Controversial plans to turn seven Birmingham secondary s chools into quasi-independent city academies backed by private businesses have moved a step nearer reality.

City education chiefs yesterday launched a "prospectus" that will be used to persuade local organisations to sponsor the academies.

It is hoped major businesses in the city will volunteer to join the programme by donating £2 million to develop the new schools as charities.

In return they will gain influence over the governing and curriculum of the schools and use their expertise to shape a workforce able to meet the future needs of their sector.

The drive, however, was immediately criticised by a teacher union which claimed schools were being taken out of the public realm and put in the hands of wealthy donors.

Yesterday's launch was attended by Schools Minister Andrew Adonis, chief architect of the academy concept.

"The reason I am in Birmingham is to give it my strongest possible support," he said.

"Birmingham has a very exciting vision for academies. It has a made-in-Birmingham vision which the Government strongly supports."

The seven schools earmarked to become academies are The Heartlands High in Nechells, The College High, Erdington, Kings Norton High, St Albans, Highgate, Sheldon Heath, Shenley Court, Selly Oak and Har-borne Hill, Edgbaston.

It is intended they will each be sponsored by a local business operating across a range of sectors that are key to Birmingham's future including manufacturing, engineering, health, hospitality, media and arts, finance and law, construction, and retail.

C ouncil leader Mike Whitby said: "Launching the Birmingham academy prospectus is an extremely significant step in the delivery of our vision.

"We are now extremely close to agreeing the first organisations to work alongside business and community partners to ensure that young people have the skills and qualifications needed to contribute to the 21st Century economy."

Councillor Les Lawrence (Con Northfield), Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Families, added: "The creation of seven Birmingham academies forms an integral part of our transforming education programme.

"Developed in partnership with Birmingham-linked sponsors, it will provide young people an environment that gives them the greatest opportunity to reach their full potential both academically and socially."

Birmingham's academies differ from the standard model in that they will remain closely linked to the local authority.

Two of their governors will be from the local education authority and the schools will observe the same admission criteria.

Their creation was integral to the authority's success in securing £1 billion invest-ment under the Government's Building Schools for the Future drive to refurbish or rebuild every secondary in the country.

But Bill Anderson, deputy general secretary of the Birmingham branch of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Birmingham people will be shocked to learn that public money to build schools in the biggest refurbishment exercise since Victorian times is in a large part being used as a vehicle to put public assets into the hands of private sponsors."

Birmingham Academies will: * Have several "business and community" sponsors, instead of just one, which must come from within Birmingham

* Work within an "area network" consisting of six schools sharing the sponsor's expertise

* Not necessarily involve a costly rebuild, as the Government version does. The £2 million donation may go into a trust fund

* Maintain terms and conditions of existing staff upon transition. However, new staff may be put under different contracts

* Operate under the same selection and admission policy as other secondary schools in the city

* Have a specialism linked to a sponsor in a key area of importance to Birmingham, including manufacturing, engineering, health, hospitality, media and arts, finance and law, construction, and retail