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Because theyre worth it? By Phil Revell

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24 June 2005

The government is ploughing on with its city academy programme for inner-city schools, despite vociferous opposition and some embarrassing failures. Phil Revell finds out why

The storm raging around the government's plans for education in the inner cities shows no sign of abating. The city academy programme could soon join foundation hospitals on the list of issues guaranteed to provoke Labour MPs to apoplexy.

'There's gathering concern over whether this policy works as it should. There is a real issue of public accountability,' says Helen Jones, MP for Warrington North and a member of the education select committee, which published a critical report on the academy programme earlier this year.

City academies were conceived by Andrew Adonis,Tony Blair's erstwhile policy adviser and newly ennobled education minister. For many MPs, that is part of the problem – Adonis is deeply unpopular.

An academy is a new type of school, rebuilt and rebadged, and offering choice to parents desperate for a decent education for their children. Local authorities are shunned in favour of private sponsors, entrepreneurs and organisations that will bring finance and expertise to the table, helping schools to find new solutions to old problems. There are 17 academies and the government plans to have 200 by 2010. In return for a £2m cash contribution, sponsors are handed considerable control over the new school.

Last week the government published a PricewaterhouseCoopers evaluation of the programme, but the report failed to defuse the controversy surrounding the policy. It said that the schools had won the support of parents and pupils; a finding that ministers seized on. 'It's this backing by parents, and engagement by pupils, that will make a real difference to the success of these schools,' said schools minister Jacqui Smith.

But loyalty is a strong factor in surveys like this – failing schools have similar levels of support from pupils and parents, and the PwC results were by no means universally positive. Almost two-thirds of academy pupils thought that their head teachers were 'really good', but 10% didn't know their name. The majority of parents expressed satisfaction with the quality of education on offer, but 13% were dissatisfied.

Critics of the academy programme were quick to highlight the negatives tucked away in PwC's findings. 'Even this highly spun report concedes that five out of the 11 academies covered have shown little or no improvement in performance,' said National Union of Teachers general secretary Steve Sinnott. 'There are disturbing issues that PwC highlights, such as confusion over special educational needs, poor behaviour and bullying.'

Local authorities have been consistently critical of the cuckoos in the nest. A report last year found little town hall enthusiasm for the academy programme. 'Academies cannot be separate from existing and future partnership between local authorities and other schools,' said a Local Government Association spokesman. 'They must be part of any partnerships that address school admissions issues. Local authorities are champions of local education and have strategic responsibility for children. If local authorities are to improve outcomes for all children, academies cannot be completely separate.'

At the Academy Sponsors Trust, chief executive Rhona Kiley said that the PwC report 'recognises the crucial contribution sponsors make to academies'.

But it's the unique contribution made by some sponsors that has been generating the headlines. King's Academy in Middlesbrough is sponsored by Sir Peter Vardy, chair of the Reg Vardy national car dealership. Vardy has offered to set up a network of academies across the north of England, but his non-conformist Christian beliefs and the King's Academy's approach to the teaching of evolution are controversial. King's teaches the creationist account of the origin of life alongside Darwinism, a practice that has outraged scientists and educationalists.

In Doncaster, a parents' group successfully fought against the imposition of a Vardy-backed academy. In response, the multimillionaire was quoted as saying that he would take his money elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in north London this week, it was also announced that Ark (Absolute Return for Kids) had withdrawn as sponsor of an academy to replace Islington Green Secondary School. The international charity said that a feasibility study had shown that the plans were 'too complex'.

Other sponsors are also having second thoughts. In Milton Keynes, Global Education Management Systems (Gems), the second largest provider of independent education in the UK, withdrew following damaging publicity. It had planned to launch two new academies on the site of the Sir Frank Markham secondary school in Milton Keynes, at a total cost of £50m, £46m of which would have come from the taxpayer.

But the Sir Frank Markham is not an inner-city school, nor is it failing. The Gems bid hit problems after parents at a local independent school it had recently taken over passed a vote of no confidence in the management.

But withdrawal of sponsorship is only one issue. Academies have had a high turnover of head teachers and two of the schools – the Greig Academy in Haringey and the Unity Academy in Middlesbrough – are struggling to establish themselves. Unity failed an Ofsted inspection last month after the inspectors found that leadership, financial management, standards of teaching and learning, attendance, punctuality and behaviour were all sub-standard.

