Schools in the education action zones will alter the curriculum to spend more time on literacy and numeracy, according to Education and Employment spokesman David Blunkett - an experiment that Labour says will affect its thinking on the future shape of the national curriculum as a whole.
If Labour wins the election, education action zones would give extra funding, including National Lottery money, to areas of social and economic deprivation.
In policy terms the initiative is the counterweight to demands from Labour that all schools hit minimum standards of academic achievement - whatever the social problems they face.
Labour has come to the view that deprivation is no excuse for failure, but that schools in difficult circumstances have a right to help.
According to details out this week, the action zones would set targets for improvements in standards, increase the staying-on rates of 16-year-olds, cut truancy and improve discipline; and increase qualification rates (Labour wants to see every 16-year-old achieving at least five good GCSEs or the equivalent).
Each action zone would include at least one specialist school and at least one "early excellence centre". These centres would aim to promote good-quality nursery schooling, bringing child-care and education under one roof.
The scheme also promises a "new deal for the young unemployed", linking businesses with schools and colleges to help find jobs, or places on an environmental task-force.
The main thrust, however, will be on the educational basics.
"The education action zones will immediately be expected to put a much stronger focus on literacy and numeracy in their primary schools by freeing up the national curriculum," says a new policy document.
"There will be the opportunity for an hour a day to be devoted to each subject."