Education action zones have not had a good press. Castigated for failing to hit fundraising targets, they were soon overtaken by the punchier, better funded, Excellence in Cities programmes as the apple in ministers' eyes.
Last year the Government announced the end: no new zones, and from next December, Ian Turnbull could be looking for a job. He is the director of the Hull's zone at Bransholme, a huge estate on the city's northern fringe. Council houses are surrounded by retail parks and industrial estates. There are a clutch of primaries and two big secondary high schools.
If anywhere needed education action it was Bransholme: standards were poor and aspirations throttled by some of the worst social deprivation in England. This is the 12th most deprived council ward in the country, with three times the national average number of children in care and the highest teen pregnancy rate in Europe.
"We knew that results were poor," says Turnbull. "But there was a real belief that we could raise standards."
From the start, the zone pulled in businesses to partner schools, although not for fundraising. Northern Foods encouraged two retired employees to support Kingswood, a Fresh Start school that opened in 1999. Former training manager Tony Clark became chair of governors and John Groome used years of experience in public relations to handle a sometimes hostile press.
Groome's skills were soon in demand. Kingswood's top-grade GCSE figures slumped to 2.7 per cent in 2000, one of the lowest in the country. Some business partners would have baled out at that stage, but Clark and Groome stayed. A local development company, Kingswood Parks, initiated a rewards scheme to pay pound;100 to all Kingswood pupils who hit the 5 GCSEs target. This year Kingswood's results hit 21 per cent.
"We are probably one of the most successful Fresh Start schools," says a delighted Tony Clark. The rewards scheme helped, but he emphasises the importance of other interventions: a new Year 7 teaching base, literacy programmes in primary schools, and funding to work with children behaving badly.
"We wouldn't have achieved anything without professional support from the EAZ and the LEA," he says. And there was additional support from an unlikely quarter. While the local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, was screaming for the resignation of Hull's chief education officer, its assistant editor, Marc Astley, volunteered to sit on the zone's board. The paper went on to run an eight-page supplement to help highlight successes every term. The first focused on Kingswood.
In the past 18 months, the zone has seen the first real fruits of its work. Standards are up, while partnerships are in place and teachers have a different view of the potential of their pupils.
"It came from the challenges we set ourselves,' says Ian Turnbull. "And those challenges came from the questions asked by business partners, from the mandate the EAZ had to raise standards, and from the fact that we weren't a bunch of officers coming in from outside - this was a partnership."
Jack Harrison is head of Biggin Hill primary, named after the famous Second World War RAF base and sharing the same desire to reach for the sky. But it wasn't always like that. "One of the main challenges I faced was low expectations by pupils and staff," says Mr Harrison. "The attitude was: 'What do you expect from kids like this?''' Five years later Biggin's results have flown as high as those wartime Spitfires. This summer's Level 4 key stage 2 results were: English, 73 per cent; maths, 88 per cent; and science, 98 per cent. Many primaries in the suburbs would be joyous, but not the teachers at Biggin Hill.
"The staff were disappointed that we didn't get more Level 5s," says Harrison. "The whole culture has changed. Many of our children now talk about going to college. The EAZ has been a very important partner in this - not in terms of money: more often than not it has been advice, getting people together."
Biggin Hill has also helped to pilot Success for All, an American programme focusing on oracy and literacy. "Think of it as a 90-minute literacy hour," says Mr Harrison. Biggin Hill's ICT co-ordinator Barbara Alders has written programs that allow the software to be used on interactive whiteboards. The American authors were sceptical about how it could be used back home. "US schools don't have whiteboards," they told Ms Alders wistfully.
Tony Evans runs Winifred Holtby, one of the biggest 11-16 schools in England, with more than 1,600 children on roll. "It's a tough school," he says. "It's ambitious, busy and wonderful, but it's tough with a capital T."
The place has been given the same kind of kickstart through a vocational learning programme.
"The unravelling of the national curriculum has allowed us to offer a more appropriate curriculum for our pupils," says Mr Evans. In 1998, the school got 16 per cent A*-C GCSE grades. A large proportion of pupils were leaving school with very few formal qualifications.
"We felt that the curriculum was not meeting the needs of 50 per cent of our young people," says the deputy head, Kevin Shaw. The school decided to invest in GNVQ, but Shaw and Evans managed to avoid the problems faced by many other schools, where the different culture at GNVQ presented real difficulties for teachers used to a more didactic approach.
"The step to GNVQ is a big leap for staff," says Evans. So, supported by the action zone, he approached local colleges.
"We began with 50 students doing health and social care, off-site at out local college. We double-staffed these courses so that teachers could develop their skills by working alongside the college lecturers. The long-term aim was to bring that provision back into the school and in 1999 we applied to become a centre."
The school now offers the full range of intermediate and foundation GNVQ, and has seen its results leap to 28.8 per - 6 per cent of that achieved through the GNVQ intermediate courses.
"It's not been an exercise to achieve exam output," says Shaw. "Young people value GNVQ: it's their work, at their pace."