Parents to open own school to avoid battle for places

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The Independent Online

A group of parents who feared that a severe shortage of secondary schools would leave their children without a place are to open their own state school. Elmcourt Secondary School in Lambeth, south London, will become the first state school to be set up by parents, using new legislation.

A group of parents who feared that a severe shortage of secondary schools would leave their children without a place are to open their own state school. Elmcourt Secondary School in Lambeth, south London, will become the first state school to be set up by parents, using new legislation.

The group of 40 parents have used their skills as lawyers, teachers, architects, doctors, accountants and business people to create the £25m school.

It will open in 2007 after the Education minister Stephen Twigg approved the project on Wednesday, just before Parliament was dissolved for the general election.

Sophia Yates, who has three children, and has helped to develop the project, said that the campaign had been driven by the desire to end the appalling shortage of secondary school places in Lambeth.

Her eldest daughter, nine-year-old Eva, should now be spared the battle for places and will be among the first batch of pupils to join the school in 2007, before being joined by her sisters, Rachel, seven, and four-year-old Trudy.

"The shortage of places in Lambeth is just horrific," Mrs Yates said. "This year one third of 11-year-olds at my daughters' school were left without places.

"Children are put under the most intolerable pressure. You get children bed-wetting and having nightmares and parents lying to their children to try to stop them worrying. Parents talk about it as the worst experience of their lives. We wanted to do something to stop this intolerable situation."

She said the campaign fitted perfectly with the drive by Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, for parents to have more say in their children's education. "This is exactly what Ruth Kelly has been talking about," she said. "Parents are in an increasingly powerful position now to create a school for their children. The driving force behind the school will be us, the parents."

The school will receive the same level of funding as all Lambeth schools but the site and buildings will be owned by a charitable foundation set up by the parents. They will influence the curriculum and ethos of the school, which they want to be a non-faith, non-selective mixed secondary school which will specialise in science and humanities.

Parents will also dominate the governing body, and will be allowed to hold more than half of the seats on the board.

Elmcourt Secondary School will take its first cohort of 180 11-year-olds in September 2007. Eventually it will take 900 students, and up to 200 sixth-formers.

More than half of Lambeth's children currently have to leave the borough to go to secondary school. Lambeth has calculated that it will be 1,500 places short by 2011.

Another parent, Cathy Ashley, a charity chief executive and the mother of seven-year-old Amy Bentham, said: "I think it does show what you can do when you work collectively. If people respond to issues and see them as their responsibility rather than just thinking that it's someone else's problem, then you can really make things happen."

Ms Ashley said that the local shortage of secondary places meant that all parents were anxious about their children's future from the day they started primary school.

"You can see the devastating impact on families whose children do not get school places at 11. No parent wants their child to go through that experience and this was a way of doing something about it."

The school is being developed by the parents in partnership with Lambeth council and support from the Department for Education and Skills.

The London Borough of Lambeth was the first authority to be forced to ask for rival proposals from outside bodies who want to set up a secondary school under new legislation.

The regulations, which came into force in June 2003, forbid local education authorities from automatically setting up any new schools. An open competition to allow other potential providers is now required.

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