Independent's free school bid is music to ministers' ears

Head says his #163;10k-a-year grammar can 'do the job incredibly well'

Government hopes that leading independent schools will inject some of their DNA into the state sector have received a huge boost this week with news that Manchester Grammar School is planning to open a free school in 2013.

The #163;10,000-a-year school, one of the most famous in the north of England, will join the likes of the Maharishi Free School and the Sheffield Christian Free School when it makes its application to the Department for Education next year.

Manchester Grammar wants to open a 200-pupil primary in the Ancoats area of the city, called New Islington Free School.

Ministers are likely to greet the news as a landmark - it is the first time a top independent has involved itself with the Government's free-schools programme, which was launched last year and saw the first 24 open this September.

The school's high master Christopher Ray said he hoped its free school would be able to encourage social mobility in the rundown area of east Manchester. "When you create a new school you are creating genuine social diversity in the school," Mr Ray added. "Social mobility derives from social diversity. Failing schools are in areas of no social diversity at all."

Earlier this autumn, Mr Ray was one of 10 leading independent heads brought to Downing Street to meet the prime minister and education secretary Michael Gove. The heads, who also included those of Harrow, Eton and City of London Boys, were asked how they could help failing state schools by establishing formal partnerships and turning them into academies.

Mr Ray, who will become chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference next autumn, said he had received "mixed messages" from the Government over how top independents could help out, but added that his plans for a free school were in line with what ministers were after.

Asked whether he was favouring free schools over academies, Mr Ray said: "Why not do both? We know we can do the job incredibly well."

Manchester Grammar, whose alumni include former England cricket captain Michael Atherton and actor Robert Powell, already has a 200-pupil prep school for seven to 11-year-olds. "It won't be a clone of our junior school," Mr Ray said. "This will be for four to 11-year-olds."

Property company Urban Splash, which is behind the award-winning New Islington development, will build the #163;4 million school on derelict land handed over to the developer for a peppercorn rent by the city council.

News of Manchester Grammar's move comes a week after the president of the Girls' Schools Association, Dr Helen Wright, criticised the way the Government had handled its attempts to get independents involved in the state sector.

"Pressure on independent schools to prop up the state system is just one more example of the state trying to politicise education," she said. "Education should not be a political issue with schemes chopped and changed at will by different governments for political capital." Dr Wright added that independents should be involved in partnerships with state schools, but warned: "It is not right for us to be told how to do so."

The closing date for free-school applications is 24 February and the successful bidders are due to be named next summer.

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