South Herefordshire may seem a world away from inner-city decay, but remote rural areas raise a whole new set of problems. Nicolas Barnard reports
NICK Browne needs three ordnance survey maps to find his way around his patch.
His education action zone covers 300 square miles of south Herefordshire countryside, but he doesn't begrudge the time he spends in his car - and not just because of the glorious scenery.
"There are plenty of examples of people trying to tackle issues of isolation by bussing people into the towns and cities," he says as we set off from his Hereford office. "We are not about that."
Mr Browne, manager of the only rural action zone to date, is on a mission to bring services to the teachers, pupils and families in these still mainly farming communities where they need them - in schools, villages and homes.
It's hard for teachers to feel connected if they work in primary schools with only one other colleague, he says. And, for pupils, after-school activities or homework clubs become near impossible once the school bus has gone.
Running south of the river Wye, the area looks an unlikely candidate to be a zone, a concept linked in the public imagination with urban deprivation .
But it takes in the run-down estates on the edge of Hereford itself - a derelict pub marks the gateway to the zone - and spreads into a vast hinterland, the Golden Valley, where several primaries have fewer than 40 pupils.
The zone's approach has been a mix of judiciously-applied technology, the creation of community learning centres and a radical rethink of the way some services are delivered.
Most notably, a link has been forged with local health services to bring speech therapy direct to schools, tackling the delayed speech and language development that affects some children growing up in rural areas.
The zone's chairman, Klaus Wedell, emeritus professor of special needs at London University's Institute of Education and, since retiring, a humble classroom assistant, says: "During the holidays, a kid may spend six weeks on the farm, talking to no-one but sheep. It's not conducive to language development."
Previously, children with severe problems waited six months for referrals to speech therapists in Hereford, missing lessons while travelling to sessions.
Now, two therapists conduct screening in school, then develop programmes with teachers, support assistants and parents. Intervention starts earlier, and the children receive support at all times.
Other funds release teachers to travel to other schools, breaking down the sense of professional isolation. At Fairfield High - its 16 staff and 270 pupils tucked away under the Black Mountains like a charming, exclusive boarding school - most subject heads work in departments of one.
The creation of an Intranet - a mini-web connecting schools - allows e-mail between colleagues and the creation of community learning centres in village primaries.
Portable computer suites now grace schools like Longtown Primary, allowing adult education courses and homework clubs so secondary pupils can work closer to home.
Half-a-dozen of the 47 shortlisted bids in the second wave of zones are rural; Herefordshire is a modest trailblazer.
Mr Browne talks of the inertia of country communities and says he wants to see lasting changes in the way people work together, not big-bang solutions. That may not be sexy enough for ministers, he tuts.
But Professor Wedell suggests the smallness of the schools - with their tiny budgets helped by action-zone pump priming - can be an advantage. He says: "You can innovate more in a tiny primary school than a junior school of 500 kids where the whole weight of the organisation bears down on you."