PM offers cash to school action zones

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR called on parents and community groups yesterday to set up education action zones to raise standards in deprived areas.

At present action zones, testbeds of educational innovation, are led mainly by local education authorities but the Prime Minister said they had no automatic right to that role.

In a speech at a Blackburn school, he offered pounds 20,000 to help parents and community groups who put in promising bids for zones. Advertisements to attract new groups to lead zones will appear this weekend and there will be a hotline for those who need advice.

Teachers and local authorities attacked the proposal and parents were dubious. So far 25 zones, run by partnerships of local authorities, schools and business, have been set up. Each has an extra pounds 1m to spend, pounds 750,000 from the Government and the rest from business.

Mr Blair attacked people who opposed business involvement in schools. "When people say keep business out of schools, I say the more support and involvement of the wider community - including business - in our schools, the better," he said.

Local education authorities, he warned, should not have a monopoly on zones. "We want local education authorities to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Where that isn't the case, we think it right that schools and other interested parties should be able to forge their own action zone partnerships. Ministers want the new zones to produce more radical ideas than the existing ones and to attract more private funding.

David Willetts, the Conservatives' education spokesman, said: "Action zones were supposed to bring in businesses to manage schools and encourage innovation. In the first round, over 90 per cent of the bids were from local education authorities and business has been slow to come forward with matching funds." New zones will receive only pounds 500,000 from the taxpayer plus pounds 250,000 if they get pounds 250,000 from private sources. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said zones, which are allowed to scrap the national curriculum and teachers' pay scales, must set demanding targets for test and exam results, increasing the number staying on after the age of 16 and coping with disaffected pupils. Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said it would support any group that wished to bid, although she believed few would.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Spin and hype about parents running schools does not connect with reality. Parents want schools to be run by professionals in partnership with them." Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, said councils must have a role in all action zones.

Mr Blunkett and the Prime Minister Our Lady and St John RC school in Blackburn, site of an existing zone. The zone's new "whiteboard technology", a giant interactive computer screen, helps to link pupils to teachers, classroom to classroom and schools to businesses and homes.