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Will every school be independent?

The future looks bleak for local education authorities as both Tory and Labour seek to create many more autonomous state schools. Michael Shaw reports

Labour plans to increase radically the number of schools that are free from local authority controls.

The publication of the party's five-year education plan next week will follow the launch this week of the Conservatives' rival strategy, which includes proposals to bypass councils and give every school autonomy.

One of Labour's biggest announcements will be a huge expansion of its academy programme. It pledges to have 200 of the schools - state-funded but independent of council control - in development by 2010. Previously the party had planned to create just 50 academies. Each will receive an average of pound;25 million for new buildings.

Existing secondaries will find it easier to gain foundation status. Those that switched would win control of pay, facilities and assets from local authorities. They would also control their own admissions, although they would not be allowed to select students.

Currently around 510 secondaries have foundation status, mostly former grant-maintained schools. Only nine succeeded in gaining the status last year.

George Phipson, general secretary of the Foundation and Aided Schools National Association, said he expected that more than 1,000 secondaries might switch if the process became easier. "At the moment it takes more than a year and it's even more difficult than becoming a specialist school," he said.

But the Tories went a step further than Labour by announcing they would like to make all schools independent of local authorities.

Tim Collins, shadow education spokesman, told The TES: "It will give them total control over their budgets: they won't have to go cap in hand to the local authority every time they want to paint a wall or build an extension."

The Conservatives announced they would give parents a greater choice of schools by spending an extra pound;15 billion a year on education by 2009 and creating 500,000 new school places.

This doubling of surplus school places would mean that 100,000 more parents would get their first choice, the party has calculated.

Mr Collins said the extra places would be the "lubricant" that would allow the party's Right to Choose campaign to work and would help lower class sizes.

The party has also reaffirmed its plans to state-fund places at independent schools, as long as the schools charged no more than it costs to fund a child at state schools, around pound;5,500.

Michael Howard, Conservative leader, said that he wanted to "give every parent the kind of choice in education that today only people with money can buy".

The party had previously said it would scrap catchment areas, but now says it will leave it up to schools to decide how to select their pupils.

This policy was attacked by teachers' unions who warned it would open the door for the return of a selective education system.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said heads wanted the autonomy of foundation status but not a "free-for-all" over admissions and parental choice:

"The chances are that the Conservative plans, far from helping those disadvantaged by the present system, will worsen the present divide to the detriment of many parents and their schools."

Other Labour proposals expected include "rigorous new teaching reviews" that would affect teachers' pay and training and personalised learning, tailored to individual pupils. It also wants all secondaries to turn specialist. Yesterday a further 267 specialists were announced, meaning 62 per cent have the status.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, expects up to 200 of England's 3,500 secondaries will never be eligible to become specialists and hopes most of these will become academies instead.

The Tories aim to set up a national funding agency, modelled on the one for grant-maintained schools, to decide what funding schools should receive according to their needs.

The party said it had not decided to abolish local education authorities outright. But it plans to launch a review to see what role they can play led by Sir Robert Balchin, ex-chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation.

The Local Government Association said it was concerned that both the Conservative and Labour proposals would reduce local councils' powers to support young people. Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart, vice-chairman of the LGA, said: "A national funding quango run from London would be a retrograde step."

The Tories also said they would take tougher action on behaviour by scrapping exclusions appeals panels. The idea was praised by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, but dismissed by the Secondary Heads Association which said excluded students would go to court instead.

While both Labour and Tories have been busy stressing the importance of parental choice, the Liberal Democrats have deliberately played down the issue.

Charles Kennedy, Lib Dem leader, made a speech this week in which he said that choice was a meaningless idea in education if good local schools were not available to all.

Myth of choice, 23


* Have 200 academies in developmentby 2010

* Make all secondary schools intospecialist colleges

* Expand the number of foundation schools

* Establish a system of rigorous teachingand learning reviews to ensure thatteachers develop their skills and are paid appropriately

* Significant expansion of support for under-fives

* Ensure all pupils receive a "personalised" education

* Simplify funding arrangements, reduce red-tape and government initiatives, decrease the number of civil servants.


* Make all schools independent of their local authorities and free to manage their own budgets, pay and admissions arrangements.

* Increase schools funding from pound;47 billion in 2005-6 to pound;62bn in 2009-10

* Double the number of surplus places in schools from 10 to 20 per cent, to give parents greater choice

* Abolish exclusions appeals panels

* Allow parents to use their child's education funding, a sum of at least pound;5,500, at independent schools which charge that rate.

* Simplify funding arrangements, reduce red-tape and government initiatives, decrease the number of civil servants.

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