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Barber declares action zones are go

Billed as a radical innovation but unveiled without fanfare Frances Rafferty and Nicolas Barnard report from the Newham launch

THE first 12 education action zones - the so-called test beds of the future - came into being this week. However, the majority will be leaderless until next year.

There was no fanfare from the Department for Education and Employment for the launch of its most radical policy.

Instead it was left to Michael Barber, head of the department's Standards and Effectiveness Unit to address a mass gathering of the players from the east London zone, in Newham.

Lambeth, Herefordshire and Newham have their zone managers in place; the rest are interviewing this month. Middlesbrough has had to readvertise and is likely to look for a secondment.

"I think now we'll probably attract a lot more people because the life of the zone is three years and high calibre people might be reluctant to give up good jobs for just three years," said Cheryl Berry, Middlesbrough's director of education. Professor Barber said: "The cautious start is the right way to go about it. They haven't had that long."

He told his audience that the zones were crucial to Labour's plans to create a "world-class education service".

"This programme is about encouraging local initiative, offering people opportunities to innovate and address old problems with new solutions," he said.

There is still great enthusiasm for the zones and optimism that the schemes, projects and extra money will benefit those involved. But whether the first zones will be the vanguards of radical change in the education system remains to be seen.

Jane Wreford, the former North Somerset director of education, said: "Many of the ideas are interesting, but they're not the wacky off-the-wall stuff the Government was talking about at the beginning."

Wendy Webber, zone co-ordinator in Barnsley, said: "We don't envisage great changes in the way schools are run. The main benefit is the buzz for the heads and schools involved, who feel they are receiving attention and who will benefit from the extra staff training and the extra resources for information technology."

The amount of cash input from the business sector has not greatly increased over the summer. The majority are providing services rather than donating money to add to the pound;750,000 a year from the Government. The original intention was for the private sector to contribute pound;250,000 to each zone.

Roger Edwardson, lead officer for the Newcastle zone, said their initial business plan had assumed the pound;250,000 would come in cash; instead almost all of it was being offered in kind. Some plans could now have to be scaled down unless sponsors can help out; for example instead of appointing three IT consultants, the zone is looking for secondees from business.

The summer has been used by those organising the zones, largely local authority staff, to put the legal paperwork in place, tying up links with business partners, opening bank accounts and setting up the forums. All the zones submitted their operational plans by the end of August and have until the end of October to draw up their action plans.

Most zones have plans to involve the local community, either by sending information to all homes, via pupils' post, or by holding public meetings.

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