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Tories plan primary 'academies'

Successful primary schools will be given independence from local authority control by a Conservative Government, with power over their own budgets, curriculum, discipline and staff, shadow education secretary Michael Gove announced today.

And Conservatives would allow community groups, charities, philanthropists and education federations to set up new state primary schools to give parents of 4-11 year-olds more choice.

The Tories have already promised to extend the Government's academy programme to the bulk of secondary schools, but the new policy goes further in offering the same independence within the state sector to thousands of primaries.

Mr Gove said: "Academy freedoms for secondary schools have already helped thousands of disadvantaged children by driving up standards in the state sector. We want to allow the same thing to happen in primary schools.

"Making schools genuinely accountable to parents by freeing them from political interference and giving them control over budgets, curriculum and staff could make a real difference to the opportunities for some of the most deprived children."

Unveiling details of the proposals ahead of this weekend's Conservative Spring Forum in Cheltenham, Mr Gove accused the Government of letting a generation of children down.

He highlighted official figures showing that four out of 10 children leave primary school in England unable to read, write and add up, and that 34,000 11-year-olds have a reading age below that expected of a six-year-old.

And he said that failure at primary level has serious knock-on effects on children's performance at secondary school and in GCSEs.

Under the Tory plan, state primary schools which have demonstrated good performance and leadership will be given freedom from local authority control and new powers over their own curriculum, budget and hours.

Schools with consistently poor results under council stewardship will be taken over by organisations with a track record of delivering successful academy schools - such as the ARK charity, the Mercers Company and the Harris Federation.

Tories will also allow the creation of new independent primary schools within the state sector by existing federations, parents' groups and charities along the lines of a system operating in Sweden which they have already said they will apply at the secondary level.

A party aide said the scheme would "give all parents the power that only richer parents have now - real choice of school - (and) allow different communities, from deprived inner cities to rural villages, to create and nurture good local primary schools".

Schools minister Jim Knight said: "This announcement is risky, ill-thought through and will send a chill down the spines of parents and teachers around the country.

"Our priority in primary education is to get schools working together to make budgets go further, improve leadership and extend specialist teaching so that all children master the basics and no child falls behind.

"All the Tories seem to care about is primary schools going it alone and opting out of the national curriculum in an unregulated free market experiment.

"We have shown over recent years how, where large secondary schools in disadvantaged areas have underperformed, the radical intervention of an academy works to raise standards. But the radical solution for underperforming small primary schools is co-operation not independence.

"The Tories already oppose our academies policy and our National Challenge programme. Their approach is instead to leave weaker schools to underperform rather than intervene, while they divert billions of pounds in cuts from existing schools and our school building programme in a flawed and unfair free market.

"The fact that they now want to extend this Tory approach to primary schools is further evidence that the Conservatives are lurching rapidly to the right."

Mr Gove denied that his proposals for primary academies would make the education system more expensive.

Asked if the changes would cost more money, he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Not intrinsically, no."

He added: "We want to make sure that the current expenditure on education is better spent and crucially that more is spent on the disadvantaged. We believe that our reforms will make sure that the money currently spent is spent better."

Mr Gove told Today: "The city academy programme has been explicitly designed to raise achievement in disadvantaged areas. One of the big problems we have in education at the moment is that children from poorer backgrounds are falling further and further behind children from more fortunate backgrounds and they start falling behind right at the very moment that they start their education.

"So we need reform to begin almost from day one that they cross the threshold of the primary school. We need to do everything possible to ensure that the DNA of the academy programme - which has been successful in driving up standards - is transferred to the very beginning of schooling.

"Good headteachers are consistent in saying that they want more freedom, more autonomy. The best headteachers will say that they can do even better when they have the freedom to shape the curriculum in the interests of individual pupils, rather than necessarily following exactly the prescriptive, micro-managed approach that this Government requires."