Adonis's charter crusade

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Blair's policy adviser is accused of riding his American 'hobby-horse', roughshod over Labour members. Jon Slater reports

The creation of US-style privately-run secondary schools could be included in Labour's election manifesto, if key figures in Downing Street have their way.

Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair's chief education adviser, is hoping to appeal over the heads of Labour members and win public backing for the introduction of charter schools in England, The TES has learnt.

The taxpayer-funded schools have proved controversial in the US. Unlike English academies, they can be run by private firms to make money.

A source with close links to Downing Street and the Department for Education and Skills said that Mr Adonis was using the public consultation on Labour's next manifesto to strengthen his long-standing desire to bring charter schools to the UK.

Mr Adonis and other Downing Street advisers have made a number of trips to the US to look at charter schools.

"Andrew is attempting to wheedle this in by winning public support. He wants to be able to turn around and say my hobby-horse is being ridden by the people. But even if it does not win support, the idea will not go away," the source said.

Supporters claim charter schools boost diversity and raise standards in deprived, often urban, areas.

But evidence of attainment is mixed. Research by the Brookings Institute, an influential Washington think-tank, suggests that charter school pupils lag up to a year behind their peers in district (local authority) schools.

Critics also point to scandals including instances of the diversion of public funds to bankroll lavish lifestyles for staff, to show that the independently-run schools are open to abuse.

Any attempt to introduce charter schools in the UK will face fierce opposition from teaching unions and local authorities.

Both groups attacked as unworkable Conservative proposals to allow parents to set up their own schools, an idea which borrowed heavily from the US.

A Downing Street insider admitted the Government wants to learn from charter schools but denied that the idea could be directly replicated in England and said companies would not be allowed to make profits.

The idea is to enable communities with low educational attainment to set up their own alternatives to existing state schools, he said.

The Big Conversation consultation document, launched by Tony Blair in November, floats the introduction of charter schools as part of secondary school reform.

It says: "Secondary level reform has become a key issue in the US, including the creation of independently-managed 'charter' schools.

"We face a similar reform challenge. Should we make it even easier for schools to expand, or new schools to be established, by sponsors able to provide excellent standards of education where there is parental demand?"

Education action zones, academies and the privatisation of local authority services have all been promoted by Downing Street in the face of strong opposition from within the Labour party and sections of the DfES.

John Bangs, National Union of Teachers' head of education, said: "Charter schools have been intensely disruptive in the US. There is no evidence that they have raised standards."

Neil McIntosh, chief executive of not-for-profit education company CfBT, said: "If this is true we would be enormously interested.

"The notion of having alternative providers is well-established in other public services. In education it seems to only be acceptable in the special schools sector. It is ironic that what is acceptable for the most vulnerable children is not seen as acceptable for the majority."

Leader 22

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