Page last updated at 15:00 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

Conservatives 'to rush in new law on academies'

David Cameron: "We really do believe in giving schools more freedom"

The Conservatives say they would change the law within days of winning a general election to allow hundreds more schools in England to become academies.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said a new education bill would remove the need for schools to consult local councils before becoming independent.

It would also exempt the best schools from Ofsted inspections to allow the watchdog to focus on problem schools.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said he wanted to focus on cutting class sizes.

Academies receive state funding, but control over how that money is spent rests with those in charge of the individual school.

Worst schools

Mr Gove, along with party leader David Cameron, told a meeting of head teachers that if the Tories won the general election, expected in May, a new education bill would be on the statute book by July.

This, he said, would allow schools to opt out of council control and become academies by September.

"If we win the election, we will act within days to raise standards," he said.

If a school continues to be outstanding why should it be bothered with bureaucracy?
Michael Gove
Shadow schools secretary

"We need a new generation of independent state schools run by teachers who know your child's name, not by politicians."

He also announced plans to reform Ofsted and identify the 100 worst performing schools in England and place them in the hands of "school leaders with a proven track record of success".

"Learning from practitioners in the field, trusting professionals rather than ideology and accentuating that what happens in the best should happen in all that are at the heart of our policy," he added.

Mr Gove later told the BBC that schools graded "outstanding" by Ofsted would be exempt from future inspections.

"The critical thing is that if things go wrong, if alarm bells start ringing, if there's a high staff turnover or if a great head leaves... we can signal to the inspectors that they should go in.

"But if a school continues to be outstanding why should it be bothered with bureaucracy?"

'Breaking the monopoly'

Mr Cameron added: "We really do believe in giving schools more freedom and more control over their own affairs.

"So if schools want to do that [become academies], they'll have all those advantages of money flowing directly to them, of having more control over what goes on in the school, of being their own admissions authority."

Responding to the Tory plans, Schools Secretary Ed Balls said parents wanted to know "how hundreds of 'free market schools' could be set up without large cuts in funding to existing schools".

The money will be targeted to closing the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier classmates
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg

"Where this was tried in Sweden it led to falling standards, higher costs and rising social inequality," he said.

Mr Balls also said the Tory plan to tackle the 100 worst schools was "less ambitious" than plans already outlined by the government.

Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, said there was "no evidence that simply changing the status of a school improves standards".

"The Conservatives' policy on the expansion of academy schools has more to do with 'breaking the monopoly of state education' by severing the links with local authorities than with raising standards of education," she said.

'Scrapping databases'

In a speech to the Salvation Army on Monday, Mr Clegg stressed the importance of early years education in tacking inequality, and pledge £2.5bn to help cut school class sizes, recruit the best teachers and provide more one-to-one tuition.

An average primary school could see an extra £90,000 in its budget, he said - enough to cut class sizes from 27 to 20. In an average secondary school, the aim is to cut class sizes down to 16.

"The money will be targeted specifically to closing the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier classmates," he is expected to say.

Mr Clegg promised to pay for the reforms by "scrapping unnecessary government databases", scaling back education quangos and halving the size of the Children, Schools and Families department in Whitehall.

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