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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 17:33 GMT
How Tory 'new academy' plan works
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

pupils in city academy
The government is pressing ahead with its academy programme
The Conservatives want to make it easier for parents to start new academies in England. How and why?

The Tories say they are tackling the problem that sees thousands of children each year forced to go to a school they had not chosen because other good schools are full.

They would make it much easier for organisations that might include parents' groups or their champions to start new schools even if there were empty places locally, as has been done in Sweden.

This is the key feature that distinguishes the Tories' idea from existing government policy.

Surplus places

Labour already is building hundreds of academies - independent state-funded schools - in areas of educational deprivation, and parents can start their own schools.

The Conservatives say that at present, guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families says local authorities should not establish new schools when there are surplus places in the local area.

The department points out that its guidance actually says that where there is a strong case for approval on parental preference and standards grounds, the go-ahed should be given.

The local authority will need to consider parallel action to remove the surplus capacity created.

And where academies are being set up, they usually replace one or more existing schools.

But parents can and do vote with their feet - crossing local authority boundaries to seek better schooling. As a result, the Tories say, large numbers of surplus places may arise.

They say the correct response for a local authority faced with surplus places is either to set about improving its schools to the point where they can attract pupils, or to reduce the size of those schools with surplus places, or both.

The party states: "Preventing the creation of new, good and competing schools should not be available as a tool for local authorities wishing to evade their responsibilities.

"We believe that regardless of surplus places, parents should have a right to establish new academies in their local area in order to raise standards and provide their children with the education they deserve."


So the Tories would let the schools secretary enter negotiations on funding a new school "where representations from a significant number of parents of qualifying children are received and where a not-for-profit organisation makes proposals to establish a new academy".

Complaints from the local authority about the effect this would have on the number of surplus places should not prejudice the opening of the new school.

"With a Conservative government we anticipate a legal presumption that any application from fit and proper persons who can demonstrate good intent should be accepted unless exceptional circumstances prevail."

The Conservatives do not put a figure on the number of parents who could trigger this process.

But they point to the Netherlands, where the minimum required to start a publicly funded school is related to the size of the local municipality.

In those with fewer than 25,000 residents, just 50 parents are needed. In the largest areas the threshold is 125.

So in a sense the Conservatives are snatching Labour's academies baton and trying to run faster with it, hoping the parental crowd will cheer.

Would it work?

The Swedish model to which the Tories point does provide one measure of success: new schools have indeed been started.

Now 8% of primary pupils and 15% of secondary pupils attend such schools, and the number is still rising fast.

But there are differences. The Swedish schools can be run to make a profit - which would not be allowed in England.

And as "free" schools they can also pursue radical curriculum ideas, which is not being envisaged for England.

There is conflicting research from Sweden on the effect of the changes on the system as a whole.

There are claims the policy has been socially and ethnically divisive - which is also being said about the Conservatives' idea.

The unknown quantity is parental demand. There are pockets of significant discontent with current provision.

In the London borough of Lambeth parents have set up their own school, but working closely with the local authority.

In north-west Bristol there has been a long-running campaign to get a new secondary school, opposed by the council.

But head teachers' leaders say the statistics on unsuccessful appeals over places are not really a guide to the level of dissatisfaction - they just show that people have unrealistic expectations.

So the Conservatives' plan may be a nut-cracking legislative sledgehammer.

And that is why government ministers say: "We're doing it anyway."

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