Academies are perhaps the most controversial educational initiative of the past decade. Are they a first step towards the privatisation of our education system? A chance for rich eccentrics to indoctrinate children? Or are they our best chance of transforming failing schools and giving inner-city children the education they deserve? Whatever their rights and wrongs, academies are likely to be a central plank of Labour's effort to raise standards during its third term.
What are academies?
"Independent state schools", as they've been labelled, usually replace existing schools which are deemed to be failing. Sometimes they reopen on the same site, refurbished and with a new name. Others are new-build schools on a new site. The Department for Education and Skills says they are only established where all other means of improving school performance have failed and promises that they will "break the cycle of underachievement in areas of social and economic deprivation". However, not all academies replace struggling schools; some, such as Djanogly academy in Nottingham, are successful city technology colleges which have converted to academy status.
They are outside the control of the local education authority - hence the "independent" tag - although they are not allowed to charge fees and must be "all-ability". They control their own budget, set pay and conditions for staff and, like independent schools, are not bound by the national curriculum or by the requirement to employ staff with qualified teacher status. Capital City academy in Brent, north London, for example, pays teachers an extra 6 per cent in return for a contractual agreement to supervise extracurricular activities. However, the most controversial aspect of the scheme is the mandatory involvement of private investment in the form of a "sponsor" who donates Pounds 2 million or more towards setting up the new school. Once the school is established, the DfES meets the running costs.
The story so far
Academies are loosely based on the US charter schools - independent schools which receive state-funding - although they also draw on elements of our own city technology colleges. The first three were opened in 2002, another nine followed in 2003, and a further five were created last year, bringing the total to 17. The DfES says there are around 50 "live projects" in the pipeline and has a target of 200 being in development by 2010. The recent appointment to the Government's ministerial team of Andrew - now Lord - Adonis, widely regarded as the man who "sold" the concept of academies to Tony Blair, seems to guarantee that this expansion will go ahead.
In July last year, the Government set up the Academy Sponsors Trust (AST) to act as matchmaker between schools and potential sponsors. Once a school-sponsor partnership has been formed, it can lodge an "expression of interest" to the DfES. If this is approved, there is a consultation process of six to 18 months in which the views of the LEA and the local community are taken into account. If the project receives the go-ahead, a funding agreement is signed and an opening date set.
Originally billed as "city academies", the DfES has now shed the word "city", insisting that areas of rural deprivation are also eligible for academies. It has also been mooted that future academies may include boarding schools for children with behavioural difficulties. But so far all developments have been day schools in urban areas, with nine of the 17 in the London area. There are no academies in Wales or Scotland. The Scottish Executive has discussed the possibility of attracting private investment, but insists it has no intention of replicating the English system.
The power of patronage
Most sponsors insist that their motives are entirely altruistic, and that they simply want to offer a better education to children in disadvantaged areas. But cynics point out that academies are big news and sponsorship brings plenty of publicity.
However, it isn't the possibility of apound;2 million ego trip which worries educationists, but the influence sponsors have on the running of academies. In return for their cash, they can choose a large number of the governing body, and can sit as chair. They can influence the appointment of the head, the ethos of the school, and the content of the curriculum. But Philip O'Hear, principal of Capital City academy in Brent, says the power has been exaggerated. "They cannot act on their own," he says. "Decisions are taken by the governing body just as in a maintained school. Our sponsor is heavily engaged in the academy and feels a personal responsibility towards it, but that's exactly the same attitude that a good chair of governors at a community school would have." As registered charities, academies are subject to rigorous scrutiny and an independent auditing of accounts, and the funding agreement signed with the DfES includes clauses such as a commitment to a "broad and balanced curriculum". They are also subject to Ofsted inspections: the pound;18 million Unity academy in Middlesbrough is likely to be put into special measures after an inspection in March. It is the first academy deemed to be failing.
Faith or charity?
