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Action zones are here already

Labour's plans for education action zones are a copy of what is already happening across Britain, local authorities and training chiefs insisted this week.

They are variously called "education task groups", "a strategic education forum" and "a skills strategy." But all have in common the key aims of the Labour party pledge to target resources at reducing poverty and under-achievement.

Leaders of the different initiatives say that after years of faltering effort, collaborative efforts are getting off the ground which involve schools, colleges, universities, LEAs and training and enterprise councils.

Conservatives can lay claim to the success, since the schemes follow education and employment ministers' demands to improve skills post-16. A spokesman for Teesside TEC told The TES: "In some ways this was sparked off by the Tories, who have wielded the big stick."

But the result of that push has been a move away from open competition in favour of strategic planning.

Many of those involved in the regional schemes say that while the Tories cracked the whip, they failed to see the damage that unfettered competition between local education and training providers was doing to the more important competitiveness of the regions.

Regions where strategic planning has been given new life through collaboratio n include Gloucestershire, Teesside, and one of the poorest areas of the capital - covered by the South London TEC.

South London has formulated a five-year plan to cut the rate of job losses, improve inward investment, increase tourism (Greenwich is a key provider), develop centres of excellence to support manufacturing, construction, tourism and IT, reduce hard-to-fill vacancies and promote lifetime learning for all.

John Howell, the TEC's chief executive, said: "South London needs a top-to-bottom overhaul of its skills base, if it is to compete successfully with the rest of the UK - let alone with high-skill, growth economies of the Far East - in the next millennium."

A local skills audit by the TEC revealed a damaging mismatch between the skills demands of local businesses and the supply of those skills from education and training groups. All were competing for low-cost students in a narrow range of skills training, rather than looking at sensible planning to meet wider needs.

Teesside TEC found similar problems of a low level of formal qualifications and poor employability and social skills among many job applicants. This often stemmed from students becoming disaffected as too many were trained for too few jobs.

Teesside has now developed a consortium bringing in all the universities and colleges as well as schools and training groups. Local "benchmarks" have been set, using the national training and education targets, to tackle underachievement.

A spokesman said: "The days of going it alone are gone. Strategic planning is the order of the day. " This was particularly so with the creation of the four new unitary authorities, which are smaller. "No one wants to see all the good work undone overnight with unitary authorities all going their own way."

Gloucestershire County Council, which successfully fought off government pressures towards unitary authorities, expressed similar concerns over fragmentation. They retained the county structure after failing to find a consensus on the way forward.

Its five-point strategy Working Together Towards the Year 2000 and Beyond is still under review. It is trying to identify key issues to improve services, look at what the various "stakeholders and providers" are already doing, decide what gaps in training and skills need filling, identify goals and make suggestions on how the goals are to be met.

The bureaucratic language varies from region to region but the five points are always the same. And they all depend on a very broad consensus among education and training providers.

Gloucestershire 's thinking began to take shape when Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, was chief education officer. Many of the things he has convinced both the Government and Opposition to take on are reflected in the county strategic plans.

Graham Cane, an assistant director and member of the planning forum, reckoned there would be little difficulty putting the plans in place whoever wins next week's election. "Most of what is in our document is generic. It has a lifetime learning base which all parties say they are committed to. I do not see it as an issue politically."

He takes confidence from the fact that there is all-party agreement in local Government for the plans being developed by the strategic education forum. Indeed, such a consensus is to be found wherever regions have developed promising local strategic plans.

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