'Free' school could be set up in Department for Education building

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The Independent Online

Plans for one of the Government's flagship "free" schools to be set up within the Department for Education's headquarters in central London were revealed yesterday.

The idea is to concentrate civil servants' minds on their "mission" – educating children – as they walk to their offices in the morning.

David Bell, permanent under-secretary at the DfE, invited bids for the project when he addressed the Government's first ever conference for "free" schools yesterday.

It was inspired by the former head of New York's education system, Joel Klein, who said a "Charter" (or "free") school had been set up on the first floor of its offices. He told yesterday's conference at Westminster academy in London that New York's Mayor wanted all bureaucrats to understand what their customers are doing.

"If you walk into my building, you see a child and symbolically in a deep and powerful way you understand: 'that's why I'm here'. I look at these kids and I think some of these kids won't make it into high school unless we do things differently."

Under the coalition Government's "free" school plans, parents, teachers and charities will be give the opportunity to set up their own "free" schools – paid for by the state.

Education Secretary Michael Gove added: "The Department has buildings in Runcorn, Darlington – in a historic building – Mowden Hall, Sheffield and Central London."

With the axing of several education "quangos" and slimming the numbers of civil service personnel, more space is likely to become available. "The most exciting thing would be to have one in the heart of London," said Mr Gove.

Ministers are prepared to change the rules governing planning regulations if it is necessary to give the project the go ahead. So far eight proposals – including one Hindu school and one using the Montessori methods – have been cleared to open in September. A further 27 have been provisionally approved. The DfE has received 249 applications for "free" schools.

Andy Burnham, the shadow Education Secretary, accused Mr Gove of "inflicting an elitist experiment on our schools system with no evidence that it will raise standards". He added: "Free Schools mean a free-for all, where good schools can be destabilised and where teachers can be employed without teaching qualifications. They threaten a school system with increased social segregation of children."

But speaking to yesterday's conference via video link Prime Minister David Cameron said he backed the policy "every step of the way". He added: "For too long in our country, exercising choice to escape poor schools has been available to the richest, who could just opt out and go private or to the middle classes who could move house to a better area, but the poorest have had to take what they're given. Not any more."

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