'Bullish' vision of school-led zones

29th January 1999 at 00:00
on two communities seeking to shift the balance of power in education

"Nestling on the edge of the Surrey Downs" is how teachers in New Addington like to think of their Croydon community. Just as you finally leave south London's sprawling suburbs and the hills open out before youI there it is.

Enter it and you're in a satellite estate of warren-like roads, identikit post-war housing and a fiercely loyal, close-knit community.

Co-operation between schools is the norm. This helps explain why, last September, it became the first school-led education action zone.

This month a second school-led zone, east Basildon in Essex, joined them. The Government wants more zones of this sort, led by schools, parents and communities and is offering help to do it.

However, the pound;20,000 grant offered to promising candidates to develop their bids is no more than a reflection of the struggle New Addington and Basildon have had. Setting up the zones meant meetings at all hours, including holiday periods.

Both areas are bullish about what they have to offer as zones where the ideas come from the grassroots. "We know these children, we know these families," says Linda Sokoloff, head of Rowdown primary in New Addington.

"I wonder if bids put forward by private companies and local authorities aren't looking for a quick fix. We've got the vision to look longer-term," she adds.

This view is echoed by Alan Roach, head of Chalvedon GM school, Basildon. "Where will local authority zones go once they've implemented their exciting bits? The research and development that will go on while we're a zone will produce the most exciting ideas - because they'll be found by educators not administrators."

For that reason, neither zone is afraid to have started modestly. Both believe the real innovation will come in time - from teachers.

Beyond the inevitable homework clubs and plans for five- or six-term years, work so far has focused on involving parents, and bringing together the agencies that work with families on the estates.

"At the moment, if a child has real difficulties, 12 people will knock on her door, each offering not enough help," says Mr Roach.

Poverty explains many of New Addington's problems - male unemployment touches 15 per cent in parts, teen pregnancies and lone parents are common and almost half of all families have no car.

Although no schools are failing - indeed, some are in the top 5 per cent for their intake - children arrive and leave with the poorest attainment in Croydon borough. Only 14 per cent got five good GCSEs last year, and only 45 per cent went on to further education. Targets for both are challenging. The zone's focus will be on basic skills and employability.

In Basildon, one school in six is failing. The aim there is to get all schools into the top 25 per cent and improve attendance to 95 per cent.

New Addington has appointed parenting workers to bring social, health and welfare workers together and end the ringing round by teachers to find out who is doing what. It has also appointed key skills co-ordinators in each school.

There is scepticism. Ian Harrison, secretary of the Local Authorities' EAZ network, says some zones where local authorities have taken an arm's-length approach risk becoming "little projects" which may find it hard to drive through radical change.

Peter Winder, head of Wolsey junior in New Addington, says the zone is a chance to tip the balance of power in education.

"We're used to dealing with the whims of ministers. Now rational argument is getting what is best for our children. There is no profit and loss column and we're grateful for that."

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