The Government is expecting to spend only Pounds 1.5 million next year on the first five education action zones designed to tackle problems of low achievement in disadvantaged areas.
The intention is to use action zones to test out radical measures. Schools in the zones will be able to employ heads and teachers on different pay and conditions to national contracts, and the legal requirement to follow the national curriculum is to be lifted.
The zones are to be run by a forum drawing on parents, businesses and the LEA; David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, will be able to appoint additional members.
Stephen Byers, the standards minister, was suggesting this week that the forums might appoint super-heads at salaries of Pounds 100,000. However, without substantial contributions from the private sector, such appointments will be difficult to fund from a grant of Pounds 250,000 to Pounds 350, 000 per zone .
The local forums will be able to offer flexible contracts to attract teachers, and such areas are expected to get priority from central government for proposals for specialist schools and early excellence centres for the under-fives.
Ministers want businesses to match the Government grant in those areas selected for innovative school improvement programmes. Local authorities are expected to put forward schemes, but ministers have not made clear the basis on which they will decide between competing bids.
The timescale set out in briefing papers is for the creation of five zones in September next year, with another 20 the following year. While it is open to groups of parents or companies to make a case for their area, it is expected that most schemes will be put forward by local education authorities.
There are some reservations about the plan. Heather duQuesnay, director of education in the London borough of Lambeth, believes the Government should have drafted a scheme that would have benefited more areas, more quickly. In Hampshire, the director of education, Peter Coles, is concerned that schools may not want to be publicly labelled as in need of emergency help.
Within local government, there are fears that the zones could be used to bypass local authorities in areas such as Hackney. Local companies or parents could be encouraged to put forward plans. The full cost to government over the next five years will be an estimated Pounds 32.5 million.
Teacher unions have pointed out that action zones have the potential for creating division. The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, is critical of plans to create super-heads, who would take responsibility for a number of schools. However, no more than 20 schools are likely per zone.
Once created, the action zones are expected to work with the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit.