Kelly will make it easier for private schools to receive public funding

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The Independent Online

The Government is planning to make it easier for private schools to "opt in" to the state sector. This would allow more minority faith schools to receive state funding.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said she had already been approached by Muslim schools to opt in to the state sector. Jewish and Christian groups are also anxious to follow suit.

Montessori schools, which believe in teaching children through play rather than teaching to tests, have also approached the Government for funding.

"There are schools currently in the independent sector who really want to join the state system," she said. "The trouble is there are artificial barriers that are put in their way.

"For instance, there is a Muslim girls' school in Bolton [Ms Kelly's constituency] , which is really keen but has been told its buildings are inadequate."

Ms Kelly is proposing to offer the schools a transitional arrangement - allowing them to opt in, in exchange for agreeing a three or four-year programme to improve their buildings.

At present, the schools are having to charge fees - and believe this is putting parents off applying for places. That, in turn, means the schools cannot raise enough money to improve their facilities. "It is a chicken-and-egg situation which a transitional arrangement could solve," she said.

"It's a myth that all private schools have better buildings and resources than the state sector. Some are really struggling and we could help them and provide parents with more choice in the state sector at the same time."

Ms Kelly wants to encourage parents' groups to run their own schools. Ministers have already given backing to a group of parents from Lewisham in south London - where there is a shortage of school places - to set up their own school from scratch.

"What I want to see is parents provided with more choice of schools," she said. "I want them to be able to choose from a range of schools providing a good education in their locality."

Today Ms Kelly is launching a prospectus aimed at turning all the country's 24,000 state schools into "extended schools" - opening their doors from 8am until 6pm.

They will offer breakfast clubs, after-school care for pupils whose parents are at work and more sports and arts activities.

At present children have access to two hours of sport a week but Ms Kelly said that by 2010 they should have four hours a week. Two would be during the school day and the other two would be after school, possibly at local sports clubs.

Schools are being offered £680m to provide the facilities and ministers have made it clear they do not expect teachers to have to run the breakfast clubs or provide the after-school care.

"Many schools already open their buildings up to the community - to pupils and parents," she said.

Ms Kelly has been criticised by Sir Alan Steer, who chairs a government task force on discipline in schools, for her support for "zero tolerance" on indiscipline. He said he would not use the phrase and did not know what it meant.

"I am clear what I mean by it," Mrs Kelly said. "It is all about making sure that pupils know what is expected of them in terms of discipline and that they abide by the school's code of behaviour."