Education, education, education, the battlecry of the aspirant Labour party has been followed by a series of education initiatives since May 1, the latest of which is the education action zone (EAZ). The press tells us that business will now run schools in the zones. The Department for Education and Employment press release is more coy.
A variety of interests may bid to form EAZs, including local authorities, training and enterprise councils, voluntary bodies, schools and further education bodies. We can assume this to be another initiative to combat teaching - and, ultimately management - failures. It follows the education department's train of initiatives, from the 1988 Reform Act to the current plan to concentrate in primaries on literacy and numeracy, if necessary to the exclusion of other subjects.
Who can doubt the earnestness of Messrs Blair and Blunkett and Byers? Or the determination of a leader who placed his children at the London Oratory?
What is it about the London Oratory which makes it the first family's first choice. Is it the local authority? No, for it was one of the first schools to opt out of the infamously anti-academic Inner London Education Authority. Is it the Church? Hardly, given that the head - and the Oratory fathers - did not share the bureaucrophilia of the bien pensants in cassocks who wanted church schools to remain controlled by the local authority-diocesan axis. Is it business? Not per se.
No school is a business producing goods for sale, even though every school could learn, quite a bit, from business. Schools exist to educate children; they should be detached, as philosophers have pointed out, from the here and now of current living. Their activity differs from the activities of home life, from the world of work and the aims and methods of business. Educating children involves, in the first place, teaching them. Parents hand their children over to school to be taught: the contract is between parent and school. As one tough head of a crack French lycee, once remarked to me "C'est le contrat". For her, no less than for any head, the contract should be that of a parent handing the child to the school on the understanding the child will be taught and educated - and trusting the school to do so. The contract breaks down if the school fails to teach the child, or the parent fails to support the school.
In Britain, we have abandoned all notion of such a contract: the contract has been rather between the state (central or local) and the school; the LEA and the school; DFEE and school; and now perhaps EAZ and school - with the parental part added on at the edges. No wonder the contract has broken down, and that this Government, no less than the other, continues to dream of ways of making schools teach children.
If the LEA failed to do so, the DFEE curriculum fails to do so, perhaps, the logic is, the new zones will succeed. But is there any reason to think a new monopoly or partnership power will succeed where an old one has failed?
What the Government will need to understand when this initiative goes the way of previous management exercises is that a school cannot be accountable to two masters. Either it is accountable (as it has been) to the bureaucracy - the LEA, the DFEE (or both) and now, whoever will run the zones. Or it is accountable to parents.
Only if it is really accountable to the parents is there a good chance that education will improve in a way that repeated external bureaucratic initiatives have failed to bring about. Without this accountability to parents, what, in practical terms, does the parent do if the child is not being taught? Complain? Write letters? Have meetings with the LEA, the teacher, the governing body, or now the EAZ?
This is not to say that business does not set a valuable example for schools in terms of organisation and efficiency. For example, should heads and teachers enjoy their present holidays, far more generous than the 20 working days a year and bank holidays normally allowed by businesses? There are plenty of ways in which they could use the extra working time they would thereby gain: discussing the detailed progress of the pupils for whom they are responsible, preparing work, reading and catching up in their subjects.
At present, many schools shut up shop during holidays: not even an answering machine between the middle of December and the opening after Christmas almost three weeks later - hardly an advert for the caring professional.
Doctors are on call, even on Christmas Day. Heads already receive the sort of remuneration which should make a similar commitment in their work a reasonable requirement; for other teachers, such an increase in professionalism would be the best way to make a claim for a higher pay.
Business, then, can help teach schools efficiency. But only the individual school itself has the power to change. And only the parents, living with it day-to-day, can effect the change. But they need to be given the power to do so. They should be seen as the employers of their children's teacher, not the patronised supplicants of a profession for whom they pay dearly through their taxes - while their concerns are dismissed with education-speak and meetings, but no action. We cannot afford to have heads hiding behind the partnerships of state at the expense of the children whose young lives are written off by the failure to teach.
If the zones will force heads to do what they must, then no one can deny support. But if the zones are yet another management exercise for diagnosis (of the teacher not the pupil), in-service support and training programmes, generating employment for a system notorious for its failing, they will simply introduce yet another tier into an unnecessarily opaque, unresponsive bureaucracy. A business monopoly should be no replacement for the LEADFEE monopoly which we all know to have failed.
Sheila Lawlor is director of the think-tank Politeia