All in the name of education

27th November 2009 at 00:00
When University College London set out to become the first university to be sole sponsor of an academy, supporters saw it as an ideal opportunity to equip school students for higher education. But, as Nick Morrison reports, the process has proved more protracted and acrimonious than anyone could have imagined

It was intended to be an auspicious day, but it turned out to be memorable for entirely different reasons. After much debate and discussion, it was when University College London formally registered an interest in becoming the first university to be the sole sponsor of an academy.

Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL, put the call through to the then Department for Education and Skills on July 7, 2005. But this was also the day Islamic extremists struck London's tube and bus network, killing 56 people. One of the four explosions, on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square, was just minutes from his office.

That was more than four years ago. It will be almost another two years before the academy opens, another year after that - at the earliest - before it will move into a permanent building. When it comes to setting up a new academy, the mills grind slowly.

Nor has the road been smooth. Along the way there has been opposition from within both the university and the community, including teachers. Objections have been raised on both ideological and practical grounds. There have been two judicial reviews, one of which went to appeal. The Government's academy programme has been beset by controversy since it began in 2002, but this is probably the most controversial academy yet.

UCL has also been plunged into a process that senior staff admit would have made them think twice about getting involved had they known about it from the start.

Although it will be the first university to become the sole sponsor of an academy, a number of other universities have sponsored academies in conjunction with other sponsors. And UCL's experience will be an instructive one for Aston University, which is due to become sole sponsor of Aston Engineering Academy, planned to open September 2012.

But long before UCL confirmed its interest in the academies programme, the university had links with schools in north London, particularly in Camden, where most of its buildings are, for some years. Lecturers have run masterclasses and seminars in schools, pupils have been given access to university museums and collections, and undergraduates have mentored individual children.

Since 2001, UCL has had a particularly close relationship with City and Islington College through the Partnership for Excellence scheme, including introducing sixth-formers to life at university and helping them through the admissions process. And it's not as though the university has no experience in setting up a school - it founded University College School in 1830, although that is now an entirely separate independent school.

There is nothing unusual in this level of involvement. Plenty of universities forge similar links with their local schools - pupils benefit from the university expertise and resources, and it is good publicity for the university. But the university's management wanted more, and the Government's zeal for the academies programme seemed to offer the perfect opportunity.

"We felt that here was a chance to do more for our local borough and do something to address the lack of joined-upness between secondary and tertiary education," says Michael Worton, vice-provost and the man leading the academy bid at UCL. A major appeal is the relative freedom granted to academies in shaping the school curriculum.

The university's engineering lecturers have long complained that freshers arrive with the "wrong kind" of maths; the maths department fears that unless students arrive with further maths under their belt they will struggle with a degree course. "There are a lot of complaints in the university sector about how ill-prepared students are when they come up," says Professor Worton. "It is not enough to complain, so we decided we would like to do something."

That something was to set up an academy specialising in science and maths, with an additional commitment to foreign languages. From 2012, all undergraduates admitted to UCL will have to have a GCSE in a foreign language, part of the university's commitment to education for global citizenship.

If this sounds as though UCL is aiming to breed its own strain of super- undergraduates, who forge ahead while those at other universities languish, Professor Worton insists this is not the case. UCL is neither interested solely in pupils who are destined to study within its walls, nor in giving pupils at its academy a fast-track, he says. In fact, if anything, its ambitions are much wider than that.

As an academy sponsor, UCL hopes not only to be able to influence what goes on within that academy, but to use its leverage to help shape the curriculum itself. "I hope that we would ultimately be able to talk to the exam boards about what changes to the curriculum might be appropriate," says Professor Worton.

"Because we have greater freedom in the academy we will be able to experiment more, and we can say this is something that is working. It is taking the freedom we will have to move to a curriculum that is more fitting for the 21st century."

This could involve an approach based more on problem-solving than on knowledge, giving pupils the opportunity to undertake research and think about how science, for example, affects public policy.

But if this is a potential collateral benefit, Professor Worton is keen to dispel suggestions that UCL wants to use its academy as an instrument to influence education policy or cherry-pick its students. The principal aim, he says, is to work with the academy to give its pupils an "absolutely top-level educational experience" whatever their ability.

