Academies: let's be pragmatic not dogmatic

13th February 2009 at 00:00
What works should be kept and copied; what doesn't should be discarded

According to the US National Institutes of Health, there really is evidence that transcendental meditation can lower blood pressure. That is unlikely to persuade ardent opponents of academies to welcome the efforts of the Maharishi School, which promotes this stress-busting technique, to establish a couple (see page 3).

Nor is it likely to reduce their anger over the entire academies programme. But then, there is plenty to get apoplectic about: who thought it was a good idea to pass off creationism as a taught alternative to evolution, or to rush through ill-prepared projects, to ignore local partnerships, to sideline perfectly competent staff, to sidestep open procurement, to sign up "buccaneer" sponsors, or to offer teachers inducements such as a 15 per cent discount at Carpetright?

On the other hand, surely even staunch opponents should celebrate evidence that some academies have made a difference to some of the most deprived children in the country? Surely they would allow that not all underperformance can be pinned on deprivation but is sometimes the result of incompetence? Would those who argue so passionately for local democratic control to prevent academies in Camden, north London, be quite so ardent in applying the same principle in defence of grammar schools in Kent? And would they admit that when you are reduced to resisting the efforts of one of the best universities in the world, University College London, to sponsor an academy in a particularly deprived area on the grounds that its success is so inevitable that it will be colonised by the middle classes, it's time to move on to another argument?

As Peter Wilby pointed out this week in The Guardian, much of the debate over academies is sterile. The evidence cited by critics and apologists is often partial and contradictory, and as few academies are alike, it is nigh on impossible to extrapolate meaningful data, either for or against. This diversity, as he says, owes everything to the fact that academies were politically targeted rather than educationally coherent, a central government blunderbuss fired at intransigent town halls. It was bound to go down badly with those who refused to see themselves as immovable dinosaurs and who could be forgiven for thinking that they knew a little bit more about education than used car salesmen.

However certain the opposition is in its dislikes, academies are not easy to pin down. Some are pretty mediocre, others inspiring. What works should be kept and copied; what doesn't, discarded. It is not a theological argument. The Government, to its credit, has shown it can be pragmatic. It has abolished the entry fee for universities and other grade-A sponsors; it has cracked down on some of the more dubious practices; and it has agreed that more local input is not only desirable but essential. It could do more. In particular, it could get a lot choosier about the types of sponsor it gets into bed with. Academy critics, too, should be more realistic. When the Government and Opposition are both committed to increasing the number of academies, the future, uncharacteristically, looks pretty certain.

Gerard Kelly, E:

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