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Parent power surge

London borough gets the first state secondary founded by parents, reports Michael Shaw

A group of parents who feared their children would not get places in local schools are to become the first to found a state-funded secondary themselves.

The campaigners in Lambeth, south London, are taking advantage of two-year-old regulations which force local authorities to consider other providers when they plan new schools.

Stephen Twigg, the schools minister, has agreed to fast-track funding for the pound;25 million Elmcourt school so it can open in 2007.

Lambeth parents have been pressing for new schools because of a shortage of secondary places. Nearly six out of 10 children who live in the borough go elsewhere for secondary education, and Lambeth council believes it will be short of 1,500 places by 2011.

Sophia Yates, one of 40 parents involved in the Elmcourt campaign, said she had been appalled at stories she had heard at her daughters' primary school, where a third of 11-year-olds were left without places this year.

"The anxiety is so intense," she said. "You hear parents saying it's the worst nightmare for their children and they get their kids to take six to eight exams to get into selective schools."

Elmcourt will not be the first school in the area to open as a result of parent pressure. Sustained campaigns by families led to the opening of the Lambeth academy last year and the Charter school in neighbouring Southwark in 2000.

However, Elmcourt will be different because its site and building will be owned by a charitable foundation set up by the parents.

The families will be able to influence the ethos and curriculum of the school, which will be non-faith and non-selective. More than half of its governors will be parents.

Campaigners have been using their expertise as council workers, lawyers, architects and teachers to plan the 1,200-pupil secondary, which will share a site with the existing Elm Court special school.

Tony Pizzoferro, a primary deputy head, said of the project: "We have a blank canvas to create the ideal secondary school."

The families said their campaign was in keeping with Labour's drive to give parents a greater say in schools, underlined in its manifesto this week.

However, they stressed that the idea of making parents the founders of Elmcourt had come from Lambeth council, which is run by a Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition.

The parents only met after a series of council-organised meetings in primary schools in December 2003 in which officials invited families to come forward.


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