To underline the point that the academy is not just for prospective UCL undergraduates, the university has proposed a five-band system, taking pupils from across the ability range in broadly equal numbers. Ensuring academy pupils do not get preferential treatment from UCL admissions tutors will be harder to police, but Professor Worton is confident that offers of a place will be made solely on the basis of whether the student is able and the course is suitable.

Even so, the proposed academy has not been without its critics. Some of their objections have been ideological, levelled at every academy. Foremost among these is that the academies programme allows sponsors to have unprecedented influence over a publicly-funded school. These arguments have even greater resonance for the UCL academy: universities are not required to stump up the pound;2 million contribution demanded of other sponsors, although this has now been dropped.

"It is the principle of independence that is the problem," says Fiona Millar, vice-chair of the Camden branch of the Campaign for State Education (Case), a leading academy opponent. "It is not accountable to the local community or the taxpayer in the same way that maintained schools are."

While the five-band system may appear to ensure a balanced intake, unless this operates throughout the borough it will give the academy the potential to engineer its intake, she says. Nor is there a guarantee that the academy will take its fair share of pupils excluded from other schools or those with special needs, Ms Millar adds.

Opposition also came from within the university itself. One of UCL's chief selling points as a potential sponsor was the expertise of its staff, but this raised hackles among some, who feared they would be dragooned into helping out. Members of the UCL branch of the University and College Union picketed the launch of a prospectus encouraging other universities to become academy sponsors, and warned of possible industrial action if staff were pressured into taking part.

There are also concerns that UCL will concentrate all its support for schools on the new academy. Kevin Courtney, Camden branch secretary of the NUT, says this sort of privileged position would have a deleterious effect on admissions to other schools in the borough. Professor Worton insists that UCL's work with other Camden schools - and with City and Islington - will continue, but the fear is that even an impression of favouritism could have some impact on parents.

But Camden Council rejected these arguments and in July 2007, two years after the idea was first mooted, accepted UCL's proposal to sponsor an academy. This drew renewed criticism, however, and the following year Case mounted a legal objection that could have derailed the entire academies programme.

Its argument was that in choosing UCL as a sponsor, the council had bypassed procurement rules. These regulations require tenders involving public money to be opened up to competition. Ms Millar says the impetus for the legal challenge came from the council's failure to consider alternatives put forward by two groups of parents, one who wanted a Church of England school and one who wanted a community school. A further legal objection was lodged, alleging the council was biased in favour of UCL.

If the challenge over procurement rules had been successful, the prospect of having to face an open competition could have dissuaded potential sponsors from coming forward, throwing plans for future academies into disarray.

But the High Court rejected both challenges, ruling that the council did not unfairly favour UCL and that the decision not to open up the process to other interested parties was a rational one. An appeal against the latter judgment was rejected by the Court of Appeal.

Once the decision to go ahead had been taken, the next step was to find a suitable site - an issue that plagues any academy sponsor. In UCL's case, this was to draw in a whole new group of objectors against a plan that was already proving controversial, even by the standards expected for an academy proposal.

The need for a new secondary school had already been acknowledged by the council, and after an extensive search, both of its own and of privately- owned land in the borough, it identified a site at Swiss Cottage in the north west of the borough. This had the advantages of being owned by the local authority and of being already in educational use, occupied by two special schools. When the partnership with UCL was agreed, this seemed the obvious location for the new academy.

But this angered parents campaigning for a new secondary school in the south of the borough. In this new battle, the Euston Road became the frontline. Around a tenth of Camden's population live south of the road, a thoroughfare stretching from King's Cross to Regent's Park, but all nine of the borough's existing secondary schools lie on the other side.

"It was very disappointing for us," says Polly Shields, of the Holborn and St Pancras Secondary School Campaign. She says that parents had been optimistic that UCL's involvement would redress the imbalance. UCL itself is south of the Euston Road and around three miles from Swiss Cottage. Siting the academy at Swiss Cottage leaves the more deprived part of the borough - with about 260 Year 6 pupils this year - in the cold.

A school at the proposed Swiss Cottage site would also be just a quarter of a mile away from another secondary, Quintin Kynaston in neighbouring Westminster. The fact that it is in another borough has been used by Camden as an excuse to ignore it, Mrs Shields says. "There is no natural school for children to go to south of the Euston Road, so you can have a Year 6 class that go to 12 different schools," she adds.

