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'Money up front' ruling for new zones;Exclusion

Business under pressure to help New Labour's flagship project. Nicolas Barnard reports.

APPLICANTS for the second round of education action zones have been told they must tie down business partners to specific, costed pledges of cash or help.

While many of the first 25 zones are still trying to drum up private investment to reach their target of pound;250,000 a year, the next zones will have to sort out the money in advance.

That could prove a serious obstacle to some bids.

But with the Department for Education and Employment giving pound;20,000 each to the 15 most promising bids to work up detailed proposals, officials say they want something in return.

The DFEE has rewritten the rules for the second round so that zones will only get the last third of their pound;750,000 annual grant if they match it privately - although it is more relaxed about it being in kind rather than cash.

The role of the private sector was a key concern of heads, community leaders and businesses at the last of the 10 regional conferences held by the DFEE to promote the second round of zones.

DFEE official Chris Kirk told them: "By the April deadline we would certainly expect applicants to be able to set out where their private-sector support was coming from and we would expect to see letters of interest from those partners.

"Before the zone will be approved we would want letters setting out what the partnership will be providing, with dates and amounts."

The DFEE believes it is easier to pin down partners before a zone is launched.

But some in the first wave have found businesses more interested once the zone is running and specific projects are being put to them.

Despite the second round's direct appeal to parents, community groups and businesses, local education authorities remain the major players.

The DFEE has been notified of more than 60 bids so far, with local authorities a leading partner in at least two-thirds.

But that is already a smaller proportion than last time - local authorities lead all but two of the first wave - and the department expects it to fall further.

The easy access that councils have to data and schools means they are quickest to write bids.

Officials are advising bidders to establish "good relations" with the local authority and say that is the case in all bids supported so far.

But councils will not have a veto over applications.

Privately, officials admit the likelihood of bids led by parents is close to zero. But successful bidders will have to show parents have been consulted, and outline the role they will play. That was something that did not happen in the first round.

lSchools minister Estelle Morris and a group of British heads are to visit a controversial Australian scheme for attracting business sponsorship. Schools in the state of Victoria's "Education Trust" have business backing and a high level of autonomy. But teachers have criticised it as a move towards privatisation.

Analysis, page 21

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