Take a sure start to toil and trouble

7th April 2000 at 01:00
FROM Sure Start to Fresh Start, and taking in too many city initiatives to keep track of along the way, this Government's impatience for results is fast running out of control.

The projects themselves are not the problem - there is virtue in every one. It is initiative overload that is threatening their credibility. That, and the constant threat to discard them if they don't hit targets within 18 months.

The political imperative for a quick return is nothing new in education, but they never learn. Now it is working against the grain of a socio-educational programme which won't come to full flower until the first Sure Start babies are applying for university - and certainly not by next May.

Meanwhile, the competing ambitions within the social exclusion unit, the No 10 policy unit and the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment exacerbate the overload and the race for results.

Yes, the young people who are falling through the educational system now deserve urgent remedies. If the scheme you first thought of has failed already, maybe there is a case for trying the next one on the checklist of ideas which criss-cross the Atlantic in the baggage of visiting academics and officials.

But that won't do anyone a service without more patient analysis of what works where, why and why not, and accepting that every school is different. The DFEE claims to be committed to evidence-based policy-making now, but it doesn't seem to have looked closely at the evidence from Fresh Start schools, either here or in the States.

A new name and super-stardom for the head may look like good PR, but they won't fool parents for long if the same teenage gangs still occupy the pavements outside. Charisma can have a dramatic effect on discipline, but it takes more systematic skills to monitor and improve exam performance.

It may be a failure of leadership, teaching, or the local authority when a school fails, and sometmes all three, but even if you change all those you are left with the one issue that won't go away. It's the neighbourhood, stupid. And there isn't much evidence yet that business, the church, or voluntary groups have all the answers.

Here again we are repeating the American experience by creating hierarchies of semi-selective and specialist schools which leave the children from the most troubled neighbourhoods in a heap at the bottom. "Behind every group of so-called good schools is the sink school which keeps them that way," as a TES reader wrote.

In its heart, the Government accepts that a coherent approach to the social problems facing families is a prerequisite to their children's success in school, because it is running the programmes to do just that. Meanwhile, it expects the schools to deliver.

One obvious question is whether Fresh Start schools might stand a better chance of keeping their heads as part of an education action zone, or an Excellence in the City project, before the Government starts closing them or trying out City Academies or one-stop welfare centres. The next question is how long any of these shiny new (or second-hand) schemes will stay in favour. The action zones were originally instructed to tear up all the usual rules in search of innovation, but now they have been told to produce conventional results by yesterday.

Another major difficulty is finding your way around initiative-land. Both local government and voluntary groups are mapping initiatives across the country, to find the overlaps, and the gaps. I hope someone in Whitehall is doing the same for financial and practical reasons. It takes time, people and cash to put together a bid, whether you get to take part or not. And the new armies taking part are only equalled by the forces evaluating them. And by the time they have reported, the Government may have decided to try something different anyway.

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of The TES

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