Poverty and politics wrecked the city's schools. But Neil Levis found an education service being transformed.
Even Brookside would have rejected this storyline on the grounds that it would strain viewers' patience. One of Britain's biggest cities is given a damning report on the way it runs its schools. The director of education and five of his deputies are pushed out. The Government - driven by an agenda that says the private sector has a lot to offer struggling local education authorities - sets tough recovery targets for the city. Many think Liverpool's education department is being lined up for a prototype privatisation, which might even be extended beyond education to include all council services.
But, remarkably, within five months and under a temporary director on loan from a neighbouring authority the city hits the targets set by Whitehall; a new director of education, Colin Hilton, is appointed; the schools effectiveness service is restructured; and the whole administration is moved into better accommodation. Council officials, the Department for Education and Downing Street are locked in debate over what should happen next. Eventually, the Prime Minister and others are persuaded by the headteachers' associations to put Liverpool on a year's probation to see if it can sustain the progress.
A huge row erupts in Whitehall as the Chief Inspector of Schools, notoriously critical of local education authorities, is incandescent at Downing Street's U-turn. Twelve months later, another inspection gives Liverpool the thumbs-up. Champagne all round. Ofsted officials and senior government figures hail the city's achievement as a model of how to turn an education service around.
The story has received little media attention because Liverpool is cut off from the rest of the country - spiritually, at least. Paul Clein, the city's Liberal Democrat cabinet member for lifelong learning, commented on how insular he found everyone in the service when his party took control in May 1998 after years of Labour rule that went back to Derek Hatton's Militant days in the early 1980s.
However, Clein is quick to praise Estelle Morris and other Labour ministers who could have made political capital out of a Liberal Democrat council receiving such a damning report a year after taking office. Instead, their concern was to help put things right. And, as Clein says, neither Estelle Morris nor David Blunkett is at heart a privatiser.
Back in July 1999, Liverpool was heading towards privatisation but it never happened. The Lib-Dems' agenda was to banish the approach of the Hatton years. Crudely put, the prevailing philosophy had been provider-driven: the need to maintain jobs came before the will to provide the best possible service.
The council had just appointed a new chief executive, David Henshaw, to sort out the administration. He replaced the nine deputies he inherited with five executive directors. Each of these had responsibilities in another's area, to encourage joined-up administration. And Henshaw was determined to introduce one-stop shops to allow the public to make the most of council services.
In another initiative, the council is collaborating with BT to develop computer software so that information on a family can be accessed by different departments - enabling concerted action. As Henshaw says: "The kids who are causing problems at school are likely to be the same kids who social services are dealing with. It makes sense to simplify procedures."
Henshaw also saw eye to eye with Bob Clark, director of education for Wigan, who ran Liverpool as well as his own authority rom July to November 1999. The highly regarded Clark had to do a lot of the dirty work, sacking staff who were under-performing and bringing in people who could turn things round. He is quite frank about what he found: "All the inspectors who were any good were contracted out doing work for other authorities. The rest were sitting there rudderless." However, both Clark and Henshaw were determined there would be no blame culture. The task was to put things right, not find scapegoats. By the time Colin Hilton arrived, a lot of the foundations had been laid.
The question has to be asked: how did a proud city like Liverpool get into such a mess in the first place? To understand the seriousness of the situation, you have to appreciate the depth of poverty that exists here. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions keeps a rank order of the country's 8,400 political wards measured in terms of deprivation. Of the bottom 20, six are in Liverpool.
Hardly surprising, you might think. But digest this fact: the richest ward, Childwall, sits three-quarters of the way down the list. As the first Ofsted report said: "The city has the highest concentration of deprivation of any local authority in the country: 37 per cent of households live in poverty, compared with 17 per cent nationally. Double the national level live in unfit homes." You have to be careful not to extrapolate too much from statistics, but you get the picture.
Liverpool grew because it was the Atlantic outpost of the British empire. Its population grew from 500,000 in 1890 to 850,000 in the 1920s. But the city has been in search of a role since the end of the Second World War, when the docks went into rapid decline.
Population has fallen rapidly, back to 500,000. The new towns at Runcorn, Skelmersdale and Warrington have lured people away from hastily erected housing and there is a constant drift from north to south within the city as people seek better accommodation and schools.
Add the 40 per cent of pupils in voluntary-aided schools - the Catholic Irish who came to Liverpool en route to the United States have left an indelible mark - and you have an admissions nightmare.
There was also a laddish culture which had infected the educational administration. When Kenneth Antcliffe arrived as director in the mid-1970s, he had both legs in plaster - the result, legend had it, of an infidelity. He was well liked and enjoyed a drink. "He had the finest mind on Merseyside," a colleague observed, "... until lunchtime."
The administration was based in a Victorian building in Sir Thomas Street, a rabbit warren of separate offices with poor facilities. David Henshaw said that when he arrived the roof leaked, there were rats and files were spread all over the floor. Weak leadership was inevitable, he says: "It's a wonder they ever found anything."
Antcliffe was succeeded by Frank Cogley, a devout Catholic. He was ousted by the first Ofsted report and a follow-up report from the consultants KMPG. However, he is obviously popular. Many people feel he took the blame because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Others are more critical but there is a piquancy to his latest appointment as director of education for the archdiocese which means that from September he will be running the city's Catholic schools - almost one in four.
People are positive about the future. The city is on its second round of Objective One money; pound;1.86bn has come into Merseyside from Europe. Cranes are busy as new buildings go up and the football team is winning again. It's the schools that must now deliver.