Education action zones were the route to success in deprived areas. But now ministers are questioning their future. Jon Slater investigates
Leigh Park is just the kind of place that Labour pledged to regenerate when it came to power almost four years ago. The estate, north of Portsmouth, was the largest in Europe when it was built. It suffers from high unemployment and includes the most deprived constituency in the south of England. For years the area was known as a crime blackspot.
Schools in the area have long struggled against the odds to educate pupils - often unsuccessfully. In 1998, only around 10 per cent of pupils left one of the two local secondary schools with five or more A*-C grades at GCSE.
When Labour announced that new education action zones would be created to tackle disadvantage in deprived areas, Leigh Park was an obvious candidate. After an abortive initial attempt to win action zone status, the area's bid was approved second time round.The benefits to the 16 schools which make up the EAZ are considerable. Every year each of the 73 large action zones across England receives pound;500,000 and another pound;250,000 if they can match it with business sponsorship. In return they are asked to act as "hotbeds" of innovation, to try out new ways of raising standards in some of the most difficult areas of the country.
In the early stages the Government stressed the opportunities for business involvement in zones, but it has not gone according to plan. The most common drive behind areas which choose to bid for EAZ status has come from local authorities keen to get extra cash for their schools, but in Leigh Park the impetus came from the schools themselves.
They had already banded together, sharing good practice and co-operating in a drive to raise standards. Zone status was a way to expand that work.
"We'd had some funding from Hampshire Council but that probably wasn't going to continue," says Diana Nottingham, head of Trosnant infant school.
"Working together is no longer a snatched opportunity at the end of each day. Being an action zone gives us more time and space - more brain space."
Her counterpart at Warren Park primary, Colin Harris, believes that the fact that the zone was built on an existing partnership has made a big difference."The action zone here was not a bolt-on. You've got some who've set up from nil who're still learning to talk to each other," he says.
"What it's enabled us to do is think clearly about our direction. Money is not an issue under an EAZ; you can be creative."
Results have risen rapidly at primary level. The zone exceeded all its targets at key stage 1 and 2 this year. The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 in English is now 56 per cent compared to just 40 per cent in 1998. Even GCSE results are now improving - 17 per cent of pupils now gain five or more A*-C grades, although this is just below the zone's target.
In this, Leigh Park is typical. Improvement in primary schools within EAZs has outstripped schools elsewhere, but the improvement has not yet fully fed through to secondary level.
A common criticism of EAZs, and one shared privately by ministers, is that they have not been bold enough, but both Mr Harris and Sue Wright, the zone's director, are wary of innovation for innovation's sake."It's about relationships, passion and belief. Innovation is not always the right thing to do. No one ever questions whether innovating for the sake of it is going to work," says Mrs Wright.
There is no doubt that extra resources make a big difference as well. Extra teaching assistants, a laptop for every teacher and improved staff development have all been funded by the zone. IBM has donated pound;50,000 worth of computer equipment, allowing Park community school to offer general national vocational qualifcations in information and communication technology to students for the first time.
Business involvement has also helped the schools in other ways. Both secondaries are using the business links developed by the zone to launch bids for specialist status and pupils are benefiting from a greater range of work experience and work-related learning.
But in Leigh Park most of the support from business has been in kind rather than hard cash. During the first year the biggest donor, Portsmouth newspaper The News, has given a page a fortnight to the zone which helps it combat the negative publicity that the area and its schools have received in the past. This counts as a gift of more than pound;100,000. The only cash donation (pound;5,000) is from Procter and Gamble.
This picture is reproduced across the country. Between 80-90 per cent of all business sponsorship of zones has been in kind. And the zones have been dogged by criticism that they overvalue the true worth to schools of some of these donations in order to claim their matched funding from government. There are also wide variations in the amounts different zones can attract - even in kind.
"They've had limited success in drawing in private-sector funds," says Gillian Pennington, education researcher at the Social Market Foundation, a centre-right think tank which supports greater business involvement in education."While zones in London can attract sponsorship from the big firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, elsewhere they have more difficulty. There just aren't the businesses in some areas which are willing to invest and in others the publicity value is so limited it's not worthwhile for a company."
Her words are backed up by the Government's own figures. South Tyneside EAZ which was lauched in January 1999 has so far attracted just pound;60,000 from the private sector. This compares to the pound;833,000 raised by Halifax which was launched at the same time.
However, much ministers may wish otherwise, companies involved in EAZs are looking for something for something. Brian Sutton, education services manager at The News in Portsmouth, is candid about what his company hopes to get for its investment."We're a regional newspaper and we need to be seen supporting the community. The previous editor found it hard to promote education in the area. The EAZ offered us an opportunity to be more positive. There is always the possibility of increasing our readership in the area," he says.
The schools themselves are happy to be used in this way as long as their pupils benefit. But there is a limit to the amount of money that can be drawn into education using this sponsorship model.
Ministers have now realised this. "One of the problems is that EAZs have not brought real involvement of businesses nor have they brought real innovation," says a senior source in the Department for Education and Employment. "It (the sponsorship model) hasn't really brought in the investment that we had hoped for."
The case for EAZs is not helped by the fact that the DFEE is under pressure from the Treasury to attract more private-sector funds into education. As The TES revealed in January, ministers have put EAZs on the back-burner and are looking for alternatives.
That story sparked a strong backlash from the zones and their supporters. But, according to Gillian Pennington, it will make little difference.
"They (EAZs) are essentially being usurped by city academies," she says. "I think the Government is going to bin them, although it'll leave existing zones alone."
At Leigh Park, Sue Wright is putting together an application to extend the life of the EAZ from three to five years. "In basketball when you're in the zone you've got three seconds to shoot or you get out. It feels a bit like that here. Have we just got three years?" Despite their successes in raising standards and the benefits even limited business links have brought, ministers' answer to the same question about the future of EAZs would appear to be "yes".
Next week: Do state schools face private-sector take over?
There are 73 large zones serving 1,444 schools
* They cover approximately 6 per cent of the school population
* They claim to have attracted pound;36m in business sponsorship, but only 10-20 per cent of that has been cash
* Key stage 1 and 2 tests results have increased at a faster rate within the zones than in other schools - by an additional two percentage points in English and maths at KS2
* An OFSTED report on six zones found that they had 'not often been test-beds of genuinely innovative action'