Cash and the dash to raise standards

Next week the Government launches one of the most radical plans ever which will draw in private money to tackle the problems of inner- city schools. We have been taking lessons from the Americans
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The Independent Online
Education action zones are the most exciting and potentially radical of all the Government's policies for raising standards in schools. The first successful bids will be announced next week.

They involve a frank admission that more money does mean better education, and they are designed to break a cycle of deprivation that has dominated education for half a century by investing money, talented teachers and bright ideas into struggling schools.

Private enterprise has been invited not only to contribute funds but also to play a part in running the action zones - Marks and Spencer and BT are just two of the big companies interested in providing sponsorship here. In America, High Street names like The Gap clothing store have contributed millions of dollars to privatised education (see story opposite).

British teachers reacted angrily last month to news that the Edison Project, which runs schools for profit on behalf of municipalities in the US, has held talks with civil servants at the Department for Education and Employment.

Education Secretary David Blunkett says companies will not be able to run schools for profit but that entrepreneurs will be able to sell their services. Ministers hope some of the ideas on offer may change the face of schools for good. They aim to use the zones to pilot policies which are likely to be introduced nationwide.

If the zones are a success, Labour may enter the next election proposing challenges to the established educational order of which the Conservatives never dreamed. Take teachers' contracts - suggestions have been circulating in Whitehall that a longer day and shorter holidays for teachers would help raise standards.

Teachers will reject anything that worsens their conditions of service so the zones will provide an interesting test of Ministers' resolve not only to think, but also to do, the unthinkable.