Sir Cyril's sixth-form broadside

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Who is Sir Cyril Taylor? What is he? Unelected, unappointed, yet an extraordinary phenomenon in English education. Described by an associate as a "policy entrepreneur" (and by detractors as a former Gleam toothpaste salesman), he has been assiduously courted by successive education secretaries and listened to by prime ministers of both parties. Sir Cyril sold them first on city technology colleges, then specialist schools and now academies.

The Specialist Schools Trust he chairs runs private-enterprise alternatives that compete with official schemes such as Fast Track, the school leadership college network and value-added league tables. These keep the bureaucrats on the back foot. But under Labour he has modified his free-market instincts, spreading specialist status to all secondaries, opposing selective academy intakes and promoting collaboration rather than competition.

Sir Cyril is oddly shy for one so influential. Yet there is something of the knight about him - and not just because his Tory honour was trumped last year by Labour's even higher-grade knighthood. Like the buccaneering seafarers of old he has that deadly - but ultimately deniable - piratical quality useful to governments. The ability to think and do what politicians dare not order.

Now he is turning his guns on vocational education and the UK's biggest quango, the Learning and Skills Council as it takes over the funding of school sixth forms. Like Drake at Cadiz, Sir Cyril's pre-emptive strike in this week's TES (page 21) indicates the council can expect opposition to an armada of apparently efficient tertiary schemes planned by bureaucrats.

Chief inspector David Bell's recent attack on the competency of FE colleges has already put LSC chairman Chris Banks on the defensive (FE Focus page 4). And with the Tomlinson proposals also in question (page 8) Sir Cyril has sensed the political wind and cast off the fire ships of school autonomy, choice, diversity and the sanctity of the school sixth form. Will the inevitable storms finish the job for him?

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