They don't like to shout about it in Rutland, but bigger isn't always better. Gerald Haigh visits an education authority that has turned its diminutive status to advantage.
Think of all the things a big education authority does, with the aid of officers, advisers, more teams than the Premiership and a steady outward flow of policy documents, e-mails, faxes and phone calls.
Then think of Rutland, England's smallest county, tucked in between Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, where the van that takes special needs children to school is also used to deliver the school meals and the post, and nobody at the education office has a deputy. Can it really work?
Ofsted clearly wondered the same thing, and sent a team to find out, as part of its programme of local authority inspection. Its report, published in September, is full of positive comment. More importantly, perhaps, it contains several pointers to the likely future shape of local authorities, and not just small ones.
Rutland makes no bones about its size. The county motto, "multum in parvo" ("much in little"), adorns the road signs welcoming visitors as they cross the boundary. (Years ago, they used to add, "The rat race ends here", but that slogan seems to have been quietly dropped. Today's Rutland clearly wants to be more than a place where you lie in the long grass.) The smallness can be overstated, however. The city of Birmingham would fit inside Rutland's boundary with room to spare. Birmingham, though, has one million people and more than 500 schools. Rutland has 34,000 people, three secondary schools, one special school and 18 primaries. Leave one Rutland village primary and it seems a long and dreamy way to the next one, through magnificent and very English countryside, with glimpses of Rutland Water reflecting the low sun like burnished metal across quiet autumn fields.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the county has fought a long, and sometimes losing, battle to prove its viability as a unit of local government. In 1963 it unexpectedly survived one local government reorganisation (folklore has it that the old-boy network called in some favours in Whitehall) only to be absorbed by Leicestershire in 1974.
Then in 1997 ancient Rutland was reborn as one of the new unitary authorities. There was local rejoicing, but in the run-up to independence, the schools took a dim view of what was in store. A local authority that size? They had to be kidding. According to one authority source: "The level of antagonism in some schools was quite extraordinary."
As the Ofsted report has it: "Just before the new LEA was set up, the three secondary schools in the area opted for GM status, prompted partly by their doubts that Rutland could provide adequate services."
The secondary heads put it diplomatically. "There were questions," says Richard Bird of Casterton Community College. "Obvious ones, about the music service, for instance."
And doubts were not confined to the secondary sector. John Williams, head of Cottesmore primary, felt the same trepidation. "Leicestershire was good to us, and we all had fears about funding," he says.
Now, though, many of the doubts have faded. OFSTED reports that Rutland schools look favourably on their authority and make effective use of its services. The heads confirm this impression. At Cottesmore primary, which is on an RAF Harrier base and serves a constantly changing population, John Williams appreciates the authority's understanding of his school's needs. "They've looked after us," he says. "And they recognise that we could feel isolated behind the wire here."
So how does it work? Does the new Rutland achieve the impossible, and provide the gamut of authority services - school buses to governor training to working out the wages - from an office of 14 people?
Well, not exactly. The new authority always knew it could never be all things to all its schools. Instead it would do what the law said it had to do - notably school transport and special needs - and for the rest it would liaise with other providers, and point schools to where they could buy what they needed from a generously delegated budget. ("Rutland," says the OFSTED report, "delegates higher funding per pupil to schools than similar LEAs and does not have excessive central strategic or administrative costs.") Beyond that, the authority's people aim to be supportive, knowledgeable, light on their feet, easily accessible and ready with training, practical advice and a friendly word. It is a concept that implies imaginative and responsive leadership, something Rutland education has had in abundance, first from the founding director, Keith Bartley, now an HMI, and more recently from head of education Carol Chambers, a former music teacher who moved into administration and inspection in Leicestershire before coming to Rutland.
Previously school effectiveness officer and now head of service, Ms Chambers is one of those early-start, late-finish, "I'll-be-there-if-you-need-me" sort of people who was born to give confidence to heads with problems. Dawn Aspinall, for example, took over Ketton primary as an OFSTED-failed school just five months after Rutland authority started. She needed all the help she could get.
"Carol gave me wonderful support through special measures," she says. "I had her home number and she would come out in the evening if necessary because I'm a teaching head. She must be extremely busy but she always gives you as much time as you need." (Carol Chambers claims to be perhaps the only local authority chief officer to whom children say "Hello, Miss" in the street.) This swift and personal responsiveness has clearly done much to reassure heads about their new authority. But there is another side to the coin, implied by the OFSTED report - that Rutland took over schools in which strong leadership was long overdue. Half the authority's schools, says the report, needed to improve if they were to be called "good", and three "required much improvement". This in an area described by OFSTED as "one of social and economic advantage".
