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Academies' glitter may be fool's gold

Imagine a government that said this: "If you get free school meals, if you live in an inner city and if you are black, you are going to get a first-rate technical education. The equipment will be cutting edge, the results will be excellent and there will be guaranteed employment afterwards."

Thousands of parents from Moss Side to Thamesmead would rush to get the chances that would brighten young lives spent on rundown estates, near drug dealers and in failing schools.

But somewhere someone would say: "What do you mean, technical?" Immediately a re-spin would emerge from Downing Street, replacing "technical" with "vocational", and we would get a lecture on how far we lag behind other countries in vocational education.

Vocational? I see. It's just that I had this brief vision of schools that turned out industrial fodder, presentable, fit for purpose and all identical. Not in the leafy bits of the land, of course, just in those areas, where, in the past, children worked in mills, docks and pits.

So much better to be educated in a vocational school with a business or technology specialism, like most of the city academies now springing up. Of course it is better, but are we aware of what's going on here - and I don't mean the debates about unfairness to neighbouring schools or letting evangelical Christians into the classroom.

The parents are rushing and the schools are oversubscribed. But has anyone noticed that the academies, and all the other specialist schools, are built on a radically different philosophy from anything else in post-war state education? Their approach may have differed, but both grammar schools and comprehensives tried to reduce the iniquities of class and money. Grammars said: "Opportunity no matter where you live." Comprehensives said: "No one left out. The same for all."

Academies are saying: "We're the brand for people who live where you live."

It sounds like education by class, state-sanctioned. And with a government target of 200 academies by 2010, there's a lot more of it coming to the inner cities.

An academy costs between pound;20 million and pound;25m to build. The sponsors put up around pound;2m of that, and all running costs are met by the Government. The DfES is not after the sponsors' money - it is after their expertise, drive and commitment. Mainly, the sponsors are self-made men. Some of them had a bad time at school and want something better for this generation. They do not do things by halves. They run multi-million pound businesses, but are still putting in hours a week to help their academy. They care, and their energy is formidable.

But should they be involved in education? Should they decide ethos and specialisms? What if somewhere among the computers and the NVQs lurks a future director of the National Theatre, a Matisse, a Beethoven, or a Zadie Smith? With the word "business" chiming in their ears, will such people survive?

You may think that's a worthless consideration weighed up against a good technical education for so many deprived children. Maybe so, but what about the rest of those children's lives; the increasingly small part of adult life not spent working? Will they have any scientific curiosity, any sense of their country's literature, art, music or history? What inner resources do academies nourish? In the future, will there be anyone in the inner cities capable of being entertained or lifted by art? Or will everyone be too busy working, binge-drinking and shopping?

That's what worries me about the academy programme. Behind it there's an assumption about "the masses" that steps right out of the 19th century - that work and profits are all.

Of course, if we work and have family responsibilities, we are all cogs in a wheel, but we are also much more. Flawed as they were, both grammars and comprehensives recognised that the masses in the mill towns, the pit villages and the docks could dream, think and appreciate. Education for its own sake is easily sneered at, but it gives some of the keenest enjoyment mankind knows.

For all the light that flashes off the glass walls of the academy, it is a short-sighted institution. We should not let it dazzle us.

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