The Government wants them to be a 'fundamental challenge to the education status quo'. A chance for business to have an impact on schools. Gerald Haigh reports from the education action zones
There's a new freedom abroad in the world of education. For those teachers, heads and community leaders who have for years harboured visions that they were unable to put into practice because of more immediate concerns, education action zones offer what looks like a golden opportunity: cash, freedom, and the encouragement to rethink their approach.
That, undoubtedly, is why those closely involved in projects and plans in the 12 zones that started in September are bubbling with excitement. Duncan Gaw-thorpe, head of Priory school in Barnsley, says, "I've been liberated!" And Bill Greenwood, a consultant helping Salford and Trafford forge a new future, says: "It's about visions, having a look forward. Suddenly, for the first time for a long time there has been provided a window through which everyone - youngsters, parents - can look and see the hills."
The 12 zones are designed to lift achievement and revitalise the education service with new ideas. Another 13 start in January meaning that one pupil in 50 will be taught inside the zones. And bids for 25 more will be considered in the new year.
Although there were reports that Labour had trouble finding enough applicants for the zones, there is no doubting that those involved are willing them to work and there is an obvious determination to stay optimistic. Mark Young, head of St Helen's primary in the Barnsley zone and a member of the governing Forum, felt some initial doubts: it was, as he says, "Another thing, another strategy. There were some misgivings at first - about possible changes in working conditions for example. And it does mean more of my time."
It is probably because they feel the need to keep teachers on board that there seems little enthusiasm in the zones for varying conditions of service. Bill Carr, Project Director in Grimsby, says: "We said from the outset that we won't change teachers' conditions of service - except that we might improve them."
And Mark Pattison, who as Director of Education and Training in Blackburn with Darwen is working temporarily on developments in the local zone, is of the same mind. "For one thing there's quite a bit of flexibility already," he says. "And clearly the Government plans to do something nationally anyway. We're not changing the school day, either, but we will certainly be having more out-of-school activities."
Half way through the first term of their first year of existence is early to make deep judgments about the new zones. Interim action plans, putting more detail into the framework of ideas which informed the original bids, were only submitted to the DFEE at the end of October. All the same, there are legitimate questions about hopes and fears and the emergence of common themes and concerns.
Already, for instance, there is recognition of the need to balance cautious planning of long-term projects against the pressure to show schools and the community something in return for all the publicity and cash. Bill Greenwood says: "It is a tension - there is a desire for people to see something happening." Salford and Trafford has a number of projects already up and running - in its case, including visits to schools by community arts groups such as a samba band.
This same tension has been identified in Weston-super-Mare (which, incidentally, has decided to call itself an "education achievement zone"). Here, it was tackled by asking schools to put forward "fast-track" projects. One of these, in Worle School, is an add-on to the school day - something rather more than a homework club - staffed by paid teachers which gives pupils help with coursework, access to computers and general learning support.
David Roberts, head of Worle and chair of the Weston zone, says: "The purpose was to provide something immediate and visible. We didn't want schools to see all the hype and then there be nothing happening on the ground for the children."
On the opposite coast, in Grimsby, schools will very soon see the installation of lots of computer equipment. Bill Carr, Grimsby's project director, says: "By next March, every primary school will have a 15-station Pentium PC network. Secondary schools will get 30 stations."
He sees this is a necessary prerequisite for his plans. "The pupils have to be literate and numerate of course," he says, "And that's part of the programme. But if they are not IT literate then they are not employable. You need the IT skills in order to learn other new skills."
The importance of technology is a recurring theme. Many of the zones have information and communications technology firms among their business partners, and there is no doubt that there are high hopes for collaboration on some very advanced projects. In Blackburn with Darwen, schools will each be given one of the large "whiteboard" screens that permit whole-class teaching with the aid of a computer.
Most of the zones, too, want to network the participating schools, sometimes on a zone-wide intra-net, perhaps including business partners. Another approach - as in Barnsley - is to speed up access to the National Grid for Learning.
