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The great zone hope;Opinion

It is fashionable to remark cynically that this Government's education policy is no different from that of the Tories. But that is to misunderstand what is going on. For example, the focus on social exclusion - whether in terms of health or education, housing or jobs - is a key characteristic of this Government, and marks it out quite clearly from its predecessors. Conservatives are not inclined to agonise over concepts such as social justice or exclusion: in fact, the word "exclusive" rather turns them on.

But muddled messages persist, especially in education. The reason, not surprisingly, is political. Last year's stunning win was achieved through the votes of Labour converts, and they must be kept happy. David Blunkett and his education team genuinely want to improve education - and they genuinely want to win the next election too.

Here's a problem. If educational attainment is to be raised, and Britain's need for a highly-skilled and sophisticated population is to be met, we must focus above all on the excluded, the disaffected and the under-achieving. But if the next election is to be won, middle England must feel that its own concerns are being taken on board - and middle Englanders do not waste much sympathy on under-achievers.

As a result, the education policy-makers are playing a difficult game - to divert more taxpayers' money towards the disadvantaged, while retaining the support of the more self-interested voters. Critics who see education action zones as privatisation by the back door are missing the point - which is that some pound;56 million of public money will be spent on 140,000 of the children who need it most.

What's more, Newsnight and the Tories are barking up the wrong tree in castigating the Government for not having raised more private money. There never was any realistic prospect of big business funding education to any great degree - nor should there be (see Business Links supplement, page 4). Shareholders would soon start to complain. The function of business is to produce goods and services and to make a profit thereby, and by and large it performs that function well. It seems perverse to suggest that industry should run education, which never was its purpose.

Where the zones will benefit from the involvement of the private sector, however, is through new energy being injected into a system which - in disadvantaged areas at least - is well-nigh exhausted. If past experience is anything to go by, we can expect those business people who do get involved to be astonished at what many schools are achieving against the odds. Lord Puttnam, who recently launched the teachers' Oscars (page 14), developed a real respect for the skills of teachers once he saw what was actually going on in schools.

The zones aim to target poor areas; and although we know that poverty itself is no excuse for under-achievement, we also know that poverty often leads to multiple deprivation. Children who come to school cold and undernourished from damp and dirty homes; who are abused or scared or miserable; whose parents are refugees, or alcoholics or drug addicts; who believe that acting violently is the only way to get respect (as we saw in Marseilles last week); all of these are hard to teach, but somehow they must be helped to learn.

Vigour, optimism, fresh ideas and, of course, cash are required. The great hope of the action zones is that they might enable such lost children to develop their talents productively. The strength of the partnership approach is that education can be seen not as the sole responsibility of the schools, but as a joint local endeavour. The maxim "it takes a whole village to raise a child" is almost a cliche now. Nevertheless, its wisdom is incontrovertible.

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