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Gove's academy plans prompt doubts and fears

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 26 May 2010

As English schools are invited to become academies, Cathy Newman and Darshna Soni examine Lib Dem objections and ask whether some establishments could turn into sink schools as a result.

Schools offered chance for more independence under new laws proposed in the Queen's speech yesterday

Education Secretary Michael Gove will outline further details of his plans to grant state schools more independence today.

The newly named Department for Education says it wants to "cut red tape" and allow primary and secondary schools the same freedoms as academies.

"What I'd like to do is to ensure some of the radicalism that we used to have in education policy returns...It's about saying to heads, and boards of governors and teachers - it's up to you,"  Mr Gove said this morning on Radio 4.

It comes the day after two education Bills, which will pave the way for "free schools" - a key plank of the Tories plans for education reform, were announced in the Queen's speech.

The first of those, the Academies Bill, will allow schools to opt out of local authority control, and apply directly to the education secretary for academy status.

Schools rated as "outstanding" by Ofsted - around 600 secondaries and about 2,000 primaries - will be "pre-approved", effectively meaning their applications are fast-tracked.

It means that outstanding schools that apply immediately could be re-opened as academies this September. It is the first time that primary schools will be allowed to apply for academy status.

Mr Gove insisted today that the programme for new academies would not come at the cost of worse-off schools that may continue to struggle.

He said he hoped for greater collaboration between indepdendent and state schools, adding: "The best schools in Britain are those state schools that are using their independence to drive up standards."

Free schools: a parent's perspective

The writer Toby Young is part of a group of parents and teachers planning to set up a free school in west London.

The school would offer up to 750 children a classical liberal education without any "soft" - vocational - options. All pupils would do at least eight GCSEs including separate sciences, history, geography and Latin or a modern foreign language (or preferably both).

Young is considering bids to run the school from 10 private and charitable education providers. He hopes the group will appoint one July, take out a 25-year lease on a mothballed secondary school, and admit the first year sevens in September 2011.

He acknowledges funding could become tricky if the school were under-subscribed - "for a fairly small school, margins are small" - but having researched demand in the area, this isn't something he anticipates. "If we weren't providing the extra school places, the local authority would have to," he said.

But the main difference in the free school is that the group of parents and teachers "will have much more control to over a school set up in this way than a school the local authority set up in responses to, say, a petition". This doesn't extend to guaranteeing his own children a place - the admissions policy of the non-selective school has yet to be set.

Although he thinks his group could have set the school up under the existing academy framework, the process has still been "fiendishly complicated". Today's removal of the need for local authority approval should also make the process easier for parents in some other parts of the country.

A second Education and Children's Bill, set to be published in the autumn, contains measures to reform Ofsted and to ensure that heads are held accountable for two core educational "goals" - attainment and closing the gap between rich and poor pupils.

It will introduce a slimmed-down curriculum, a reading test for 11-year-olds and give teachers and heads more powers to tackle bullying and bad behaviour.

Mr Gove said the current curriculum is "too crowded and cluttered and too prescriptive".

The Bill also mentions plans to bring in a "pupil premium", which will see money follow poorer children from school to school.

Do Swedish free schools mean higher standards? FactCheck investigates
- Read FactCheck here

Together, the two Bills remove many of the barriers to the introduction of "free schools" which will see parents, teachers, charities, trusts and voluntary groups given state funding to set up and operate schools on the Swedish model, which would be taxpayer-funded and non-fee-paying but independent from state control.

The Tories held on to these plans in the coalition agreement with the Lib Dems.

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