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The price of failing schools;Comment;Opinion

If anything reinforces the importance of the Government's target-setting agenda in Scotland, it is the remarkable announcement last week that ministers in England are to invite businessmen to run 25 "education action zones" in disadvantaged areas. This is indeed Thatcherism red in tooth and claw: it is an apparently standards-raising package still stuck in the mental groove which insists that the private sector knows best and continues the policy of diminishing the standing of local authorities.

The Scottish picture could not be more different. Schools have got used to pressure by now, but they have been spared the punishment. The right-wing commentators who keep an eagle eye on the activities of Scotland's Education Minister must be sleeping. The condemnation of the past, when Brian Wilson's failure to imitate every English initiative no matter how hare-brained, was seen as a sign of slothful failure to stand up to the unions, seems to be missing.

But the English action zones, ironically announced at the North of England conference which is the showcase event of the year for local authorities, should serve as a warning to their Scottish counterparts. The father of this particular baby is the perception that local authorities have made a mess of running schools and that successful schools have made the grade despite rather than because of the councils' embrace.

It is, of course, a commonplace justification for the differences north and south of the border that England is a larger country with extremes in school performance which require extreme solutions. But Scotland, too, has its pockets of failure which, whatever the rhetoric about partnership and "realistic" targets, require to be addressed. For now, target-setting is the only show in town and England should serve as a warning of the alternatives waiting in the wings.

In fact, companies like Virgin, McDonald's and Tate amp; Lyle have specifically ruled out running schools, which is just as well since they seem to have their hands full running themselves. Perhaps they have a better appreciation than Government that shoemakers should stick to their lasts.

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