Brand awareness is all

8th July 2005 at 01:00
The idea of academies is hardly universally popular, but British ministers press ahead regardless, writes Peter Wilby

I have written before about how ministers leak to sympathetic journalists the gist of official reports to get favourable coverage. The report on city academies, commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), provided a classic example. "Academies reverse years of failure in city schools," announced The Times front-page lead on June 15, in advance of official publication. "City academies are raising standards and proving their critics wrong," declared the heading over an editorial inside.

Neither headline could be justified from a reading of the full report or even from the Times's own news report, carefully written by its education editor after a briefing from Jacqui Smith, the school standards minister.

Of the three schools that opened in 2002, two did well at GCSE, one badly.

One excluded more pupils than its predecessor schools, one fewer, one roughly the same number. Bullying, PwC reported, is "a not insignificant problem".

The Independent, after the official publication of the report, translated this as "Bullying is rife in city academies". This headline was no more justified than the one that clever Ms Smith had prompted in The Times. But serve her right, I say.

Her little bit of leaking - and ministers' obvious anxiety to milk the qualified positives in the PwC report for all they were worth - was no doubt prompted by the stream of negative publicity for city academies.

Unity academy in Middlesbrough was failed by Ofsted. Just a day before the Times report, The Guardian revealed that a private sponsor for two new academies in Milton Keynes had withdrawn in the face of opposition from parents and teachers. Several other plans for academies have run into similar local hostility.

Ministers press on regardless. The arguments against city academies, particularly the effects on neighbouring schools, are well rehearsed, and I agree with them. Yet I think I can see what ministers are trying to achieve. Some schools get a bad reputation which is impossible to dispel.

Even a new head and a new name - the most common solutions - don't work.

Teachers become demoralised, and because few parents freely choose such schools, they tend to be full of disgruntled conscripts.

The only solution is a new brand, a new building and new management. These are not foolproof answers, but they are better than nothing. They give schools the chance of a fresh start, free from prejudices about "the old secondary modern" or "the council-estate school".

The PwC report considered the private sponsors' "input" into teaching and learning at the academies. This is waffle. The sponsor's role is to give the school a brand. The latest to be associated with a city academy somewhere "in the Home Counties" is Marlborough college. A selective, fee-charging school with two trout lakes has no "expertise" to offer an inner-city state comprehensive. It has never dealt with reluctant learners of below-average ability and the fee-charging sector's record of dealing with problems common to both sectors - bullying and drugs, for example - does not inspire confidence. But imagine how the name would impress parents. The middle classes in particular would contrive to give the impression that their children went to school with Princess Eugenie (a Marlborough pupil), rather as they say their children are "at Oxford" when they attend a crammer in that city.

Ministers shouldn't think any of this will make them popular. The British do not like the idea of privatisation. They can just about remember that it gave them a better telephone service, but they are hard put to think of any benefits since then. They associate it with trains running late, with dirty hospitals and with no longer knowing the number for directory inquiries.

City academies may be heavily over-subscribed by parents - newly branded schools in new buildings usually are for a time - but that does not mean the idea of creating them is popular.

If they want kudos, ministers will have to continue relying on the kindness of Times headline-writers.

Peter Wilby is former editor of The New Statesman.

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