Private companies such as BT, Nestle and Direct Line Insurance could soon be helping teachers in the London borough of Croydon to produce more employable pupils.
A group of nine schools and one FE college joined forces with business in launching a bid on Monday to become an education action zone. If approved, the area would receive pound;500,000 - half from the Government and half invested by the private companies.
While Croydon as a whole is not generally associated with high levels of deprivation, the New Addington estate area, according to local MP Geraint Davies, is "one of the most disadvantaged in south-east England. The wealth gap between kids in New Addington and those in the richest part of Croydon is greater than that between the United States and Sri Lanka". Only 12 per cent of pupils gain five GCSEs at A-C grades, compared to Croydon's average of 32 per cent.
The proposal aims to identify the crucial skills that make people employable so that it can provide "a skills-based curriculum from three years of age to adulthood".
The approach extends beyond education and training; schools will provide breakfast, lunch and tea, after-school activities, and "school based emotional and mental health support". The school year will be divided into five terms with a shorter summer break.
Schools in education action zones will be able to opt out of the national curriculum and teachers' pay and conditions. Geraint Davies suggested that the curriculum in the New Addington schools could be tailored more directly to the needs of employers. "We would be looking to have something more suitable for the local companies and jobs; some of the things being taught at the moment are not that relevant." He said that literacy and numeracy would remain sacrosanct.
"We are not looking to the companies to turn education on its head, but to seek new ideas from them."
He sees the plan to provide three meals a day in school as particularly important as part of a drive to attack social exclusion and social deprivation from all angles.
Croydon is the second authority to put together a bid for education action zone money; earlier this month it emerged that the London borough of Lambeth, a borough with a hard-left image, had joined CfBT education services to put in the first bid.
In addition to the New Addington bid, a group of 40 schools in north Croydon are expected to launch a bid in March. The deadline for bids is March 20 and five zones will be created this September, and another 20 in 1999.
Teacher unions have serious reservations about action zones. Dave Harvey, Croydon National Union of Teachers' spokesman, said that the union would oppose any plan to cut holidays by introducing a five-term year.
He said it was "regrettable" that the unions had not been invited to join discussions about New Addington education action zones. At a meeting to be held next week, the union is "very likely" to call on teacher governors to vote against involvement in the action zones.