Monday, November 29, 1999

Britain invites plans for "free schools"

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Parents who want to set up their own schools in England with taxpayers' money -- a flagship policy of the ruling coalition Conservative party -- will be invited to submit their proposals from Friday.The Department for Education is publishing application forms for groups interested in establishing what new Education Secretary Michael Gove has dubbed "free schools", on the model of similar programmes in Sweden and the United States.Gove says the schools, run by parents, teachers or charities but funded by the state, will drive up educational standards and wants the first to open by Sept. 2011.His department said the schools would "give all children and parents the choice and access to the kind of education only the rich can afford -- small schools with small class sizes, great teaching and strong discipline."The scheme is part of an overhaul of education policy ushered in by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition following the Labour government's election defeat in May.Gove wants to give state-funded schools more freedom and allow them to follow the model of Britain's highly-rated but expensive independent school sector, which educates around 7 percent of pupils.On Thursday Gove said nearly 70 percent of secondary schools rated outstanding by inspectors had written to his department saying they were interested in taking up an offer to leave local authority control and become independent "academies".Critics fear this will create a two-tier education system favouring ambitious middle-class families, leaving behind unpopular schools in deprived areas.Gove plans to counter these concerns by offering schools a "pupil premium" of extra cash for every poor child admitted, although studies have questioned whether there will be sufficient funding to have a significant impact.Under his plan for "free schools", interested parents will have to detail their proposed school's aims and objectives, show evidence of demand, describe the teaching methods to be used, provide an outline of the curriculum and suggest possible sites.Successful applicants will later be asked for a business plan showing how the school would be financially viable.

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