Easing the symptoms;Leading Article;Opinion

30th April 1999 at 01:00
As details of the Government's Excellence in Cities initiative emerge (pages 1 and 5), it starts to look like a brave and determined assault on pupil under-performance in our worst inner city areas. The speed with which target authorities in and around London, Birmingham, Manchester, Merseyside, Leeds and Sheffield are expected to respond is breathtaking. But it is entirely proportionate to the low attainment and esteem that blights the lives of so many growing up in our centres of deprivation.

The attack to be mounted by Excellence in Cities is clearly to be a broad and eclectic one. Straight out of the combined ops manual: a form of warfare notoriously difficult to coordinate. So headquarters staff will need to listen carefully to those on the front line as the plan develops, especially since a number of untried, smart weapons are also to be deployed.

These include a new breed of professional mentor to help "overcome the barriers to learning inside and outside school"; attached to schools; hi-tech learning centres; staff training and new curriculum programmes to stretch the top 10 per cent of pupils; and more beacon and specialist schools aimed specifically at areas of deprivation. The 50 new pocket education action zones centred on the worst performing secondary schools and their feeders seem almost laser-guided in their targeting. Each packs a payload of a million pounds or more over five years.

It is good to see that some secondary targets may also receive attention. Bristol, Coventry, Hull, Leicester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Wolverhampton may read chillingly like a Luftwaffe hit list. More happily, on this occasion, these are among the areas likely to benefit when funding for the new breed of inner-city specialist schools is being handed out.

The Excellence in Cities programme, then, is innovative, bold and timely. But like so much Government policy-making, it does not yet amount to a clear or comprehensive strategy to revive urban schooling. It promises substantial new resources in some places they are most needed. But it ameliorates the results of a polarised urban education system rather than tackling the causes of middle-class flight that brought it about or the admissions system which exacerbates it.

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