Captains aboard for academy adventure

Is the job of leading an academy any different to other schools, asks Phil Revell

A poisoned chalice? Or a golden opportunity? Schools taking part in the Government's academy programme have been in the spotlight since the initiative was announced by David Blunkett in March 2000. But what special qualities are needed to lead these often controversial institutions?

Peter Crook ought to know. He took on one of the toughest catchment areas in Britain when he took became principal of the Academy in Peckham, south London, but his eyes were open.

"This area has had schools which were difficult nuts to crack," he says.

"Our reading age on intake is about 8.5. The past three years have been murder - not just for me, but for all the staff here. This kind of post needs someone on their second or third headship. I had worked here as a consultant. I was the educational adviser to the project. When the opportunity came up to lead the academy, I thought, 'If not now, when, and if not here, where?'"

Academy heads have the added dimension of a sponsor's interest - in this case, the carpet millionaire Lord Harris of Peckham. "There were some tough questions being asked about the role of some sponsors," he says. "Questions were asked about the assets and the land. But there is no doubt about the commitment of the Harris family to schooling in disadvantaged areas."

Lord Harris has made it clear to Mr Crook that he wants the academy to be a neighbourhood school. The Harris family gives lots of time to the project, but the vice-chair of the predecessor school is vice-chair of the current governing body, and there are local authority, parent and staff governors.

There are clear differences between academies and other state schools.

Peckham's school year is five days longer, and there are minor contractual differences for staff. But Mr Crook prefers to emphasise the similarities and regards the academy as just another Southwark school.

In Bermondsey, Southwark's other academy - City of London - is led by Martyn Coles, whose school is sponsored by the City's Corporation, one of the most powerful bodies in the world. He points out that the City of London is a local education authority in its own right. "It already runs a state primary (Sir John Cass) and several independents," he says.

"The Corporation provides me with lots of opportunities. I think I am rather privileged to have them as a sponsor."

There are four members of the Corporation on his governing body, and the Corporation nominates four others. "We have someone from City university, a chap from KPMG (the multinational finance firm) and someone in international insurance," he says.

He also has the leader of Southwark council, and a teacher and a support-staff representative. As might be expected with such a high-powered body, meetings run like clockwork. "They are usually over in an hour and a quarter," he says. "Most of these people have another meeting to go on to.

We have a good committee system. They expect me to come up with position papers, but that's the way it should be. That's my job."

Mr Coles is delighted with the opportunities his new building offers. "I was the head of a school (St Paul's Way in Tower Hamlets) built in the 1960s that was crumbling. I don't have a problem with the expenditure here.

There was a need for a school. More than a hundred children were out of school in this area before we came, so I'm not creaming off anyone else's intake."

Mr Coles downplays the independence and freedoms stressed by supporters of the academy programme. "I respect pay and conditions agreements," he says.

"We have the same holidays as Southwark."

In Manchester, Kathy August is also pleased with her purpose-built surroundings, but says her school improvement agenda is not dependent on the premises.

"We made improvements in attendance and behaviour before we came into this building," she says. "I said to the staff, 'Don't rely on children being transformed by a building'."

Ms August was a successful head and chief education officer before moving to the Department for Education and Skills to work on the city academy programme. In February 2003, she was given a chance to move from theory to practice at the Manchester academy, sponsored by the Church Schools Trust.

She says her sponsors bring something extra. "There is an integrity to their mission, and they understand education," she says.

The trust also runs several independent schools and Ms August says the links made have "opened our children's eyes to other ways of thinking, other ways of doing things".

She stresses that the key factor shared by the academies is their disadvantaged intake, and that academy principals need to focus on behaviour, attendance, and then quality of learning.

"You have to anchor them into learning," she says. "The more dysfunctional or disrupted or traumatic an experience children have had, the greater the responsibility on the school to provide that secure framework."

She has a "catechism" of expectation, she says, adding: "It's about immutables, absolutes - and those are that the adults control the place, not the 14-year-olds. We define certain things as unacceptable. We won't accept them on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon, if it's raining or sunny. We won't accept them from Year 11 any more than Y7."

All three heads came with a wealth of leadership experience, and Peter Crook thinks that is essential. He also believes a debate is needed about the future of school leadership.

"We think we have made it if we become the head of a good school," he says.

"Turn that model around: a successful head ought to be the head of a school in challenging circumstances."

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