By politics.co.uk staff
Michael Gove has triggered a dramatic wave of school reform by writing to every primary and secondary school in England to invite them to become academies.
The education secretary's move could see the biggest change in Britain's education system for a generation. It will be taken as a sign that the new coalition government is intent on maintaining its momentum into the summer.
Schools rated outstanding by inspectors - about one in five - will be fast-tracked into academy status by autumn, meaning they would leave local authority control.
The academies bill contains provisions for Mr Gove's move but few observers expected him to make such a quick and expansive start on his agenda.
Most new academies are expected to be managed by companies, but parents groups and charities will also be able to take over schools. The main thrust of the programme is merely to remove the schools from local authority jurisdiction.
Academies will also be able to set their own pay and conditions for staff, detour from the national curriculum, take greater control of their budget and change the length of terms and school days.
The plans look to cement the notion of state-funded academies, and grant well-performing schools a substantial degree of independence.
In a sense the policy is a flip of the Labour plan, which saw academies set up in more deprived areas. Mr Gove's plan sees the most successful schools, predominantly in affluent areas, become academies.
"The government is genuinely committed to giving schools greater freedoms," Mr Gove said today.
"We trust teachers and head teachers to run their schools. We think head teachers know how to run their schools better than bureaucrats or politicians.
"Many school leaders have already shown a keen interest in gaining academy freedoms. They want to use those powers to increase standards for all children and close the gap between the richest and the poorest."
Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, the largest teachers' union, said: "This is a deeply disappointing announcement on a number of levels.
"To write to headteachers before the legislation supporting the spread of academy status has even been published and laid before Parliament shows blatant disregard for the democratic process.
"If academies are being set up to raise standards, then the evidence shows that they perform no better than any other type of school. Ironically, the first schools to be targeted are the schools already deemed to be outstanding."
Shadow education secretary Ed Balls said: "Our Academies programme was all about transforming our most under-performing schools.
"What Michael Gove is saying to schools all around the country is 'break away, go off and do your own thing'. These schools will get extra resources which in effect will come from other schools in their area, and he is doing this first for those who are already doing well."