The hope is that there will be new thinking not only about equipment and teaching styles but also about links with parents and the community. The zones are often in places which have been seriously knocked about by economic gales, and there is within them a clear determination to raise esteem and achievement beyond the school gates. Bill Greenwood feels that to a great extent this is where innovation will be found - not just in zone-wide projects, but in localised initiatives. "The zone has engendered a culture where people are wanting to think differently and test out ideas."
One of the most striking examples of "thinking differently" is to be found in Priory School, in the heart of the Barnsley zone, where headteacher Duncan Gawthorpe is leading the thinking that may well result in the establishment of an all-through 3-to-16 school on the site. For him this seems a logical development of the already close collaboration between Priory and the three other schools - nursery, infant and junior - which share the same campus.
It's relatively easy, he points out, to see the administrative advantages of closer collaboration - running a single budget, for example, or making efficient use of classroom helpers. "You start to think through these, and then you ask yourself 'what about the curriculum?' " At this point, Duncan Gawthorpe says, "It becomes much more radical than collaboration - it's actually integration."
All of this is at a very early stage - everyone in the schools is just talking for now, but by the end of this year there will be a paper upon which to base more focused discussion. This is a longer term project within the zone.
There is a feeling among teachers - especially those in primary schools grappling with the demands of the literacy and numeracy strategies - that the zones represent yet another layer of bureaucracy. David Roberts says:
"You can't avoid the fact that if you have a zone manager, then it means an office and a telephone and so on. We're conscious of that, and we're looking very carefully to ensure that the maximum percentage of money goes into making a difference for children. If this were to turn into a bureaucratic exercise, it would be a failure." His own view is: "The zone provides a bit of lubricating funding, enabling schools to implement good practice that they've already been interested in."
What people do like very much is the opportunity for collaboration between schools in the zone - often, if not always, bigger groupings than the "clusters" already in existence. Mark Young says: "It's made 22 heads, governing bodies and sets of parents get together to work in a closer knit way. There does seem to be a team feeling - a determination that although there are fears, we will make this thing work."
This enthusiasm for collaboration between schools is mentioned in every zone you speak to. Schools - particularly primaries - have never enjoyed being in competition with each other, and have always believed that some of the best in-service training comes from visiting other schools. In Salford and Trafford, this belief is being supported by what Bill Greenwood calls, "The Dating Agency - simply a way of helping teachers to visit each other's schools to look at good practice. There's supply cover for that."
Many of these initiatives - homework clubs, reading projects involving local footballers, visits to share good practice, parent and toddler groups, home-school reading schemes, home-school counsellors shared between primaries, increased use of computers - are hardly ground-breaking, of course. There is lots of innovative thinking going on, the effects of which will emerge as time goes on.
The drive to improve motivation in the secondary sector is also going to produce some intriguing projects. In Grimsby, there is a plan for schools to work with the organisation World Challenge Expeditions, one of the business partners in the zone, on a series of projects involving expeditions and residential experiences, targeted at older secondary pupils who are becoming disaffected from school. The aim is to make increasing demands on the pupils, who will have to raise some of the funds for their expeditions and give their own time. In return, they will have the chance to take part in increasingly adventurous expeditions.
With one or two exceptions, business partners have yet to come to the fore in the zones. The way into a zone, metaphorically, and often literally, is usually via an education office, and the zone managers seem to be coming from education. Put to someone in a zone the thought that business partners are happy to give advice and consultancy but are rather less forthcoming with cash and they answer "You might say that, but I couldn't possibly comment."
Not, of course, that consultancy, advice and training are to be sneezed at, and as zone managers become established and start to make good links, real benefits may well start to flow. Bill Greenwood, for example, is very bullish about the role of partners in Salford and Trafford, where, significantly, there is a consultant with a business background who has the specific task of developing the partnerships. "We've had a very positive response both in kind and in cash," he says.
To meet the leaders of the zones is to be impressed by the mix of enthusiasm and hard-headed realism that rules their thinking. All of them, for example, are looking past the end of the project, to a time when the things they have set in train will be standing on their own feet. "The key thing for me," says Bill Greenwood, "is sustainability - capturing hearts and minds and giving them the skills to maintain the different approaches beyond the point where the extra resources are available. How do you change the culture to make that possible?"