Opening bid for better zone policy;Another Voice;Opinion

12th June 1998 at 01:00
EDUCATION action zones are the most exciting policy development to have emerged in Labour's first year. With everything up for grabs, and the need for experimentation and private-public partnership backed by legislation, those of us who long to see the existing system scattered into a thousand pieces have something to cheer about.

But it seems the revolution will have to wait. The hopes that rest on the success of the zones are in danger of stalling - and, at worst, collapsing.

When the zones were announced, the Government expected that bids would pour in. For the first time, there was an opportunity for new ways of thinking and new methods of doing to be put to work in the state sector.

Local education authorities were, rightly, concerned that their role was under threat. That was part of the attraction. And since David Blunkett made clear that private-sector involvement was "vital" to the success of any bid, their chances of hijacking zone status as a front for continued control were thought to be remote.

But built-in flaws in the bidding process mean that there have not been the expected hundreds of bids, but only 60 - and most of them are non-starters.

Sixty bids might be fine with only 25 zones to fill. But to the unexpected horror of the scheme's proponents, 40 of the 60 bids have had to be ruled out as not even attempting to come close to the idea of public-private co-operation.

Many of these are almost exclusively LEA schemes, and barely concealed attempts to cling on to power.

It gets worse. Even if every one of the remaining 20 bids survives scrutiny, there is still a shortfall of five. But they won't. These are just the 20 that have not been ruled out from the start. So the shortfall of five is likely to be even greater.

And now, with the announcement of the winning candidates due any day, the irresistible force has come right up against the immovable object. No one except the educational dinosaurs wants the idea to fail. So when Stephen Byers comes to confirm the next phase, he will have to go into New Labour overdrive.

He has already talked of the possibility of hundreds of zones. This should be his way through the mess.

So wonderful is the idea, he should say, that the department wants to see many more bids, and is starting up the process again. Shortfall, what shortfall? It's time to open the door to all comers, with a subtly different - but pivotal - new approach.

The problem, as a paper by Lord Skidelsky and Katharine Raymond of the Social Market Foundation shows, lies in the bidding process, and the nature of the "zone".

By talking of zones as "clusters" of schools, the Government has ignored the fundamental problem of variation in performance between schools in the same area, ruling out the idea that individual schools might be put under different leadership. Zones are all or nothing, and it seems that nothing is winning.

More technically, the detailed strategy which has to be submitted as part of a bid depends on having information to which only LEAs have easy and costless access.

That up-front expense rules out a host of possible non-LEA bidders. It also means that local authority dominance of the bidding process was almost written into the terms of the scheme.

There are two ways forward: either make LEA-held information available to any potential bidder; or remove the need for the information in the first place at the early bid stage.

The first idea is probably impractical at the moment, so the likelihood is that the Government will announce a more flexible and less detailed initial bidding stage.

Nowhere at the moment is the track record of bidder part of the criteria for success. If a dreadful local authority makes a bid, its past performance need not count against it.

On the other hand, if a non-LEA bidder - such as a private school organisation - has a proven record of excellence then it too gains no head start in the process. This is surely mad.

Finally, with the definition of a zone left deliberately vague, there must be scope for individual schools to be the subject of bids. In a given LEA, surely it should be possible for the worst schools to be given the advantage of zone status - with the LEA left to concentrate on those schools it has shown it can make work.

The zone initiative is a cornerstone of the Government's attempts to raise standards.

The policy makes sense, and needs to be cultivated. It cannot be allowed to wither away at the first attempt.

Stephen Pollard is the co-author of A Class Act: the myth of Britain's classless society. He wrote the book with Andrew Andonis, now an education adviser to Tony Blair.

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