Education: Classroom revolution offers new hope for worst schools

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Action zones, to be set up for under-achieving schools in disadvantaged areas, are to be test-beds for experiments in raising school standards. Our Education Editor analyses yesterday's Education Bill.

Education priority areas tried to entice teachers into poor areas by paying them more. The remit of education action zones, outlined in the Education Bill yesterday, will be much wider. Run by a mixture of local authorities, community groups and business, they will be free to fix the pay and conditions of teachers working within them, regardless of national pay scales, and they will be able to ignore the national curriculum.

That means that they will be able to concentrate on the basics of literacy and numeracy and remedy the failure of successive governments to raise standards among the most disadvantaged children.

They will also be able to redesign the curriculum to make it more attractive to less-able pupils and more relevant to the world of work than the national curriculum based on academic subjects that have been largely unchanged since Victorian times.

If action-zone experiments are successful, they will be tried in schools across the country.

But it will not all be plain sailing. There are hints of different contracts for different teachers so that, as in many other jobs, the most talented and those prepared to work harder and longer may receive more. Expect angry protests from teacher unions.

The extra money expected to be available to the zones from business and the Government, pounds 500,000 a year, will not go far once a chief executive or superhead has been paid, say pounds 100,000, to run the 20 or so schools in a zone and each school has been given at least one superteacher.

Plans for private firms and educational consultants to play a role in running the zones may be successful. Equally, they may find that running schools requires different skills from running a company. Companies will also be able to take over some functions of failing local education authorities. "Virgins can't run railways and they certainly won't be able to run education services," said Graham Lane, chair of the Local Government Association's education committee.

The Bill reflects the Government's determination to root out educational failure. While the education action zones will have new freedoms, in other ways it is unashamedly centralising. The Secretary of State for Education is gaining powers to take over failing schools and failing local education authorities. He is insisting on quicker procedures for sacking teachers.

Yesterday, David Blunkett was unapologetic. In the past, he said, "central government carried responsibility without power. It deluded the electorate into believing that central government could deliver change without the mechanisms to deliver it. We are taking the necessary powers to ensure that people on the ground do their job."

After years in which bad schools have drifted on because local authorities were too feeble or disorganised to improve or close them, few will quarrel with the new power over local authorities. The insistence that teachers are sacked more quickly is equally necessary: recent research from Exeter University showed that it can take up to 12 years to sack a bad teacher.

The Bill marks an overdue return to the notion that schools need to be planned and an end to the last government's ideological conviction that the market would raise standards.

Because so much of what is proposed makes sense, the response of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was muted. Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman, pointed out that more money will almost certainly be needed.

William Hague, the Tory leader, who worried that the measures gave local authorities more power over grant-maintained schools, created by the last government, must know that the agenda has moved on. His party dropped its promise of a grammar school in every town after its own focus groups and canvassers discovered that voters were not interested. Instead, they wanted to talk about class sizes. Under the Bill, local authorities will have to draw up plans showing how they will provide smaller classes for five- to seven-year-olds.