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Zone is the toast of city estates

ANDREA Russell was sceptical. "It was too good to be true. If the Government was giving us all this money, what did it want? I think most parents thought that."

But one year down the road, this mother of two is running a library for under-fives on her Eyres Monsell estate, paid for by Leicester education action zone.

It's also paying money for the scheme that sends school assistants round classrooms during registration, dishing up hot toast to some of the hungrier pupils.

Those are two of the ideas to benefit from the zone's decision to give money not just to big projects but to the grassroots as well - and to make parents major partners.

Leicester's zone covers five of the most deprived estates in the city - largely white and working class, separated by a "middle-class wedge".

It's a trickier balancing act than might be expected. Each estate has its own strong identity and a sense of its place in the social pecking order.

Despite shared problems - not least education - they sometimes see more separating them than uniting them, especially when regeneration cash gets handed out. Someone always feels left out.

To add to the fun, the newly created Leicester City Council decided to reorganise its secondary schools, removing hundreds of surplus places and saving pound;2 million to plough back into education.

It had to be done, but the closure of six schools meant some estates lost their own secondary. The creation of a "super-school" of 2,000 pupils has inevitably caused friction.

The Leicester zone's answer has in part been to adopt a strategy of getting into the communities.

Hence the "Parents as Partners" initiative, with its network of parent link-workers. There is one for each estate and they were ordered to get out and quickly find themselves a base among the people they will be working with.

Four parents, including Andrea, also sit on the forum, the wide-ranging body officially in charge of the zone.

The link-workers expand an initiative originally started in some schools outside the zone. Their tasks include helping parents understand what their children are doing, organising courses from literacy to first aid, health and hygiene, and helping schools become more welcoming to mums and dads.

The under-fives' library has already signed up 185 children since opening on May 8. Set up in a corner of the adult library, it has loaned books to the health centre, community centres - anywhere children go.

"Some children have taken out 20 books already. They just trip over themselves to bring them back," Andrea says.

"We were suspicious, but as the year has gone on, I can see it working. We've got something for the money."

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