The 'A' word has already gone to the dogs

1st August 2008 at 01:00

You may recall We are the Champions, the children's TV programme in which schools accumulated thousands of points for negotiating obstacle courses. Sounds a bit yesteryear, but maybe we should not underestimate the lasting influence of this programme on the education world.

Not only was the extravagant scoring system an early portent of today's grade inflation; it was also my first experience of the mystical power of the brand name. It was almost as if the Scottish teams did not bother going to a mere "school" at all. They went instead to places called "academies".

This sounded so much finer, classier than anything their English rivals could offer, and I often wonder whether today's education policy-makers are still affected by that programme. Did they, too, sense at an early age the alchemy in the word "academy"? It certainly seems so.

Such is the Government's faith in the word's magical powers that I suspect there is now scarcely a head in the country who does not have nightmares about driving in one morning and discovering a new sign at the gate, with the new "A" word taking pride of place.

One group at Westminster led by Lord Ramsbotham is now recommending that the Government even add the "academy" word to new residential learning centres for young offenders. The resigning deputy mayor of London has already set up a similar "academy" for young offenders. On the internet, as you might expect, there is an academy for just about anyone and anything, including an Academy for Dogs.

We should admire initiatives to help the young, yet by calling everything new an "academy", don't people divest the term of the very prestige they sought? In the great academy gold rush, have these people never considered the tale of King Midas?

Maybe it is unfair just to blame We are the Champions for this folly. The country's awe for the "academy" seems to have been evident in Charles Dickens' day. He appears to lampoon the term in Nicholas Nickleby. At the Wackford Squeers Academy, we learn that "youth are boarded" and instructed in a wide range of subjects, including "all languages living and dead" and "single stick (if required)".

We should surely worry about the over-use and abuse of this term. When friends say their child is on course for an academy, we do not know whether to express concern or admiration. Does it mean the child has managed to join something exclusive, such as the Royal Academy of Music, or has he been sentenced to a secure institution where "youth are boarded"?

"Academy" comes originally from the Athens garden where Plato discoursed with his philosophy students. Everyone appears to be streaming into that academy garden now. Plato is said to have written at its entrance: "Let no one enter who cannot think geometrically." Ironically, when it comes to academy expansion, this is exactly what our leaders appear to be doing.

Stephen Petty, Head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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