Three of the 17 academies are sponsored by groups founded on religious beliefs. That number is likely to expand, with around 15 of the next 50 to be sponsored by religious groups, all of them Christian. Prominent among these is the charity United Learning Trust, which already sponsors two academies and is planning to add at least another four. In addition, two new academies will have Church of England involvement, and at least four will be sponsored by Roman Catholic dioceses, though these will largely replace existing Catholic schools. So do academies offer, as the National Secular Society claims, "a chance for those who are rich and religious to dip into their pocket money and start indoctrinating young minds"?
The Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which sponsors the King's academy in Middlesbrough, has been accused of promoting Creationism to pupils. The foundation, run by evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy, insists that its academy is not a faith school, that it does not attempt to indoctrinate children, and that Creationism is taught only as one possible explanation for life on Earth, alongside Darwinism. Nonetheless, concern among parents is widespread enough to have prompted a section headed "Will our children be brainwashed?" to be included on the frequently asked questions section of the academy website. Other Christian organisations also defend their involvement in academies, insisting that the schools will not be faith-selective, and will not seek to indoctrinate.
The Oasis trust, for example, which is sponsoring an academy in Enfield, due to open in 2007, was established by Baptist minister Steve Chalke MBE.
He ran this year's London marathon, raising pound;1.25 million for the venture. Oasis claims its schools will be "rooted in Christian-based core values", but that they will be open to children of all faiths.
With around 7,000 state-maintained faith schools in the UK, there are those who feel that 20 or 30 faith-based academies are nothing to get worked up about. But plans for an Emmanuel Schools Foundation academy at Conisborough in South Yorkshire were thwarted last year by staff and parents who didn't want a school with a Christian ethos in an area where there was no realistic alternative.
Why have a sponsor?
"It's not just money the sponsor gives, it's time and expertise," says Sam Price, director of communications at Bexley business academy in Kent. "And they also provide a wealth of contacts. If we want to bring in Richard Branson to talk to the kids we can do it, because our sponsor, Sir David Garrard, knows him personally. Any school would love to have that kind of input."
At Capital City academy, sponsor Sir Frank Lowe has helped establish links with sports and arts organisations, and persuaded people to make donations to the school varying from photographic darkroom equipment to a Francis Bacon painting. "He has shared his passion for sport and the arts, giving our students access to things which children from their background might not otherwise have," says Philip O'Hear.
And far from worrying about interference, Ray Priest, principal at Bristol academy, says he's often on the phone to businessman John Laycock, the academy's sponsor, to ask for advice. "He's changed my whole management approach for the better. I've become more performance oriented, clearer about our objectives and more solution focused. It's been exciting and very liberating."
Who pays the piper?
Even if a sponsor's influence is benign, critics query their right to be calling the tune, when it's the taxpayer who stumps up most of the money. A pound;2 million investment is a substantial sum, but so far the average cost of each academy has been more than 10 times that. And even if building costs spiral upwards, the sponsor's commitment is fixed. Nor do sponsors have to put up their pound;2 million in one go; they can pay in instalments over several years. If an academy costs pound;25 million and the sponsor invests an initial pound;250,000, then they have only contributed 1 per cent of the cost.
Twice as good, or still not good enough?
In March this year, on the day the latest league table information was published, the AST issued a press release headed "Latest figures show academies are succeeding". It stressed that the proportion of children getting five A*-C grade GCSEs had almost doubled to 30 per cent in the new academies, compared with 16 per cent in the predecessor schools. But the following morning's news coverage was not favourable, with one headline claiming "Blair's academies bottom of the class". The media highlighted the fact that nine of the 11 academies which featured in the league tables were ranked among the 200 worst performing schools in the country.
The truth is that the tables offered ammunition to both supporters and opponents. For example, most of the academies showed improved results at GCSE, but at Manchester academy the percentage gaining five A*-Cs fell from 12 to 8 per cent - the second worst results in the country. And at key stage 3, 10 of the 11 academies maintained or improved performance in maths, but in science four performed worse than in their pre-academy days.
