership systems he inherited, which means that he has regular consultations with all stakeholders in the system - governors, parents, etc - before policy is decided.
"I'm very clear what education is about: it's about youngsters, rooted within families, rooted within communities. I'm also very clear that we need to be user-led. In order to get policy right, it needs to be based in practice. I want to be confident when we're putting policy in front of members that we've thought through the consequences."
Nowhere was this more critical than in the restructuring the authority has undergone in merging education with those social services that deal directly with children. It took two years of exhaustive consultations, all of which were carried out on top of everybody's day job - running the existing services. Some people say he drove the pace too hard. But everyone acknowledges that the consultation was genuine: there was a real willingness to listen.
"What typifies the county at every level is people with high aspirations for kids and a preparedness to say what they think," says Shostak. "It's wonderful. Sometimes it doesn't feel wonderful, quite frankly, but I'd rather people should say what's right and what's wrong. From my point of view, there's a real consensus, a real commitment to getting it right for youngsters and families and a preparedness to play their part. And I'd include the unions in that and our other voluntary sector stakeholders, the other agencies. There's a real spirit that we can do this and get it better."
The initial moves to merge the two departments sprang from a debate about breaking down the barriers between them so that the most vulnerable children - those taken into care, those who might need fostering because of a family crisis - could be better served. One option considered was a separate service, a department for vulnerable children running alongside the existing education and social services departments.
"Of course, when we considered the implications of that, we realised that it's daft. Some kids are born with real challenges and need specialist services, but kids go in and out of these categories depending on their development, the circumstances in which they find themselves, the support they get at home, the quality of what's going on at school. It's not a discrete group. You'd just create all sorts of other barriers."
From the start, there was an openness about the discussions, an admission that the people at the top certainly did not know all the answers and a recognition that teachers and social workers - traditionally regarded as not singing from the same song sheet - actually had very similar aims.
"We held a series of workshops involving hundreds of staff. These were a powerful set of events. It quickly emerged that what social workers wanted was what teachers wanted: the best possible education for the children. It was a strong assertion that we were all on the same agenda.
"These workshops were probably the most exciting time in the whole process. What they unlocked was people's passions: our frontline workers were saying, 'It's not us stopping the development of links between departments - we've always wanted to do something like this. It's you buggers who are getting in the way. It's your structures that are blocking things. You argue among yourselves in terms of your departmental budgets. You argue in terms of the different bureaucracies.' "Our response to that," says Shostak, "was that if we're the problem, then let us solve it."
In a Conservative county that had just received a positive Ofsted report (January 2000), that ranked third among the shire counties in the national league tables, it might be seen as surprising, perhaps even reckless, to undertake such a radical reform. Shostak is quick to dismiss such thinking. "The more relevant question is why didn't we do this 10 years ago? This makes such eminent sense. Why didn't we think of it before?" There are two recent innovations that enabled the merger to be considered and which had effectively ruled it out earlier: multi-disciplinary working (which did not enter people's thinking until the late 1990s) and the possibilities thrown up by the single electronic case file. Only the development of the latest software - still having teething problems - has made this possible.
There are those who say such reforms are not fundamental enough, that if you want to rationalise all the services for children in need then you must include health services as well. "It would have been a bridge too far," says Mr Shostak, while agreeing. "I have no doubt that it makes sense, particularly in the early years."
But the officials in the new Children, School and Families department are making sure that the relationship with health is a developing one. They are sharing working practices, operating joint budgets in certain areas and undertaking joint projects.
Shostak acknowledges that it has not all been plain sailing, that the unions have a point when they complain that administrative workers were not consulted as widely as the teachers and social workers and that the call-centre system, set up as the first point of contact with families in crisis, has not been as efficient as anticipated.
"Some people are a tiny bit disappointed that everything's not perfect on day one," he says. "People are working well over the odds to make things happen. This has unleashed enormous energy in the new department - there's a real feeling that we can make it happen.
"One head told me this week: 'I've already seen the difference in a more integrated response.' When Ofsted comes to inspect next time, I shall be disappointed if they don't see it's actually better. I know that it will be."