EDUCATION Secretary David Blunkett this week admitted that the Government's flagship education action zones were "over-hyped" at their launch three years ago.
He conceded that the programme, which aimed to create public-private partnerships to improve schools in deprived areas, had not produced hoped-for innovations.
However, he said that the policy did not deserve the "ridicule" it had received in some quarters, because it had helped bring about dramatic improvements in schools' results, particularly in the primary sector.
The admission came after a report on six zones by the Office for Standards in Education. Inspectors found that all of the zones had exceeded national improvements over the past two years in key stage 2 English tests.
One, in Southwark, central London, improved at double the national average. The proportion of pupils hitting expected levels climbed by 20 percentage points in 1998-2000.
In maths, four zones had faster-than-average gains at key stage 2. Inspectors said the zones had played a part in these gains. All had instigated programmes to raise standards of literacy and numeracy in primaries, many of which were effective.
The zones used their extra funding - pound;750,000 from the Government matched by pound;250,000 from private sources - to employ extra specialist teachers ad classroom assistants.
But at secondary level, the initiative was far less effective. Only one of the inspected zones, Salford and Trafford, Greater Manchester, improved proportions of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs.
Inspectors said that the zones had "not often been test-beds of genuinely innovative action".
Speaking at the Adam Smith Institute, the right-wing think-tank, Mr Blunkett said: "(The EAZ initiative) was over-hyped. We expected too much of people at the local level ... but it was a tremendous effort to get the public and business sector working together.
"I'm really sorry people have ridiculed it because, while we have not had the innovation people expected, we have made a lot of progress."
Graham Lane, education chair of the Local Government Association, claimed the zones had always been more about raising standards for inner-city pupils than creating "radical" new ideas.
John Bangs, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the zones' success in the primary sector suggested that the Government should give schools more opportunities to work together.
The zones inspected were: Blackburn with Darwen, Halifax, Kitts Green and Shard End (Birmingham), North Southwark, Salford and Trafford and Weston-super-Mare.