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Britain must be a mutual society;Opinion

WE ARE constantly urged, like Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, to go beyond left and right, the conventional wisdom, traditional ideas. Yet the most effective innovators know it's often easier to recover good ideas which have been discarded. That involves going behind, beneath and before, rather than plunging headlong into the beyond.

The idea we need to reinvigorate for the 21st century is mutuality. The entire basic education system should be recast as a vast exercise in state-sponsored, mutual self-help, rather than as a state-provided service.

Basic education is a social activity and a public good. Its future does not lie in privatisation to encourage people to make individual provision. Yet that does not mean education should necessarily be part of the traditional public sector, with all its inflexibility and bureaucracy. The Government's strategy to drive up school standards from the centre is vital, but it will run out of steam. The public sector does not just need rationalisation and restructuring, it needs reviving and resuscitating. And the key to its revival will be reconstituting it on mutual foundations: a programme of mutualisation rather than privatisation.

Mutuals are organised by and for their members. About 30 million people are members of mutuals in this country - from friendly societies, which still command more than 4 million members, to agricultural co-operatives and humble Neighbourhood Watch schemes. The idea of mutuality seems to combine social cohesion and self-organisation. Mutual societies are at odds with the bureaucracy and paternalism of the public sector because they rely upon local, voluntary action. Yet their ethos is also at odds with the individualism and consumerism of the market.

Schools are already being encouraged to become more mutualist. Schools only become successful by combining effective teaching, with parental and community commitment, in a collaborative effort. Increasingly a headteacher's job is to orchestrate this effort. Most schools rely on a mutual association of parents and teachers. With parents electing governors, the head is accountable to a parents' mutual.

Schools will only accomplish the wide range of tasks they are being asked to take on if they can combine different professions in a mutually reinforcing effort. In many of the most innovative state schools - West Walker in Newcastle for example - mainstream educational services have been combined with social and environmental services, a healthy living centre and a housing project. West Walker delivers a better education, in a very deprived area, because it has been the focus for mutual self-help and community renewal. We now expect schools to do so much more than deliver classes that we should no longer see them as traditional schools but as as mutual, community learning centres.

There is no reason why this should stop at the school gates. Local authorities could turn themselves into mutual associations of schools. The LEA would be reconstituted to serve the local schools rather than to lord it over them.

The big gains in public-sector product-ivity will come from a new alliance between professional services and mutual self-help. Community safety will depend on the police working with Neighbourhood Watch patrols. Public health will be improved by health professionals and communities working together on fitness, food and the environment. As well as public-private partnerships, we need a new breed of public-mutual partnerships.

We need to embark on more radical organisational change to create new kinds of educational institutions that can tap new sources of innovation, finance and commitment from parents, communities and teachers. That is the promise a mutualisation programme holds out.

To Our Mutual Advantage by Charles Leadbeater and Ian Christie, published by Demos, pound;9.95, available from 0181 986 5488.

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