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Should academies be given a chance?

Restructuring secondary phase education could lead to a two-tier system in England's most deprived inner-city areas, writes Michael Ion

It seems that the idea of creating 200 academies is proving more and more unpalatable for many life-long egalitarian-oriented Labour Party members to evaluate. The complaint against academies - apparently voiced by Charles Clarke when he was education secretary - is that they might well end up sucking resources from other local comprehensive schools.

What is not in doubt, however, is that such institutions, with extra funds to finance better-than-average equipment and higher-than-normal salaries, are going to be set up in areas of particular deprivation. One view is that as long as academies remain in the depressed hearts of the old towns and cities and,perhaps most importantly of all, maintain their all-ability intake then egalitarians should not worry too much.

What cannot be doubted is the desire of this Government - and of the vast majority of ordinary Labour party members - to make education in the inner-city both transformational and inspirational. Are academies the answer? It is just possible that in the setting up of so many of these new academies in areas of significant social and economic deprivation, that the Government has re-found what many used to call "compensating measures".

There is, ironically, also the possibility that the creation of the academies will bring to an end one of the remnants of old-fashioned selection. Although some city technology colleges have all-ability intakes, they do not have to observe the admissions code of practice, which prohibits selection by ability. If they choose to become academies they will be required, as part of their new financial settlement, to sacrifice the freedom to select. Together with the apparent refusal to allow selective schools to expand, the possible end of technology colleges'

special status isevidence that the comprehensive ideal still flourishes - in parts of government.

The road to securing better opportunities for all is paved with good intentions. Academies are another attempt at "re-structuring" secondary schools in England. Unfortunately almost all post-war re-structuring - grammar schools, city technology colleges, grant-maintainedschools and even specialist schools - has mainly benefited the middle-classes, not the urban poor.

The advantaged and educated have always known to ensure their children attend the establishments that will help them become advantaged too. Many fear academies will end up doing the same. Much of this could, however, be circumvented, if the Government were to legislate for a fairer admissions system operated by a local authority or other outside body where no school could set its own admissions criteria.

It is far too early to judge how effective - or not - the new academies will be in tackling the culture of low expectations and under-performance in too many inner-city secondary schools. Can, as Fiona Millar has argued, spending Pounds 5 billion on jsut 200 of England's 3,500 secondary schools really aid the many and not the few? It is also hard to disagree with the Education Select Committee's call for reflection and analysis of existing academies before further expansion.

Yet should we not just give existing academies a chance? In the short-term the answer has to be a qualified yes. There are, after all, some encouraging indicators. The chief inspector David Bell, has stated that academies are having "remarkable" effects but there is more work to do to ensure that they all successful. A PWC report said that academies had largely won the support of pupils and parents but still faced problems, including widespread bullying and inappropriate buildings.

The 2005 GCSE results showed several academies doubling the number of pupils achieving five Cs or better at GCSE. The Greig City academy, in Haringey, increased the proportion achieving five good GCSEs from 26 per cent last year to 52 per cent this year. At the City academy in Bristol, the figure rose from 33 to 51 per cent , and at Djanogly City academy in Nottingham, it rose from 52 to 57 per cent.

For communities trapped in a cycle of failure such schools can offer new energy, new purpose and new opportunities for the young people who deserve better. But it is beholden on us all to ensure that such ambitious and expensive programmes benefit the communities that they are intended for.

It is particularly the responsibility of ministers to ensure that the initiative does not create a two-tier system in areas that can least afford it.

Kenny Frederick, Opinion, 23

Michael Ion is a former deputy headteacher and was Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Shrewsbury at the general election. He sits on Labour's education policy committee

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