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Time for some action in the fantasy zone

Having just moved, finally, into my dream home, I have sharply revised upwards my expectations of what is possible. A room, and a view, for everyone.

So I was inspired to start thinking about the education action zones as an opportunity to construct a dream zone or - in the spirit of Cool Britannia - a fantasy zone. And since it is open to any group, including parents, schools, businesses and the local authority, to form an education action forum, why not grab the chance to throw away the usual ground rules instead of leaving it to private companies to reinvent the learning wheel?

The action zone was the freshest idea in New Labour's education manifesto, though its promise turned sour with the local authorities in January when the fount of all new initiatives, Michael Barber, tipped the balance towards business at their own conference. But educationists have always been good at pulling out their own dream projects when new money is on offer. Remember the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative? What is required now is lateral fantasising on a scale usually punctured by the "Yes, but . . ." factor.

"Yes, but you will never get teachers and social workersnursery nurses to work together on different pay and conditions", ". . . the funding would come out of different budgetscan't be guaranteed after the first year", ". . . business won't offer real jobs to unmotivated young people", ". . . super pay for super teachers would cause more trouble in t'staffroom".

Professor Barber has called for "innovation in a post-modern world", but the disaffection the zone approach must tackle displays distressingly old-world symptoms. We know that the long tail of under-achievement begins at the beginning in poverty, poor prospects, low parental expectations, low motivation. A bleak HMI report on urban areas confirmed that the tides raising performance elsewhere had persistently "failed to lift these boats".

Any mission to rescue target zones has to tackle failure at the roots, not just zoom in on poor teaching methods at five, or eight, or 14. So my dream plan would start there: invest in parent support on reading and behaviour; early intervention to pick up problems before five-year-olds have to be chucked out of infant classes; proper nursery education and back-up care, not premature immersion in the reception class.

The first trick is to sort out social behaviour before formal education starts, or the best literacy and numeracy schemes will fall on stony ground. Coherence is vital. Pay and conditions must be flexible across the services and voluntary and private sectors, not just for teachers. One of the Government's early excellence centres, Pen Green in Corby, has already provided a model to the benefit of children and lone parents in a depressed area, cutting through the "yes, buts . . .", but fighting for survival all the way.

The action forums will only be funded for three to five years, so plans will have to be targeted at more than one level to produce visible dividends. Smaller infant classes were a key election pledge, but funding is on a slow drip. An action zone could bypass the local funding labyrinths, and cut classes to below 30 now. Or go further, and check out research findings (and private school experience) that you have to cut a class to 14 pupils to make a real difference. Maybe an academic partner could run a research project on the back of an action zone?

Teaching quality and curriculum remain at the heart of the matter. School standards minister Stephen Byers wants to restore the self-confidence of teachers. The general election result failed to work that particular magic, but maybe the action zones could offer a professional boost rather than another slap in the face.

That can't happen unless classroom teachers are involved all the way, enabled at last to try out ideas that are not-the-national-curriculum. If they can engage disaffected teenagers that way, they should be offered - and accept - the extra zone pay. And now is the time for governors (or their successors) to use their power to pay teachers overtime for a longer day or for training. (As to the governors themselves, effective school management demands that they be selected and trained as rigorously as headteachers.) One way to bring fresh energy into teaching might be to import another American experiment. The brightest and best of graduates were recruited short-term, as for Voluntary Service Overseas, to spend two or three years teaching in the inner cities. At worst they would apply sharp intellects and youthful idealism to intractable old problems; at best their engagement in effective teaching might become permanent. More reports, and experiments, needed.

The action zones could provide ideal test-beds for teacher-led curriculum change post-2000. Would modern languages and free-range arts education open new doors for primary children alongside literacy and numeracy targets? Can secondary schools working with industry recapture the innovative success of TVEI, or of Sir Keith Joseph's programme for low achievers, both elbowed aside by the national curriculum? Local industrialists in an action forum could also give teachers practical training in IT, and the confidence to tackle the national grid for learning. Schools in one zone could co-operate to raise business sponsorship for joint technology college status.

My wish-list is just a beginning, and goes with the grain of government policy, but the debate is open. For the Government, the commitment to hitting targets is paramount; LEAs face the challenge to rethink their roles, drop damaging demarcation lines, do the things that only an LEA can do; teachers have the opportunity to reassert professional leadership. The job of businesspeople is to think, and do, the unthinkable.

One final question: how do you manage your exit from the education action zone after five years? Transferring lessons and experience will not be straightforward if the rules about teachers' pay and the working day have changed. That could be tough in one local authority, a major challenge for a Government that chooses to go all the way.

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