Building bridges by the Thames

Nicolas Barnard

Following last week's announcement of the 25 education action zones, Nicolas Barnard visits Weston-super-Mare, the seaside town with no failing schools whose bid was driven by its LEA and heads

THEATRE and concert-goers do not have to go far from London's South Bank arts complex on the Thames before coming across the run-down council estates of north Lambeth. Workers from Shell International or IBM off to Waterloo might see some skateboarders, but otherwise the community and the worlds of arts and commerce have little to do with each other.

Heather du Quesnay, director of education of Lambeth, talks of the huge potency of the buildings that dominate the riverside and the need to use their symbolism. She sees the education action zone as creating ways to build bridges and create ladders between the resources and expertise and the disadvantaged community lying in their shadow.

The Government was quick to use Shell International in its launch of the zones to prove that big business supported its flagship scheme, yet its contribution will be largely symbolic.

Clive Mather, Shell's corporate affairs director, will chair the zone's forum. The firm will give at least Pounds 50,000 a year for three years and will extend its mentoring programme for headteachers.

IBM hopes to provide technical know-how and equipment. Ian Homer, its spokesman, said it may also do some research on how young people use computers.

The Royal Festival Hall intends to extend the facilities and projects it provides to the borough's pupils. They will get to meet and work with artists and performers.

Ms du Quesnay believes the business partners in the zone will act as role models for many children who come from families for whom unemployment is endemic.

But the real work will be carried out by a steering group, with representatives from the authority and the Centre for British Teachers.

Lambeth, compared with many other zones, is ahead of the game. When the zones were announced in January, Ms du Quesnay called Neil McIntosh, chief executive of CfBT, a non-profit-making company supplying education services.

The zone contains four primary schools under special measures. The money will pay for expert literacy and numeracy teachers, help to set up homework clubs and find ways to recruit and retain staff - a major problem in inner London.

The CfBT hopes to be taken on by the forum to assume some of the zone's functions. Mr McIntosh said: "We hope to provide the intellectual input into the scheme and to look at the way the education service is delivered. Is the money spent the best way to ensure the best outcomes?" There are currently no plans to change existing teachers' pay and conditions, but Ms du Quesnay believes there are different routes to careers in education, such as a new grade - equivalent to a paramedic in health - for schools.

Mr McIntosh added: "The notion that the best way of helping to raise the morale of teachers in Lambeth and to attract them to the profession is to maintain the status quo is naive. But we won't be walking in and changing everything."

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Nicolas Barnard

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