A risk worth taking;Platform;Opinion

5th June 1998 at 01:00
Critics say that bidding for an education action zone is naive and dangerous, but Sohail Faruqi argues that there are many potential benefits

WILLIAM Blake, we are told, used to experience visions. He is not the only one, because I have had one as well. My vision showed me a world 10 years hence, where education authorities no longer exist, their directors have become extinct, schooling is a big-bucks business and parents carry educational credit cards.

The private sector has moved in, mechanised, automated and downsized schools. Many parents are shareholders. Many teachers have had their pay slashed and their hours extended: after all, shareholder parents must be paid their dividends. EAZIE Pickings plc has captured the largest slice of the market and is now looking to increase its profit margins and reduce its unit costs by creating hyperschools located on the fringes of urban areas.

Back to reality. Criticism of the education action zones idea has been plentiful since the bidding invitation was issued by the Department for Education and Employment in January. It has seemed to generate a level of disquiet and cynicism reminiscent of the erstwhile opting-out policy.

That idea, in my view, was designed deliberately to develop the market ideology within the state education system. As in any market, while there is due account paid to the 3 "e"s of efficiency, effectiveness and economy, I found the opting-out concept particularly unpalatable because there was no place for a 4th "e" - that of equity. Indeed the purpose of the opting-out policy appeared to me to encourage inequity. It also encouraged factionalisation of the state system at a local level and pandered to selfish motives.

I suppose critics of the zone idea would also argue that the policy encourages inequity and factionalisation. Inequity, because some schools would get more resources than others, and factionalisation because it could lead to local pay structures. Furthermore, critics suggest that the zone policy would result in the privatisation of parts of the system, and would lead to a reduction in LEA powers and responsibilities, as well as a foreshadowing of the governing body role.

So why has the City of Plymouth actively sought to gain zone status? Why, as director of education, am I colluding in my own apparent demise?

Like any new idea, the zone initiative has risks, but often risk-taking is part of achieving a greater good. As I see it the goal is to try to improve the educational experiences and opportunities for a given group of young people. The goal is to help further promote the conditions that will allow teachers to teach and children to learn. The goal is to help reduce the hurdles and barriers that prevent full access to a relevant curriculum. The goal is to give pedagogic ownership back to teachers. The goal is to help reduce the adverse effects of competition between schools, and hopefully from all that to gain experience and learn lessons that will ultimately benefit all children.

All these and other potential benefits were recognised by many of my colleagues in Plymouth schools. Likewise they also recognised the many pitfalls and potential abuses of the zone idea. Unfortunate media reporting did little to encourage teachers to consider the benefits and like them I want nothing to do with the policy if it is about categorising some schools as failures or will lead to an internecine culture.

So what was it that enthused and encouraged some of my headteacher, teacher and governor colleagues to look at the idea seriously? I think that the most important aspect was recognising the fact that no changes could take place successfully unless there was overwhelming support from the chalk face. The next most persuasive aspect was the feeling that the zone initiative could build upon existing local strategies to help raise standards. The third was the potential for innovation in a collaborative and concerted effort.

However, let no one think that it was an easy decision to submit a bid. Let no one think that my headteacher and teacher colleagues are unaware of the risks involved, or that those colleagues and schools involved are not anxious, concerned and fearful of setting unwelcome precedents. But let no one doubt the resolve of those same colleagues to do even greater educational good for their pupils.

Critics of action zones seem to take offence at the thought of others even discussing the policy. But if new ideas cannot even be debated rationally, then the only people being harmed are our children. However, anxiety about the idea is understandable given the experience of change in recent times. Indeed, this anxiety seems to extend across the educational spectrum.

In supporting Plymouth's bid, I suppose some of my education officer colleagues might think I am being naive. But it is naive to believe that education will ever stand still. It is better to be part of informed evolutionary change, rather than be the recipient of enforced and uninformed change. It is better to be in control of a new idea than to be sidelined. Surely the experiences of the past 10 years has taught us that much?

That experience should warn us not to listen innocently to those siren voices who wish to stifle debate and innovation. We should use our unhappy experience of the change process over the past few years to beware of the dogmatics. Beware of those who insist that zone policy is about privatisation of state education. Beware of those who continue to spread the canard that LEAs "control" schools and promote the idea that zones are partly about "dispensing with control of education authorities" (TES April 24).

The Plymouth bid sets out to raise standards by building upon strategies being used locally. It recognises that schools facing some very challenging circumstances have nonetheless been effective. So if the bid is successful it will be seen as a proper recognition of the work of local teachers, and at the same time a proper acknowledgement that those teachers are indeed working in some extraordinarily challenging situations.

To have both those things recognised and acknowledged would provide a great boost to morale. I am all for that.

Sohail Faruqi is director of education for the City of Plymouth

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