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Worrying questions

Education action zones have displeased both the Government's old friends on the left, and its new friends on the right. The left believes that control of schools will pass out of the hands of elected local authorities and over to businesses which will make a profit from them. Unions are alarmed that zones are to be given the power to opt out of national conditions for teachers' pay. They fear pay cuts. They are alarmed, too, that the zones will have the power to vary the national curriculum. The fear is that schools will introduce curricula designed to do no more than give children the skills that business wishes them to have.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, asked David Blunkett whether local education authorities would be guaranteed the lead role and was told no, although "I would expect it to be the lead partner in many zones and to be a joint partner in most zones." He asked if the Government would refuse a bid where a business intends to make a profit from education and received an evasive answer: "EAZ policy is not about business making a profit."

The scheme is more to the taste of the right, but they complain that the tendering process is biased in favour of bids with a local authority partner.

A report from the Social Market Foundation by Robert Skidelsky and Katharine Raymond complains: "Local authorities are leading all local consortia and are using EAZs to secure extra money from Whitehall, even though the LEA presided over the failing schools in the first place. No private organisations have yet taken the lead in biddingI. The reason is clear. The conditions of entry constitute in toto a massive barrier."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is demanding a guarantee that there will be no erosion of teachers' pay and conditions, and that schools will not be run for private profit. It also has some questions, such as what powers will the project manager have over hiring and firing, and what will happen to the schools when the zone period finishes?

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