EDUCATION bosses yesterday gave an emphatic snub to ex-motor magnate Sir Peter Vardy’s offer to set up a faith academy in a former steel town.
In doing so Durham County Council rejected the advice of a former chief inspector of schools and of an ex-Government chief whip.
The issue is politically contentious, with former chief whip and North West Durham MP Hilary Armstrong coming under fire from Labour councillors for supporting the proposal from Sir Peter Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools Foundation in partnership with former Sunderland AFC chairman Bob Murray.
Ms Armstrong, whose constituency includes Consett, said the town’s children could miss out on a “marvellous opportunity”.
The council instead favours as potential sponsor a consortium called Durham Excellence in Education Partnership (Deep) involving Durham University, local secondary schools, North East Chamber of Commerce and the county council itself.
Two other MPs, Kevan Jones, of Durham North, and Roberta Blackman-Woods, Durham City, support the council’s preferred option.
After the council cabinet voted on its preferred sponsor, Ms Blackman-Woods said: “In the House of Commons today I congratulated Durham University and its partners for putting forward their bid.
“If it was ultimately successful, it would help to raise aspirations in the county and provide more opportunities for young people.” Mr Jones said: “Durham County Council’s decision is fantastic news for education in Durham. The involvement of Durham University and the other members of the Deep group will bring a great deal of expertise to the academies programme and will certainly help to continue to drive up educational standards in Durham.”
County councillor Bob Young, who represents Delves Lane and Consett South, described the partnership as a dream team. He said: “Hilary Armstrong should get out and find what the people of Consett want. They don’t want the Emmanuel Schools Foundation.”
Coun Clive Robson, council deputy leader and member for Consett North, said: “As chairman of governors at Moorside Community College and a practising Catholic, I would say the jury is still out on academies, but we don’t want Emmanuel. Faith alone does not make children any better. And what is Bob Murray going to bring to our children’s education? He didn’t do a lot for Sunderland Football Club.”
But by voting for their own preference the Cabinet dismissed the recommendation in a report by former chief schools inspector Maurice Smith, despite paying half the £12,000 cost of commissioning the report.
Mr Smith’s report – which is backed by Schools Minister Lord Adonis – says Deep is “not yet prepared” for running academies and has a “number of serious flaws which are unresolved”.
It recommends the Vardy-Murray bid for sponsoring a Consett academy, citing its previous track record in education; Christian charity United Learning Trust for one in Stanley; and the Church of England’s Durham Diocese, in partnership with New College, to sponsor an academy in Durham.
But after an overwhelming vote to reject the Smith recommendations, Coun Claire Vasey, cabinet member for children and young people’s services, said: “Now that the council has agreed its preferred sponsor, we can move forward with negotiations with the Government before making a joint decision.”
University vice-chancellor, Professor Chris Higgins, said: “Durham University is extremely pleased that the county council Cabinet has recommended the Deep partnership for the sponsorship of the Durham academies. We are very excited about this opportunity and hope the recommendation is approved by the Government, which has been strongly encouraging leading universities to participate in academies.”