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Superheads wait in action zone wings

Parliament will now debate two Education Bills - both controversial. Frances Rafferty and Allen Edwards report.

The Government is proposing to send in "super" heads and governors to take over clusters of schools in education action zones. The idea is outlined in the Government's centrepiece standards legislation, to be published next week.

Stephen Byers, school standards minister, told chief education officers at their annual conference at Warwick University that one head could take charge of secondary schools and their feeder primaries in areas designated an education action zone.

These "super" heads and governors will be in the vanguard to raise standards in deprived parts of the country. The education action zones will co-ordinate with health and employment action zones.

But even before the ink is dry on the legislation, there are signs that the plan could run into trouble. Headteachers in the east London borough of Newham are furious that their local education authority is proposing to bid to become an action zone. They point to the recent performance tables, which show their schools are improving and fear that a superhead will be parachuted in.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said local authorities would have to treat the issue with sensitivity. He said: "The concept sounds potentially exciting and could be of great benefit to pupils from deprived backgrounds. But will the schools in an education action zone necessarily be failing or on special measures?

"They could be labelled as underperforming, but may have had satisfactory inspections. We are all in favour of good heads being brought in to take over difficult schools, however we are concerned that policy in education action zones is being made up on the hoof."

Mr Byers said the scheme would start with five action zones and eventually reach 25. He said: "These plans are new and exciting. This is an example of flexibility being used to spread best practice."

The Schools Standards and Framework Bill will be published next week. It will run in parallel with the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which was launched in the House of Lords this week and introduces tuition fees, new arrangements for student loans, a year's induction course for new teachers, a General Teaching Council, a professional qualification for heads and a new focus on literacy and numeracy.

Ministers won their argument to hive off the potentially troublesome tuition fees legislation from their standards Bill which will tackle failing teachers and introduce target-setting and foundation schools.

A Government source said: "Education is being treated very well. It's managed to get space for two Bills. It means that we are not going to have the distraction of debating about tuition fees . . . so we can concentrate on school standards. The agenda is not going to be sidetracked. It's good news."

He added that the standards Bill would differ in parts from the White Paper because the Government had taken note of points made in the consultation period. The Bishops have now been appeased by a change which retains voluntary-controlled status and concessions on admissions policy. There were more than 8,000 contributions, more than half responses to leaflets displayed in supermarkets.

The Government fears its own backbenchers could cause problems over tuition fees. The announcement of the Goverment response to Sir Ron Dearing's higher education report resulted in embarrassment this summer when it appeared that gap-year students had been ignored.

The most controversial part of the standards Bill is the creation of foundation schools, the successor to grant-maintained schools.

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