Backlash hits super schools

Will hostility to academies among LEAs and parents scupper the plan to create 200 by 2010? Michael Shaw and Joseph Lee report.

Labour's pledge to build hundreds of academies is one of its most ambitious and controversial plans for education.

Despite a lack of research demonstrating the benefits of the privately-sponsored schools, it has set a target for 200 to be open or in development by 2010.

And even if local authorities do not want an academy, the Government will use its powers to open one in their area anyway.

A TES survey suggests that more than half of the 113 authorities not involved in the programme do not want an academy or think it is unlikely they will get one.

Only 17 academies have opened since the scheme was launched four years ago and just 34 more are listed as officially in development.

The Government's five-year plan says that "where possible" it wants to create academies in co-operation with authorities. "However, the Government will not stand by and allow local authorities to sustain failure by refusing to engage with academies where they can meet parental demand for school places," it said.

Even with this threat, the drive to create the 200 academies - an average of 30 a year - will prove tricky and it is unclear where they will be built.

The past few weeks have also seen a surge in public resistance to the scheme. Fashion designer Jasper Conran abandoned plans to sponsor an academy in Walthamstow, east London last week after a revolt by parents and pupils from McEntee secondary, which it would have replaced.

The move followed the decision by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation to withdraw from sponsoring an academy in Doncaster after residents complained it would teach children creationism.

Reaction among councillors and council officials to the academies have also been mixed. Some have been eager to replace their least successful schools, while others have expressed concern that they will lose control, as the academies are independently run.

The TES surveyed authorities this week not listed by the Department for Education and Skills among those formally planning academies.

Of the 50 who responded, only three said they were planning an academy, although 18 believed they were likely to get one at some stage. The remaining 28 felt it was either unlikely that they would get one or that it would never happen.

The DfES has told authorities to consider academies if they want to receive millions to rebuild secondaries via the Building Schools for the Future programme This move has been described as "blackmail" by teachers' unions in Newcastle and Walthamstow.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has presented education ministers with a dossier of complaints from staff at exising academies on issues including changes to their pay and conditions.

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said she had been encouraged by a recent meeting with David Miliband, minister for school standards. But she said that she remained deeply concerned, particularly about some academies making their staff sign strict confidentiality contracts. "It creates an atmosphere of secrecy," she said. "Why do they need them unless they have something to hide?"

In spite of the concerns, several of the new schools have proved extremely popular with families and been oversubscribed before they opened.

The previously unpopular Thamesbridge college in Reading has seen its applications rise by 50 per cent this year, even though it is not due to be replaced with an academy until 2006.

David Triggs, who has been executive principal of Thamesbridge and the Greig academy in Haringey, north London, said parents were attracted by the schools' focus on discipline, uniforms, and clear lines of communication.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "It's happening in other schools as well - it's just easier for academies because they have a fresh beginning."


The good news

* A massive education investment in disadvantaged areas. The Government says the schools, which cost around pound;23 million each, will only be built in places with inadequate existing secondary schools.

* Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has said they can have a "bazooka" effect on educational achievements. The high levels of investment can help counter the poor reputation of their predecessor schools.

* Exam results from the first academies have been promising as nearly all have shown significant improvements. At Capital city academy in Willesden, north London, the proportion getting five A* to C grades at GCSE was 28 per cent, compared to 12 per cent last year when it was Willesden high school.

* Until now academies have tended to be extremely popular with parents, including those from middle-class backgrounds. Lambeth academy in south London is one of several which was oversubscribed before it opened.

* Headteachers at the academies have the advantage of setting the curriculum and staff pay. The Business Academy in Bexley holds a business day on Fridays when students work in teams on problems and set up mock companies.

* Anecdotal evidence suggests that behaviour at many of the academies has improved, often because of stricter codes of discipline.

The bad news

* Teaching unions fear the academies will draw away pupils and money for building works from other schools. They have also clashed with academies over pay and conditions.

* Charles Clarke has admitted to MPs that there is no specific research to back up the decision to create the 200 academies. A full report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers on academies is not due to be completed until next year.

* The pressure on senior staff at the academies to get results has contributed to five heads quitting in thepast 12 months.

* The Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which hopes to open at least six academies, has been criticised for promoting creationism in its schools.

* Permanent exclusion rates at one of the Emmanuel academies, King's in Middlesbrough, has been 10 times the national average, although other academies have expelled fewer or roughly the same number of pupils as their predecessor schools.

* King's and the West London academy in Ealing were also criticised after it emerged they had given contracts to companies linked to their sponsors.

* The cost of each academy has risen from pound;10 million, the figure first suggested by former education secretary, David Blunkett, to an average of more than pound;23m.

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