U-turn on bids for new schools

17th October 2008 at 01:00

Ministers have U-turned on their policy of holding competitions between potential providers of new schools, an approach designed to bring greater diversity and private sector involvement to state education.

Scores of secondaries with low GCSE results are likely to be closed under the Government's controversial National Challenge school improvement programme.

But official guidance reveals that when opening new replacement schools, local authorities will be encouraged to circumvent the competition process and find a suitable partner for the new school.

The document, produced for local authorities, makes it clear that councils must first gain permission from the secretary of state if they want to skip a competition.

However, the National Challenge trusts guidance says: "Where a National Challenge trust solution has been brokered and a strong school partner and possibly other strong external partners identified, there would seem to be little benefit in requiring a competition, and this would also delay the process."

The requirement to hold "open competitions" for the organisations running new secondary schools was introduced by Labour in 2002 to give private, voluntary, faith and community groups a greater chance. This might include the private Swedish education provider Kunskapsskolan that has begun to run schools in this country.

David Miliband, the schools minister at the time, said: "We are determined to give more pupils and parents the chance to attend high quality schools."

The system was extended to primary schools by the controversial 2006 Education and Inspections Act. Lord Adonis, then a juniuor schools minister, said the process created a level playing field for providers. And it gave communities "genuine choice and a real say in raising standards", he said.

The white paper that introduced the plan described it as one of several "strong measures to tackle failure and underperformance" in schools. "Competitions will be required for new schools and the replacement of failing schools, for the first time providing a straightforward route to bring new providers into the system," it read.

But where the National Challenge is concerned, that route can now be expected to disappear.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "Where there are genuinely new schools being established, even if they are on the same site as an old one, I think that there should be competitions."

The guidance also reveals that schools could be closed and re-opened as trust schools in as little as seven months. The Government expects its first "structural interventions" under the scheme to be agreed next month.


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