Give action zones a break

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Fed up with 'unfounded' criticism in the press of education action zones, the director of one of them, Mike Hardacre, seeks to set the record straight.

RECENT reports in the press have sought to denigrate both the usefulness and effectiveness of education action zones. As the director of one, I feel obliged to take up the cudgels on behalf of my colleagues.

Action zones were set up to help children in deprived areas. Fast and responsive action against a tightly controlled audit was expected. Aside from the core grant of pound;500,000, a further pound;250,000 would come from the Department for Education and Employment if the zones achieved commercial and industrial sponsorship of pound;250,000.

The core DFEEgrant was delivered on the basis of an educational plan with aspirations to involve private contributions. However, it can hardly be a surprise to critics that it is a struggle for the deprived zone areas to achieve commercial sponsorship. The lessons learned from the first set of zones have been well applied by colleagues in the second round.

Wolverhampton, the zone of which I am director, has secured more than pound;300,000 worth of private financial sponsorship running over each of the first three years. Criticism has been made that much of this comes in the form of "in-kind" rather than hard cash. Zones have deliberately gone out to seek "in-kind" support - work placements, buddy management systems, volunteer student mentors and the like - because they wish to build a long-term partnership with commerce and industry and not simply look for a straightforward handout.

If we are serious about a closer long-term integration of private and public finance then surely it makes good sense. In my own zone we have offers of volunteer readers coming into our schools. This is a win-win situation as each sector learns more about the other. This seems to me a fulfilment of Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in the 1970s which sparked off much of the controversy as to the purpose of schools and has led us to where we are today.

Zones were an experiment and, given that there are now 73, it is clear that the Government will wish to consolidate their experiences and use that knowledge to inform its other developments. That is what small-scale innovation is for. The fact that the Government is now turning to the concept of cty academies and Excellence in Cities rather than zones, is to be welcomed. It is doing what it has often been criticised for not doing - learning from innovative approaches to move forward in a different manner, taking the best from the developments that it already has.

Excellence in Cities, of course, is a key stage 3, 4 and 5 programme, whereas zones run the whole gamut from birth to 18. If zones are to be successful, they must enjoy a close relationship with local education authorities. This should hardly be surprising, as despite their financial independence, the schools are local authority schools and the employees within them are local authority employees.

Zones are about "additionality", not about duplication, and without a close and symbiotic working relationship with the local authority, there will be every possibility of wasteful duplication. Given that the average secondary budget is around pound;2 million, if the grant was doled out equally each school would receive pound;37,500. Given the short time that the zones had to set themselves up and the ever-fluid nature of private commitment and finance, it is no surprise that a long-term partnership has proved so difficult to establish.

But, the fact that it is difficult is not a reason for believing that the experiment has failed. The Office for Standards in Education has inspected six round-one zones out of 25. It would be fair to say that they did not know what it was they were inspecting and had no framework to do so.

From the first six inspections has come a more agreed framework as to how OFSTED inspectors should proceed. All the indications from round-one zones are that the rate of improvement of attainment went up faster than it did outside zones.

If people wish to be critical, they should speak to the 150 infants who went to one of our major holiday firms to carry out early investigations into the holiday trade, or those children who went to one of our local bookstores (many for the first time).

Perhaps they would like to look at the improved attendance and tell the employees paid for by the zone that they have been sidelined. The sort of criticisms which we have seen in the press are unfounded, unnecessary and part of a culture which prefers to find failure rather than success.

Mike Hardacre is director of Wolverhampton education action zone

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