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Something to shout about in the future

Manchester, often at loggerheads with the previous government, has unveiled its plans for a new era. Nicolas Barnard reports.

Manchester is big on pride. Pride in its art and music; pride in its sport; pride in its thriving nightlife, prestigious new venues and business coups like the Co-op bank headquarters. Even the anniversary of the IRA explosion which devastated the Arndale Centre is a cause for celebration and street parties.

Until now, it's been harder for Manchester to be proud of its schools. It is close to the bottom of the national league table of local education authorities. Many of its schools hold deficit budgets, some have failed Office for Standards in Education inspections and there is a drain of brighter 11-year-olds to selective and even secondary modern schools in neighbouring, better-off Trafford and to the city's well-known private schools.

Throughout this, the city council, at odds with a Conservative government for so many years, admits it has kept its head down. But with a new Labour-style zeal for zero tolerance of failure, that is changing.

With typical Mancunian braggadocio, the council leaders launched their new Joint Vision for Education as a "pioneering" 21st-century initiative which could shape the way children across Britain are taught. Oasis never got where they are by suggesting that they could play a bit.

But, coupled with the creation of a new post of deputy chief in charge of school improvement, the launch signals a determination finally to reverse the trend. For the city's Labour administration knows it must do this before it is too late.

Manchester City Council has no leafy suburbs under its wing. When the economy starts to grow - as it finally has - the successful move out. The city's population fell 13 per cent in the 1980s and a further 5 per cent in the past three years, and its budget has fallen with it. The decline has only been halted in the past year.

The boom that transformed the city centre has brought jobs to Trafford, Stockport and other surrounding districts, but done nothing to cut unemployment in the city itself. The state of Manchester's schools means, as chief education officer Roy Jobson puts it: "We have large numbers of young people in the city who cannot compete for the sort of jobs we are creating."

Richard Leese, Manchester's articulate Labour leader, says: "You can walk a mile from the centre and find communities that in economic terms are simply not sustainable. The task is to create a sustainable city and a network of sustainable communities."

The new vision is founded on partnership. Unusually, the spur came from teachers, not politicians. The first draft of the document was the unprompted creation of primary heads, who feared they were being seen as junior partners to secondary schools. Phil Smith, who chairs the primary heads' group, says: "We were concerned that the authority shouldn't miss opportunities to talk to primary heads."

Mr Smith says the key issue facing schools is money. The new vision is not likely to generate any more. Although several schools have budgets in deficit to the tune of Pounds 4 million in total, partly due to falling rolls, Manchester is generally recognised already to fund education generously.

The city believes major improvements can be made by spreading good practice. But it is continuing a long-running building programme. Seven split-site schools have been upgraded on to single sites, and three public-private schemes are under way.

There are other signs of improvement. The percentage of pupils gaining five or more higher-grade GCSEs rose by 4.5 per cent last year but the city remains in the bottom 10 LEAs in national league tables.

If any new vision is a tacit admission of past failure, the LEA is naturally reluctant to say so. But there are signs of acceptance that it has failed to communicate effectively with schools, and that past emphasis has been too heavily on care and not enough on achievement. "There is no value-added GCSE," says Mr Jobson, who also chairs the Association of Chief Education Officers. "We have to get to the point where our children get the GCSEs they need to get the jobs."

Manchester believes it suffered under the Tories as a prominent left-wing council. While its vision has been two years in coming, the timing is perfect. Its philosophy of co-operation, not competition, with an enabling LEA co-ordinating a network of links and initiatives, fits well with the Government's view of a new positive role for LEAs.

It won approval from Education Secretary David Blunkett who said the council had "moved quickly to build on the idea of partnership we have expressed since we were elected" but stopped short of calling it a model for other authorities.

Is Manchester's "vision for the 21st century" unique? It's easy to find similar documents. The text represents the country's prevailing educational philosophy of pragmatism, positivism and partnership. Consultation may be new to Manchester, but North Tyneside has a well-established education forum.

All that is, perhaps, irrelevant. If the city is to raise the sights of its people, raise their aspirations and standard of living, it has to rally them to the cause of education. The vision is one way of doing that.

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