I'd rather beg, said Letwin. To get his children into the new academy, he'd have to

Oliver Letwin once said he would rather beg in the street than send his son to a state school near his London home. Tomorrow, there will be a state-funded school in Lambeth, south London, where he lives, where he would have to beg to get his children into it; and his begging would be in vain.

Oliver Letwin once said he would rather beg in the street than send his son to a state school near his London home. Tomorrow, there will be a state-funded school in Lambeth, south London, where he lives, where he would have to beg to get his children into it; and his begging would be in vain.

The £25m Lambeth Academy, one of five Government, privately sponsored, state-financed city academies, will be opening its doors to pupils. It was besieged by applications from parents for its 180 first-year places, and had to refuse more than 700. So now the academy has a rigidly controlled catchment area.

"We had several parents who had moved away to find schooling, asking which streets do we have to move back into to get a place," said Pat Millichamp, the principal of the new "LA", as the academy is being called.

The answer is they would have to live within a mile radius because the academy is sticking strictly to proximity as the main determinant on whether a child gets a place.

The catchment area is mixed; the Notre Dame council estate is on its doorstep and every child who applied from it has been granted a place. Other streets near the school, which borders on Clapham Common, house a more middle-class clientele, who have also obtained places at the school.

Thirty-eight per cent of its pupils are entitled to free school meals, the traditional indicator of poverty. It is a typical figure for an inner-city school serving a similar area.

The school has taken great pains to make sure potential parents do live where they say they do. It has a machine which measures whether the parent lives in the catchment area. "We type in their postcode and the postcode of the academy," Mrs Millichamp said. "We then work out how far the house is from the school by road; you can't cut across the grass to get into the school, although you can walk across the common."

It is the type of measure that a popular school anxious to prove to its local community that it is not elitist has to take. Mrs Millichamp, who spent 10 years as head of a comprehensive school - Risca near Newport in south Wales - is anxious to demonstrate that the school is not elitist. "Some of the parents on the council estate thought at first the school would not be for them," she said. "We had to show them it was."

The school will gradually grow year by year until it becomes a 1,250-pupil secondary school for 11-to 18-year-olds. It is being sponsored by the United Learning Trust, a subsidiary of the Church Schools Company, which is the biggest player in the Government's City Academy programme. It has one school up and running in Manchester and two opening this week, the other is in Northampton. Plans for three others are in the pipeline.

The trust, which has ploughed £2m into the venture, says its schools are open to pupils of all religions. The LA has opted to specialise in two subjects: languages and business. As a result, every teacher hired by the academy has to promise to take steps to learn a new language, and wear a badge showing the pupils which language they are to learn.

Mrs Millichamp is learning Yoruba, a Nigerian dialect spoken by some pupils, which she hopes to convince examiners should be a GCSE option by the time her youngsters reach that stage. And the school even has a recording studio, which her technician has described as "state of the art". "The sort of studio that would be good enough for Sting or Elton John," she said. "Just the sort of thing for Lambeth Academy."

Last year, 12 city academies were operating and the total reaches 17 in September. As part of the Government's five-year plan for education, Prime Minister Tony Blair hopes to increase their number to 200 by the end of the decade.

Five specialist skills schools to open this term

God and Mammon have combined to provide £10m worth of sponsorship for the five city academies to open this term.

Two are to be sponsored by a Christian organisation, the Church Schools Company, and private sponsorship for the rest has come from brokers, venture capitalists and businesses. The United Learning Trust, the Lambeth Academy sponsor and a wing of the Church Schools Company, is opening a second academy in Northampton.

This will replace Lings Upper School and specialise in sports and business and enterprise.

A third academy is opening on the site of the old Hackney Downs school in east London. The Mossbourne Community Academy is being sponsored by Clive Bourne, president of the Seabourne Group plc, to specialise in technology.

A fourth, Stuckley Academy, will be in Hillingdon, replacing a community school. Its lead sponsor is Barry Townsley, chairman of the stockbroker, Insinger Townsley. The fifth, the London Academy, will be in Barnet, north London, and sponsored by Peter Shalson, chairman of SGI Ltd, a venture capital company. He is putting £1.5m into the school and raising an extra £500m from the sale of land.

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