Academies will tread third way

The new schools will be a half-way houses, funded by public money but given independent status. Sarah Cassidy reports.

THE new City Academies are to be registered as independent schools and will be given the freedom to specialise in almost any subject.

New legislation will also give ministers the power to transfer council-owned land and buildings to the partnerships which will own and run the inner-city schools.

Ministers announced plans for the academies - conceived as a way of boosting standards in inner-city schools - in March. They want businesses, individuals, churches or voluntary bodies to apply to establish around 10 "pathfinder" academies which will open in September next year.

The first academy could replace the country's first Fresh Start school, Firfield community school in Newcastle, which has failed to thrive despite a pound;2.4 million relaunch 18 months ago.

Newcastle City Council has been invited by the Department for Education and Employment to meet local businessman Peter Vardy, who is prepared to bankroll a chain of city academies in the North-east.

The new academies will usually replace an existing failing school or be part of a wider proposal to tackle under-performance in a group of schools. A new school will be established only if a local shortage of secondary school places justifies it.

Sponsors of the new academies must pay around 20 per cent of the schools' capital costs, which could be up to pound;2m.

Under current legislation, schools can only specialise in technology, languages, sport or the arts. But officials want the sponsors of the new inner-cty schools to have complete freedom to devise a curriculum which best suits their pupils.

A DFEE official said: "We want each proposal to be considered on its educational merit and not face being rejected because of restrictions in legislation. We want sponsors to have the greatest flexibility to attract parents back into the inner cities."

Ministers have tabled three amendments to the Learning and Skills Bill which goes to committee stage this week. This will add the name City Academies to education law, allow them freedom to specialise in any subject, and speed up the transfer of land.

City Academies will be registered as independent schools, so that they lie outside the legislative framework which governs maintained schools. They will charge no fees and will be funded by the DFEE at the same level as specialist schools provided that agreed targets are met.

But unlike private schools all their pupils will be required to take key stage 3 tests and GCSEs and all teachers must also have qualified teacher status.

They will be able to vary the school day and year, pay special incentives to teachers, and vary the national curriculum.

As specialist schools they will be able to select up to 10 per cent of pupils on the basis of aptitude for the school's specialism.

Proposed admissions arrangements must be circulated for comment to other schools and the local authority. City Academies will not come under the remit of the Government's admissions watchdog, the Schools Adjudicator. Instead disputes will be referred to the Secretary of State for Education.

Leader, 14

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