Origin of a new species

A new species of school emerged this week from the swirling gene pool of Labour education policy. Three of the new independent, state-funded city academies opened for business, though at the one in north London the initial lack of customers left it canvassing for other schools' pupils at a local shopping centre (see page 12).

Existing schools naturally eye these glossy newcomers with some nervousness. Such predatory behaviour days before schools reopened offers little reassurance. City academies, like the struggling Fresh Start programme from which they evolved, have admirable aims. No one can doubt the need to invest in boosting the attainment of deprived pupils or to act decisively where schools are failing. These new hybrids do just that. They promise not just new money but also new energy, enterprise and commitment at schools ground down by low aspirations, deprivation and inability to attract enough good teachers. To succeed they need to inspire new enthusiasm and confidence in children who come from homes where education is not supported. But they also need to regain the confidence of more aspirational parents if we are to return to the balanced intakes comprehensives need to thrive. Not all such parents are middle-class by any means.

Other schools fear academies will create unfair competition and cream off able and better-supported pupils. If city academies are to do more than succeed at the expense of other schools, they must reflect their local populations and accept a fair share of special needs, difficult children and, in due course, pupils excluded from other schools. And they must do this with similar levels of funding.

As many as 50 city academies could replace schools "in challenging circumstances" by the end of the decade. But it should be possible for existing schools in any area to avoid such unwelcome competition. What they have to do is improve mutual support to the point where there are no failing schools left to replace.

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