The government says academies will break the cycle of underachievement. Their detractors say it is, at best, too early to sing their praises LAUREN REVANS investigates
It might not be immediately apparent what the Church of England, a Bristol City Football Club director, the former boss of Saga holidays and the founder of Carpetright have in common. But, thanks to the government’s academies programme, all of them now have a say in the education of groups of children dotted around England.
On the whole, it is easy to spot these children: they can be found in the classrooms and corridors of expensive, state of the art buildings built in the heart of the country’s most deprived communities. They are likely to have access to the latest technology, and to have a less-than-conventional timetable incorporating activities such as city trading, sign language, personal fi nance and television.
The academies programme was introduced in March 2000 as a development of the city technology college model. The fi rst academy projects were announced six months later, and there are currently 27 academies. Around 40 more are under development, and the government has committed itself to founding 200 across the country by 2010, including 60 in London.
Academies are billed by the government as a new type of independent state school offering a broad curriculum to pupils of all abilities, with a particular focus on one or more subject area. Built to either replace failing schools or to respond to demand for additional school places, the government claims they will “help break the cycle of underachievement in areas of social and economic deprivation”.
“They will raise standards by innovative approaches to management, governance, teaching and the curriculum,” the promotional literature reads. “The involvement of sponsors from the voluntary and business sector or faith groups will allow them to bring their skills and expertise to each academy.”
This involvement of sponsors has proven to be one of the more controversial elements of their programme. The government’s prospectus for sponsors promises that, in return for a donation
equivalent to 10% of an academy’s building costs (up to a maximum of £2m), sponsors can control the “vast majority of the detail” of its curriculum, along with its ethos, specialism and uniform.
They are also entitled to appoint the majority of the academy’s governors and most of the staff, including the principal. The government provides the remaining capital costs – between £20m and £30m – as well as all the academy’s running costs.
The result has been headline after headline about the “privatisation” of state schools, about sponsors’ companies allegedly benefi ting from subsequent contracts to deliver goods or services to their academies, and about organisations and individuals using sponsorship as a means to spread their religious views.
But sponsors insist they play a critical role in saving failing schools by bringing to them money, expertise and guidance that would otherwise not be available.
Tom Peryer, director of education at the London Diocesan Board for Schools and chair of Greig City Academy in Haringey, explains: “What the sponsor does, and then the sponsor through the governing body, is bring a strategic view of things. This allows the head teacher and staff to get on and do their jobs.
“We bring our experience and expertise and ability to step in when things are diffi cult. We can draw people together to help from a whole range of schools. There’s a major networking role there.”
This may be all well and good in the case of the London Diocesan Board for Schools, which has a history of involvement in schools in London. But educational expertise and experience certainly does not feature on the CVs of all academy sponsors. And there is still the thorny issue of hard proof to support the government’s claims that sponsor involvement is linked to the best educational outcomes.
According to professor Stephen Gorard of the University of York, who published a paper last May on academies as the future of schooling, there is “no evidence that the ‘academisation’ of schools has made any difference” to educational attainment.
“Either their results are not that remarkable, or there has been a signifi cant difference in the intake of the school,” he argues.
The Confederation of Education and Children’s Services Managers (ConfEd) is equally sceptical of the value added by either sponsors or the extra freedoms associated with academy status.
“We are concerned that academies are not accountable to their local community and that the added value has yet to be demonstrated,” says executive director Chris Waterman.
But Manchester Academy principal Kathy August is defi ant. She says that despite her academy catering for a large number of pupils who are below the poverty line and who are vulnerable for many reasons, attendance has increased and attainment has improved, “so something right is happening”.
Higher than average proportions of children with special educational needs and children eligible for free school meals are not uncommon among academies. However, while these proportions may have gone up at Manchester Academy, there are signs that in other academies levels are slightly lower than for their predecessor schools.
This could in part be down to attracting back some of the local middle class families who would previously have travelled to a school further afield. Gorard believes that, in some ways, this should be viewed as a success, as it contributes to halting a school’s spiral into decline.
However, this can become dangerous once subscriptions exceed places and academies start selecting pupils on the basis of their individually agreed academy admissions policies (see Academy Admissions Policies).
This is particularly an issue for children with statements of special educational need. As Margaret McGowan, an advisor at the Advisory Centre for Education, explains: “There is no legal basis to parents naming an academy in their child’s statement of needs. Academies have the legal right to refuse a child with a statement.”
Policies on exclusions are another technique employed by some academies to “skew intake”, warns McGowan. “I am aware that some academies are permanently excluding pupils more than other schools, with one or two excluding very large numbers. They are getting rid of the most diffi cult children.”
None of this is to say that all the existing academies are, or would ever, operate at this level. But, as parent governor and education campaigner Fiona Millar says: “The point is that they have the freedom not to play by the book if they don’t want to.”
With a consensus on whether or not academies actually deliver the goods still a long way off, it is little wonder that many people working in the education sector have reservations about the government pushing ahead with the building of more academies before a full evaluation of their forerunners is complete.