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Focus on 'original' academies not conversions, say major sponsors

Government urged to stop 'diluting' plans with overhauls and free schools and prioritise Labour-style institutions

Government urged to stop 'diluting' plans with overhauls and free schools and prioritise Labour-style institutions

The head of one of the country's largest academy sponsors, and the backer of two proposed free schools, has called for the Government to shift its focus back to "original academies" this week.

Lucy Heller, ARK's managing director of schools in the UK, said the Department for Education should move its concentration away from converting "outstanding" schools into academies and creating free schools.

Instead, Ms Heller said the attention should be on establishing more academies akin to those introduced by the previous Labour government.

Speaking at an event last Wednesday, she said: "We must move the focus back on to the original academies. Under the new regime we now have three different types of academy - schools that are outstanding and have become academies, free schools and the old academies.

"At ARK, what we are interested in primarily is the original academies closing the achievement gap. I want to see what the next phase will be (for the other academy types)."

Later that day she told The TES: "What we do is work with schools in difficult circumstances. I have every confidence that the Government will come back to working with these schools, and I will be pleased when they do."

Ms Heller, who attended Haverstock School in north London, where both the Miliband brothers spent their secondary education, added that it was essential to make education important for all children. Her comments echo those of the Church of England, which is the largest academy sponsor in the country.

When the Academies Bill was first introduced back in June, the Lord Bishop of Lincoln, the Right Reverend John Saxbee, warned the Government that the influx of new academies and free schools risked "diluting" the original purpose of the academy programme.

The Rt Revd Saxbee said: "We identify entirely with the Secretary of State's desire to encourage greater independence for schools with a good track record, but not if outstanding status is largely attributable to particular admissions policies or at the expense of neighbouring schools.

"That would skew the academy culture away from the more disadvantaged in our society, so the reason for our being in the academies programme would be diluted."

A DfE spokesman said: "ARK is a major contributor to raising standards for all pupils and we look forward to continuing to work with them on academies and free schools.

"We have been clear that we want to close the gap between rich and poor pupils and this will be a key focus of the Coalition. Failing schools will still be turned into academies and we want the best academies to support weaker schools. This, alongside the pupil premium, will ensure that the poorest pupils get a fair shot at a decent education."

Academies in numbers

200 - Labour-style 'original' academies currently open in England.

142 - Schools that will open as academies this year.

32 - Academies that have opened in time for the start of the new term.

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