STRUGGLING primary schools in a North-East town will be among the first in the country to be forced to become privately sponsored academies.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is preparing to get tough with schools in Middlesbrough, by ordering them to break free from the Labour-run local authority.

This week, Mr Gove vowed to act where any school was consistently underperforming, arguing it would be morally reprehensible to allow children to continue to be taught there.

Now The Northern Echo can reveal that Middlesbrough is among a handful of local authorities where that switch will begin – even if council chiefs, governors or parents oppose it.

The policy is enormously controversial. At one North London primary school, teachers have gone on strike in protest and a parent has begun legal action, challenging Mr Gove’s decision.

The Department for Education (Dfe) believes eight of 41 primaries in Middlesbrough are consistently underperforming, although it has declined to identify them.

It has argued that number is a higher proportion than in local authorities with a similar social and economic background.

Furthermore, 40 per cent of Middlesbrough pupils leave primary school without being able to read, write or do maths at the expected level – above the North- East average of 33 per cent.

A Dfe source said: “We are particularly concerned about the standards of primary education in Middlesbrough.

“We are interested in seeking sponsors for underperforming primary schools in the borough, because the situation is so severe. This is a widening of the net.”

An academy enjoys greater power over its curriculum, term times and the length of its school day, innovation that Mr Gove believes can raise performance.

They also receive extra funding, which is currently “topsliced” to pay for town hall services such as tackling bad behaviour and outdoor education.

But critics have argued there is no evidence that simply switching to academy status raises standards and attacked sponsorship by private companies – which could, in future, be allowed to make profits.

MPs have also raised fears that academies will put themselves at financial risk because checks by an overstretched Dfe are “not for purpose”.

But Mike Carr, Middlesbrough’s executive member for children, dismissed the threat as an example of Mr Gove – touted as a possible future Tory leader – playing political games.

Mr Carr said four of the town’s primary schools were already converting to academies for the autumn, with a further ten actively considering the switch.

He added: “Mr Gove likes to pursue this in a macho way, but we are not challenging him on this. As an authority, we are supporting schools that wish to convert and I’m not aware of any governing bodies refusing to do so.”