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BOOK REVIEW / Map readings and extra-curricular activities: 'Radical Urban Solutions' - Dick Atkinson: Cassell, 12.99 pounds

SCHOOLS defended by steel shutters and security doors, armed guards patrolling the corridors, and outside the school gates a social life that has almost broken down: the momentum to greater decay seems so great as to be irreversible. Here is one route down which part of Britain is already heading. But it is not the only direction in which the country might move, nor is it inevitable, says Dick Atkinson. His new book provides a map and compass for a country that has the nerve to opt for something radically different.

Time is short. Too many young people have been voting with their feet and playing truant. A great conspiracy has existed between these pupils and the education authorities who do not want the aggro of having the pupils back in the classroom. At the same time, the job market is being transformed. Unskilled and semi-skilled men are being disenfranchised as far as work goes, with most of the new jobs going to women whose husbands are already in work. The impact of this revolution is already being felt in the poorest areas, with inactivity rates among men of 40 to 50 per cent.

Now add in the Labour Party. Atkinson sees the party as part of the problem. Labour grew to maturity at a time when heavy industry underpinned Britain's wealth and employment. Now, Labour's industrial support is becoming increasingly ghettoised in the shrinking public sector.

The irony, according to Atkinson, is that it is the Tories who have begun to turn public services over to the community. This is most clearly seen in education. Most of the reforms are now accepted, although they were bitterly resisted at the time. Remember all those dire warnings about what would happen if local management of schools was brought in?

These reforms are about to be extended. There is a real possibility that local education authorities will be abolished before the next election. Labour can take up its now familiar stance of defending the status quo - or it could begin thinking how it will take this initiative and present a totally remodelled education system.

If this is going to be a serious option, then Labour's leaders need to read Atkinson's book. He describes a great educational experiment from which lessons are drawn for the whole nation. Through this experiment - clearly driven by Atkinson - he explains how public services can be effectively delivered to communities on a better value for money basis, while strengthening the local community against the state.

Two parents, trade unionists, a teacher and the local priest were the midwives. In 1970 they formed a nursery centre in the empty church hall of St Paul's in Birmingham. It spread to include older children who roamed around before and after school. Together with the Language Alive programme, this group had the audacity only three years later to register its own independent school.

Here, then, was the prototype of what have since become opted-out schools. Representatives of the local community run and manage its finances. Atkinson rightly sees this project as much more than an education experiment - although with radically improving exam results it would be important enough on that score alone. It is a project about rebuilding collapsed local communities.

The Atkinson manifesto calls for a revolutionary community-based curriculum, a new breed of teacher and a regrouping of schools so that they form the backbone of urban villages. The community curriculum does not seem to me to be an essential part of this. What is urgently required is the building up of technical schools, which could offer perhaps up to 60 per cent of pupils a pukka education.

But that is a secondary point. Anyone interested in seeing how politics could develop over the remainder of this decade should read this book. Britain is in dire need of two kinds of entrepreneurs. We need many more in the business field. But we must also begin to prize social entrepreneurs. The creation of jobs, and the strengthening of society's sense of cohesion, could prevent Britain following America's path.