Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at Manchester University, said the proposals would produce 'an uneven, piecemeal education system. It may be a dynamic system, but it will be a less fair one.'
'Promoters', such as parents, religious groups or those with business links, will be able to apply to the Government to set up self-governing, grant-maintained schools.
The schools would have to raise 15 per cent of capital costs - through sponsorship, or voluntary donations - and the Government would pay the rest. They could not charge fees, but could set entry requirements, be selective or partially selective, single-sex or mixed, or specialise in subjects such as technology, music or dance.
Successful applications would revive the Government's flagging opt-out policy, helping it to move a little nearer the target of 1,000 grant-maintained schools by April.
Andrew Turner, at the Grant Maintained Schools Centre, said: 'It represents a new kind of opportunity for parents - to create schools in the image that they want them. Independent schooling will no longer only be available for those who can pay for it.'
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: 'It is the opposite of state education where there is equality of provision for all of our children.'
Ann Taylor, Labour education spokeswoman, said the Government was 'trying to turn the clock back to the failed system of a bygone age'. Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: 'This is another attack on local democracy.'
Critics were also sceptical about how many schools would take up the offer - especially in the light of the Department for Education's insistence that applications are unlikely to succeed if there are surplus places in the area. An appeal by Islamia School in Brent, north London, for voluntary-aided status was rejected this year on those grounds.
Grammar school debate, page 2
Leading article, page 13
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