Michael Gove defends interest in new 'free schools'

Mr Gove said his school reform plans were progressing well despite criticism

Education Secretary Michael Gove has said 16 so-called "free schools" will be set up over the next year - "well in excess" of the numbers he hoped for.

Mr Gove told the BBC he was "excited" by interest in the flagship programme.

Labour say demand for free schools - state funded institutions outside local authority control - is meagre and the government's priorities are wrong.

Mr Gove also said he wanted a "English baccalaureate" enabling pupils to study a wider range of subjects.

This new qualification for 14 to 16-year-olds will focus on giving children a broader education and a "core body of knowledge".

Pupils who get good GCSEs in a science, a language and a humanity, as well as maths and English would be awarded a school leavers' certificate, said Mr Gove.

'Inspirational'

He told BBC One's Andrew Marr show school standards in England had "fallen behind" those in other countries and introducing a baccalaureate - featuring a minimum of five subjects - was one of way of raising them.

Both Wales and Scotland have their own versions of the baccalaureate.

Under the Welsh Baccalaureate, teenagers still take GCSEs, A-levels or other qualifications as options but also study a set of five core areas including key skills and work-related education.

And since last September in Scotland, pupils can take an A-level standard baccalaureate in sciences or languages.

Mr Gove said he was pleased with progress in the government's two leading school reform policies - the expansion of Labour's academy programme and the setting up of new, more autonomous, schools in the state sector.

Legislation to allow parents, charities and businesses to set up new schools - similar to systems in the US and Sweden - was passed before the Parliament broke up for the summer.

But Labour said the proposals were "rushed through" and several Lib Dem MPs expressed misgivings about its impact on existing schools.

As part of the "first wave" of the free schools programme, the education secretary said he expected 16 new schools to open by September 2011.

Start Quote

We need to look forward at other countries doing better than us and say what can we learn from them”

End Quote Michael Gove Education Secretary

He denied this was a disappointing number given more than 700 groups had initially expressed interest in the idea and about 100 had actually applied.

"I have been excited and flattered by the extent of interest and enthusiasm shown by these inspirational people," he said of the applicants. "It is well in excess of my hopes".

Many of those interested in the scheme were teachers at existing schools in deprived areas who wanted to transform educational standards, he said.

While it normally took between three to five years to set up a new school, the government was committed to "hacking through the bureaucracy" to ensure "high quality" schools could open their doors in a year's time.

Critics claim niche schools will spring up in wealthy areas and, at a time when budgets are coming under severe pressure and 700 school rebuilding projects have been put on hold, that they will drain resources from existing schools.

"It is laughable for Michael Gove to claim that just 16 free schools opening next year exceeds his expectations," shadow education secretary Ed Balls said.

"He has spent the last four months working on a plan for just a dozen schools, while cancelling hundreds of new schools and dashing the hopes of 700,000 children."

Mr Gove also said the academy programme was set to double in size this year, covering up to 140 schools, as part of his goal of getting "more and more schools taking advantage of a greater amount of autonomy".

'Rounded education'

The education secretary also hinted at a new academic qualification for 14-16 year olds, saying he favoured a new diploma or English baccalaureate based on the French model.

Although pupils would be free to choose what they wanted to study at GCSE level they would get "recognition" if they chose a language, a science and a humanities discipline, like history or music, in addition to English and maths.

"We encourage people to follow the courses that stimulate them but broaden the mind. If you get five GCSE passes in each of those areas, I think you should be entitled to special recognition."

A baccalaureate system would "signal" pupils have a "broad, rounded" education, he said.

"People's options are narrowed too early. We need to learn from other countries. We need to look forward at other countries doing better than us and say what can we learn from them."

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