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Does private enterprise know best?

THE MORE I read about education action zones, the more difficulty I find in understanding their purpose. And I have to admit that schools' minister, Estelle Morris, - writing in the TES Business Links - did nothing to lighten my darkness. Ms Morris certainly emphasised the importance of "forging effective links between business and education". But the only benefit which she promised was "role models of success and an insight into the world of work".

As Ms Morris quite rightly pointed out, the zones "will each get around Pounds 1 million including Pounds 250,000 in cash or kind from business". The benefits of "cash" are obvious enough - especially at a time when the Office for Standards in Education reports "the level of resources available adversely affects teaching the national curriculum in some subjects in a significant number of schools". But "kind" comes in too many different shapes and sizes to be welcomed like manna from heaven.

Some of the companies seem to be offering little more than the use of unoccupied capacity in training centres, and various other unemployed - human and material - resources. It may add up to Pounds 250,000 on the published balance sheet. But it does not provide the zones with Pounds 250,000 to be used in whatever way the "action forums" think would most benefit the schools. Of course, the zones will rejoice at receipt of the Government's extra Pounds 750,000. But that raises the central question. Why is the money provided for the designated zones but denied to schools with identical problems just beyond the boundaries?

One tabloid newspaper - a notable opponent of comprehensive education - welcomed the zones as living proof that the Government was going to test its educational theories on a limited number of schools before imposing them on the whole nation. Perhaps this is why we are promised that the results of the "flexibility", which will be encouraged in the zones, are to be "evaluated". But most of us have suspected for years that performance would improve if extra resources were pumped into areas of special difficulty. No doubt the Government will claim that any higher standards it detects are the product of performance-related pay and relaxation of the national curriculum. We will never be sure.

The most important question is why the benefits - real and imagined - are to be restricted to areas that make bids for zones? Can we be sure that schools which need them most will always be included? And what is the virtue of the bidding system - a competitive idea invented by Michael Heseltine for various local authority initiatives and condemned by Labour at the time as a silly gimmick. In some ways it would be a relief to think that the zones were just another way of catching headlines - an obsession in the Department for Education and Employment. But we must fear that somebody in the department really believes that private enterprise has the answer to every problem.

Unfortunately, the Government does not seem to have all the answers about how the zone private companies will charge for their services. The Prime Minister has said that they will be "allowed to make a profit" if their involvement is successful - however success is measured. Ministers have claimed that they will be allowed only to break even. The confusion all serves to highlight the doubts about their participation. Some will, we must presume, take part in order to enjoy the esteem that involvement provides. It is called "corporate promotion". One or two may spend their shareholders' money out of pure public spirit. But is it not the profit motive that is the spur to free market efficiency? Back we go to Jeremy Bentham's crucial question, "What is the use of it?" This month, in the Fabian Review, Stephen Byers, the minister for school Standards, repeated the well-known mantra about abandoning the argument about structure and concentrating on guaranteeing the best education possible for every pupil. It is hard to see how the action zones fit in to either side of that equation. He reaffirmed the need "to go beyond the outdated ideological debate". In fact, he seems to have accepted the outdated dogma that private enterprise knows best. New Labour's faith in old ideas would be a joke were it not too often a tragedy.

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