The Government has announced the first 25 winners of the pound;1 million-a-year prize that goes with every education action zone. The call for contestants went out on January 5 and applications had to be sent to Whitehall by March 20.
The zones are defined as "clusters of schools" and each will include up to 40 schools. They are designed to raise school standards in poorly performing areas. There will be local partnerships which include local education authorities, educational organisations such as FE colleges, local businesses, training and enterprise councils and other organisations, such as churches, football clubs and health authorities.
In their bids, these partnerships have to show that they have audited the strengths and weaknesses of the schools and set out a strategy for improving performance. The zones will be in what the Department for Education and Employment calls "areas of relative disadvantage ... where educational performance is well below average". The first 25 are in a mix of urban and rural areas.
The partnerships will be able to do things that state schools cannot. They can vary the national curriculum (to make education more vocational) and vary the national pay and conditions package for teachers (so as to attract the teachers and headteachers they want).
The zones are a testbed where new ideas can be tried out in small areas. Successful ideas can then be adopted nationally. Twelve zones will start operating in September this year and a further 13 in January.
They will receive up to pound;750,000 a year from the Government and are expected to raise pound;250,000 a year from business, in cash or in kind, which could mean the loan of staff and theprovision of equipment.
Each zone will run for between three and five years. During that time it will also have what the DFEE calls "priority access" to cash for other government schemes. There will be help to establish specialist schools - the Government wants to see one in each zone - as well as extra money to run literacy schemes, homework clubs, information and communication technology and other extras.
The typical zone will consist of two or three secondary schools and their feeder primary schools. They will be run by the social partners: schools, parents, local authorities, business and community organisations.
The Government hopes they will raise standards, tackle disadvantage and increase pupils' self-esteem.
Each zone will be formally run by an action forum made up of the social partners. This will be a statutory body set up through powers under the School Standards and Framework Bill which is going through Parliament this summer. The action forums will set attainmenttargets and draw up plans tomeet them.
Day-to-day running each zone will be carried out by a project director employed by the action forum. Governing bodies of schools within the zone will still have control over school budgets, unless they cede that control or any other powers to the forum.
As well as receiving direct funding, schools will be a priority for other DFEE programmes. These includes Early Excellence Centres and GNVQ Part 1. Up to pound;1 million will be available for each action zone in 1998-99 for work-related learning activity.