Private sponsors are gaining control of the Government's new academies with upfront payments of a few hundred thousand pounds, The TES can reveal.
In return, the benefactors are able to exert huge influence over the new, largely state-funded independent schools, taking charge of decisions on the spending of tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.
They are free to decide the curriculum, determine the length of the school day and can opt out of national teachers' pay agreements.
Paul Holmes, a leading Liberal Democrat member of the Commons education select committee, said: "The Government is essentially giving individuals the ability to experiment with children's education, at taxpayers'
"These are basically private schools, being run using public funds. What safeguards are in place to ensure that the taxpayer has any say over what goes on in these schools?"
The Government said that all academies were subject to funding agreements giving the Education Secretary the right to close the school if he was concerned about its performance or management.
He also had the power to appoint additional governors if he had concerns about a school and to withhold payments. Companies set up to run the academies are also charities, so cannot profit from them.
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman added: "The involvement of sponsors and their desire for success is a huge positive for academies, staff and pupils."
An analysis of accounts from the 12 academies now open reveals that fewer than half have already received all of the pound;2 million pledged to them by their sponsors. In two cases, payments made by the sponsors by the time the new academies opened amounted to less than pound;200,000 in projects with building costs of more than pound;25m.
The benefactors have entered into legal agreements guaranteeing that the promised donations will be paid during the coming years.
And the Government said that the payment of sponsorship, like DfES capital funding, was being staged because it was funding building work at the schools which was taking several years to complete. But the figures will provoke questions about the ease with which sponsors can gain influence over state education.
Academies are arguably the centrepiece of the Government's plans for secondary education, with 200 proposed to be in development by the end of the decade. Of the 12 academies now open, only five have already received the pound;2m which the Department for Education and Skills' website says sponsors will be contributing.
Sponsors of a further six are taking up to five years to make these donations, paying the sponsorship for building work at the schools in instalments.
A former city technology college, which is receiving pound;21.2m from the Government, allowing it to amalgamate with a struggling school, has become an academy without any extra private sponsorship.
The Government says Djanogly city academy in Nottingham, which opened in September 2003, does not need private donations because Djanogly CTC received pound;2m from local benefactor Sir Harry Djanogly after it was set up in 1989.
Nigel Akers, vice-principal of the academy, said: "There were lengthy discussions with the Government about whether this was possible. They liked the idea and are encouraging other CTCs to go down the same route."
All of the sponsors have to enter into funding agreements with the DfES specifying when the money will be paid. There is no question of the donations not being made.
However, the DfES would not release the details of these agreements, citing commercial confidentiality. Its website does not state that some of the sponsorship is being paid in instalments.
Government building costs for the first 12 academies have risen from pound;237m to pound;276m in the past year, or an average of pound;23m, official figures reveal.
The amount the DfES is committing to the first 12 schools on building costs alone ranges from pound;13.3m for the cheapest academy to pound;35.9m for the most expensive. In addition, the department is contributing up to pound;7.2m a year to pay for each school's running costs.
The rising cost to the taxpayer of building the academies suggests that the pound;2m contribution of sponsors is declining as a proportion of the overall cost. And the Government's figures for future academies suggest this could get even smaller, with major sponsors in several cases expected to pay pound;1.5m or less.
In Kent, Roger de Haan, chairman of Saga Holidays, will be the major sponsor of the Marlowe academy with a pledge of pound;1m, equating to just 4.9 per cent of the academy's pound;21m building cost.
Yet the accounts make clear that it is sponsors, and not the Government, who will exert the dominant influence over the spending of this money.
Typically, members of the company which runs the school are appointed either by the Secretary of State or the sponsor.
In several cases, accounts show, the majority of directors of the company, which manages cash from the DfES and the sponsor, and are also governors, have been appointed by the sponsor.
Because academies have more freedom in areas such as teachers' pay and conditions and the curriculum, sponsors have control over major aspects of these largely state-funded schools.
Academies are not bound by the national curriculum, though they have to carry out key stage tests and offer GCSEs, A-levels and vocational exams.
