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Action zones will mature

AS the chair of a succeeding and standards-raising education action zone, the article "Action zones frozen out" (TES, January 5) causes concern to all those who are striving to apply fruitfully this government initiative.

Our own zone, set up at the start of 2000 in inner-city east Manchester, is producing significant benefits for the 5,900 pupils and 340 staff in our 17 schools.

A balanced programme of activity has provided significant improvements to the quality and processes of teaching, learning and attainment in our schools. Substantial additional provision has been made for the promotion of excellence and social inclusion, and we have already started to act to strengthen the involvement of our local community and other agencies in our schools.

This new period of improved collaboration between schools, and the refreshing of the "can-do" ethos in individual schools, has provided the right climate for a wide range of innovations. Our new vocational learning centre - funded largely by major construction companies - opened in October, and now provides national vocational qualifications in construction for just over 100 key stage 4 pupils. Many will find employment in the rebuilding of east Manchester before and after the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Recruitment and retention difficulties are being addressed in part by the appointment of our student teacher training manager, working with Manchester Metropolitan University. Our first "reading champion" has been appointed: a local sports celebrity recruited from the Manchester Giants basketball eam.

Clearly much of the work undertaken will only show extensive impact upon standards in the medium to longer term. Like all good produce, the key players in education policy must therefore allow zones and their work to mature over time. Early fruits are therefore a welcome bonus, so we are pleased that two zone schools are to come out of special measures, and early indicators have shown improvements in key stage 1 above the Manchester education authority rate of improvement.

As with many government initiatives which are designed to be refined, with hindsight one could say that too many policy objectives were interwoven into the scheme at the outset - engaging the initiative, expertise and resources of the private sector; encouraging revisions to pay and conditions of teachers and other staff; seeking to find alternatives to LEAs as vehicles of local management and service delivery; and envisaging government bodies ceding their management powers to zone forums. In addition, bureaucratic tasks and accounting responsibilities soon proved to be unexpectedly burdensome.

Nonetheless, most zones have clearly focused on the single pivotal objective of genuinely and sustainably raising standards for all across a range of indicators. Despite the increased prominence and massive resources of the Excellence in Cities initiative, zones still have a key role to play. Now is not the time for cold feet, despite the onset of an election.

The Rev Tim Hopkins Chair of East Manchester education action zone 187 Grey Mare Lane Beswick, Manchester

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