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Fears of Labour agenda hamper action zone plan

Some deprived areas are spurning the scheme set up to benefit them, report Geraldine Hackett and Sarah Cassidy

The Government's plan for a brave new world of education action zones is meeting resistance from schools and teacher unions on a scale that means some very deprived areas will not take part in the scheme.

The zones are to get pound;500,000 a year for three years, half of which has to be raised from the private sector.

The final number of bids for zone status is likely to be well over the 25 which ministers want to approve in the first tranche. However, poorer counties such as Lancashire and Durham and the deprived areas of North Tyneside, Hartlepool, Brent and Tower Hamlets will not be participating.

Local authority officials are finding that schools and teachers are not willing to cooperate because they fear the Government has an agenda that would be imposed on the zones.

One official who has drafted Sheffield's bid, says: "We can assure them that we have no intention of changing teachers' pay and conditions or removing powers from the governors. They are not always convinced."

John Sinnott, head of policy and research in Tower Hamlets, said only a couple of school governing bodies showed any interest at all.

"We are a fairly uniform area of disadvantage. It would be hard to see how one group of schools could be singled out as more deserving than the rest," he said.

Ministers' problems are not confined to areas wary of bidding; the promise that at least one action zone would be led by a private company - the so-called Proctor and Gamble solution - is unlikely to be realised.

The deadline for zone bids is today, Friday, but a number of local authorities are likely to inform the Department for Education and Employment that they will not proceed if they are required to change teachers' conditions of service.

In Birmingham there is concern that local authorities are being expected to prepare bids even though the rules will not become clear until the Education Bill becomes law in late summer. The bids being submitted by Birmingham make clear there is no intention to suspend the teachers' contract, and school governing bodies will not be required to cede powers to the action zone forum.

On the basis of the evidence currently available, there must be doubt that education action zones will fulfil the stated wish of Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, that they will be the test bed for the school system of the next century.

However, the Government can take heart from the Lambeth bid. The local authority has put in a joint application with the education consultancy, CFBT, that covers two secondary schools and 20 primaries. Despite the early stage of the bidding process, the council is already advertising for an action zone director at a salary of pound;50,000.

In the London borough of Southwark, governors of a Church of England primary, the Cathedral school, have voted against taking part in an action zone on the grounds that some schools would gain at the expense of others.

Lancashire council decided not to put in a bid because schools did not show sufficient interest. Chris Trinick, the chief education officer, said:"We looked very carefully at the scheme and the private- sector interest was there, but at the end of the day it is for schools to decide.

" We considered establishing a scheme in Skelmersdale, but it was felt the mechanisms for school improvement were already in place and we didn't want to deflect resources from that."

Ministers will have a range of bids from which to choose. They include a scheme submitted by Essex council for a group of 30 schools which includes two grant-maintained comprehensives. The Liverpool plan is for the depressed areas around Everton, Dingle and Toxteth and is expected to include changes to the national curriculum.

John Perry, head of education services, said: "We will be giving additional time to IT, the performing arts and PE, subject to approval from the Secretary of State. We do not believe targets can be delivered in the traditional school day. We want to change the infrastructure and have pupils learning in the evenings, weekends and holidays."

The DFEE is expecting between 50 and 60 bids, a much lower number than originally envisaged. Of those, there are fears that only between 10 and 15 are in a state that do not require further substantial work.

The local authorities have been told they do not at this stage have to demonstrate they already have agreements from the private sector for their half share of the extra funds.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said concern had been expressed by teachers in Croydon, Middlesbrough, Newham and Lancashire about the prospect of changes to pay and conditions.

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