Smaller firms need to come on board if Britain's education action zones are to have a lasting impact. Succes stories - including a videolink between a Manchester school and a hospital ward, and an IT system developed by a Blackburn school - could help spread the message. Neil Merrick reports
Pupils at Seymour Park primary in Trafford, Manchester, have gained a group of new classmates. Their new friends may be three miles away in the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, but the wonders of video-conferencing mean they can now be in the classroom too, gaining valuable schooling they would otherwise miss.
"We are on a journey of exploration. We are part of something which will be a feature of hospitals in the future, so that children in isolation can communicate with the outside world in a way they have not been able to do before," says headteacher Jenny Dunn.
The Seymour Park scheme is a fine example of an initiative inspired by the first 25 education action zones (EAZs) announced last summer. Some of the United Kingdom's biggest businesses are already on board, and what the scheme needs now is to attract the interest of small- and medium-sized businesses. It is human interest stories such as that of Seymour Park which could capture their imagination.
The Government created EAZs to inject industry cash and expertise into schools and to create a test-bed in education for new ideas and approaches to raising standards. The three-year programme will also test new ways of managing schools.
When the list of business partners for the Seymour Park scheme was announced, it read like a Who's Who of leading UK and international firms. BT - which donated the video-conferencing equipment to Seymour Park - is a partner in five of the zones, British Aerospace features in two. Other major employers supporting the zones include Barclays, IBM, McDonalds, Rover and Shell.
But as zone managers finish writing their final action plans, which must be presented to the Department for Education and Employment within the next few months, they will be anxious to show they are attracting support from small and medium-sized employers.
Duncan Gawthorpe, head of the Priory School in Barnsley, south Yorkshire, was seconded to his local EAZ last year. He admits that smaller firms are not "leaping out of the woodwork". The zone's final action plan will focus on ways of getting them more involved with projects. Barnsley project director Wendy Webster says: "You have to be sure what you want from business before you can generate specific interest."
Harold Bolter, a former education officer with British Nuclear Fuels who is now working for Salford and Trafford EAZ, says the first priority was to get larger firms on board. He is about to embark on a trawl of smaller firms which will include drawing up potential projects and suggesting how individual companies can offer support.
Many of the schemes under the EAZ umbrella had already been announced by the Government or were about to get under way before the first zones were launched last year. Some firms which were named as key partners in an EAZ may be sponsoring headteacher training, or assisting with management of the zone, but do not directly support educational activities in schools or colleges. The Government has stressed it wants to see more companies offering cash, as well as gifts "in kind" in the second round of zones, which should be up and running from January 2000.
East Brighton EAZ, which has just started, is receiving strong financial support from Scottish Power Learning, part of the energy group that includes Southern Water. The company is paying more than pound;30,000 towards an open learning centre at a secondary school and has offered to put up money for a further adult learning centre if this is matched by donations from other firms.
Brighton Chamber of Commerce is offering to help the zone find new sponsors from among the business community. "Other companies are very supportive but they are not putting up the big bucks," says acting project director Peter Walker. "The real issue is how we tap into the local economy in a way that gets more companies involved."
Employers supporting zones across the UK include many of the IT firms that supply schools. Mark Ballett, chairman of Salford and Trafford EAZ and managing director of Norweb Communications, admits his telecommunications company has a strong business incentive for getting involved, but, as someone who did not learn to read until he was 11, he also has a personal motivation. "I'm interested in helping people who are struggling against obstacles in education," he says.
Other sponsors are educational management companies such as Nord Anglia and Capita, which is behind a project to cut school bureaucracy in the London Borough of Newham. Patrick White, Newham EAZ programme director, believes the threat of recession is preventing some smaller firms offering cash support. He says: "We're trying to provide a menu of activities they can engage in within a clear framework. We don't want to duplicate what already exists."
A group called Teesside Tomorrow is already co-ordinating the work of smaller employers in East Middlesbrough, including finding mentors for schoolchildren. EAZ project director Dee Palmer-Jones wants to help schools that have found attracting mentors difficult because individual teachers have not developed close links with industry.
Peter Davies, managing director of Business In The Community, the Prince of Wales's club for business leaders, hopes the zones will eventually lead to increasingly innovative schemes involving education and employers. As programmes become less dissipated, smaller businesses should be keener to lend support. He says: "Much of the early coverage focused on whether the private sector was going to run the zones. Most companies are not in the business of running EAZs but are interested in having closer links and a sustained involvement with schools."
'IT'S ABOUT DEVELOPING HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS'.
It is almost five years since Seymour Park primary received video-conferencing equipment donated by BT. Although pupils set up links with other schools in Trafford, Greater Manchester, headteacher Jenny Dunn believed the school could have made better use of the technology.
Last term, at the same time as an education action zone was launched in Salford and Trafford, the school began using the equipment to link its pupils with children at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital.
Through video-conferencing, children in classrooms at the hospital school can join in lessons at Seymour Park and make sure they do not fall behind with their studies while they are in hospital. Computers are also due to be installed in the hospital's isolation unit so that children with more serious illnesses can follow a similar curriculum.
The Salford and Trafford area includes an EAZ and a hospital action zone. The scheme, says Jenny Dunn, is helping to tackle social exclusion at the same time as improving children's education.
Seymour Park pupils who first met children in the hospital via video-conferencing have since visited their new friends in the wards. "It's not just a technological experiment. It's about developing human relationships," says Jenny Dunn.
Although the project was launched at the same time as the EAZ was getting off the ground, Jenny Dunn is determined to see it stretch beyond the three to five-year lifespan of the action zone.
'THERE IS A POSSIBILITY OF MAKING MONEY'.
A system developed by a school in Blackburn, Lancashire, for tracking pupils' academic progress is being upgraded so it can be used by other action zone schools and possibly marketed commercially.
Mike Murray, chairman of Blackburn EAZ and an IT consultant, is working with Michael Humphreys, head of Our Lady and St John secondary school, to improve the five-year-old system so people working outside the school can understand it.
The system monitors the progress of almost 1,000 pupils between Years 7 and 11. Mike Murray, who is also director of an IT company, says it is not particularly efficient, even though it meets current school needs. "They are using a fairly unsophisticated tool to do a very sophisticated job," he says.
The two men hope to co-ordinate four separate IT packages, which record pupils' scores across a range of subjects, and create a generic system that can be delivered to other schools on a single CD.
The two other secondary schools in the action zone will be given it free of charge while other schools, in Blackburn and elsewhere, will have the option of buying it.
Mr Murray says it would be foolish for the school, or the EAZ, not to market the system commercially. He says: "We have not talked it through yet, but there is a possibility for the action zone to make money."
Michael Humphreys says the system's commercial viability will be assessed once it is in operation in his school, which last month was used by the Prime Minister Tony Blair and Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett to launch criteria for the second round of EAZs.
"At the moment it very much depends upon one or two IT-literate people in this school," says Mr Humphreys. "I would like a piece of software which you could put into a computer and get on with it."