Should Labour's flagship schools take on wider responsibilities in the community? Co-operation rather than competition is the new name of the game. Jonathan Milne reports.It is hardly an appealing job advertisement: as principal of an academy, you will be in charge of one school but responsible for raising achievement across your local area. Yet that is one of the three main goals of the academies programme, along with increasing choice and increasing the number of new-generation schools.
The onus is on principals to be proactive in setting up relationships with the local community and particularly with other secondaries.
This, the Government believes, is a win-win situation for pupils at both the new school and at its neighbours. "Collaboration between schools provides many important benefits to both partners," says the Department for Children, Schools and Families academy principals' handbook.
The question about whether they are collaborating is a vexed one: the teachers' unions say they are not; the Government concedes they were not doing so but insists things are changing for the better. However, a question rarely asked is this: should they collaborate with local schools?
Ed Balls certainly believes they should. When the Children, Schools and Families Secretary first took the job and outlined to Parliament his changes to the academy programme, he dropped the focus on "independent state schools". Instead, he said, they would have "strong links with local authorities" and would collaborate with the local community.
This may have seemed like a slight wheel realignment to the truck-and-trailer that has rumbled through the English school system.
But Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, argues that it poses a far bigger question about the direction of the new schools. Writing in The Independent, he said there were two ways forward they could take: to be free to enjoy genuine independence or be integrated into admissions arrangements operating across all schools.
Bear in mind that when David Blunkett first established the academies programme, it was intended to jolt inner-city secondary education out of a perceived complacency and deep-rooted underachievement. That entailed, almost by definition, independence from the existing local authority paradigm.
Now, the Government expects that the schools will work closely with both local authorities and neighbouring secondaries. How? By sharing teachers; by saving money through bulk purchasing; by participating in local admissions policies; by making their shiny new sports and arts facilities available; by co-operating in sixth-form provision; and, obviously, by talking with each other.
Espousing collaboration can be like pleading the nurturing qualities of motherhood and apple pie - constructive, politic and seemingly self-evident. Yet there are arguments against it. Jennifer Moses, chief executive of the CentreForum think tank and, with her husband, sponsor of the newly-opened Ark King Solomon Academy in Westminster, London, offers a rare dissenting view.
She argues that collaboration is all well and good, but principals in the new schools already have enough on their plates without having to support other schools, with no additional resources.
They were given independence for good reason, she says. Ark academies had used that to increase classroom hours; to reform their structures; to provide intensive tuition to gifted and talented children and to those who struggled.
"My concern with collaboration is that all of a sudden you're not allowed to do those things, because no one else in the local consortium agrees," she says. "Rather than forcing them back into the local authority family, we should be extending these freedoms to more schools."
An added difficulty with collaboration, as the National Audit Office said in February, is that academies and their neighbouring schools see each other as competition.
Furthermore, charity law restricts the new schools. They may not delegate their powers to a collaborative organisation unless they hold a majority on that body. Academies and secondaries can go to bed together - as long as the former is on top. This is why they and their neighbours have been slow to form real and meaningful relationships.
A July 2006 survey, commissioned by the Audit Office, found that less than half of schools had met senior managers at the academy down the road.
Only 17 per cent had collaborated on sixth-form provision, 7 per cent had conducted joint extra-curricular activities, and fewer than 5 per cent had been able to use the new school's music, drama or IT facilities. None had been allowed to use the academy's sports facilities.
There is optimism this year from the Audit Office and PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has been monitoring the programme for the DCSF, that attitudes on both sides are beginning to change. David Bell, the department's permanent secretary, told the Commons Public Accounts Committee this month that academies and schools were working together now. He cited the City of Bristol Academy's work with local schools on the 14-19 diploma Pathfinder project. He was questioned by Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP for Grimsby, about competition in his electorate between three new academies, a sixth-form college and an FE college. But Mr Bell insisted that they could work with other schools, not compete with them.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says the first academies stood aloof but the climate has changed. The norm now is for them to be part of the local family of schools, collaborating on 14-19 provision, behaviour, exclusions and admissions. "The fears expressed by headteachers in the early days of the academy programme are now considerably reduced in most parts of the country," he says.
He says academies such as Northampton and Mossbourne in Hackney, east London, are leading the way. And with the Government encouraging local authorities to sponsor them, councils in Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Sunderland are developing new clusters of academies and sister schools.
Dr Dunford says: "I think it's part of a trend, starting from the early academies set up in the teeth of local opposition and now moving to a point where local authorities are very much involved in them."
The teachers' unions remain unconvinced. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says the new schools are actually obstructing any collaboration, or even communication.
"Most union members in academies are keeping their heads below the radar," he says. "I would take these claims of improved collaboration with a grain of salt."
He and Jerry Bartlett, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT union, both singled out academies like Unity City in Middlesbrough as obstructing any genuine communication and collaboration. Mr Bartlett said: "Unity City Academy is the worst-managed school I have had to deal with in 30 years' experience."
Unity City admits it has a reputation for failing to engage with its community. Challenged with getting out of special measures and now with industrial action by 54 staff, the schools has, perhaps, had its collective mind on other things.
But even here, things are changing, says David Triggs, the "superhead" appointed last year to improve performance. Unity's principal is meeting local heads and collaborating on 14-19 diplomas.
"We are keen to be part of the community," says Mr Triggs. "If someone says a school can stand on its own, I totally disagree."
Working together: what ministers want
- Working within a local collaborative of schools and other partners to offer the full entitlement to post-16 students.
- Sharing teaching expertise.
- Realising economies of scale through joint purchasing.
- Forming links with primary partner schools to create a smoother transition for pupils.
- Widening the choice of curriculum and increasing opportunity.
- Gaining targeted support for areas of weakness.
- Creating strong links with FE establishments to encourage students to continue their education.
- Taking part in staff networks such as the local headteachers' or deputy headteachers' associations.
- Sharing expertise at the learning mentors network.