The bigger picture
Most academies are showing some improvement. Critics argue that this is just an inevitable consequence of investment and that the predecessor schools were so poor that academies would be hard pushed not to improve on results.
Supporters, on the other hand, say the project is still in its infancy and that improvements made so far are a sign of better things to come. The AST points out the new schools serve disadvantaged areas, with entitlement to free school dinners running at around 44 per cent, compared with 14 per cent nationally. And whatever the league tables may say, those involved with academies insist that the lives of students have been transformed.
"Children actually want to be here now," says Ray Priest. "They used to walk around with their heads down; now they're full of confidence.
Eventually that will translate into results. We're not where we want to be, but we're lifting off the bottom. In three years' time, you might be able to judge us. In five years' time, definitely."
Piloting, or pushing ahead?
But if it's too early to judge, shouldn't the Government wait before investing around pound;5 billion to roll out 200 academies by 2010? That was certainly the view of the Commons select committee for education, which earlier this year called for a proper evaluation of the scheme before further investment. But Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has insisted that expansion will go ahead as planned. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report on academies is with the DfES but won't be published until later this year.
Rona Kiley, chief executive of the AST, argues that the success of city technology colleges, which also have an element of sponsorship, provides a good argument for academies. "At Harris CTC in Croydon, results at GCSE have risen from 9 per cent in 1988 to more than 90 per cent now," Ms Kiley says. "CTCs have shown beyond doubt that independence within the state sector works, and works very effectively. Academies are simply the logical extension of that model."
No one likes us, we don't care
Academies have come in for plenty of criticism, from a cross-section of union leaders, educationists, LEAs, journalists and politicians. Some academies have appointed communications officers to handle media enquiries.
Sam Price complains of having to "constantly firefight bad publicity". She says the number of pupils getting A*-C passes at Bexley has leapt from 2 per cent in 2002 to 36 per cent in 2004, yet the academy has still faced criticism for not performing as well as other schools in its area.
Form an orderly queue...
They may have received a bad press and bled headteachers (six have stood down in the past 18 months), but their popularity with parents isn't in question. According to the AST, academies were oversubscribed by 64 per cent in 2004, with 4,730 children applying for just 2,918 Year 7 places.
And at some schools the rise in applications has been staggering. Just 57 children wanted a place at TP Riley school in Walsall in the year before it closed. But Walsall academy, which replaced it, received more than 500 applications for its first year, which rose to more than 600 for September 2004 (see case study). "These figures show just how popular academies are," says Rona Kiley. "Parents have real confidence that they are driving up standards."
But their popularity is giving unions and some LEAs cause for concern, with fears that high-profile academies are disrupting the balance of local admissions, leaving neighbouring secondaries to deal with the same problem of falling numbers that dogged many of the pre-academy schools. The academies refute this. "We operate our admissions policy on a basis of local priority," says Ray Priest. "All of our students live within 1km of the school, so we're certainly not treading on anyone's toes."
The Government says academies are part of its "family of schools". But the National Union of Teachers believes they create a hierarchy within local communities. "There's an assumption that an academy must be better than an ordinary 'school'," says John Bangs, head of education at the NUT. "The word itself carries an air of superiority."
The question of the relationship between academies and local state schools is a delicate one. One potential problem is that if an academy excludes pupils, neighbouring LEA schools must take them in - without receiving any extra funding. But Ray Priest says it doesn't have to be that way. "We still have a responsibility to the community," he says. "I've excluded two students, but I've also taken in two who were excluded elsewhere. I think that's an important gesture. The local Secondary Heads Association has asked me to remain on board, and I still attend discussions with the LEA.
There was suspicion at first, but it's changing."
* The Academy Sponsors Trust (www.astrust.org.uk).
* The DfES standards site also has information about academies, and a full list of projects in development. See http:www.standards.dfes.gov.ukacademies.
Main text: Steven Hastings
Photograph: Matt Gore
Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
Next week: Tiredness