Business pledges pounds 18m for school action zones

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PRIVATE companies are promising more than pounds 18 million over the next three years to transform standards in schools in deprived areas, the Government will announce this week. David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, will also reveal on Tuesday that companies will take the lead in running some of the 25 education action zones which aim to bring about fundamental changes in schools - such as longer days and weekend working.

Teachers last night warned the Government against privatising schools and promised to resist attempts to worsen their pay and conditions. But a local authority leader said Government talk of business-led zones was a "stupid piece of macho spin". In practice, companies would be in partnership with local authorities who had a role in every zone.

The taxpayer will contribute pounds 57 million over three years to the zones which will act as radical testbeds for bright ideas. Experiments which succeed will be introduced throughout the country. Mr Blunkett is particularly anxious that some zones should scrap the national curriculum for disaffected young people and tear up teachers' contracts so that good teachers can be paid more.

Ministers received more than 60 bids to run zones, the first 12 of which will begin in September and the remaining 13 in January.

Details of the 25 will show once again the radicalism of the New Labour government in tackling the challenges of the education system. Zones will have two or three secondary schools and up to 15 primaries and will be in both urban and rural areas. All will have pounds 1m a year - pounds 750,000 from government and pounds 250,000 from private business to raise standards by employing high-flying teachers and heads.

New superteachers earning up to pounds 40,000 a year will work in them.

Schools shake-up, page 11