Clarke's plan to increase academies is risky, say MPs

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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke was accused of pursuing a "risky" strategy yesterday after he acknowledged there was little evidence that city academies had so far raised standards in inner-city schools.

Charles Clarke was accused of pursuing a "risky" strategy yesterday after he acknowledged there was little evidence that city academies had so far raised standards in inner-city schools.

Plans to increase the number of city academies from 12 to 200 by 2010 are at the heart of the Government's five-year education strategy to be announ-ced today. An assessment of the 12 "independent state schools" run by private sponsors with government money is due to be published in the autumn.

As the Education Secretary appeared before the Commons Education Select Committee yesterday, David Chaytor, Labour MP for Bury North, asked: "Wouldn't it have made more sense to wait for the assessment of the first few before announcing the expansion?" Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the committee, later added: "I think the 200 figure is a very large expansion. If this government believes in evidence-based policy, then not to wait to get any evidence at all that things are working seems a very risky strategy."

But Mr Clarke countered by saying: "There are only 12 schools that are currently up and running. None of them have really been up and running for long enough." He added that he hoped they would have a "bazooka-like effect" on raising standards in inner-city areas where previous schools had failed, but added: "I concede this is a hope at this stage, rather than anything else."

He admitted it could be argued that the Government should have waited for an assessment of the policy, but added: "We have a programme of seeking to make progress." It would be wrong, therefore, to put policies on ice to wait for an assessment, he said.

Tony Blair said yesterday that the academies were helping to "eradicate the chronic under-performance" in schools in some inner-city areas. In a keynote speech to the Fabian Society, the Prime Minister insisted that education was still his personal "passion" and that today's blueprint would "have at its heart an ambition to shift from good to excellent in the quality of education in this country".

Mr Blair promised to end what he called "the entrenched three-tierism of the past ... excellence for a minority, mediocrity for the majority, outright failure at the bottom."

He rejected Tory proposals that he said would result in a widespread return to selection. "These are fundamental dividing political lines, so let me be clear: we will not extend selection by ability either at five or 11 ... We will not subsidise or pay the fees of those who choose to be educated privately," he said.

He insisted that local education authorities would have "a continuing important role" but warned: "The LEA of the future must be the champion of parents, ensuring they get the choice and quality they need." But in the Commons yesterday, Mr Blair clashed with Michael Howard. The Tory leader said that only four of the country's 21,000 schools had been granted freedom under the "power to innovate" policy and not a single school had been granted "earned autonomy".

He said to Mr Blair: "You have just admitted that the state of education is a scandal and you have been in office for seven years."

THE CLASSROOM BATTLE

Conservative

Selection

All schools, both primary and secondary, to decide their own admissions policies, i.e the right to select pupils

Parental choice

Parents to be given £5,500 "vouchers" to choose a school; for use at any state school or private school that charges up to £5,000

City academies

Believe they are elitist and will not support the scheme

Budgets

Every school would be in charge of its own budget with control taken away from local education authorities

Class sizes

No targets for reducing class sizes; headteachers free to decide

Labour

Selection

Opposed to any expansion of selection but specialist schools do have the right to choose 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude

Parental choice

Will offer more choice, with every school allowed to specialise, and set up 200 city academies. Pupils choose their own curriculum

City academies

Will expand to 200 the network of "independent state schools" run by private sponsors, who have to pledge at least £2m

Budgets

Power to set school budgets would stay with LEAs but their freedom would be curtailed and they have to "passport" more money on to schools

Class sizes

No more targets for reductions following the limit of 30 pupils imposed on classes for those aged five to seven years old

Liberal Democrats

Selection

Opposed - would scrap Labour's 10 per cent ruling

Parental choice

Believe choice is a "secondary issue" and the priority is to ensure all neighbourhoods have good schools

City academies

Would restrict powers of sponsors to run schools. No differential funding for city academies

Budgets

Local education authorities to remain in charge of budgets

Class sizes

An extra £500m to reduce class sizes in primary and lower secondary schools

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