Academies — lame, fame or shame?

02 November 2006

A Little while ago, a secondary school in Middlesbrough failed its Ofsted inspection, and went into special measures. Nothing new there, you would have thought — except that this particular school made it on to all the national news broadcasts that day.

This was because it was one of the first of the new city academies. Critics of such academies — and there are many — had a field day.

The academy programme is a response to the report The Way Ahead, published by the Church of England in 2001, and known more familiarly as the Dearing report. The best-remembered part of it is the call to the Church of England to establish 100 new C of E secondary schools within a decade.

Just before the election in May, the Government announced plans for 200 academies — independent, non-fee-paying schools, almost entirely funded by the state, but with additional funds and input from a wide range of sponsors.

Academies are the Mark II version of the city technology colleges (CTCs) initiated by the Conservatives in the 1980s, but with significant differences. All but one of the CTCs were sponsored by businesses. (The exception was Bacon’s College, sponsored jointly by the Southwark diocese and a charitable trust. After a shaky start, the college now turns in 75 per cent with five or more A-C grades at GCSE.)

This time, the Government has invited the Churches and faith groups, as well as entrepreneurs, businesses, and trusts, to seize the opportunity.

As a result, one of the biggest groups involved in the programme is the Church of England. Liverpool, Leicester, Newcastle, Ripon & Leeds, and London are among the dioceses involved.

A recent meeting of diocesan education officers identified definite plans or ongoing discussions for 23 C of E academies. Indeed, the first school to open its doors as an academy was the Greig City Academy in Haringey, north London (pictured above right), which is sponsored by the London diocesan Board for Schools and a local educational Anglican charity, the Greig Trust.

Academies sponsored by church groups come under attack, of course, from those actively opposed to schools with a Christian or religious foundation; but that is par for the course. And there are, no doubt, some within the Church who are sceptical or uneasy, perhaps influenced by the negative articles to be found in most of the broadsheets, and even in The Times Educational Supplement, never mind at the union conferences.

Such critics have a number of arguments.

“More money is given to academies than to conventional schools.” Not true. Academies are being built to the same area-specifications and cost-limits as all new schools. In fact, the early academies are being built to a lower specification than applies under the Government’s plan to replace, rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country. The same formula for recurrent funding will apply to academies as to other local specialist schools.

Academies will cream off the best pupils at the expense of neighbouring schools.” Not true. The DfES will not agree to any admissions policies that are not clearly intended to serve the local community. It is true that academies that are starting from scratch are attracting huge numbers of applications, but the admission policies will not allow creaming off.

“There is no evidence that Academies will work” Not true. Their predecessors, the CTCs, certainly do work, and have among the highest standards in the country. Evidence about the first two years of the academies is mixed. But the balance sheet shows more and faster progress on the key measures.

At Greig, for example, we have seen exclusions come down dramatically, attendance go up, and Key Stage 3 results go up. This year’s GCSE results are expected to be the best in the 30-year history of the predecessor school and Greig itself. But the predecessor schools were often at the bottom of the league-table. One should not expect the academies that succeed them to make it from the equivalent of the Vauxhall Conference League to the Premiership in one or two seasons.

“Sponsors have too much influence.” Not true. Sponsors have about the same degree of influence as the Church has now in voluntary aided schools. In some ways, academies are more accountable and open to public scrutiny than other schools.

“Academies will not be part of the local community of schools.” Not true. Academies are required to devote time and funding to establishing links with other schools in the area, and with the community in general.
So, since the Government is keen to push ahead with its programme of 200 schools, and since the Minister in charge, Lord Adonis, has encouraged the Church and other faith groups to seize this opportunity, it is now time for the Church to take a big step towards achieving the Dearing 100 — especially in those areas and dioceses for which academies are designed: areas of social deprivation and low educational achievement.

But creating an academy is no stroll in the park: it’s more of a marathon. Those who have no stomach for the fight or legs for the journey should not start. But if we are not proactive, others will come forward, and the opportunity will be lost to us.

Not every bid we make will be successful, but some will. Having made a successful bid, people will then find, as Henry Kissinger once remarked, that “Each success buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem.” In this instance, there are the problems of securing the Church’s £2-million sponsorship for each school; getting approval from the school-organisation committee; getting planning permission; working with the predecessor school (if there is one); dealing with opposition and press interest; getting the right staffing; and so on. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In London, we are developing two new academies apart from the Greig Academy. In Islington, the marathon began more than 20 years ago when a group of parents, led by one of the local clergy, began campaigning for a new C of E secondary school at a time, and in a political context, that was at best unsympathetic to church schools, and at worst hostile.

Now we are close to getting the go-ahead for a new school, the St Mary Magdalene Academy, to open in 2007. It will incorporate and build on the existing and successful primary school of that name.

In the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, plans are just getting under way for a new academy specialising in science, to open in 2009. It has been a similar (although not quite so lengthy) saga of hopes raised and dashed; but now, with strong council and government support, we are pressing ahead.

When encouraging his men to ever greater exertions in the Antarctic, Sir Ernest Shackleton used to tell them that they should “put the foothold of courage into the stirrup of patience”. It may seem a long way from the challenges of the Antarctic to the challenges of establishing a Cof E academy, but courage and patience, as well as many other virtues, are certainly needed here. But it is a worthy goal for the Church as a whole; and academies will be a significant part of achieving the Dearing 100.

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