Academies plan 'will cut red tape for teachers'

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The Independent Online

Education Secretary Michael Gove today defended plans to fast- track thousands of schools into becoming academies, saying the move would help free teachers from bureaucracy.

Mr Gove said cutting back on red tape was a key concern for teachers and creating more academies would help give schools more freedom from form-filling - allowing them to "get on with the job" of teaching.

"The majority of teachers that I have talked to want to have less bureaucracy and what we are doing today is inviting teachers to go down this route - I am not forcing anyone to do anything," he told GMTV.

"I am saying to teachers and to heads 'If you think that there is too much bureaucracy, if you want to get on with the job, if you want to spend more time teaching, and less time form-filling, then take this opportunity'."

Mr Gove's remarks come as he will outline further details of his plans to grant state schools more independence.

The newly named Department for Education says it wants to "cut red tape" and allow primary and secondary schools the same freedoms as academies.

It comes the day after two education Bills, which will pave the way for "free schools" - a key plank of the Tories plans for education reform - were announced in the Queen's Speech.

The first of those, the Academies Bill, will allow schools to opt out of local authority control, and apply directly to the Education Secretary for academy status.

Schools rated as "outstanding" by Ofsted - around 600 secondaries and about 2,000 primaries - will be "pre-approved", effectively meaning their applications are fast-tracked.

It means that outstanding schools which apply immediately could be re-opened as academies this September.

It is the first time that primary schools will be allowed to apply for academy status.

A second Education and Children's Bill, set to be published in the autumn, contains measures to reform Ofsted and to ensure that heads are held accountable for two core educational "goals" - attainment and closing the gap between rich and poor pupils.

It will introduce a slimmed-down curriculum, a reading test for 11-year-olds and give teachers and heads more powers to tackle bullying and bad behaviour.

The Bill also mentions plans to bring in a "pupil premium", which will see money follow poorer children from school to school.

Together, the two Bills remove many of the barriers to the introduction of "free schools" which will see parents, teachers, charities, trusts and voluntary groups given state funding to set up and operate schools on the Swedish model, which would be taxpayer-funded and non-fee-paying but independent from state control.

The Tories held on to these plans in the coalition agreement with the Lib Dems.

The plans for free schools and academies were attacked by Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, who said there was a "wealth of warnings" and international evidence showing that free schools and academies were "a recipe for educational inequality and social segregation".

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Gove said: "The whole aim of this legislation is to end a culture where politicians and bureaucrats tell schools what to do and instead we put teachers and heads in the driving seat, and so it is for heads to decide whether or not they want to take up these freedoms and to liberate themselves from some of the bureaucracy that has held them back in the past."

Mr Gove said groups with a "dark agenda" - such as religious fundamentalists - will not be allowed to set up new schools in the state system.

The Education Secretary told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We will have a rigorous process of due diligence in order to ensure that any organisation that wishes to set up a new school and wishes to take advantage of these freedoms is a group that has a robust business plan and a group that doesn't have any dark agenda.

"It is up to the department to ensure that groups that are either extremist or religious fundamentalist don't use the opportunities that we are creating in order to establish a school which is responsible for spreading that agenda."

Mr Gove said he could not estimate how many schools will have taken on academy status in two years' time.

"I don't know, because everything we are talking about is permissive - it is about saying to heads and boards of governors and teachers 'It's up to you'," he said.

"I don't want to coerce anyone into a position with which they are unhappy. I want to allow schools to take up this offer."

He added: "I would like in due course academy status to become the norm."

Responding to allegations that the expansion of the academy scheme would take money away from disadvantaged children in schools which remain under local education authority control, Mr Gove pointed to the "pupil premium" which forms part of the Government's reform programme.

"One of the great things about the partnership deal is that there is a commitment from both parties to ensure that underprivileged children in disadvantaged circumstances are at the forefront of our minds," he said.

"That is why we will have a pupil premium, a sum of money from outside the existing schools budget which will come on top of what we currently spend on schools, in order to help children in disadvantaged circumstances."

Mr Gove said he was writing to local authority chiefs today to ask them for their ideas on the future of schools.

He told BBC News he wanted them to play a "strong role" in the future of education standards, and to "put forward their ideas for the future".

Mr Gove is writing to schools in England, encouraging them to apply to become academies.

Former Education Secretary Ed Balls predicted a "two tier" and "deeply unfair" system as a result of fast tracking academy status for the highest performing schools and allowing free schools.

"The price for that will be paid by cancelling new school buildings, taking money, teachers, away from existing schools, often in more disadvantaged communities," he told BBC News 24.

"That is not only wasteful, I fear that it will turn out to be deeply, deeply unfair."

He accused Mr Gove of presiding over the "biggest centralisation" of education policy in the post-war era.

"The way we raised standards in the last 13 years was by focusing our efforts on the lowest performing schools," he said.

"We had in 1997, half of schools below the benchmark, we got that down to one in 12, that is where our effort and our resources went.

"Michael Gove is now saying 'let's take academies away from focusing on the most disadvantaged communities'.

"He is saying to the highest performing schools you have the freedoms, you opt out. It is, to be honest, the biggest centralisation in educational policy in the post-war era.

"He is going to get rid of local authorities' role and all these thousands of schools will report directly to him."