Department for Education and Employment officials are concerned that the Government's flagship policy could be heading for the rocks because many of the bids are not radical enough and lack imagination. The first 25 will be announced later this month, with 12 starting in September Stephen Byers, school standards minister, says the zones will be a test bed for the education system of the future. But DFEE officials, who are visiting all the proposed schemes, are worried they are not living up to the minister's brief.
In one case, a head was removed from his post because the department's advisers felt he was not charismatic enough. Concerns that Perronet Thompson - a school on special measures in Hull and part of a zone bid- was not progressing fast enough led to pressure on the education authority to move the head so the bid's chances would not be jeopardised. The local authority agreed to redeploy him.
Elsewhere, bidders have been encouraged to make sure they take on advanced skills teachers as part of their schemes. And a DFEE official told the leaders of one northern scheme their plans were not sexy enough.
Zone organisers will be able to scrap teachers' present pay and conditions and will not be bound by the national curriculum. But the teacher unions have said they will attempt to block any changes to their members' conditions.
One local authority officer said: "The DFEE wants us to scrap the teachers' pay and conditions document, but we have to make sure the unions are on board if the zones can go ahead."
The DFEE is also concerned that the bids are not experimental enough in areas such as the curriculum. One official said: "Apart from tinkering with the school day, too few are putting forward exciting ideas."
John Bangs, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers, blamed the department for allowing less than three months for bids to be put together. He said there were "all sorts of contradictory messages" when the zones were announced. "There were concerns it was an attempt to bring private companies in to run education.
"In many cases local authorities have built on already existing partnerships, so it isn't surprising that many of them do not look new or innovative."
Last month, during the committee stage of the Schools Standards and Framework Bill - which sets up the zones - Baroness Blatch, Conservative education spokesman, said: "Civil servants have been out and about ...sometimes coercing a positive response to becoming an action zone."