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30 August 1999

Business takes Blunkett for a ride

Half-price entrance to aquariums and free tickets to a water park: is that the best private enterpri

By Francis Beckett

The Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, is sitting on 47 glitzy presentations from people who hope he will give them between £500,000 and £750,000 a year for the next three years to run an education action zone. He has paid £20,000 for each of the proposals, so they have cost the cash-strapped education budget £940,000. Only he and I know exactly what he has bought with it.

Next month he will tell us which bids he has chosen. I have read them all, and I’d throw the lot out.

The leaders of the 47 consortia are only human; and they have done exactly what human beings do when lots of money is at stake. They have produced documents designed to bolster Blunkett in the two great illusions to which he clings.

The first of these illusions is that you can spend money for three to five years and, when you stop spending it, the flow will somehow continue. All the bids devote several paragraphs to “exit strategies” designed to reassure the minister that, at the end of the period, he can cut off the money, and improvements will continue. “As part of the exit strategy,” says the Bristol bid, “the achievements of the zone will be celebrated through a conference involving all the partners, including children and young people.” That should keep the money flowing. “Business links and continuing sponsorship arrangements will need to be developed,” says south-east Sheffield, hopefully.

The second and by far the more dangerous illusion is that the private sector is willing to bung in great chunks of money to improve education in deprived areas. All the bidders pretend that business is putting money into their zone. Without business money, Blunkett would have to get more taxpayers’ money and he has to appease a Prime Minister who appears to believe that nothing is worthwhile unless business puts money into it.

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Blunkett has had to scale down his expectations. When he first announced action zones, he said that one of the first five should be led by a private company and offered up to £250,000 of government money for each zone – but it had to be matched by the same amount from the private sector. No action zone is run by a private company, and none is likely to be. For this round, he is offering a straight £500,000 a year from the government. After that, there will be more government money, up to a total of £250,000, conditional on the same amount being raised.

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Business contributions can be “in kind” – perhaps the services of a superannuated executive to sit on committees, whose time can be estimated at generous consultancy rates. And “business” has tacitly been redefined so as to include trade unions, charities, churches and even other public sector bodies such as technology colleges.

North-east Derbyshire has appended letters from business sponsors to its bid. The local NatWest bank is “unfortunately not in a position to be able to offer any financial support” but will be glad to continue its help in kind. So, for example, more head teachers will be offered the opportunity afforded recently to John Young, who “has recently benefited from a teacher placement with Paul Adcock, NatWest’s area business manager”.

The Post Office can’t offer money, either, but “we have been able to do some initial scoping”. This “scoping” suggests things it might offer: “talks on professional skills for teachers/school staff/governors” and “telephone/customer answering techniques (interpersonal skills) for students”.

The diocese of Bradford cannot offer money, but “person power is available within the area”. The Bradford bid says: “We have good reason to believe that £250,000 in cash or kind will be forthcoming for three years.”

Ellesmere Port has letters from several companies, too. Associated Octel offers “to make the facilities of the Learning Centre open to local schools, providing hi-tech learning opportunities . . . Knowing the cost of setting up such a facility . . . you will be aware of the value of this offer”. Indeed: this assistance is in the zone’s accounts with £70,000 written against it. The local branch of Barclays Bank offers to send someone to sit on the “forum” that controls the zone and will ask for volunteers from its staff to sit on school governing bodies. It also offers “mentoring/contribution to training of staff especially regarding banking and financial matters” and work placements. The bid values the Barclays contribution at £30,000.

The Blue Planet Aquarium helpfully provides a note of the value of its contribution. It values, for example, “half-price entrance to aquarium for action zone pupils” at £12,500. “Staff time and expertise for curriculum development” is 50 hours at £30, a total of £1,500. Altogether the aquarium values its efforts at £23,000, and that’s the figure in the bid.

A four-line letter from the local branch of McDonald’s offers help “with particular reference to the Reading Volunteers Scheme and Mentoring as appropriate”. Somehow the bid manages to work out that this is worth £21,000. EA Technology is “keen to nurture gifted pupils . . . we seek to identify students wishing to study the sciences, particularly those synergistic with our company requirements”. In other words, it will recruit the staff it wants.

Preston has secured “in-kind support for various activities”, which it values at £10,000, from Preston North End Football Club and reduced fees at a local water park, which it values at £42,000, as well as an unspecified “in-kind contribution” from Marks & Spencer worth, apparently, £2,550. The zone partners are “confident that the target of £250,000 in cash or kind from the private sector will be met”.

South-east Sheffield is “in active negotiation” with two businesses, though “negotiations clearly cannot be completed until a firm approval is gained”. Presumably resistance has been encountered. Cranborne Pool and Redruth, in Cornwall, has a list of 54 local businesses “and invitations have been prepared for all to attend an Information and Involvement evening at a local hotel immediately after the success of our initial bid is confirmed”. That should do it, then.

Greenwich, according to the Department for Education, has raised the full amount – £250,000. The reality is that £200,000 of that comes from “specialist college sponsorship” – in other words, from other state schools. Allied Entertainments is putting in £10,000-worth of “reading role models, pilot sports”, whatever that means. McBer’s in-kind contribution of £10,000 will consist of “leadership and management, systems analysis”. Other contributors include the public sector trade union Unison, Woolwich College, Christchurch College Canterbury, the NSPCC and the local city technology college.

But then, Greenwich is in a rather special position. The Greenwich bid is astutely peppered with references to the Millennium Dome, which it lists as the first of the borough’s “significant educational developments”. Later the bid cheekily says: “To derive the maximum benefit for the schools in the zone from the major investment activity taking place in the year 2000, it would be beneficial for the zone to be established and ready to operate from the school term prior to the exhibition” – that is, from next month, instead of waiting until next year, as all the others have to do.

It worked. Greenwich has been told it can go ahead at once. Its bid was a masterpiece. All the buzzwords are there. One section is called “Joining up our thinking”, and there is a list of “strategic intents” full of feelgood words such as “dynamic partnership”, “community”, “frontiers” and “empower”.

This sort of vacuity runs through many of the bids. They are splendidly produced, with wonderful graphics. They offer top-heavy management structures: control coming from “forums”, or committees, with more than 20 people and a director whose salary ranges from £40,000 (Derby) to £70,000 (north-east Derbyshire).

These are supposed to appeal to business. None the less, only a few businesses have committed themselves to parting with hard cash. But the money is a drop in the ocean and hardly worth all the time and effort that has gone into raising it. We will be paying for school improvements through our taxes. And so we should be. But I for one resent the hype that has gone into trying to convince us that we are not paying for it and that we are the beneficiaries of charity from public-spirited businesses.