Academy or free school 'should be first choice'

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An academy or free school should be the "first choice" of local councils planning to open a new school in their area, Education Secretary Michael Gove said today.

A growing population, particularly in major cities, means that more schools are needed to meet demand.

Mr Gove suggested today that his preference would be for these to be either an academy or free school, rather than local authority-run schools.

"That would be the first choice I would like local authorities to make, that they should be free schools or academies," he said.

Mr Gove added: "We are getting a big population boom, particularly in London and parts of east Lancashire and west Yorkshire; we do need new schools, particularly at primary level.

"My view is we should encourage innovation and choice by ensuring that as many of these schools as possible are academies or free schools."

Both academies and free schools are semi-independent state schools which receive funding direct from Government.

A clause in the new Education Bill, published yesterday, says that "if a local authority in England think a new school needs to be established in their area, they must seek proposals for the establishment of an academy".

Mr Gove's comments came as newly-published Department for Education figures showed that 249 groups have now submitted proposals to set up one of the Government's new "free schools".

Thirty-five groups have been allowed to progress to the next stage of developing a business plan.

Among those schools approved to continue to business stage is a private school that specialises in transcendental meditation.

Teachers and students at the Maharishi School in Lancashire take part in two meditation sessions each day.

Headteacher Derek Cassells told the Times Educational Supplement (TES) the school wants to make the move to respond to demand from parents who would like their child to attend, but cannot afford the fees.

"It's clearly an exciting innovation, to allow schools such as ours to become part of the national framework, he said.

Mr Gove said today that interest in creating free schools had come from a "wide range" of groups.

The nature of the process is to help encourage innovation, he said.

The Education Secretary was speaking on a visit to King Solomon Academy in west London, an all-through school for three to 18-year-olds, where he was joined by education experts from the United States.

The visit came ahead of a Free Schools conference in London tomorrow.

Among the US visitors were Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City Department of Education, and Josephine Baker, executive director of the District of Colombia Public Charter School Board.

US charter schools are run independently of the traditional public school system, tailored to meet their community's needs, and the movement has helped inform the coalition Government's plans for free schools.

The US education experts warned today it was important free schools are held properly accountable, and are able to get rid of weak teachers where necessary.

Mr Klein said: "One of the lessons I learned in eight-and-a-half years is the need to have reasonable processes in place for terminating non-performing and under-performing teachers.

"Every child is entitled to a good teacher."

Mr Klein added: "It's easier to prosecute a capital punishment case in the US than terminate an incompetent teacher."

Ms Baker said charter schools are judged by their achievements, and if there is a teacher not meeting pupils' needs then it is down to the schools to dismiss them.