Parents and business will be on an equal footing with local education authorities in the second wave of the initiative. Geraldine Hackett reports
THE GOVERNMENT intends to create a second wave of new-style education action zones that could be led by parents, schools or businesses.
Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, this week promised to simplify the application process for the next round of zones in a way that would deprive local education authorities of any bidding advantage.
Parents and companies will have to be provided with the information on schools needed to draft an application.
Most of the 25 zones announced last week are to be led and run by local authorities.
David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, has already said he is thinking about creating a further 75 zones before the next election.
In a speech to the right-wing Social Market Foundation, Mr Byers heralded action zones as proof that the Government is developing a "third way" that breaks with the conventions of the old Left and the new Right.
He said: "Action zones are not just about turning round failing schools. They are about new ways of looking at education and delivering our schools system for the future."
Their development would be a barometer of the Government's willingness to embrace new thinking in the pursuit of raising standards, he said.
The level of opposition to zones, Mr Byers said, demonstrated the potential they held for fundamental change. "Those cynics who stand on the side-line and carp need to understand that this is a revolution which has begun," he warned.
The minister rejected criticism that the first 25 zones had failed to live up to expectations that they would encourage innovation in schools.
He said: "The zones approved contain many proposals that would have been regarded as impossible to achieve just 12 months ago - performance-related pay for teachers; ditching the national curriculum; agreed working on Saturdays and school holidays."
In setting out the role for local education authorities, Mr Byers warned that the Government would come down hard on those that failed to raise standards in their schools.
He cited the deadline set for Manchester to report on the action it is taking on pupils out of school, and the task force that was sent into the London borough of Hackney, as examples of the Government's willingness to take tough action.
However, local education authorities would be given powers to intervene in schools that are failing to deliver high-quality education. Mr Byers said:
"The view of this Government is that when a local education authority works well it can add value to a school. That is why the prime responsibility of the local education authority of the future must be to support school improvement. "
Central to the Government's strategy, he said, was the acceptance of diversity in the school system. One of the priorities over the next months would be to identify ways in which excellent schools could be allowed to get on with what they do without distraction.
"For those (schools) that are already excellent, why not a greater freedom to continue to achieve high levels of attainment and active encouragement to share the secret of their success?" Mr Byers said.
* Contrasting zones, page 9