End this obscene inequality

Roy Blatchford

Roy Blatchford argues that the Third Way in education lies in ending private wealth versuspublic squalor, and that action zones must useall forms of investment to increase opportunity

The investment bank Goldman Sachs Co made a record Pounds 2 billion profit last year. Its UK partners - Government advisers among them - look set to "earn" an average Pounds 60 million in projected share sales.

Within half a mile of the bank's London office is a typical inner-city primary school: outside toilets, leaky ceilings, a stockaded playground on the 19th century building's rooftop - and teachers delivering the Literacy Hour to classes of 30 pupils, a third of whom don't have English as their heritage language.

To make the 10-minute walk between the two buildings is to witness first-hand an unpalatable apartheid in contemporary Britain.

The dilemma for the Government in this wicked juxtaposition of private wealth and state poverty is that it was elected on a nod and a wink from the electorate not to tax and spend.

To raise taxes for the middle-class voter is the "third rail" of British politics today: touch it and you get fried. For all the "Education, education, education" mantra, to date there is relatively little evidence of significant change in the resourcing of schools.

But does the much-heralded Third Way from the Blair Government offer the prospect of real new money for public services, especially in regions that need transforming levels of investment?

A recent seminar of Labour thinkers pragmatically concluded (perhaps predictably because it appears attractively budget-neutral) that the Third Way is "whatever works". Where in education can one look for pioneering work that in some way might help define the elusive Third Way?

My own belief is that the proposed education action zones present a unique arena for such innovation. David Blunkett's characteristically positive introduction to the Department for Education and Employment's leaflet on zones asks how areas can develop "virtuous circles" to improve the education of disadvantaged pupils. This is a telling phrase.

Critics are quick to argue that all this has been tried before: education priority areas; city technology colleges; the Private Finance Initiative. Do, then, the zones add up to a fresh start or a recasting of previous policies?

If zones are to be lighthouses of excellence in raising standards (the USEdison Project is suitably titled), then what follows must be their defining features: In round figures today, each pupil in the state sector is "worth" Pounds 2,000; in the private sector, the figure is Pounds 5,000. In other words Torquay plays Arsenal, to use the metaphor beloved of many a Government adviser. If zones are to make any serious long-term impact, then they must close dramatically that gap by harnessing public, private-sector and charitable foundation investment in our schools system. Upon this fundamental point the rest stands or falls.

Radicalism must be the dominant hand. High-quality teacher recruitment and retention can be achieved through significantly altered pay and conditions. Essential curriculum change and innovation (for example, how learning slots are organised) will follow. The teaching force, pupil population, families and local community must be prepared to strengthen what works in an area and unequivocally eschew worn-out practice.

Sensitivity to what exists and has gone before is as vital a part of the success cocktail as the theme of radical change. Groups of headteachers, teachers and governors should feel confident that their local knowledge, intuitions and skills will count, that they will not be overthrown by some here-today-gone-tomorrow bright idea. Embedding change and sustaining the quest for excellence will be vital. Politicians will need to suspend their natural preference for short-termism.

A new culture and climate of learning should permeate the entire zone, cradle to grave. What areas now bidding to establish zones have in common are communities where under-achievement and low self-esteem are endemic. Poverty of aspiration prevails. Social exclusion is as evident on street corners as it is prevalent in Cabinet ministers' speeches.

A powerful programme for early-years, health and education must be a corner-stone. Real access to lifelong learning opportunities is a basic building block. Truancy, disruptive behaviour, boys' under-achievement, and poor literacy skills will be tackled relentlessly and creatively.

Historic definitions of the school day and the school building will be challenged. What currently appears as a disjointed plethora of out-of-school initiatives (summer literacy schemes, kids' clubs, football club study centres, teenage mentoring, early learning excellence centres, Internet classes, Bookstart for babies) will find a fresh focus. Children and their families will see that virtual or classroom education can be open all hours, 365 days of the year.

A cluster of schools will give local meaning to "subsidiarity" and "solidarity". There will be the rapid recognition of what each player can achieve alone, what the players can only achieve when working in partnership. Brave, questioning leadership will be a prerequisite, ever searching for win-win solutions to chronic problems that will raise community expectation of what lifelong learning can deliver.

Why am I so optimistic that all this can be achieved? For the past two years I have travelled more than 50,000 miles around the UK working in areas which present contrasts of public squalor and private wealth that are, frankly, obscene.

In all of these areas there is a profound will on the part of non-profit organisations, private foundations and the business sector to invest in education - if it is done in a carefully planned and focused way. Many outstanding examples now exist - in rural and urban settings - of communities that flourish, rather than merely survive, as a result of significant corporate and charitable investment.

There is the widespread recognition that raising educational standards for all has to be a shared enterprise. It cannot be left to the formal providers of schools alone. When a company invests money and volunteer-employee time into its local community, it knows that it is making an invaluable contribution to young people's lifelong learning habits.

The wealth of our society in the late 20th century is palpably not evident in the state education system. Nor, on current public-service expenditure plans, is the state set to do anything different into the new century. That may change - we don't know yet. But government can help create the climate and the tax framework for partnership investment.

Within the next five years exciting, creative social entrepreneurs will, I believe, help define the Third Way in education. They will succeed in bringing together business corporations and private foundation to investment in the state schooling system. Action zones will prove the dawning of David Blunkett's virtuous circles.

Roy Blatchford is UK director of Reading is Fundamental, and formerly head of Bicester Community College, Oxfordshire.

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Roy Blatchford

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