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26 November 2001

They wasted £57m, but didn’t learn

Francis Beckett on how ministers plan to repeat the errors of their pet project for schools

By Francis Beckett

One doesn’t want to gloat. The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, can be assured that I don’t want to bang on about how, back in 1998, I warned in these columns that her department’s pet project, education action zones, was bound to fail. I don’t want to dwell on the sneers that this provoked from her then boss, David Blunkett. Nor do I want to boast about how the details of bids to run the zones, which ministers had tried to keep secret, were revealed to New Statesman readers so that they could see how hollow they were.

Indeed, beyond a passing mention that I feel a bit like the people who questioned the Millennium Dome, and were chided by Peter Mandelson for their lack of imagination, I would be quite happy to pass over this month’s admission – by the schools minister, Stephen Timms – that education action zones have failed.

Unfortunately, this is not possible. New Labour, both by the graceless bluster with which it admitted failure and by its present policies, has shown that it has learnt nothing from the debacle. It is preparing to bung more public money, if not into the same black hole, then into adjacent, and even bigger, black holes.

New readers start here. Soon after the 1997 election, the government announced plans to raise standards by putting new money and new ideas into clusters of up to 20 schools, mostly in deprived areas. These clusters were called education action zones. Bids to run zones were invited from local partnerships, which had to include business.

The government would put £750,000 into each zone once that zone had proved that business was giving it another £250,000. Business money did not have to be cash; it could be “donations in kind”.

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So all the zone hopefuls put into their bids a series of ludicrous tall tales about business generosity in order to open the government’s purse strings. In Blackburn, a few local business worthies agreed to sit on the zone management committee, and that went down as an £80,000-a-year contribution. In Newham, east London, the construction giants Mowlem and Laing agreed to take action-zone pupils to their offices and tell them about how splendid it was to work in construction (an industry with an acute recruitment crisis). This was called a £40,000 donation.

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A Bradford company allowed two managers to give occasional advice, and Bradford’s grateful action zone called that £5,000 a year. The Blue Planet Aquarium in Ellesmere Port offered half-price entrance for zone pupils: there, that’s another £12,500 donation. And so on.

It suits companies to give “in kind” donations. Either it costs nothing – for example, the services of a superannuated manager too senior to fire and too tired to be any use, who can sit on committees. Or it suits the company to provide branded products to use as teaching materials, which will accustom children to buying its products, or to provide a forum in which it can recruit bright school-leavers to its staff.

So the zones, which were supposed to breed educational innovation, found their strategy dictated largely by whatever the companies chose to give. Little wonder that Timms has admitted that standards in action-zone secondary schools were improving more slowly than the national average (though in primary schools, to be fair, they are increasing faster).

The cost has been enormous. Each applicant for zone status got £20,000 to draw up the bid, so the bids alone cost more than £2m. Each of the 73 zones got £750,000, which is almost £55m.

And yet Timms, when pulling the plug on the scheme, still claimed that it had brought into education £37m from the private sector, without mentioning that nearly all of that is the sort of pretend money described above. It is a pretty poor return for a public investment of £57m. If that money had gone straight into education, it would have done some good.

Action zones, said Timms with an absolutely straight face, “have proved that the voluntary and business communities have a lot to offer our schools”. They have proved nothing of the kind, but every policy the government still has for improving schools assumes that they have. The excellence in cities scheme, the new specialist secondary schools, city academies – all rest on the assumption that business will step in, offering money to plough into schools and expertise to improve them.

For example, a school that successfully applies for specialist school status – in technology, arts or languages, say – will get substantial extra government funding, making it richer than neighbouring schools. But successful applicants must also raise £50,000 from business, and this time it has to be cash: in-kind donations won’t do.

The result is that, throughout the country, schools that already have a staffing crisis are diverting precious teaching resources into taking their begging bowls round local businesses. They need to find out what local business wants to hear, and what sort of school it wants on its doorstep, and then make sure they are providing it. This is a task for which teachers are not trained (yet, anyway), and many schools are talking of hiring the necessary expertise, which means diverting more funds into expensive sponsorship consultants.

What this does is to ensure that business decides which schools get extra government money. The message is not: here are public-spirited businesses helping the government to educate our children. It is: we have a debased and demoralised public education service, which for years has been told that it is inherently inferior to the private sector, and which no longer has the confidence to decide what schools to support. So it has asked business to take the decision.