Headlines: January 12th, 1998

Proposals in the School Standards and Framework Bill currently before Parliament are sending seismic tremors through the education world. It has now emerged that the proposed Education Action Zones are a much more radical concept than at first thought. Zones, made up of two or three secondary schools with some 18 feeder primaries, will be set up in inner cities and deprived rural areas and provided with additional funding. What has now become clear is that proposals involve the development of a radically different culture, the opportunity to re-frame fundamental questions about education and the imperative to secure a paradigm shift in thinking.The governance, curriculum and personnel frameworks which now regulate and constrain the way schools carry out their tasks will be dismantled within the zones. They will become the enterprise zones of education with bureaucracy kept on the outside of the frontier fence. The Local Government Association is concerned about the governance proposals which severely curtail the role of the Local Education Authority. It is envisaged that overall responsibility for governance will be vested in a partnership of the LEA, Training and Enterprise Council, businesses, community organisations, parents and schools. The partnership will have powers to contract management to private companies, but schools will schools will remain subject to Ofsted inspection.

The first five pilot zones are to be set up by September and the contract for at least one zone will be given to a private business. Graham Lane, Labour education chairman of the LGA said: “This could be the beginning of the privatisation of the education system. It could lead to the break-up of education authorities. It could lead to the destruction of local democracy.” Mr Lane is seeking an urgent meeting with David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, to demand withdrawal of “totally unacceptable proposals” pending further talks with councils, school governors and teacher unions.

Schools within the zones will seek to provide learning that is appropriate to the area and delivered in line with local conditions. There will be en emphasis on literacy and numeracy with the opportunity to dispense with the National Curriculum. The traditional timetable may be scrapped and replaced with early morning, evening and weekend working.

National terms for pay and conditions will be suspended to allow the flexibility required to experiment with new learning delivery styles. It will also allow for rates of pay to be set that are sufficiently attractive to encourage innovative teachers and heads to move to less desirable locations. One possibility is to appoint “superheads” for groups of schools on salaries of £100,000 or more. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said: “No teacher can feel secure when the Government is proposing a scheme to suspend national terms for pay and conditions.”

Additional funding will be provided in the form of a minimum annual grant of £250,000 for each zone, matched by a similar amount from business sponsorship. This represents a budget increase of about 5%. The additional funds will be available for three to five years.

Bids have been invited to run the first 25 zones. Professor Michael Barber, head of DfEE’s Standards and Effectiveness Unit said: “Interest had been expressed by household names – multinationals involved in manufacturing, commerce, insurance and information technology. Successful companies are uniquely able to manage change and innovation. They would be allowed to make profits, but most were likely to use the early contracts to demonstrate their expertise.”

The proposed zones will bring together the education and business worlds and create a climate that will support innovation. The lesson from the business world is that there must be a driving force for innovation, and usually it is the threat to survival. With minor exceptions there is no such driving force in education and so the threat is replace by opportunity. Whether the opportunities created by the proposals will generate sufficient steam to substantially improve standards and lead to more pupil centred learning will not be clear for some time to come.