Academies have succeeding in attracting middle-class children but failed to raise standards faster than schools in similar circumstances, The TES can reveal.
Official figures released to Parliament show most academies have fewer deprived pupils than the schools they replaced and have persuaded parents from outside their local area to choose an academy for their child.
Downing Street supporters of the programme see the potential of academies to attract middle-class families to inner-city schools as vital to breaking the cycle of urban underachievement.
One in 10 academy pupils comes from outside the local authority in which the school is situated and only a quarter of pupils live in its ward.
But government claims that the multi-million-pound independent state schools are doing better than "bog-standard" comprehensives have been undermined by figures that show other schools in low-achieving areas are improving just as quickly - and with fewer resources.
A recent evaluation of academies by PricewaterhouseCoopers found only two of the three academies open in 2002-3 had achieved increases of four percentage points in the proportion of pupils getting five Cs or better at GCSE.
The other, Unity city academy in Middlesbrough, failed to raise standards and was recently failed by Ofsted.
The PWC report said: "Of 11 academies which were open in 2004, six have improved their GCSE performance and five have not. These results suggest a rather mixed picture of performance."
By contrast, the 63 schools in London's pound;3 million-a-year Keys to Success programme achieved an average four percentage point increase in their GCSE score in 2003 and 4.5 points in 2004.
The Keys to Success programme provides schools facing challenging circumstances with leadership development programmes and advice, and helps prepare them for specialist status. Some of these schools are expected to become academies.
The average cost of building academies is about pound;25m each, pound;2m of which comes from private sponsors. There are now 17 academies, with 10 more due to open in September. The Government hopes to have 200 academies open by 2010.
Martin Rogers from the Education Network, a local authority research unit, said: "Keys to Success does seem rather better value for money than the academies."
One criticism of academies is that they cherry-pick the best pupils. But parliamentary answers from Jacqui Smith, school standards minister, show academies still take more than their fair share of disadvantaged children.
Only two of the 17 academies, Mossbourne in Hackney and the City of London academy in Southwark, have fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than the average for their local authority.
But the answers also provide evidence that the new breed of school is proving attractive to middle-class parents, supporting one of the conclusions of the PWC report. In eight of 13 academies which directly replaced another school, the proportion of disadvantaged pupils has gone down.
Walsall academy experienced the biggest drop. More than half of pupils at TP Riley, its predecessor, were eligible for free school meals in 2003.
This fell to 26 per cent last year and 16 per cent this year. The LEA average is 15 per cent.
A deputy headteacher has accused the Government of "cynically distorting the facts" about Walsall academy's achievement in its five-year strategy document.
Andrew Armstrong, who was a member of the senior management team at T P Riley, said it was the former school's staff, not the change to an academy, who had been responsible for raising the proportion of students gaining five good GCSEs from 13 per cent in 2001 to 49 per cent in 2003.
Mr Armstrong, now deputy head of High Ridge school in Scunthorpe, has written to Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, saying: "I feel extremely frustrated that not only is this achievement not being recognised, but that the credit for three years of work is being used, cynically in my mind, to illustrate the success of the academy programme."
* A strike by the NASUWT, the second largest teachers' union, at the Unity city academy scheduled for Wednesday this week over working conditions was called off to allow further talks to take place.
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