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Sunday, 12 April, 1998, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Teachers attack education action zones
The NUT fears private involvement in schools
Britain's largest teachers union, the National Union of Teachers, has attacked a key proposal in the government's plan to improve education in regions where schools standards are considered to be poor.

The plan to create 25 such zones is at the heart of the government's campaign to raise standards.

But the proposals came under fire at the NUT's annual conference in Blackpool on Sunday.

In a vote delegates narrowly stopped short of backing strike action in the event of the zones threatening teachers' pay and working conditions.

Increased flexibility and private help

Ministers say under-performing areas need a shake-up
Under the policy, extra state funding would be targeted on groups of schools each run by a new forum, bringing together local community and business interests as well as local councils.

Business sponsorship would also bring in extra money. The schools - around 20 in each zone - would be allowed to scrap existing agreements on pay and conditions and offer better deals to attract the best teachers.

They would also be able to suspend the National Curriculum to design lessons more appealing to "disaffected" youngsters.

Ministers see the zones as testing grounds for innovations that might later be spread to the rest of the state system.

Losing out

But Sue McMahon, one NUT delegate, expresed the concerns of many teachers when she told the conference: "We have no guarantees that our jobs will be safe or promises that our rights will not be withdrawn."

She accused Labour of having a vision of "a promised land led by private initiatives, business magnates and right wing educationalists".

NUT leaders are also opposed in principle to providing extra resources to some schools in poor areas, while others - possibly with equally pressing needs - get none.

However, the conference narrowly voted against a motion calling for industrial action, up to and including strikes, if the policy threatens teachers' pay. Instead the union is to campaign to protect members' interests.

Pragmatic move

The result followed a warning against strike action from Pete Bishop, a member of the union's executive council.

He said that as the government was determined to introduce the new policy it would be more productive to negotiate with ministers about the exact nature of the zones.

Bishop: proposing talks
"If you want to stand on the sidelines and shout, fine. But with the political commitment of all three parties all you will end up doing is getting a sore throat," he said.

Ministers have recently been seeking to calm "privatisation" fears, stressing that local education authorities will play a key role in all zones.

NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy has also said he has received assurances from the government that no firm will make a profit out of involvement in a zone.

See also:

21 Mar 98 | UK
The ABC of literacy
11 Apr 98 | UK
Teachers call for strikes
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