The academy train is leaving the station; I want to be on it

3rd September 2010 at 01:00

So what would you do if you were the father of Dennis the Menace? You desperately want him to behave like Walter the Softy. You want him to have Walter's manners, Walter's academic success, and to trade his stripy red and black pullover for Walter's natty bow-tie. You have tried the slipper to no avail. What on earth can you try next?

Herein lies the breathtaking simplicity of the academy programme. Stop trying to make Bash Street School better - just close it. Call it by a name that is as remote from the social dysfunction of Bash Street and as suggestively elitist as you can manage: an academy.

Take away the stripy Menace uniform and replace it - not just with blazers, but really posh ones with coloured braiding. Replace Latin, Greek and anything else vaguely intellectual with vocational courses, but give them equal status in the league tables. Hope the Daily Mail will not notice because they are still blinded by the snobbish name academy.

Complete the disguise by heading up the whole programme with most classically named minister of all time, beloved of Aphrodite, the beautiful youth Adonis. Oh, rejoice in the audacity!

It has been a huge success. Whether or not exam results have risen is open to debate. Nevertheless, the rise in self-esteem in the students, the improvement in behaviour, the new life that has been breathed into forgotten communities are all plain to see.

I would identify three key factors in this success: new buildings; dynamic leadership, galvanised by the support of entrepreneurs or other organisations; a sense of specialness. Therein lies the problem for the new government. How can it retain these features while scaling up the success across all schools throughout the country?

Specialist schools were very successful in the early days because they were, er, special. Not only is virtually every secondary school now a specialist school: those specialisms are so numerous that they run across headed notepaper like badges up a cub scout's arm. By suggesting that all schools can in time become blazered academies, they also become as special as white T-shirts.

We have both Dennises and Walters at our school. We are "outstanding", and so have been invited to become an academy too. The haste has been indecent. Rather like being importuned outside a Soho clip joint, the aim has been to get you inside the club before you have a chance to think.

Don't worry about consulting anyone, don't bother with the sums, don't even worry about the fact that we have not passed the necessary legislation, just come on in. Why the rush?

Because education is once more leading the political charge. As ever, policy is never immediately and clearly articulated but emerges gradually in the developing tray of time. It is only ever some time after an election that we realise what we voted for, and the new wave of academies suggests that we have chosen a radicalism belied by Mr Gove's cherubic face.

Academy Two, the sequel, has lost the key advantages of the original. No extra money for new buildings, no supportive sponsor and declining specialness. However, you do get freedom from the local authority (we are never bothered by ours anyway), freedom from the national curriculum (we are not going to stop teaching history and geography) and control over admissions, which is of no use to a community school committed to comprehensive education.

So in deciding whether to take up the offer of becoming an academy, we are left with two possible advantages, one financial and one political. The size of the first shows the importance of the second. We will be better off to the tune of half a million a year on a #163;6 million budget. That is a handsome bribe. Thank you very much.

The political factor is radical in its implications. Academy Two weds Cameron's Big Society thinking to traditional Tory free-market policy. This decentralises beyond local government to a layer of even smaller units below. Power is being devolved to local communities in order to energise and engage them in ratcheting up standards in the services they use.

So far, so good. The free-market sting in the tail comes when the service fails. The logic says that a poor school will in future go to the wall like any other failing business. Parents will set up a more attractive competitor, or a successful federation chain will swallow it, or it will just close through lack of pupils.

But schools, like elephants, take a long time to die. By the time that someone realises there is a systemic difficulty, and a solution is agreed, approved, and implemented, a whole generation's schooling has been blighted.

We might prefer a politics which is about local politicians running mutually supportive families of schools. Actually, there is no choice. That is not what is on the table and will not be for at least one - and more probably two - parliaments. We will wait for the outcome of our consultation, but I want to be travelling in first class with the rest of the gang.

Get me on the academy train.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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