Academies' advance is arrested

21st April 2006 at 01:00
The arrest of a respected headteacher by detectives investigating allegations of corruption in public life has taken many by surprise.

Suddenly, the Des Smith affair (pages 4-5) threatens the success of the Government's academies programme, offering opponents the potent argument that a multi-billion investment is being misdirected as a result of "sleaze and cronyism". Even the programme's supporters are being forced to acknowledge that rich individuals considering investing in an academy or two in the hope of honours might now think twice. Tony Blair's target of opening 200 academies by 2010 looks increasingly fanciful. How many of the 100-plus willing sponsors claimed by Downing Street will now melt away?

The affair raises questions about the wisdom of bringing in tycoons to run state schools. If they are offering their services and hard cash purely for altruistic reasons, then why the need to dangle the carrot of a knighthood or a peerage? Both the Government and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust are anxious to deny any crude link between honours received and cash donated. But the suspicion remains and inevitably some of the mud will stick.

While The TES has expressed doubts about the lavish sums invested in some of the first academies, we have supported this Government's substantial investment in inner-city schools. Many academies have been established in communities where schools have failed in the past, giving hope to disadvantaged local families. Their aim of offering good facilities and teaching to these pupils is welcome. But if the Government is to regain the high ground, it should rethink its approach to academies. First, academies must be made accountable to local parents and the communities they serve.

It is not right that a businessman can control the assets, curriculum and ethos of a pound;25 million school for a pound;2m stake. Second, academies should take a lead in offering fair and open admission systems to prevent them becoming middle-class havens. If those are the outcomes of the "cash for honours" affair, all well and good.

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