A Trojan horse from Monaco?

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Education has complained loud and long about the lack of interest shown by top businessmen in what schools are doing, the result being much ill-informed comment about standards and pupil performance. It would therefore be churlish to dismiss out of hand weekend reports claiming that the Monaco-based tycoon Irvine Laidlaw plans to invest some of his cash setting up state-run, independent city academies in Scotland. Like his friend Tom Hunter, he appears to have a Carnegie-like devotion to the well-being of future generations, as well as his own.

City academies are being introduced south of the border as a Prime Ministerial "flagship" policy to combat underachievement in urban schools.

It now appears to have become a back to the future policy, as Downing Street hinted last month that any state secondary could bid to become a city academy without the need to raise pound;2 million in private sponsorship - a self-governing, opted-out school by any other name.

The reaction of the Scottish Executive, which has not been slow to accept entrepreneurial largesse, will be fascinating. Mr Hunter and Mr Laidlaw already feature as key figures in various ministerial policies, and the reported secondment from the civil service of the wife of the head of the Executive's secretariat to work on Laidlaw's plans is doubly fascinating.

A policy heading in this direction will test the loyalty of Peter Peacock, the Education Minister. Only last week in the annual Stow Lecture, he mounted a stout defence of the McConnell mantra that "every school should be an excellent school". It was not his wish, Mr Peacock declared, "to sacrifice excellence for all on the altar of choice for some".

City academies are not yet proven instruments for boosting attainment and the evidence so far (TESS, last week) is that their costs are proving difficult to control. A few here and there are not going to make much difference (only 53 academies are contemplated in England by 2007). Social inclusion is the "flagship" policy, north and south of the border. It would be ironic if ministers ended up pursuing social exclusion through education.

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