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Experimental zones

The news from the North of England Conference that private companies could be invited to run education action zones has caused consternation in the world of the local education authorities. Their future, which looked so rosy back in May, once more appears shaky.

Of course, senior education officers have been very clear that they know they are on probation; but they did expect to be given a chance to show what they can do in Blair's new improved world. Instead, the political landscape seems to change every time they look at it.

First, it seemed as if ministers intended to bring local government in out of the cold - albeit with a reduced role. Then came the suggestion that all schools, not just those in the grant-maintained sector, should be able to choose foundation status; this looked bad for local councils. But when the idea failed to materialise in the Education Bill, they breathed again.

Now the future shape of education seems to be up for grabs once more. A wide range of issues underlying Michael Barber's announcement need to be teased out before battle lines begin to harden - and very complex they are. How important is local democracy? Is the calibre of local councillors and school governors in deprived areas high enough to tackle deep-rooted educational problems? Ought commercial interests to operate public services? Are overall political values important in education, or should the system be more pragmatic, drawing on any policies or methods which seem to be successful?

Competing interests, unsurprisingly, surround the barely-fledged policy. Local authorities are reluctant to relinquish their power but also represent - at their best - a commitment to local democracy and a level of support for their schools which they believe would be hard to find from another source.

At the same time, there is a clear lobby for reducing the operations of LEAs - or even doing away with them entirely. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, is known to favour more independence for schools which, he believes, will raise standards. At least one Treasury minister is beginning to question whether local authorities are really necessary. His reasoning is that if less money were to be spent on administration, more would be available for spending at the chalk-face - without the need to raise taxes (akin to the Holy Grail in Treasury circles). Waiting in the wings are the commercial education companies such as the Centre for British Teachers and Nord Anglia, eager to try their hand at turning round failing schools - and with a great deal to gain from such a policy.

The key point, surely, is that education action zones are to be experimental. They will involve schools where the current set-up is manifestly not working effectively, and will offer opportunities for bold policies which may involve an element of risk.

Such an opportunity should be grasped by all partners in an open and adventurous spirit. The collaboration of LEAs, business interests and other stakeholders such as parents or governors should be encouraged - and the results judged on their merits. Failing schools have a wide variety of problems, which almost certainly require a wide variety of solutions.

What is crucial at this stage is that ideology - being implacably pro or anti LEA, for example - should not be allowed to influence the shape of the various partnerships that will now begin to form. The system has suffered enough in recent years as a result of the blanket application of contentious policies unsupported by evidence or experience. The British are supposedly famous for their pragmatism: now let's see what works.

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