Action zone schools to open in evenings and at weekends

PROPOSALS that could radically reshape the way children are taught are contained in plans for education action zones.

An Independent on Sunday survey of education action zone bids submitted to ministers confirms that the Government will be able to fulfil its ambition to test wholesale changes to the school day, the national curriculum and the traditional three-term year.

Private enterprise will also be given a role in education, while allowing the Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, to insist that schools are not being run for profit.

Senior civil servants have toured the country in recent weeks, trying to put flesh on the bones of outline plans submitted to the Government after only a few weeks' preparation earlier this year.

Teachers' unions have also been on the offensive, trying to protect pay and conditions despite ministers' pledges to give zones the power to tear up national agreements.

None of the zone bids surveyed by the Independent on Sunday propose significant changes to the teachers' national pay and conditions agreement, stressing instead that changes would be negotiated with union leaders.

Proposals include:

n Extending the school day into the evening and opening schools at weekends for homework clubs, sport and adult education classes.

n Possible four- or five-term years, to replace the three terms and long summer holidays enjoyed by children, and their teachers, for generations.

n A huge expansion of computer technology, including hi-tech networks, allowing children and parents to access schoolwork, class notes and even e-mail advice from home, potentially 24 hours a day.

n Business "mentors" for head teachers and corporate sponsorship for schools.

n Extra pay for teachers in deprived areas.

n Efforts to encourage parents into adult education classes.

Plymouth's EAZ bid, widely thought to be a front-runner, offers one glimpse of the type of reforms likely to be on offer. Schools in the inner city zone area will offer a new three-session day, based on a split between traditional morning and early afternoon classes and a new daily evening session, lasting until around 6pm.

Changes to the national curriculum in the zones will focus on giving pupils more help with literacy and numeracy. There is also wide support for links with further education colleges to offer some children a more work-related course.

Ministers insist that at least one of the zones announced on Tuesday will be led by the private sector.

Although the bids reveal that local authorities will remain firmly in the driving seat, education specialists in the private sector are planning a significant role as consultants.

Another front-runner, Lambeth, has formed a partnership with the Centre for British Teachers, a charitable company based in Reading that already runs careers advice services. Under the zone bid CFBT will help the local authority run schools on a consultancy basis.

In the bid submitted by North Somerset Council to cover schools in the Weston-super-Mare area, the private sector teacher supply and careers advice giant, Nord Anglia, will offer curriculum advice and help monitor schools in the zone.

At least one bid, in Croydon, is based on a partnership of schools themselves, although Croydon Council is a leading partner.

Most attention has been focused on plans being developed by the London Borough of Newham, widely thought to be guaranteed a place as one of the first zones.

Graham Lane, Newham's chairman of education, said schools across the borough were showing interest in the idea of the proposed zone having a five-term year.

Under the Newham plan, the school year would start in late August, with a two-week holiday in October, another two weeks at Christmas, two weeks in March and at Whitsun, and five weeks from mid-July.

There had also been no shortage of teachers volunteering to run Saturday schools, paid on special overtime contracts.

"We are really talking about letting flowers bloom," said Mr Lane. "I think they will start to bloom very quickly and spread to other areas."

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