One of the first to open, Bexley Business academy, has already limited the national curriculum to four days a week, making each Friday "business day", in which pupils work on business-related projects.
THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Academies are set up as charitable companies and operate outside local education authority control. Their main sponsors make a contribution to the building costs of the academy. All running costs are funded by taxpayers.
Sponsors can appoint a majority of an academy's governing body which appoints the academy's senior management. Academies must offer recognised qualifications and carry out national testing but do not have to follow the national curriculum. They are not bound by national teachers' pay or conditions of service.
They are subject to Office for Standards in Education inspections. Where there are concerns about the management of an academy or its performance, the Education Secretary can appoint additional governors, withhold payments to the school, appoint auditors and ultimately close it down.
The Government says the schools, all in the country's most disadvantaged areas, will "reinvigorate and in many cases replace schools which have failed pupils for generations".
WHO SPONSORS WHOM
Opened in 2002:
* The Business academy, Bexley
Sir David Garrard, property developer, contributed pound;491,866 in 2002 and a further pound;222,641 by August 2003. Accounts also show another pound;1,151,300 in private sponsorship from unspecified sources have been made since. The DfES is expecting a total of pound;2.45million.
Total building costs to the taxpayer: pound;35.9m million.
Annual running costs, from the public purse: pound;4.2m.
* Greig city academy, Haringey, North London
Sponsors the Greig Trust, a charity, and the London Diocesan Board of Schools are contributing pound;2m "spread over the first five years of the company's life".
Public building cost: pound;14.5m. Running costs: pound;4m.
* Unity city academy, Middlesbrough
Amey plc pledged pound;2m and had contributed pound;975,329 by August 2002. The building and support services firm says another pound;800,000 is being paid in at the moment, staged in line with building work.
Public building cost: pound;18.6m. Running costs: pound;5.3m.
Opened in 2003:
* Capital city academy, Brent, north London
At least pound;2m in sponsorship from advertising boss Sir Frank Lowe, already received.
Public building costs: pound;25.5m. Running costs: pound;4.4m.
* The City academy, Bristol
John Laycock (pictured above), director of Bristol City Football Club, and the University of the West of England, have pledged pound;2m over five years. Had donated pound;384,000 by August 2003.
Public building costs: pound;25m. Running costs: pound;5.4m.
* The West London Academy, Ealing, west London
Main sponsor, recruitment agency boss Alec Reed, had paid pound;105,692 by August 2003. pound;2m pledged being paid "in phases", said a spokesman.
Public building costs: pound;27.7m. Running costs: pound;4.6m
* Manchester academy, Manchester
United Learning Trust, a company set up by eight faith-based independent schools, had paid pound;152,481 by August 2003. Still fundraising to raise pound;2m pledged.
Public building costs: pound;13.3m. Running costs: pound;3.5m
* The King's academy, Middlesbrough
The Vardy Foundation, funded by Christian fundamentalist car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, had contributed pound;2m by August 2003.
Public building costs: pound;20.3m. Running costs: pound;5.7m.
* Djanogly city academy, Nottingham
No extra sponsorship paid, as pound;2m-plus donation by local benefactor Sir Harry Djanogly to predecessor school, Djanogly City Technology, counted as benefactors' contribution.
Public building costs: pound;21.2m. Running costs: pound;7.2m.
* City of London academy, Southwark, south London
Corporation of London paying pound;2m in instalments, to be paid by June, 2005.
Public building costs: pound;31.7m. Running costs: pound;1.8m.
* The Academy at Peckham, Southwark
Carpet magnate Lord Harris of Peckham is contributing pound;2m over four years.
Public building costs: pound;26.2m. Running costs: pound;6m.
* Walsall city academy
Joint sponsors, the Mercers' Company and Thomas Telford City Technology College, have paid pound;2m between them.
Public building costs: pound;15.7m. Running costs: pound;2.9m.
Sponsorship: Academy company accounts, sponsors. Public building costs: DfES. Running costs (200304 figures). Parliamentary written answer, June 2003.