Blessed be the school sponsor
CHURCHES and charities are to be the primary target of Government plans to create "City Academies" out of failing schools - not private business.
But details remain hazy despite Wednesday's high-profile launch by the Education Secretary, David Blunkett. No figure has been placed on funding, nor have potential sites or partners been named. Instead a prospectus will go out to bidders in a few months.
City academies will replace underachieving schools or those on special measures and be run by a partnership of Government and sponsors from the business, church or voluntary sectors, who would be expected to put forward more than they contribute to specialist schools.
An immediate positive reaction came from Peter Vardy, chair and founder of Emmanuel CTC in Gateshead and chief executive of the Reg Vardy car sales chain.
He said he would like to create a chain of up to six academies across the North-east. He urged them to be built from scratch - not fresh starts.
"If you start with a clean sheet of paper, it's much easier to get standards, discipline, and performance right," Mr Vardy said.
"You are not fighting 10, 20 or 30 years of histroy. Taking a failing school and trying to turn it around is a long, slow, hard job."
Speaking at the Social Market Foundation Mr Blunkett called the plan a "radical new edge" to his Fresh Start programme and part of a move to extend diversity.
But unions and local authorities reacted angrily, saying he was rehashing failed ideas and panicking over the faltering Fresh Start programme.
Many suspected that the initiative originally emanated from Downing Street. And with the announcement coming out of the blue to many, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned that ministers had stopped talking to the professionals and was now looking increasingly isolated.
Mr Blunkett also announced a new entitlement for pupils to take part in independent school-style sorts, arts, and study after school, creating a 9 to 5 day.
"First-rate education during the school day is not enough to ensure that every young person achieves his or her full potential," he said.
Such sessions would be voluntary and teachers in some situations could even be paid. But unions warned they would quickly become compulsory.
The academies would be either built from scratch or take over the site of failing schools.
The Government says it has no single blueprint. "We want to hear how promoters will use different approaches," Mr Blunkett said.
Each would specialise in at least one subject and be encouraged to vary the curriculum and find new ways of using teachers.
Ministers also want to make it easier for churches to open new schools, in response to the Church of England's proposals to expand its involvement in education, and to allow independent schools - particularly those run by religious groups - to join the state sector.
A spokesman for Mr Blunkett said the main interest in city academies was expected to come from "philanthropic business foundations and trusts, people already in specialist schools, education action zones and similar".
Models for the scheme include the King's School in Wolverhampton, where a failing comprehensive was bought by the Church of England and re-opened as a partner school to its successful C of E neighbour. It is now a thriving specialist arts college.
Canon John Hall, general secretary of the Church of England's board of education, said it would be looking closely at the proposals. "Those who are interested in running city academies are expected to come up with ideas, and we are not short of ideas," he said.
New schools to be
established in the state sector, thus encouraging the establishment of new foundation and
voluntary-aided schools which will be financially backed by church, private and voluntary sectors
Let existing private schools to join the state sector if they wish
Permit church, voluntary and business to take on weak schools or make them city academies