Action zones set schools tough targets

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AMBITIOUS TARGETS for raising standards in some of our most deprived schools are disclosed in a new study, showing in some areas the aim is to double or even treble the number of pupils awarded good exam grades.

Several underachieving schools in the government's new education action zones have a long way to go. In one, as few as 7 per cent of pupils are achieving five top grades at GCSE, and in others more than a third leave without a qualification.

Twelve zones set up this term will receive up to pounds 1m extra a year from the taxpayer and private sources in return for improving pupils' performance. A further 13 will begin work next January.

The survey by the National Union of Teachers discloses that all zones have plans to reduce the underclass created by pupils leaving without qualifications. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has promised to give the issue priority.

Though the Government has set improvement targets for local education authorities, zones - run by forums of business leaders, local authority representatives, teachers and parents - have set their own.

There are big variations in the targets. Hull wants to raise the proportion achieving at least one GCSE from 77 per cent to 94 per cent over three years and Nottingham aims to raise it from 75 to 85 per cent.

Birmingham aims to more than treble the percentage of pupils getting five A to C grades at GCSE, from 9 to 29 per cent and Nottingham intends to raise it from 7 to 20 per cent.

In Brighton, the aim is to raise the proportion in English from 30 to 80 per cent in three years. Hull wants to move from 43 to 68 per cent. In the Salford and Trafford zone in Greater Manchester, nearly two-thirds of pupils are on free school meals, which is the commonest measure of poverty in Britain, and this is more than three times the national average of 18 per cent. In East Middlesbrough, the figure is 56 per cent and in Birmingham (Aston and Nechells) just more than half.

In Newcastle, 37 per cent of pupils leave without a single GCSE qualification, in Nottingham, a quarter and in Hull 23 per cent. The national average is about 8 per cent.

Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, said: "The Government is right to focus on educational deprivation but the mechanism for choosing which places get the money is unfair. It depends on the quality of the bid rather than the level of deprivation."