A dozen schools want to opt in

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The Independent Online
ST PAUL'S, Balsall Heath, Birmingham, is not what John Patten would have chosen to be the first independent school in line to 'opt in' to the state system.

Set up 20 years ago in a terrace house with a handful of pupils, it caters almost exclusively for children who have been truants or been expelled from other schools. Its founder, Dick Atkinson, is a former sociology lecturer and a controversial figure in the city who in the past has upset the council with campaigns attacking low educational standards.

But St Paul's will be first in the queue on 1 April, when a new law comes into force allowing independent schools to apply to the Secretary of State for Education to become part of the state system. The school is by no means a hotbed of the trendy, left-wing approaches to education that Mr Patten loathes - it hands out detentions and has an 'honours board' for exam results.

But neither is it a model of the free-market approach that Mr Patten aimed to promote by allowing independent schools to join the state system, and by encouraging groups of enthusiasts to start their own schools. He envisaged business people banding together to launch schools and some Tories looked forward to new grammar schools opening across the country on a wave of parental enthusiasm.

St Paul's is one of about a dozen schools likely to apply for state funding. None could be described as academically selective; most are existing schools that say they cannot survive without public money, and the large majority are religious. Among them is the Islamia Muslim school in north London, backed by former pop star Cat Stevens, which has applied repeatedly for government funding and been turned down because other schools in the area had surplus places.

Others are the John Loughborough Seventh Day Adventist school in Tottenham, a refuge for black parents who do not believe that other schools can offer their children a strong enough spriritual ethos and sufficient emphasis on the three Rs, Leicester Islamic Academy, the Yesodeh Hatorah Orthodox Jewish school in north London, and the Oak Hill evangelical Christian school in Bristol. Three other Muslim and two Jewish schools are interested.

St Paul's apart, the only non-denominational school is Exmoor School in Devon, which is being set up by a group of parents and would have no more than about 60 pupils. Two Midlands comprehensives are thinking of setting up a new school based on St Paul's, and a group in Worthing, Sussex, is thinking of a school for children with technological ability.

All the schools must convince Mr Patten that they can meet the national curriculum and offer good value for money. They must have fully qualified staff and be able to find 15 per cent of any building costs.

Dr Atkinson will be very surprised if the St Paul's application is rejected; Mr Patten turned up at the launch of his latest book, Radical Urban Solutions, earlier this month, though he did make a point of saying that the two men had not always seen eye to eye.

Mr Patten can find much to praise at St Paul's. As well as firm discipline, its emphasis on academic success is reflected in its position as sixth out of 70 non-selective Birmingham schools in GCSE results.

But there are no uniforms and relations between staff and pupils are informal. At present, St Paul's cannot cover the whole national curriculum but it hopes to do so by recruiting one or two more staff and expanding to take about 60 pupils. It receives an annual grant of pounds 130,000 from Birmingham council, but fears that financial pressures are leading to a squeeze on such grants.

It is at the centre of a thriving community project with a pounds 600,000 annual budget, which includes a 50-place nursery, a city farm, community newspaper and courses for pensioners.

Dr Atkinson sees opting in as a means of launching a whole sector of schools like St Paul's. 'Each urban area in the country could sustain a school or two like this which might be difficult for the local authority to fund. I would like to see 100 schools applying in the first year. In future this isn't going to be some kind of odd exception.'

Others see Mr Patten's scheme as a way of bringing a wider variety of religious faiths into the state system. Ruth Deakin, director of the Oak Hill School in Bristol, said: 'I think our biggest problem is liberal educationists who believe education should be culturally neutral. We are playing a political game.'

Oak Hill was founded 10 years ago but can no longer survive in its current form without outside help. Unless it receives the Government's backing, the senior department, which caters for 11- to 16-year-olds, must close in July.

The school has 140 pupils aged between five and 16, and parents are asked to pay 10 per cent of their income in fees. But this does not cover the costs. Now it has been offered a piece of land on a new housing estate and hopes to win government backing to put up new buildings there.

The school teaches the national curriculum, but, ironically, it does not have a daily act of worship - a legal requirement which it will have to meet before it can become a state school. Ms Deakin says that daily assemblies are unnecessary because Christian values lie at the heart of the whole curriculum in the school.

(Photograph omitted)

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