Leaders of education action zones fear their freedom to experiment is under threat by demands for results. Warwick Mansell reports
THE Government is getting tough on education action zones, urging them to improve results or face being wound down.
Eighteen months after launching the zones, which receive up to pound;750,000 a year to raise standards in deprived areas, ministers have said they need to start seeing a return on their investment.
Schools standards minister Estelle Morris told zone directors at their annual network conference in Liverpool last week that she wanted to see progress towards tough improvement targets which include examination results.
But zone leaders warned that this new emphasis on standards put at risk the principle on which they were founded: the freedom to experiment with novel approaches to improving standards.
Ms Morris told directors at the Local Government Association EAZ conference:
"Those of you in the first zones, you have worked incredibly hard, you have set yourselves targets. Do not let this year pass before you realise what you need to do to reach your targets. The outside world will judge you on your ability to deliver real results for the communities you serve. You cannot let them down."
This represents a hardening of the Government's stance on zones. Ministers have previously emphasised their potential for experimentation, with lack of innovation being a criticsm of the zones.
But Mark Pattison, chair of the network of council officials supporting the zones, said: "There's a danger that the Government's wish to be able to demonstrate, through narrow measures of standards, that the zones are making a difference will deter them from some of the longer-term work and innovation that they were meant to be about."
Marion Rix, the LGA's lead Conservative councillor on zones, said it was unrealistic to expect some initiatives to deliver quick results.The zone in her own authority, Thetford in Norfolk, had a scheme to improve parental achievement in subjects such as literacy and numeracy, which might not deliver tangible results until 2010.
Ms Morris's warning comes as the Department for Education and Employment prepares to assess the first 25 zones on their progress towards tough improvement targets. This will determine which zones are extended from three to five years.
The DFEE regards examination results as paramount in determining the success of the zones.
Initial indications have been positive. A DFEE study found that results in the first 25 zones rose faster than the national average at both key stage 2 and GCSE, but ministers regard this year's results as crucial.
A source at the network was confident that most of the first tranche of zones would be extended to five years. The Government has approved 73 EAZs, with the last one starting in September.