When George Smith saw signs for an EPA conference in Oxford 10 years ago, he must have been momentarily confused. In his mind, the initials EPA stood for only one thing: the ill-fated Educational Priority Area initiative with which he had been associated in the 1970s. By 1986, however, the acronym had been claimed by the European Prosthodontics Association. The Continent's master false teeth-makers had come to town.
But why did the Plowden EPA scheme not survive to celebrate a 20th anniversary, or even a 30th? The plan to improve the life chances of children in disadvantaged urban areas was the only proposal that the Plowden Committee regarded as an absolute priority, and it had been well-received by politicians and public.
The project is sometimes seen as an offshoot of the war on poverty then being waged in the United States, but it was also foreshadowed by the 1963 Newsom Report's focus on slums and the l959 Crowther Report, which highlighted the waste of working-class talent.
At least one sceptic, the distinguished sociologist Basil Bernstein, had warned that "education cannot compensate for society", but Lady Plowden and colleagues such as Michael Young believed otherwise and suggested how census data and other statistics could be used to identify the most disadvantaged areas.
They called for a reduction in class sizes in deprived districts and the upgrading of dilapidated school buildings. They wanted to attract talented and experienced teachers with salary inducements. More teachers' aides, school-based social workers, and stronger links with colleges of education were also advocated, as well as greater parental involvement, community school experiments and more nursery schools.
All these recommendations were accepted by the three main political parties. But it soon became clear that the Labour government was loath to specify criteria for identifying EPA districts or invest heavily in the scheme, which was expected to reach the most deprived 10 per cent of children within five years.
The sum of #163;16 million was set aside for new building work and, from 1968, teachers of disadvantaged children in more than 30 local authorities began to receive a #163;75 annual allowance, which had increased to #163;276 by 1975.
Hopes of a #163;10m cash injection proved unrealistic, however, and the EPA programme eventually materialised in 1968 as a #163;175,000 three-year action-research project. The programme was based in five areas: Liverpool, Deptford in south London, Balsall Heath in Birmingham, Denaby in the West Riding, and Dundee.
As George Smith, the West Riding research officer, has pointed out, these local projects could not afford to improve staffing or buildings. They therefore "tended to concentrate on those areas left blank or thinly sketched by Plowden - with the content of pre-school or primary education, with different types of home-school link and community school development, and with innovations not found in Plowden, such as educational home visitors".
The Liverpool project, directed by Dr Eric Midwinter, made the biggest impact. It had minimal funding (35p a day per EPA school) and a daunting set of tasks: to raise education standards, lift teacher morale, solder home-school links, and help to give communities a sense of responsibility."What will you do in the second week?" a colleague asked Midwinter drolly.
"It was an exercise in diplomacy rather than scholarship," Dr Midwinter admits in his account of those days, Priority Education. And this approach chimed with local feeling. One education official spoke for many when he said that the only research necessary was to "look out of the bloody window".
The Liverpool EPA team encouraged schools to improve their immediate environment and carry out shop surveys and market research. "When a graph shows that the local shopping centre has eight chip shops and no bank, and the children begin to wonder why, this kind of exercise takes on an additional and meaningful dimension," Dr Midwinter explained.
Language and curriculum kits were also developed, and after two years up to 300 teacher-training students were involved in the scheme.
The Deptford project promoted community schooling and established two environmental centres while in Birmingham they concentrated on literacy, numeracy, multi-racial playgroups and home visiting. In Denaby, a close-knit but decaying mining community, the focus was also on home visiting, and Dundee experimented with a pre-school programme.
But as early as February 1971 The TES reported that the programme was in jeopardy.
The prediction proved premature because the Liverpool scheme steamed on through the 1970s with the generous support of the city council. The Inner London Education Authority continued four of the five Deptford projects and devised a sophisticated school-funding formula based on deprivation. Other local authorities and voluntary organisation s also picked up the EPA baton when government funding ran out.
But the vultures began to wheel overhead from the summer of 1971 with the publication of the first of several research reports suggesting that the methods of selecting priority areas were crude and inaccurate, that the majority of pupils in priority schools were not disadvantaged, and that most deprived children were not in EPAs.
Several other factors conspired against the idea. The word from American researchers, such as the hugely influential Christopher Jencks, was that positive discrimination had little effect, but cost a great deal.
In April 1972, Professor A Harry Passow of Columbia University told TES readers: "Having spent billions of dollars on compensatory education, initiated thousands of projects, completed thousands of studies of uneven significance and even more disparate quality #201; and generated whole new agencies and educational institutions, the nation's urban schools continue to operate in a vortex of segregation, alienation and declining achievement."
By this time social commentators in the UK were also increasingl y questioning whether schools could offset the heavy weight of disadvantage created by poor homes. But, as Professor Maurice Kogan, the Plowden committee secretary, recalled in his 1978 book, The Politics of Educational Change, teachers were also uneasy with the EPA initiative.
"They feared that education priority schools would involve rote learning #201; teachers also felt that to call a school 'deprived' might be to label it, and the children in it," he wrote. "Conventional teacher wisdom said that teachers receiving special allowances #201; might be attracted to the work for the wrong reason, namely, money."
Lack of money after the early- 1970s oil crisis was a further impediment. In 1972, A H Halsey, national director of the EPA programme, called for the establishment of 10 more priority areas and expansion of nursery and community schooling. But his recommendations were not heeded, even though Margaret Thatcher, then Secretary of State for Education, wanted to expand the nursery sector. The EPA scheme did, however, have a significant influence on policy thinking beyond education, a fact that Teresa Smith and Michael Noble, authors of Education Divides: Poverty and Schooling in the 1990s, have acknowledged.
The idea of identifying areas of social disadvantage spread first to the Urban Programme launched in the late 1960s and then to a series of inner-city programmes lasting up to the introduction of the Single Regeneration Budget in 1994. But, as Smith and Noble have also noted: "Broad concern with social disadvantage gave way in the latter part of the 1970s to a sharper focus on particular groups - children with special education needs in Warnock (1978), ethnic minorities in the Swann Report (1985) and the so-called bottom 40 per cent in the Lower Attaining Pupils Project."
It was only in the 1990s, that attention began to turn again to social disadvantage. Bodies such as the National Commission on Education started to issue ominous warnings about the risk of creating an isolated underclass.
Today it is estimated that education spending in disadvantaged areas is only 5 per cent above the state average, a situation that Labour may try to remedy if the party wins the next general election. But it would be nave to expect any radical redistribution of education resources. As the EPA initiative's supporters discovered, change of this kind comes slowly, if at all.