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The truth behind the media myth of business in schools

Business to run failing schools"is the sort of headline to grate on Business in the Community's member companies and ruin our 15-year campaign to develop quality partnerships with teachers and government.

BITC has nearly 500 member companies, including most of the FTSE top 200, and none want to run an education action zone. Even the most radical management consultancies wish to work in partnership with local government and teachers. The true background is that Labour leaders have for some years been talking to and learning from business leaders about public-private partnerships to tackle under-achievement in disadvantaged communities.

They have visited pilot schemes in the USA and looked at education and economic regeneration action zones in the UK run by innovative local authorities working with consortia of BITC's business and clusters of schools and colleges on projects to tackle low literacy, school improvement and adult skills. Indeed, regeneration areas supported by local education authorities, training and enterprise councils, the European Union and education-business partnerships pre-date this government - though it is shrewdly keeping them all going. So education action zones are not such a new idea.

They are still a good idea. To put the record straight, here are the principles business backs: open partnership with ownership and management shared between all stakeholders, agreed objectives with performance measures for outcomes, joint action engaging large-scale public, private and voluntary sector resources and joint accountability for quality and sustainability.

Such arrangements are not business sorting out problems. Nor are they a rejection of local government or public-sector skills. They are a joint recognition that communities and their elected representatives, voluntary bodies and public services, including schools, benefit from partnership with business.

So what will business do in David Blunkett's action zones? First, business (in most cases a large consortium of companies with a stake in the locality) will be an active partner bringing managerial expertise, skilled and motivated people, access to training and work-based assignments and equipment including IT.

Second, business will wish to be part of management but not a control freak. Directors of successful companies know too much about delegated management to interfere and business leaders know that teachers and headteachers have essential skills which business cannot replace.

Third, business will be a driver for positive change. It will put pressure for world-class standards on every teacher and every school manager and will not tolerate poor quality anywhere.

And what will business not do? Well, BITC's big businesses learned in the 1980s that they could not make a difference in the community without the legitimising support of local and national government. So none will try to do it alone. Indeed, the much-praised new openness at the Department for Education and Employment has resulted in business leaders and their representatives arriving in droves to demand legitimate and effective partnership, multi-agency approaches to supporting at-risk groups and management based in the localities. Local authorities and teachers are not in any danger - provided they will work in partnership with all stakeholders with joint accountability for performance.

Forget the newspaper image of business taking over failed schools. Schools and their kids deserve the best this nation can provide. The forum of every action zone should comprise the best - that is those with vision, leadership, managerial expertise and educational experience drawn from the teaching profession, government and public services, the voluntary sector, the community at large, young people and their parents and employers. We now know how to turn schools around - the Michael Barbers and Tim Brighouses have shown the way and business wants to help extend the menu to those most in need.

This is not about control. It is about life chances for kids, a high-status profession prepared to work with others, a national government with the vision to focus resource on need and set high targets for improvement, local government realising it can do much more in partnership, an army of citizens supporting the next generation and responsible business investing in its future. We shouldn't be questioning the position of business here - rather we should be asking if the very modest Pounds 20 million spread over five years from business and government for the relatively few in 400 schools and 25 communities is anywhere near enough to meet the needs of this nation and where is the support for further education colleges serving the disadvantaged? Business wants to do much more - and that's another good reason for partnership.

Ian Pearce is director of education at Business in the Community.

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