It is rare for a week to go by without a story about an academy school hitting the headlines. Whether the reports allege poor performance or that the curriculum has been influenced by sponsors, the pieces tend to have a negative spin. However, for one south-east London academy, the reality is very different.
The Academy in Peckham, which opened in 2003, was described in an Ofsted report last month as “well on the way” to raising achievement, ambition and expectations.
Far from excluding the disadvantaged, nearly one-third of its students are disabled or have learning difficulties, there are more than twice the national average of children with special educational needs and two-thirds of children are entitled to free school meals.
Principal Peter Crook (pictured) is fed up with the bad press given to academies, arguing it is unfounded.
“If people had to make the criticisms stick they wouldn’t be able to. The whole government approach is to look at the most disadvantaged communities and to do something about it,” he says. “We should say thank goodness. These communities have been badly served for decades.”
He says that part of the problem is that the media now has a “collective noun” that it can latch on to in the term “academies”, whereas the failing schools they replaced were viewed separately and therefore attracted less attention.
The role of sponsors is one of academies’ most controversial aspects. They have the right to appoint most of the governing body and thereby influence teaching, given academies’ relative freedom over their curriculum. Most notably, schools sponsored by the Vardy Foundation, run by evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy, teach the biblical view of creation in religious education as an “opposing theory” to evolution.
The Academy at Peckham is backed by Conservative peer Lord Harris of Peckham, the founder of carpet firm Carpetright, who Crook argues simply wants to help those who live locally.
“In terms of the sponsors’ beliefs I would suggest that we are talking about sponsors’ values. Lord Harris is a philanthropist. He’s putting his money where his values are and he’s saying I want a better education for these children,” he says.
Although academies have the freedom to set their own admissions arrangements, these must be agreed with the education secretary and follow the admissions code of practice.
Crook explains that The Academy prioritises looked-after children and statemented children, and then takes children who live in the immediate area. Challenging the idea that community schools, where admissions are set by councils, ensure a mixed intake, he says disadvantaged children can be excluded from these because of high house prices in the surrounding area.
He welcomes the Education and Inspections Bill’s proposals to tighten up the requirement for schools to adhere to the admissions code of practice and to outlaw parental interviews. “Our present system has its problems so something needs to be done,” he says.
He also agrees with ministers that admissions forums, which include councils and schools, are crucial to ensuring fair admissions policies.
Crook says community schools have had a “fair chance” in disadvantaged areas such as Peckham and now it is time for a change. To him academies are the right way to go about this and he argues that some of the opposition to the programme is not entirely honourable.
There are some folk who have a vested interest in the status quo. If you are at the top of the pile you stay there, if you are at the bottom you stay there and that’s wrong,” he concludes.
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