Gove threatens to close failing academies

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The Independent Online

Sponsors of government academies will be stripped of their powers to run schools if they fail to raise standards, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said yesterday.

Mr Gove made it clear he would not hesitate to replace them with alternative sponsors if necessary. He said the Government had already intervened at one academy – St Michael's and All Angels Church of England in Lambeth, south London – "where the rate of progress at that school was inadequate".

The school will close this year after being snubbed by parents, and reopen under the management of Ark, an educational charity which already runs a number of academies, in conjunction with the local Church of England diocese.

St Michael's became well known after its deputy headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, caused a stir at the last Conservative Party conference by attacking "dumbed down" standards and "chaos" in classrooms. Soon after her comments, she left the school.

"There is absolutely no reluctance on our part to deal with any academy that's failing," Mr Gove said yesterday. "If a sponsor is not doing an appropriate job then we will demand change and, if necessary, we will issue a notice to improve and take it out of that sponsor's hands and put it in the hands of someone who will turn it round."

The proposal is just one of a series of measures outlined in new legislation published yesterday, which will also lead to pupil referral units for excluded children being turned into privately sponsored academies. Mr Gove said one organisation, SkillForce, made up of ex-Army veterans, had already expressed an interest in running pupil referral units – as had Ark.

"Most local authority pupil referral units aren't up to snuff," he added. "Ofsted said they're the weak link in the education chain."

School inspections are also to be streamlined as a result of the legislation, to allow them to concentrate on teaching quality, exam performance, school leadership and pupil behaviour. Under the Labour government, inspectors were given a range of responsibilities such as checking on healthy eating standards and whether schools were promoting community cohesion.

"There are areas of Ofsted inspections, such as community cohesion or regulations governing what students bring in in their lunch boxes at lunchtime, which are entirely peripheral," Mr Gove added.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the Bill had "all the hallmarks of being conceived by power junkies". It gave the Government new powers "to seize land to set up new schools, revise local authority budgets" and "close schools on a whim".

The Bill also includes plans to charge higher-earning students a higher rate of interest on their loans when tuition fees rise next year. Those earning more than £21,000 will no longer have their repayments capped at 3 per cent plus inflation.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, described the move as "a stealth tax on learning and achievement".

The new proposals

* Government powers to intervene in failing schools, including replacing academy sponsors who fail to raise standards

* Pupil referral units – dubbed "sin bins" – will be run by private sponsors as academies

* Inspections by Ofsted will be streamlined to concentrate on teaching, standards, leadership and behaviour

* Teachers will be allowed to search pupils for any items that "disrupt learning", such as mobile phones or pornography

* Teachers to be granted anonymity until charged when accused by pupils

* On-the-spot detentions, removing the right of parents to have 24 hours notice

* Abolishing "quangos" such as the General Teaching Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority