Keenness replaces promises of cash

This week the Government launched its 'fundamental challenge to the education status quo'. So far businesses have not produced the hoped-for radical ideas. Nicolas Barnard, Frances Rafferty and Geraldine Hackett report

SOME of Britain's biggest firms have signed up to the Government's education action zones initiative - but very few will be parting with hard cash.

In most of the 12 zones due to start in September, business involvement is measured in kind, not money. Some admit they have not yet raised the pound;250,000 private sector money required of them. That demonstrates the still-embryonic nature of the zones and the breakneck speed at which the 25 successful bids have been put together. The forums which will run the zones must now begin fleshing out their submissions.

Analysis of the first 12 suggests a shortage of the radical ideas ministers had hoped for - but a huge infusion of enthusiasm plus Government cash for go-ahead schools and authorities.

Charles Rigby of World Challenge Expeditions, a partner in the Grimsby bid, said: "About 15 per cent of every zone will be radical. But the other 85 per cent will be initiatives that have been tried elsewhere."

Most zones say teachers' pay and conditions are sacrosanct and only four will introduce the new advanced skills teacher grade.

But the present pay arrangements are flexible enough for teachers to be rewarded for extra responsibilities or voluntary longer hours. Several zones will second their best teachers onto specialist teams to spread good practice, with extra pay scale points.

The Government boasts that businesses will contribute almost pound;19 million over three years. Most is in kind.

Newcastle hopes for free management consultancy from Marks and Spencer. Blackburn expects blackboard-sized computer screens from TDSPromethean to allow whole-class teaching using the Internet. British Telecom is giving equipment and expertise in several zones. Shell is giving the time of senior managers to mentor headteachers in Lambeth. Leicester says firms already donate the equivalent of pound;250,000 a year - even before the zone is created.

The Government says that industry is leading two of the initial zones - Shell in Lambeth and Comcast in Middlesbrough. The relationship is more complex, with local authorities playing a leading role in both and calling bids a partnership. In Lambeth, the main private sector involvement comes from the Centre for British Teachers, a non-profit-making education consultancy which has helped design the bid with the co-operation of the local authority.

But most zones, such as Blackburn and Leicester, build on existing partnerships with local firms. Some, like Herefordshire, the only rural zone, also extend links with other agencies such as social services and health.

One bid - Croydon - is led by the schools of the New Addington estate which already have a long-standing partnership.

Bidders report initial scepticism among schools who fear being branded as failures. Zones typically include a handful of schools which have failed inspections, most also have schools which have good reports. Herefordshire and Weston-super-Mare have no failing schools. Several are bidding to create one or more specialist schools.

Where will the money go? Apart from the pound;100,000 zones expect to spend on average on administration, it will go on plugging the information technology gap, teacher training and teacher support, extending the school day, expanding early-years provision, or using schools for adult education.

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