So what are action zones?

Next week the Government launches one of the most radical plans ever which will draw in private money to tackle the problems of inner- city schools. We have been taking lessons from the Americans
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ACTION ZONES will be groups of about 20 schools, mainly in deprived areas, working together to raise standards. Each will include more than one secondary school and surrounding primary schools. All must eventually include a specialist school.

A special forum group, effectively a board of governors, will run each zone and will be composed of teachers, headteachers, local councillors and education officers, plus business representatives.

The forums will have the power to "think the unthinkable", possibly changing teachers' contracts or the national curriculum to improve teaching and exam results.

Why are they important?

THE IDEA started off as a way of solving educational problems in small pockets of the country. But now the Government envisages zones as test beds for more widespread future change.

The first 25 zones will be in place by next year. The first 12 will get going in September. But more are planned and their ideas could spread to every school in the land.

Ministers are especially keen to look at changing the standard school day, the three-term year, with its long summer holiday, and the national agreements governing teachers' contracts.

Action zones will employ the first pounds 40,000-a-year advanced skills teachers, the so-called "superteachers", and will be first in the queue when schools bid for money to implement new Government initiatives.

What will they do?

Each zone will have its own plan for raising standards and its own targets to fulfil.

The Government wants to ensure that the first zones include a variety of ideas tailored to local needs.

Some of the 60 bids with the Department for Education and Employment suggest dramatic changes away from the three-term school year.

Radical ideas already put forward include a four- or five-term year, early-morning and evening lessons and encouraging parents to take classes alongside children.

Some bids build on existing initiatives, such as homework clubs, summer schools and inter school co-operation.

Each zone will be given pounds 1 m a year by government and businesses.

Zones could also test ways of changing the national curriculum and develop high tech teaching using the Internet.

Why do we need them?

Ministers want to encourage innovation and test out new ideas. They also want to target help to areas with the most deprivation and the worst exam results.

As in America, where the idea came from, private firms are involved in bids for British zones, but none is taking the lead.

Most teachers' unions fail to see the point of zones, arguing that the idea is bureaucratic and pointless. They would much rather see the extra money going straight into schools.

Will they work?

Nobody knows. A lot of political capital is invested in the project. The zones have to meet their targets by 2002, which, coincidentally, is around the time of the next election, when ministers will want something to show for their efforts.

Companies with High Street names - for example, Marks & Spencer and BT - are also throwing their weight behind the initiative. They will want to back a winner.