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Better to be on the inside than looking in on the outside

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, argues the case for involvement in action zones

NO ONE should underestimate the importance of David Blunkett's keeping the commitment he gave to the National Union of Teachers in February.

"Education action zone policy is not about business making a profit," he wrote in a letter to me. "There is no sense in which a business interest could take a profit slice (from school budgets)."

When the bidding guidance was published a month earlier, it had appeared that the Government was pressing for just that - the privatisation of education. Very real constraints now put on the profit-making role of companies have changed the direction of the zones.

The Conservative party, unsurprisingly, has latched on to this. It thinks it has spotted an unprotected flank of government and has criticised zones for being dominated by a vested interest.

The lesson for those who opposed any involvement in EAZ bids is that any abstention by education authorities would have left the door open to the original intentions of the bidding guidance.

So are the first 25 zones the devil incarnate or a damp squib? In my view they are neither. They are perhaps unique in that they represent a leap in the dark, both for the Government and for education authorities. Expectations of the zones have been raised to levels that the Government is going to find hard to manage.

Fewer than 500 schools will receive Pounds 75 million in additional resources over three years. For all schools to receive that level of support would cost Pounds 4 billion. There will be expectations that, for example, the standards of provision of information technology will be maintained in zone schools after the three years are up. Other schools outside the zones increasingly will ask why they cannot receive that level of extra funding.

Concepts of test-bedding and experimentation are not without their potential problems. A set of initiatives, many of which are innovative, do not in themselves constitute pilot models that could be applied to other schools. They rely on temporary additional resources and are tailored specifically to each zone's circumstances.

Few national lessons may be learned therefore. The involvement of business itself does not represent a potential for major profit slices, not in the short term at least.

The EAZ forums do have enormous if unpredictable potential, not because business is represented but because the range of representation could generate a dynamic of expectations and new ideas, directed not only at LEAs but at government.

Much has been made of the ability of EAZs to vary the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Order. Few, if any, zones will take the politically idiotic route of seeking to worsen pay and conditions in order to raise standards. The union will certainly protect members in any zone that is rash enough to try.

It is clear that the zones represent the unknown - for the Government, for education authorities and, most of all, for schools. As a new form of organisation, they have an unpredictable but significant potential. Those who urge non-involvement are, in fact, ceding the future shape of the zones to others with very different agendas.

For NUT members in the schools concerned, the challenge will be how to make the best of the additional funding, how to ensure that pupils' needs can be most effectively met and how the job of teaching can be protected and enhanced.

Unless the test-bedding goes drastically wrong, it is not teachers, parents and governors who have the most to lose from the zones. It is government and education authorities. For the Government, the zones represent a high-stakes game with big questions being raised about funding for all schools and whether the zones' self-set targets can be met.

For education authorities, unless they can remain at the centre of the zones' activity and work in partnership, particularly with teachers and other members of the school community, action zones could become alternative models for organising schools - school boards in waiting.

As our colleagues in the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers reminded us when commenting on the development of similar schemes in the United States - being there is everything.

The NUT intends to be there in the zones, not as passive commentators but as active partners with policies of our own for enhancing education.

As one NUT executive member put it when commenting on a successful local authority bid that the local NUT had supported: "The authority has some good ideas for using the extra fundsIWe look forward to working in partnership with the LEA. However, we would like to see the same opportunities extended to all children." Exactly.

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