Page last updated at 17:05 GMT, Saturday, 25 April 2009 18:05 UK

Tories plan 'primary academies'

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Tory spring conference

Tory education spokesman Michael Gove describes the plans

Primary schools in England would get more freedom from council control and power over curriculum, budget and hours under new Conservative proposals.

Shadow education secretary Michael Gove said he he wanted to build on one of Tony Blair's most successful policies.

But the plan attracted fierce criticism from the government and unions.

Children's minister Beverley Hughes said it was not financially possible and the NUT said it was too like city academies which it says have failed.

The policy - unveiled at the Conservative spring conference in Cheltenham - will be seen as a bold attempt by the Tories to seize the Blairite public service reform agenda which they claim is being dismantled by Mr Blair's successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown.

Spring conferences are not the usual forum for unveiling major policy announcements - it is normally just an opportunity for the party leadership to rally the troops.

Union anger

But the Conservatives regarded last week's Budget as firing the starting pistol on the general election - still likely to be a year away - and they want to keep the political momentum going.

We need reform to begin almost from day one
Michael Gove,
Tory education spokesman

The party will also be keen to avoid damaging internal rows about leader David Cameron's decision not to make scrapping the new 50% top tax rate a key priority if the Tories win the next election.

The party will be hoping it will also reopen old divisions between Blairites and Brownites at the top of the Labour Party over the pace and extent of public service reform.

But their new education proposal has already been condemned by teaching unions.

NUT National Executive member Kevin Courtney said: "When you study these schools, [they] are improving their results by changing pupil population so that social segregation is coming in again.

"That's what we're worried about with this Tory proposal. It's a return to deregulation and privatisation and a return to social segregation."

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates added: "Having already announced academies will be the norm for secondary schools, this proposal for primary schools completes the Tories' blueprint for the dismantling of state education.

"These plans are the naked marketisation of education and will place thousands of children and young people at the mercy of private, voluntary and independent providers."

Mr Gove said that within two years of a Conservative election victory primary schools would be able to apply for academy status.

He told the BBC the academies system needed to be extended to primary schools to help disadvantaged students.

The Conservatives announced last year that they would allow the 400 top performing state secondary schools in England to become independent but state-funded academies free from government control.

Academy school
Mr Gove said philanthropists would be allowed to set up schools

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "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 they start their education. So we need reform to begin almost from day one they cross the threshold of the primary school.

"We need to do everything possible to ensure the DNA of the academy programme, which has been successful in driving up standards, is transferred to the very beginning of schooling."

Mr Gove also announced his party would allow community groups, charities, philanthropists and education federations to set up new primary schools.

Local authority-run schools with consistently poor results would also be taken over by organisations behind successful academy schools - such as the ARK charity, the Mercers Company and the Harris Federation, he said.

'Budget cuts'

Mr Gove accused the government of letting children down. He highlighted "official figures" that show four out of 10 children leave primary school in England unable to read, write and add up.

He also said 34,000 11-year-olds had a reading age below that expected of a six-year-old.

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said: "The costs of this would be very large indeed, and of course at a time when the Tories are going to try and cut school budgets anyway, I think schools will be worried about the impact on their budgets."

She also said it was "highly dangerous" to talk about primary schools being able to abandon the national curriculum.

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes' reaction

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws said primaries should have greater freedom to innovate but that the Tory plan would apply to too few schools.

"[It] is also undermined by the inability to explain convincingly how underperforming academies would be held to account," he said.

"The Tories appear to reject a strong role for local authorities in driving up school standards."

A study for the Sutton Trust education charity concluded last year that academies should not be treated as a "cure-all" for England's educational problems because their performance varied widely.

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