The inescapable conclusion is that some, at least, of Rutland's schools were accepting good results that should have been even better ("coasting" is the Department for Education and Employment's word for it). In fact, within the new authority's first year, three Rutland primary schools were designated as needing "special measures" or having "serious weaknesses" by OFSTED, and much of the education team's time was taken up responding to their needs.
Carol Chambers and her team are determined to prevent any more schools getting into difficulty. Giving schools feedback on performance data, and support for literacy and numeracy, and training for governors have all been high on the agenda. Carol Chambers says: "Here, size does make a difference. Because we have so few schools we have incredibly detailed information about them, and we pick up on problems before they become issues."
Recalling Education Secretary David Blunkett's pledge on targets, she says:
"I'd almost stake my job against any more schools going into special measures or serious weaknesses because in an authority this size it should not happen."
Meanwhile schools have received a number of morale boosters: there has been a concentrated effort to improve ICT resources, and Rutland, having been a late starter, is now one of the few authorities in which every school is on the Internet.
Then there is the imaginative use of outside providers. Educational psychology advice is bought from a private consultant, and when the Leicestershire music service became too expensive, Carol Chambers looked around and found a group of locally based professional musicians who quickly put together a now thriving music service. Ms Chambers says: "When you start looking, it's amazing how many people are out there looking for part-time contracts. I'm constantly asking people for their business cards."
Using the same flexible approach, she found the authority's numeracy consultant, Lisa Wedderkop, an experienced teacher who had moved to Rutland from London. She works half-time, spending the rest of her time with her young family, something she might have been unable to do with other authorities. The bonus for her is that her new job is actually a promotion, but one she could not have taken on full-time. As she says: "It's progressing my career, I'm moving on, but at the same time I can be with the children."
What Rutland is aiming for is a model that lies somewhere short of the all-providing, top-down authority and yet satisfies those many heads and governors who believe abolishing local authorities would mean losing opportunities for partnership, training and sharing expertise. The secondary schools have now moved from grant-maintained to foundation status, and are ready to work with the new authority.
Casterton's Richard Bird says: "Rutland is an interesting model which provides a core of leadership and the expertise to carry out the brokering role." The partnership, he points out, is two-way: Rutland picks up ideas about good providers from the experienced schools, as well as giving out the same advice.
His fellow head at Uppingham Community College, Peter McDonald-Pearce, sees what is happening as not a million miles from how the GM schools were starting to work together. "The GM movement made you think about how you wanted to operate with others of a similar mind. Now we have a scaled-down authority with just a few key people, and the bulk of the work on the shoulders of the schools. We have the spirit of autonomy, within the local authority."
Peter Green, headteacher at Vale of Catmose Community College,says his reservations about the reorganisation have been confounded by a "tremendous spirit of co-operation between the schools and the LEA". He says: "Despite a poor standard spending assessment, the council has done all it can to give schools the best possible budgets. Elected members have carried out their promises to support the most vulnerable children and those with special educational needs."
So is it all sweetness and light? Are there no clouds over Rutland Water? Questions on funding certainly remain. Rutland, like many county authorities, fares badly under the government's local authority funding formula, and, although Rutland council has treated education as a priority, it has no guarantee that generosity can continue for ever.
Peter McDonald-Pearce says: "We might find ourselves in a different position in the future unless the government looks at the way local authorities are funded."
TINY COUNTY WITH A BIG HISTORY.
* Rutland existed as a named parcel of land at least as long ago as the ninth century, when it was part of the dowry of Anglo-Saxon queens of England. It may have its origins as a Roman estate.
* Though named in the "Domesday Book", it did not become a separate shire county until some time after that.
* In 1974 it ceased to be an administrative county and became a district council.
* One of the first acts of the district council was to pay for new "Rutland" road signs. The existing ones had been stolen for safe keeping by local people who mistakenly believed the name was to disappear altogether.
* In 1976 Rutland Water opened, the most extensive man-made body of water in Europe. Locally opposed at first, it is now a major tourist, leisure and wildlife site.
* In 1997 Rutland was reborn as a unitary authority, and re-assumed responsibility for services such as education and social services.
* Rutland is an agricultural county, its landscape shaped by farming, quarrying and foxhunting; the Cottesmore Hunt covers the whole of the county and beyond.