THE North-East will be left with a two-tier education system if independent academies planned for the region go ahead, unions warned yesterday.

The Government wants to have 200 city academies in the UK by 2010 and is keen to see one developed in Newcastle's deprived West End.

The independent schools are largely publicly funded and are not allowed to charge fees. They are supposed to replace failing comprehensives.

Teaching and public sector unions the GMB, Unison, National Union of Teachers (NUT) and NAS/UWT yesterday launched a campaign at Gateshead Civic Centre, against what they claim is the privatisation of the education sector.

Elaine Kay, NUT regional secretary, said: "This would be education run for profit.

"I am all for choice and all for investment in our schools, but parents need to know that this comes with strings attached and, for many pupils, will remove their choice."

Unions are worried because academies are not confined to comprehensive school structures for staff pay and conditions, and can select up to ten per cent of their pupils by ability.

They believe the centres will lead to a two-tier system, where the best teachers and brightest pupils are attracted to the best facilities.

Academies operate outside the control of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) and do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Private sponsors contribute towards the costs and they can choose what is taught.

The region already has two - Emmanuel College, in Gateshead, and King's Academy, in Middlesbrough.

Both are sponsored by Wearside car dealer and evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy, through his Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which aims to set up seven such learning centres in the North.

His involvement has sparked controversy, as pupils are taught the Creationist view of history, which rejects Darwin's theory of evolution and favours the Biblical version of creation found in Genesis.

This year, King's Academy came under fire after it emerged its expulsion rate was ten times the national average, after it shut out 26 out of 1,034 pupils in its first year.

But the foundation pointed out that both its centres have waived their right to select ten per cent of pupils, and that Emmanuel has still achieved a 96 per cent GCSE pass rate.

Sir Peter said: "There is a lot of scaremongering going on that is totally unjustified."