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New weapons in literacy war;News

Education action zones areusing ICT in the battle to raise literacy standards. Hugh John reports

Not entirely convinced by educational policies that place too much responsibility and planning at the chalkface? Feel constrained by the rigid demands of the national curriculum? Looking for a little more flexibility and the opportunity to develop programmes tailored to your pupils' particular requirements? Then perhaps what you need is an EAZ.

Education Action Zones, of which there are already 25, are, according to David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, "a key part of the Government's plans to raise standards in schools ... a dynamic framework within which schools in urban or rural areas can work together with parents, businesses, teachers, LEAs and community organisations".

The first 12 zones were launched last September and a further 13 in January. Each zone will embrace two or three secondary schools, their feeder primaries and special schools - typically between 15 and 20 schools - and will be "in areas facing challenging circumstances in terms of underachievement or disavantage".

Funding is a mixture of public and private, with government providing up to pound;750,000 a year per zone for three to five years and business another pound;250,000 over the same period. Strategy will be formulated by an action forum that typically includes parents, representatives of the various educational institutions and other parts of the local authority as well as members of the business community.

Blunkett has acknowledged that traditional educational solutions are not working in these areas and sees each zone as a "testbed for innovation". It is hoped that partnerships with local businesses will re-invigorate education within the community. Lambeth, for example, in inner south London, is working with partners including the National Theatre, Shell International, IBM, ICL and the Metropolitan Police to provide a host of extra-school activities.

There are schemes to promote family literacy, and breakfast and after-school clubs are being established. As well, members of the action forum will be looking at Saturday schools run by members of the Afro-Caribbean community to provide their children with learning opportunities over and above those offered by state schools.

Tim Emmett, project director for Lambeth, welcomes the flexibility that the zones seem to offer. "Any structure that is likely to address teacher morale, enhancing the profession and recruitment opportunities can only be good. You can create a zone within a structure where normal rules need not apply. That is potentially a very liberating opportunity," he says.

Department for Education and Employment guidelines allow for changes in the programmes of study for core curriculum subjects as long as it does not compromise "high standards in literacy and numeracy or affect the required assessment of pupils". More contentiously, action forums will be able, should they so desire, to alter the timing of teaching by changing the school day, week or year.

In neighbouring Southwark, partnerships have been set up with South Bank University, the Financial Times and Optimum Health Trust. Projects have been instigated to tackle the typical inner-city problems of truancy and disaffection and a family literacy network scheme is being established to give parents support.

In common with other action zones, Southwark has set itself targets that the Government expects it to meet. Overall assessment of the scheme will be undertaken by University College Cardiff and South Bank University.

At the chalkface, Paul Lewis, head teacher of Tower Bridge Primary, hopes that being part of the north Southwark action zone will improve the "collegiality" between schools in the zone and lead to the provision of greater resources.

"The north Southwark zone has very worthwhile targets in terms of literacy, numeracy and ICT and very innovative targets in linking healthcare and education," he says. Working with healthcare professionals from Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Action Zones, participating schools should be better equipped to identify and deal with health-related problems at an early stage.

The introduction of the action zone has, according to Irene Solare, operational manager of Lewisham and Guys Mental Health Trust, "given us a real chance for the first time to initiate debate between health and education focused on the all-round needs of children".

In Essex, the East Basildon zone is working with RM, Basildon District Council and Essex LEA to further develop the potential of ICT. Phil Hemmings, head of corporate affairs at RM and a member of the zone's planning group, points out that technology has already transformed teaching and learning. He suggests that "the Internet and integrated learning services will fundamentally change educational approaches in the next millennium".

There are plans for a Virtual Teachers Centre, video conferencing for staff training and the creation of an intranet for member schools. Alan Roach, headteacher of Chalvedon School is enthusiastic: "ICT is a terrific force for breaking down barriers - barriers between schools, between teachers and learners and between education and the wider community."

If education action zones do manage to reach their ambitious and worthy goals one suspects that it will not be through the injection of cash from government or help and support from industry - welcome as these benefits obviously are - but the infusion of fresh ideas, strategies and solutions that, with the support of teachers, will take education into the 21st century.

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