A bitter battle for the future of thousands of Norfolk
children looked to be over last night (February 28) as the Government gave the go-ahead to the county's first academy school - and kept the two Christian
sponsors at the helm.
Schools secretary Ed Balls
has sent a letter to those involved in the plan, telling them they can press ahead with the £20m Open Academy
in the place of Heartsease High
And, despite last-minute attempts to force Christian businessman Graham Dacre
(pictured right) out from sponsoring the plan alongside the Bishop of Norwich
(pictured right below), he has refused to bow to the pressure.
But, in what looks like a concession to the opponents, Mr Balls said the sponsorship would be "in partnership with Norwich City College
The decision to give the academy the go-ahead is a body blow to opponents, including 1,500 local residents who delivered a petition to Mr Balls and schools minister Andrew Adonis
in London on February 18. But it is a sweet victory for the academy supporters - particularly Mr Dacre, who suffered what some people claimed was "persecution" on the basis of his beliefs as the decision day loomed.
The decision was expected to be announced on March 11, but Mr Balls had his hand forced by recent EDP stories, which reported his secret negotiations with academy opponent Dr Ian Gibson
Mr Balls has brought the decision forward in a bid to end speculation and the growing rancour over the sponsors, who have put up £2m for an academy with a "Christian ethos".
Opponents have expressed concerns about Mr Dacre's supposed "extremist" evangelical beliefs, and have also hit out at the fact that two people without a formal background in education can be allowed to control a school.
Norwich North MP Dr Gibson said he was "very disappointed", adding: "We fight on, but to be honest this always looked inevitable."
It is understood the decision, which is subject to the government signing off the funding agreement, includes a clause stating the academy will not be a "faith school" and will have to teach the Norfolk agreed religious education syllabus - which the sponsors had already promised.
The government has also offered a place on the governing body to Norwich City College principal Dick Palmer
as part of the "partnership" with the institution.
The academy will have space for 950 pupils aged 11-19 and will specialise in environmental science. It will open in the existing school in September and in a new building in September 2010, and could be the first of five or six across Norfolk.
It is believed Earlham
high schools, which are in special measures, are earmarked for such a scheme.www.norwich-academy.org