Even before the teaching unions began their annual Easter conferences, academies were centre-stage in the education debate. The focus is not without justification. The academies programme is the largest and most concerted attempt to tackle school failure for a generation. If government plans succeed, there will be 200 academies open or in the pipeline by 2010.
Academies have attracted particular interest because they symbolise independence in the state sector. Put another way, academies have sponsors who represent a range of organisations - guilds, trusts, businesses, faith bodies and independent schools. Sponsors play a key role in the governance and management of academies.
"Why have sponsors?" I am often asked. "We all agree on the urgent need to focus on failing schools, but why open up state education and risk the involvement of outsiders?" The answer is simple. A number of failing schools have proved stubbornly resistant to numerous attempts to improve them. They have shown that investing more money or tinkering with existing structures does not work. Sponsors bring in the new talents, innovations and ideas needed to turn around failing schools. Experienced in building successful teams and structures, sponsors help develop the ethos needed to break down the cycle of under-attainment that characterises failing schools. They offer real expertise in school specialisms and give greater clarity to running academies.
And yes, the benefits of sponsors are proven. City technology colleges, established in areas of deprivation in the 1980s, have demonstrated the clear success of the sponsorship model. Lord Harris, also a sponsor of academies, is a sponsor of two CTCs. At Harris CTC in Croydon, south London, GCSE results have risen from 9 per cent in 1988 to more than 90 per cent now. At Bacon's CTC, results have improved from 11 per cent in 1991 to 74 per cent. These CTCs are far from unique. Many others have shown similar improvement. Their experience proves that far from being an experiment, academies are the logical extension of a model that works.
Academies are indeed working. With the first ones opening in 2002, it is early days for the programme, but already A* to C grade GCSE results in the 17 open academies stand close to 30 per cent on average, compared to 16 per cent in the predecessor schools. Importantly at this stage, truancy, discipline and attitudes to learning are improving significantly. Truancy in the first cohort of academies, for example, has been slashed by a third.
This success has opened up academies to a new charge by Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. "The easiest way in which you can make it appear that you are successful is by changing the children. There are some children who are wanted by them and some other children who are unwanted," he says. This accusation is totally unfounded. Academies are required to follow the schools admissions code of practice and to comply with admissions law, forbidding the cherry-picking of pupils. Academies are also not allowed to interview parents or pupils, or to introduce selection by ability, other than fair banding. Furthermore, they have a legal duty to cater for children of all abilities. They are built in areas of social deprivation and serve local children. Forty four per cent of children in academies are eligible for free school meals, compared to an average in England of just 14 per cent. At the City of London in Southwark, for example, 45 per cent of children have special educational needs.
Another accusation levelled by Steve Sinnott is that academies will damage neighbouring schools. The suggestion is that excellence can only be achieved to the detriment of other local schools. If academies will not take the best children, the argument goes, then they will certainly take the best teachers. Again, there is no evidence to support this. I personally do not subscribe to the zero-sum approach to education. I find it hard to see merit in the equality of universal underachievement.
Then there is the word calculated to provoke the strongest feelings of revulsion at conference time: "privatisation". John Bangs, NUT head of education, describes academies as "the covert privatisation of education".
Phil Baker, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, calls them the "Trojan horses" of the Government's plans to privatise the state sector.
He could not be further from the truth. Academies are proud of their place within the state system: they are funded by the Department for Education and Skills, they are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education and their results are published in government league tables. The academies programme is an attempt to harness all the talents and resources at our disposal, both in and outside the world of education, to give opportunities to the children who need them most. As such, they deserve and need the support of everyone in the education sector.
Rona Kiley is chief executive of the Academy Sponsors Trust, which provides business and philanthropic support to academies Leader 18