Frustrated by what they saw as Camden's refusal to reconsider its original decision, campaigners found their own site for a school, overlooked by the council's search and less than a mile from UCL.

After meeting the group last year, Schools Secretary Ed Balls said his department would look at the case for another academy in the south of the borough, although lack of funding means this is unlikely to come about before 2017 at the earliest. "When I started this I had a six-month-old, but she is going to be too old to go to this school," Mrs Shields adds.

The university acknowledges that it would have preferred the school to be closer to its Bloomsbury campus. "The site was not our choice," says Professor Worton. But although there are affluent areas surrounding the academy site, Swiss Cottage also contains areas of deprivation. "It is a very mixed area," he adds.

But the biggest potential hurdle for the new academy was still around the corner. When it accepted UCL as an academy sponsor, Camden included the new school in its bid to join the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Camden's pound;250 million programme covers its nine existing secondaries, two special schools, two pupil referral units plus the new academy.

The BSF process itself has been "enormously resource intensive", and one that Professor Worton admits would have given the university pause for thought if it had known about it from the start.

"We hadn't realised just how much time it was going to take," he says. "We have built a lot of buildings over the past decade but we have never had a process that is quite so onerous." Would it have put them off altogether? "It is a question I have posed," he says, before continuing. "We would certainly have reflected longer."

The scheme also involves combining the two special schools now on the site - Swiss Cottage and Jack Taylor schools - into one, a decision that has proved unpopular with some parents. The new special school will share some premises with the new academy.

The whole pound;250 million plan is now at the competitive dialogue stage, where Camden Council is talking with the two potential consortiums bidding to carry out the work. The council will choose the preferred bidder next spring, contracts are due to be signed in September and work should begin almost immediately.

With Camden taking the lead at this procurement stage, UCL is temporarily in the background, at least as far as the bricks and mortar are concerned. But there is much more to the academy than the building. The governing body should take shape later this year, in time to appoint the principal in February.

UCL will appoint a majority of the 15 governors: four from within the university itself and four UCL nominees from the community, but is keen to avoid the impression that it will keep the academy on a tight rein. "We will not be running the school; the school will be run by the leadership team," says Professor Worton.

But while its influence may be arm's length, in setting the ethos for the school, it will definitely be there. "We will be involving the principal in our on-going thoughts about the curriculum, uniform and timetabling," he adds. For the record, UCL is keen on an extended school day and a uniform.

As you would expect in a project aiming to bridge the gap between secondary and tertiary education, the academy will have a sixth form, but when it opens in 2011 it will just have Year 7 pupils, moving towards its 900-pupil capacity as they move through the school. What it doesn't have yet is a name.

At UCL, staff refer to it as "the UCL Academy". Many London schools are named after individuals, but that doesn't look to be on the cards for this one. UCL Academy is the obvious choice, but the university is keen to make it clear the school is not part of UCL, so this may end up being overtaken by a desire to clarify the relationship.

But four years after first going public with its plans for an academy, if the name, the timetable and the uniform are the most controversial issues left to face before the school opens, then UCL can count that as a victory, of sorts. Whether it will have been worth the candle is something entirely different

Better together

A number of universities have sponsored academies in conjunction with other sponsors, including:

  • All Saints Academy - Bedfordshire University with diocese of St Albans - 2009
  • City Academy, Bristol - West of England University with John Laycock - 2003
  • City of London Academy - City University with Corporation of London - 2008
  • Crest Boys'Girls' Academies - Brunel University with Edutrust and Highgate Independent School - 2009
  • Eastside Academy - Birmingham City University with Ormiston Trust - 2011
  • East Sussex (two academies) - Brighton University with East Sussex County Council and BT - 2011 and 2012
  • Longfield Academy - Kent University with Kent County Council and Leigh Technology Academy Trust - 2008
  • North Liverpool Academy - Liverpool University with Granada Learning - 2006
  • Oxford Academy - Oxford Brookes University with diocese of Oxford and Adrian Beecroft - 2008
  • Red House Academy - Sunderland University with Leighton Group and Sunderland City Council - 2009
  • Richard Rose Academy - Cumbria University with Brian Scowcroft and Andrew Tinkler - 2008
  • Samworth Academy - Nottingham University with David Samworth - 2009.

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