Learning lessons, by Rod Aldridge

29 May 08
Academies have been attacked as the playthings of their sponsors. This is unfair, argues Rod Aldridge, who sponsors two of the schools. They're all about hard work and giving better options to pupils and communities in deprived areas

30 May 2008

Academies have been attacked as the playthings of their sponsors. This is unfair, argues Rod Aldridge, who sponsors two of the schools. They're all about hard work and giving better options to pupils and communities in deprived areas

If the media are to be believed, sponsors of city academies are unwelcome in education circles. They are seen as not only gaining control of public assets cheaply but also receiving favours or financial rewards from the role. Indeed, the popular BBC school series, Waterloo Road, portrays its sponsor as an individual whose wealth was gained through dubious means, who manipulated the governors into sacking the principal and was associated with an extreme religious sect.

As the sponsor of two city academies – one in Darwen near Blackburn and the other in Falmer, close to my home town of Brighton – this issue is close to my heart. Following James Crabtree's analysis of the expansion in academies in Public Finance ('Academy overkill', May 16–22), I thought it would be timely to explain the appeal from the sponsor's point of view.

After my retirement from Capita in July 2006, I endowed a foundation to focus on underachievement in young people, particularly the groups that are most likely to be socially excluded. A good education gives you more options to maximise your potential – and the academies programme is an ideal opportunity to make a real difference to the life chances of young people, by providing first-class educational facilities and raising aspirations in communities.

Academy sponsors come from a wide range of backgrounds but they all have a record of success in other fields, which they can apply in partnership with experienced educationalists and school managers. This gives the schools a refreshing and innovative approach to management and governance.

The city academy programme promotes a new type of secondary school, replacing those in challenging circumstances – particularly where there is a need to break the cycle of underachievement in areas of social and economic deprivation.

In education terms, Darwen and Falmer are currently underachieving, although they have made considerable progress in recent years. The GCSE results for 2007 show that 29% and 21% of pupils respectively gained 5 A*–C grades, if English and maths are included, compared with the national average of 46.8%.

Contrary to the common misconception, academies are state-funded schools set up with local authority backing, which provide a free education to local pupils regardless of ability. In both of the academies I sponsor, I have chosen to adopt the admissions policies of the respective local education authorities. Improvement in performance will therefore be achieved by lifting the aspirations of all. Both schools will now also have sixth forms.

In terms of the financial commitment, for Darwen my foundation will contribute £2m towards the capital cost of £45m, with the government and local education partners providing the balance. As far as Falmer is concerned, my foundation will endow a similar sum towards funding activities seen as a priority by the sponsor, rather than contributing towards the anticipated £26m capital cost of the building.

For me, one of the defining features of an academy is its 'specialism', which the sponsor is able to choose. I have chosen to focus on entrepreneurship, to inspire students and give them the confidence to take advantage of opportunities and to raise their aspirations. Embedding entrepreneurship across all aspects of the curriculum will allow students to progress naturally towards shaping their own futures. They will be encouraged to develop a sense of responsibility for all aspects of their lives post-school – work, interests, family and the community. This will create an understanding of how to challenge and influence society rather than accept what circumstance dictates.

In Darwen, an Entrepreneurship Hub in the central atrium will be the physical representation of the specialism. This will be a flexible space equipped with the necessary technology to facilitate entrepreneurial activity, both business-related and socially minded, under the brand Darwencreates. The success of Darwencreates will be measured not only in terms of innovative enterprise activities, but in its ability to reach out to the local community, providing a range of entrepreneurial activities and creating a sense of local pride in the students. Both the hub and the academy will be community assets open to mature students, local businesses, community groups and parents. This will therefore play an important role in the economic and social regeneration of the local area.

The work we have developed in Darwen on entrepreneurship will also be introduced to the academy in Falmer, creating the brand Falmercreates. The site here has great potential since it has two universities and a technical college nearby. It is also the chosen home for a new community football stadium for Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. With this mix of academia, sport and business, it presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to regenerate a whole area of the town.

My own experience of being a sponsor has not always been an easy one. The role is far more time-consuming than portrayed. Some sponsors have found the process so frustrating that they have walked away, as did the original sponsor of the academy in Falmer.

I have been a sponsor in Darwen since 2004. The timescale of the project has been unduly protracted because of the need for the local authority to get planning permission for the land on which the academy is to be built. The land issues have now been resolved, but at considerable cost to the public purse, including a full public inquiry. As a result we are opening as the Darwen Aldridge Community Academy in the predecessor school in September 2008. Building of the new academy for 1,600 pupils will start next month and we plan to move into our new central town location in January 2010. So the project will have taken six years from conception to completion.

In the case of Falmer, I became the sponsor in March 2008. While we are at an earlier stage, we plan to open the first phase of the new academy in September 2010, with the complete project delivered for a total of 1,125 pupils by the following September. This seems faster than Darwen, but the two and a half years the previous sponsor put in need to be taken into account.

The role of sponsor has required a significant commitment in time, travelling, expenditure and work. For example, I chair a regular monthly project meeting, alongside workshops that develop ideas for everything from the architectural design and ICT to sport provision and catering. Significant time was also spent on recruiting the principal and his leadership team.

Throughout the process I have met staff, parents, students and governors of the existing schools to discuss the future and to establish one of the principles of my foundation – listening and responding to the user voice. In particular, it is important that the pupils are empowered within the academy. It is difficult to expect them to deal with the responsibilities society places on them if they are not practised in this during their school life.

My involvement as sponsor will continue well beyond the academy opening dates. Success for me is not simply about improving results, although this is important and I am confident it will happen. It is also about creating a positive environment in which everyone can flourish and can reach their true potential. Above all, it is about transforming an entire community.

I have seen at first hand the links between poor educational attainment and some of the major social issues we face, such as social unrest, unemployment and crime. They are direct, stark and alarming. I believe that the academy programme can play a major part in helping to address these issues by unlocking young people's talents and giving them the skills and confidence to take decisions about their future.

Rod Aldridge is chair of the Aldridge Foundation


Did you enjoy this article?