Leading Article: At last - a truly progressive solution for our schools

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The Independent Culture
Education Action Zones. Almost the first act of the Labour Government was to announce that it was inviting bids for these instruments of a self- proclaimed educational revolution. For 18 years the Conservatives presided over an ever-deepening decline in state school standards and offered in response a series of half-hearted measures. Grant-maintained schools, local management of schools, league tables and greater choice were all good things in themselves. But none of them tackled the fundamental problems of a system dominated by vested interests and ideology - not least because, for all the rhetoric, ministers were indifferent, in spite of growing evidence that our flawed education system was the root cause of so many of Britain's problems.

Tony Blair's pledge to make "education, education and education" the Government's priorities was regarded with scepticism by many observers. After all, the traditional Labour response to a public-sector failure has always been to throw money at the problem. Education is certainly underfunded. But just throwing money at the existing education system would solve nothing since the problems are far too deep-seated. And since the Labour Party contains a large number of those teachers who most vociferously oppose change and argue that money is the solution, the prospects for real reform looked unlikely. It was, of course, Labour ministers such as Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams who were responsible for importing much of the "progressive" educational agenda which has caused such damage. And even the new-look Labour Party of the Nineties opposed, lock, stock and barrel, the Conservatives' reforms.

So scepticism was a logical response to the party's claims. Every sinner can, however, repent; and the evidence suggests that Labour has more than learnt the error of its past ways. Education Action Zones have the potential to be the most revolutionary reform since the granting of free school places by the 1870 Education Act. By allowing any organisation, whether private or public, profit-making or charitable, to bid to run clusters of schools in an area of its choosing, the scheme poses a threat to all the existing educational vested interests. Local education authorities, at best complacent about the failure and at worst responsible for it, rightly see the idea as posing a threat to their existence. The legislation specifies that genuine private-sector partnership is a prerequisite, so that no bid that is in effect an LEA front can succeed. And the teaching unions, which have never been other than a block on progress, are horrified at the prospect. By starting from scratch in any given zone, the successful applicant can ignore existing terms and conditions and introduce a range of new ideas. The fact that these would almost certainly include higher salaries to attract high-calibre teachers seems to have passed the scheme's opponents by.

That it is a Labour government which has introduced the idea is a cause for hope in itself. With the weight of its educational baggage it might easily have settled for a more gentle method of reform. However it is likely that, the precedent having been set, today's announcement will be just the beginning. This first phase was designed to set up the 25 zones which will be announced today. Inevitably the bidding process has thrown up some problems - such as the fact that the idea cannot be applied to individual schools, only clusters of schools, and the need for detailed information held only by the LEA to be incorporated in any bid. These can be ironed out in the next round. We should move as quickly as possible from tens to hundreds of zones, each of which offers a chance to experiment.

By opening up state schooling to a variety of providers, using a range of methods, Tony Blair, David Blunkett and Stephen Byers - the triumvirate responsible - have made progress possible and deserve a pat on the back. The country must hope that they continue to pursue such an open-minded and vigorous approach to the problems in our schools.