Who should be running state schools?

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The Independent Online

The battle lines for the future of state education are now clear. Under Labour, whose blueprint is published today, there will be a revolution with a whole swath of state-financed schools throughout the country being handed over to private sponsors to run.

By the end of the decade, the bankers, the churches, the millionaire philanthropists and leaders of the country's private schools will be in charge, in the name of more choice for parents. The Government is planning a big expansion in its city academies programme - creating up to 200 by the end of the decade - as one of a series of radical measures aimed at raising school standards.

As The Independent can reveal today, one of the latest recruits to the programme is the global investment bank, Goldman Sachs, which has Downing Street support for ploughing £2m into running a sixth-form college in Tower Hamlets, east London.

The millionaire philanthropists include Sir Frank Lowe, agents for some leading sports stars - such as Mark Philippousis and Gareth Southgate until recently - who is putting money into a new academy in the borough where he was born and brought up. More controversially, the Vardy Foundation - run by Sir Peter Vardy, an evangelical Christian whose first school, Emmanuel in Gateshead, was accused of teaching creationism - is also involved in two academies.

Private school involvement is led by Dulwich College in south London whose head, Graham Able, has announced plans to back a new academy in east London.

Under the Conservatives, whose plans were announced last week, there would not be private companies. There would, however, be a return to selection with every school in the country being given control of its own admission procedures. Parents would be offered vouchers of £5,500 to take to the school of their choice - any state school or any private school providing they charged no more than £5,500.

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, believe choice is an overused word. They would raise taxes in an attempt to ensure that every parent had a good school in their community.

Today the the Department for Education and Skills will publish its five-year blueprint on the future of education. In a speech foreshadowing the plans yesterday, Tony Blair sought to put clear blue water between himself and the Conservatives over the future of schools. He promised there would be no return to selection and no subsidising of private schools - as under the Tory proposals.

The most controversial aspect of Labour's plans is the expansion of the city academies programme. Chris Keates, the acting general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, described it as "the only dark cloud on the horizon" in Labour's package.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, was criticised by some Labour MPs for the expansion plans. He was forced to concede to the Commons Education Select Committee that there was "very little" evidence that the Government's flagship programme had so far raised standards in inner-city schools. An assessment of how the experiment with the first twelve had gone is due to be published later this year.

Mr Clarke conceded there was an argument for awaiting the results of this experiment before committing to expansion. But he said he wanted "bazooka-style" improvement in inner cities and it would be wrong to put policies on hold.

The truth, of course, is that the jury is still out on city academies - just as there is no guarantee that the Tories' voucher plans are workable. (An experiment in Kent in the 1980s had to be abandoned because parents found there were still not enough places at popular schools.)

It cannot be denied that urgent action is needed in the areas earmarked for city academies. All those so far chosen are in areas where schools have failed to provide a decent education to youngsters who as a result have little chance of a decent job, let alone a place at university, and who for the first time will have the chance to study in decently furnished school buildings. Yet the massive expansion smacks of a headlong rush towards an uncertain future - rather than a plan to raise standards for all pupils.

There is a programme, introduced by Labour, which is already working to raise standards, and that is the second strand of the Blair blueprint - the increase in the number of specialist secondary schools, with more control over the curriculum and their teachers' salaries.

This September there will be 1,952 specialist schools. Within two years the number will rise to 2,900. They are not elitist institutions - through computer technology, schools can tap into their neighbours' expertise. They have proven success, with exam performance rising faster than non-specialist schools, particularly in the inner cities.

MPs argued that the Government should stick with "evidence-based policies", of which specialist schools are an example. True, their numbers will now rise substantially but the question for Labour must be: is there any need for a new tier of secondary education when you have a policy that is working?

And the question for the Conservatives: do you need more experiments when there is a successful experiment in existence which, let us not forget, was created by a previous Conservative government?

The Key Players

The Banker

Goldman Sachs, the American bank headed by Peter Sutherland in the UK, wants to run a sixth-form college in Tower Hamlets, east London. It has won backing from Downing Street and the local authority for its scheme

The Private Head

Dulwich College, in south London, is one of Britain's top public schools, charging fees of up to £20,000 a year. Graham Able, its headmaster, is behind its pioneering scheme to set up a city academy in east London

The Sports Agent

Sir Frank Lowe, advertising agency boss turned agent to sports stars such as Anna Kournikova, is putting £2m into an academy in Brent, north London. He wants to help youngsters in a deprived area escape poverty

The Evangelical

Sir Peter Vardy, a Christian who believes in creationism, wants to sponsor two schools in addition to Emmanuel City College in Gateshead, which has been accused of allowing the teaching of creationism in science