Defiant Blair vows to build more city academies

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The Independent Online

He said that his target to create 200 of the privately sponsored schools by 2010 was a minimum figure, and that new opportunities to set them up would be taken "wherever they can make a big difference".

Critics, including the Labour-controlled Select Committee on Education and Skills, have argued that he should have waited for an assessment of the first 17 before announcing plans to increase their number.

However, in a speech delivered to parents in Downing Street before today's White Paper on education, he said the academies would provide the "legal model" for a network of "independent state schools" throughout the country. Private schools wanting to opt into the state sector would also be granted academy status.

Mr Blair also made a specific plea to the country's leading universities - such as Oxford and Cambridge - to back his plan for independently run state schools and provide backing or sponsorship for them. "One of the things we've got to develop is far closer links between some of our strong universities and our top schools," he said. In addition, he wanted business foundations and educational charities to link their "brands" to groups of schools to help them improve.

"We want every school to be able quickly and easily to become a self-governing independent state school - an opportunity not just open to a small number of schools but to all who want it," he said.

Mr Blair acknowledged that Labour's progress in improving school standards was "not good enough - not for Britain, not for the modern world".

"We must do better to tackle the pockets of deep educational disadvantage: do better in lifting schools from average to good; do better in enabling more good schools to become genuine centres of excellence, giving as good an education in the state sector as anyone can buy in the private school system," he said.

Meanwhile, the Government is facing mounting criticism from its backbenchers over its educational reform package, withmany Labour MPs seething about the way the White Paper has been presented A leading education backbencher claimed Labour had presided over a "gradually more selective" education system.

David Chaytor - MP for Bury North and a member of the select committee - cited the decision by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, to allow the Catholic London Oratory School to interview parents to determine their religious commitment as evidence of the rise.

He also cited a growth in the number of pupils attending grammar schools since 1997 and the Government's decision to allow specialist schools to select 10 per cent of their pupils. He added that if the rhetoric about parental choice was to be turned into reality, effective legislation will be needed.

Two Labour MPs, Linda Gilroy and David Borrow warned that the government was in danger of causing another confrontation with the party, like the ones provoked before the general election over student fees and NHS reform. David Cameron, Tory education spokesman, said: "Eight years ago the Prime Minister abolished the grant-maintained schools that had the freedoms he is talking about - despite knowing what good schools they were."