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Tuesday, June 23, 1998 Published at 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK


Action zones mean business

Stephen Byers and Moody Stewart: "Working together to put children first"

What have Shell, McDonald's and Blackburn Rovers Football Club got in common?

They are all partners in organisations - known as forums - which are to run the 25 education action zones - the government's test beds for a new education system.

The government has been keen to get businesses working alongside parents, schools and local authorities in running the new zones. As well as helping to run the zones, businesses will contribute funds, expertise, staff and will "make a clear link between the world of education and the world of work".

Education Minister Stephen Byers welcomes the "business ethos" for schools on Radio 4's The World at One
Education Secretary David Blunkett, introducing the scheme, says that the business community will be represented in all of the zones, taking the lead in some places, such as the Halifax bank in the Halifax action zone, and acting as a joint partner in others, such as Kellogg's in Salford and American Express in Brighton.

The Conservative Party is saying it has been a flop: that the take-up has been very limited. Nevertheless there are hundreds of large and small outfits on board.

Part of the high-profile launch in London was at the Shell Centre: Shell is in the forum to run an action zone in Lambeth, along with companies including IBM and ICL and public bodies including the Metropolitan Police.

'Not about profit'

Why? Shell's Managing Director, Mark Moddy Stewart, said it was only one aspect of the company's involvement with education projects around the world.

"We are part of society," he said. "We contribute to society and schools are the most important bit of society.

"It's not a question of direct profit but a prosperous society is absolutely in everyone's commercial interest."

At his shoulder the Schools Standards Minister, Stephen Byers, said it was about getting schools to challenge themselves to make improvements in the way that good companies do. It was no gimmick.

"We want to introduce a new ethos to our school system. The successful companies involved set target for themselves and we want schools to set targets for improvement," the minister said.

"Business realises that we're not simply relying on rhetoric and that we are breaking new ground. What we will see ... in the zones up and down the country will be the test bed for the school system of the next century."

It was not about companies making profits out of schools, he said - though that happened every time they used a builder or a supplier of books.

"What counts is whether children are getting a good quality education. It's about people coming together in a positive partnership and putting the interests of children first."

A note of caution about the involvement of business was sounded by Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

"Education is too important to be left to business. There is an important role for business, in terms of additional support for schools, but education shouldn't be so dependent on the investment by industry that when it is reduced or ceases that teaching in these areas collapses," said Mr McAvoy.

From vouchers to zones

Another of the companies involved in the action zones project is the Capita Group - which ran the nursery vouchers scheme in England and Wales, dropped when Labour took office.

It is a key player in the partnership to run a zone in south-west Newham, and has a part in two other zones: Southwark, and Salford and Trafford, where it already provides support services.

Among the other businesses becoming partners in education action zones are Cadbury Schweppes in Birmingham, British Aerospace in Hull, Tate and Lyle and British Telecom in Newham, Brittany Ferries in Plymouth, Yorkshire Water in Sheffield, Nissan in South Tyneside and the Financial Times in Southwark.

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