Welcome to the future

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Following last week's announcement of the 25 education action zones, Frances Rafferty looks at an obvious choice, the business-led Lambeth, in south London - a deprived, multi-ethnic borough with under-performing schools

WESTON-SUPER-MARE'S education action zone can boast at least one unique feature: its bid was the only one to begin with poetry.

"Many things can wait, but not the children," reads the verse by Chilean poet Gabriella Mistral, which must have impressed the tough nuts at the Department for Education and Employment.

It sums up North Somerset Council's approach since it took over from Avon two years ago. But poetry aside, the application bears a remarkable resemblance to the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) bid submitted two years earlier, which brought Pounds 26 million to a run-down clutch of four estates bounded by railway lines in the seaside town.

The funding brought school renovations, computer networks, the inevitable homework clubs and a new family and early-years centre. Heads say that the zone and its Pounds 1m a year will allow this work to be done properly and to spread to most of Weston and three nearby villages - 23 schools in all.

"It gives us the confidence to achieve what we set out to achieve," says Wendy Marriott, head of Windwhistle primary school. "Teachers here have lost a great deal of confidence since league tables. We had great professional pride before from working in challenging circumstances - now they are bottom of the league. We have a chance for those skills we've built up to be recognised and disseminated."

Behind the pleasant open spaces of the seafront with its pier, Weston can be fairly grim - colourless council estates, ringed by superstores that many tenants do not have the cars to reach.

The ward at the centre of the SRB bid, and now of the action zone, is officially the sixth most deprived in the South-west.

The key to the zone is providing more support for families - parental support but also adult education - and to tackling behaviour problems and disaffection in pupils, particularly the older ones.

Windwhistle is the base for a new family centre, set up with SRB cash, run by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and serving a Bournville estate chronically starved of services - it has no GP, few or no childminders, no pub and a Nissen hut for a community centre.

Maggie Micksik, of the NSPCC, will link into health and social services, promote childminding, adult education, and give other support. In just two weeks, parents' response has already been enthusiastic.

Such partnerships are good EAZ practice, but where is the business involvement and money the Government demanded? Education consultancy Nord Anglia has pledged one-third of the Pounds 250,000 a year zones are supposed to find, raising it from various firms. The council is still looking for the rest.

Nord Anglia will also provide curriculum support and evaluate the success of projects, possibly for a fee. Other business involvement is low key - local farmers Alvis Bros are typical.

With Windwhistle, the pig farm and cheese producer has developed a structured programme of visits from reception to Year 6, tied to the national curriculum and vividly demonstrating everything from food production (from piglet to rasher) to physics, using tractors to illustrate forces.

McDonald's is another of the 30-odd businesses already working in schools. It is involved in food technology lessons at Wyvern secondary and its staff are being trained to listen to primary pupils read in the same way as parents and other visitors.

Ian Budd, North Somerset's education policy development manager, is confident that if McDonald's or other firms overstep the mark and start promoting their products to children, sceptical teachers will blow the whistle.

Perhaps its boldest element is the "no exclusions" policy. Wyvern head Peter Scholey points out that schools can still exclude, but that the LEA will provide a place at another school or on another course.

Work-related curricula, work- experience placements and courses at Weston FE College are being developed to re-engage disaffected pupils' interest.

In the week the Government announced very similar plans for key stage 4, and in the wake of the Social Exclusion Unit report on truancy, North Somerset knows that even without a business leader, their zone is in tune with New Labour thinking.

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