Public's yes vote for city academy

STEVE DOWNES Norfolk's first academy school is on the brink of being approved after a thumbs-up from the public - and it could be the first of many for the county. The £20m plan to replace Heartsease High in Norwich with a new school looks certain to be backed by county councillors on Monday.

STEVE DOWNES

Norfolk's first academy school is on the brink of being approved after a thumbs-up from the public - and it could be the first of many for the county.

The £20m plan to replace Heartsease High in Norwich with a new school looks certain to be backed by county councillors on Monday.

But opponents - including the current school governors who last month voted against change - vowed to fight on, with the threat that the “gloves are now coming off”.

A drawn-out consultation exercise has seen 62pc out of 258 respondents in favour of demolishing the existing school and building the academy - and education chiefs are advising cabinet members to usher the plan through.

If they agreed the formality of closing the existing school to make way for the academy, it would be left to government ministers Ed Balls or Lord Adonis to make the final decision by next January.

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With the government pushing for 400 academies across England, it seems unlikely to reject the Heartsease project which is being sponsored by entrepreneur Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James.

Their Christian views, and their desire for the school to have a Christian ethos, have provoked anger and suspicion. But they have pledged that pupils will not be selected on the basis of their beliefs and the school will teach the Norfolk agreed RE syllabus.

Despite the looming setback, opponents to the scheme vowed to take their fight to the government in a bid to derail it at the last minute.

Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North and a vocal opponent of the project, said: “The battle will now start in earnest. The gloves are coming off.

“We are more concerned about education for all and not for a selective elite group which inevitably will be the result of an academy.”

The Heartsease plan could soon be followed by one at The Park High in King's Lynn, where the Royal Society of Arts has stepped forward as a sponsor.

And with the government saying Norfolk needs five to six academies, others could follow - possibly in challenging educational areas like Thetford, Yarmouth and more in Norwich.

That looks likely because the government is suggesting that authorities that do not come up with their share of academies will get a smaller proportion of the multi-billion pound building schools for the future pot, which is designed to rebuild or refurbish all English secondary school in the coming years.

George Nobbs, county councillor for Crome ward which includes Heartsease High, said: “We must all get behind it and make it work. The public has spoken and the opponents of the academy must respect those views.”

The report to Monday's cabinet says that, despite recent improvement, Heartsease High caused the local authority “significant concerns” related to continuing low attainment, low attendance rates and the fact that many parents in the area are not making Heartsease a first choice for the children.

Academies are taken out of local authority control and put in the hands of a trust, the members of which are selected by the sponsors. The trust hires and fires staff and sets admission policy.

Dr Gibson said: “Taking schools away from the local authority is something that no-one who cares about education could ever support.”

He said the consultation results represented a “very small percentage” of local people, and added that those in favour of the academy were the “dinner party set” who were “attempting to manipulate Norfolk”.

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