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Today's pragmatist

The city's future is under threat unless schools are transformed, says Colin Hilton, the new boss. He talks to Esther Leach and Neil Levis.

Colin Hilton does not spend his time criticising what went wrong in Liverpool before he arrived. The executive director for lifelong learning and his boss, chief executive David Henshaw, say they are only interested in the future and building the new Liverpool. The most important plank of this is its schools. Without a good enough education system to produce a workforce that will bring and keep investment in the area, Hilton has warned his staff, Liverpool will shrink to the size of Darlington by 2008.

It is a chilling prospect for the country's fourth largest urban concentration and has helped galvanise the education workforce. This has been transformed in organisation and purpose since Hilton took over 18 months ago. In that time, staff have been reorganised and cut and are - according to most - delivering a much better service for less money.

Sitting in his office on the fourth floor above Lewis's, a city-centre department store opposite theAdelphi hotel, Hilton recalls his arrival. "I am impatient, but I hope not too impatient," he says. "The important thing was to recognise there were lots of strengths which could be built on, and not just to rubbish the past."

Only once has such philosophical composure slipped in public. At a Society of Education Officers' conference on performance management in March, Hilton's speech had an echo of Neil Kinnock's denunciation of Militant at the 1985 Labour party conference.

Hilton described tailoring the education service to customers' needs and mentioned Joyce Ridpath, headteacher of St Christopher's infants' school, which he described as "an oasis" on the bleak overspill estate of Speke. She had turned what Hilton described as the second most deprived school in England around from special measures to become very successful. However, under the old Liverpool regime, every year she was turned down for money to repair the school's terrible driveway, which was "like something from the Somme".

Hilton came to Liverpool from the directorship of education in neighbouring St Helens. He had been 10 years in administration after 10 years in the classroom as a history teacher. Hilton, 45, hails from nearby Southport but trained in south Wales where he met his wife, a Welsh-speaking advisory teacher of English, in Flintshire. They live with their two children in Mold, north Wales.

He exudes an air of confidence and can-do which has enthused those who work for him. He is also positive and pragmatic about what he found when he arrived. "The LEA had taken a battering and morale was low, even though colleagues had met milestones set by an outside consultancy and Estelle Morris (the schools' minister) had said that we had a year to prove ourselves.

"Even then, going around the building, there wasn't a sense of relief or euphoria. People were just worn out. There were many sceptics who just wanted a quiet corner to hide in because they had seen too many false dawns, new managements, new people, and the same old stuff rehashed. We needed to rebuild confidence and colleagues needed convincing that this time it would be different."

Hilton is quick to acknowledge that without the political will - the Liberal Democrats had taken control of the council in May 1998 determined to change the image of a city still haunted by its Militant past - he could not have achieved the transformation. "What's been overlooked was the way the (local) politicians responded," he says. "There was no defensiveness. There was no quibbling about perception. There was none of this thing I have seen so frequently in other authorities, where everybody gets defensive and put on the back foot, and all the effort seems to go into refutation analysis.

"Whether we were or not, the people who worked in our schools thought the council was rubbish. They (the politicians) had to start from that basis and build. It was acceptance of that and the desire to get on with it that was an absolutely fundamental part of that change. Members felt the city deserved better."

His first task was to establish the basic systems to run an education authority in the manner which he feels is essential in today's climate of pupil tracking and staff evaluation. "The information gathering was quite poor," he says. "We needed an infrastructure of support in order to empower the very capable people working here whose best efforts were being frustrated."

Staff felt they were being given responsibility and saw their work bearing fruit. Self-belief returned and, with it, confidence in Hilton and his senior team to lead them through the challenge of threatened privatisation.

"It was around April or May time of last year," says Hilton. "A lot of the work that had been done had not necessarily brought tangible change. But by then, every week we were getting something to show that the change was for real.

"Take relationships with schools, for example. We had the very first primary headteacher residential conference. There had never been one before.

"The heads had a tremendous time. They enjoyed the experience, the quality of what was done. That was something very tangible and had a big influence. Relationships strengthened between the LEA and schools; people were seconded in from schools to work here. It was a two-way thing. It brought school perspectives into the heart of the organisation, but actually these people are very talented and it helped to develop them as well."

It has also helped that the council has made money available for education after the privations of the Militant years and beyond. In 1996-97, for instance, education spending was pound;12 million below the Whitehall recommendation of pound;98m. Today, the spending is above the government target but battles are still being fought to redistribute the money within the education budget to give more to schools rather than the traditional protectorates of adult education, youth service and early years.

Hilton is only too aware that Liverpool's most serious problem is poverty. Regeneration of the city's economy is vital, but crucial to that is making sure that education works well. He is determined to ensure that the city targets its schools money with maximum effectiveness.

"There is a view being taken currently that somehow you can absorb all the effects of social deprivation into what a child has achieved by age seven, and from that point the only reference should be prior attainment," he says. "But we know from experience of what's happening in the city and pupil-tracking that the pernicious effects of that deprivation has effects at different stages in their lives.

"Social disadvantage has a continuing effect even above that of prior attainment. Because of this we have invested quite heavily in schools in our most disadvantaged areas.

"One of the big opportunities is the fact we get money poured into us in big amounts. That money is justified but brings with it its own accountancy regime. The extra money has allowed the LEA to have the credibility and quality to challenge. That's the other important point. The LEA has the ability to pursue with a fair degree of rigour how these resources are being used and what the learning outcomes and gains are. It's seen to be supportive of schools but no less rigorous for that."

Hilton believes he now has an excellent senior management team. "This is the only authority I have worked in where there isn't any territorial stress," he says. "We dip in to support each other and take different responsibilities. We moved a few functions around to tighten up cohesion, but territorial stress is just not an issue.

"Everyone is tied into a common vision. People know where they are going. People believe the goals are achievable because they are achieved, and when you give the message of the possibilities, you have that much more credibility.

"I recognise change has happened very quickly, but between us as a team we've got it right. By 2005 we want to say Liverpool offers an education service as strong as anywhere in the world, with aspects of its practice at the cutting edge of international work."

Additional reporting Karen Thornton

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