Ministers are unfazed by the setbacks. Some modifications will be made to the programme, but the policy stays. 'It is absolutely right and fair that we give priority to those deprived areas in terms of investment in new schools,' says Jacqui Smith. 'Tackling an inheritance of failure can take time. The government never claimed that academies would bring overnight success.'

And it's that point that academy head teachers stress in their response to the tidal wave of criticism. The first academies opened in 2002; none has seen a full cohort of pupils pass through the school. Examination results reflect the performance of the previous failing school, say head teachers. All 17 academies currently open are in areas of real deprivation. Many replace schools that have been failing for years.

'Research has shown that schools that have succeeded in this kind of situation have taken on average 11 years to make the journey,' says Kathy August, head of the Manchester Academy, which replaced the failing Ducie High School in Moss Side, one of the city's toughest areas.

'I have said that if we can achieve sustainable improvement here within five years it will be nothing short of miraculous, but I think that we can do it,' she says.

The Church Schools Company, a Christian charity that normally runs fee-paying schools, supports the Manchester Academy. Chief executive Sir Ewan Harper told Public Finance that the decision to support the academy programme was 'simply in line with what our founders would have wished us to do'.

August says the trust has an integrity of purpose that she hasn't seen in other organisations. 'It's genuine,' she says. 'It's not a mission statement.'

August came to the Manchester Academy after leading two state schools and spending time as director of Stockport Local Education Authority. She has robust views on the difference independent status makes to a school.

'In Manchester, Ducie had falling rolls, a lot of surplus places,' she explained. 'If a child was excluded from a Manchester secondary school, it was very easy to route them towards Ducie. It meant that [education authority officers] didn't have to ring up heads of other schools and say "I'm going to have to direct you to take this child". It meant that officers protected their relationship with those other heads.

'When we opened, I think everybody realised what they had lost – they suddenly had to think what they were going to do with those kids.'

She is surprised that ministers don't make more of the economic argument in favour of academies. She argues that inner-city regeneration requires investment, and that part of that money ought to go towards education provision. 'I suspect that it is more expensive to educate children in a dysfunctional school, where there is appalling attendance, appalling behaviour and appalling results,' she said. 'If you look at the cost per pupil at the Ducie – which had a budget deficit running to £1m – I suspect that we may offer better value to the taxpayer.'

August argues that there is a direct relationship between what she is doing and economic development. 'We want people to grow up in this area, go to work here and feed back into the local economy as a result,' she said. 'What you don't want is for people to have to ask themselves where they are going to send their children to school.'

The Manchester Academy took on the Ducie's pupils – and will continue to take them. Its admissions policy is based on distance from the school's front door. Other academies do the same, including the Djanogly Academy in Nottingham.

But not all – a few use 'norm-referenced' admissions criteria, designed to ensure a spread of ability. Two such are the Walsall and Sandwell academies in the West Midlands, where the sponsor is the successful Thomas Telford School. But local head teachers point out that inner-city areas do not have an even spread of ability – a school using a normal distribution curve to select its intake will inevitably admit more children in the upper ability ranges than would be the case in other inner-city schools. 'It looks fair, but the fact is that this system skews the intake,' says one head.

There are also concerns about the huge over-subscription faced by these schools. The Hackney Academy had 1,300 applications for 180 places this year. Admissions were one of the areas glossed over in the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which is a shame, because few people object in principle to a policy that directs additional funding towards struggling inner-city schools. The key question should be whether the money is actually meeting the needs of the disadvantaged students it is aimed at.

But Kathy August believes academies should be given more time to show their worth. 'We have 62 languages spoken in the school, 65% of the students take free school meals and eight out of ten come from the ethnic minorities. We have asylum seekers and refugees – including a number of youngsters who have never been to school. Do those factors inevitably mean that we will be bottom of the pile? No, but if in three years' time we get 50% of what my son might get in his school – then that's doing bloody well,' she says.

But MPs would like to see more research into the programme before it is rolled out in another 180 disadvantaged areas. 'If it is working in some schools and not others we need to know why that is,' said Helen Jones. 'And we need a control group – at the moment there is no comprehensive school that has been given the same freedom to innovate and the same level of funding. The government says that it wants evidence based policy, but where's the independent evidence to support the thinking behind the academy programme?'

PFjun2005

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