'Doomed to succeed'

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Sixth form college head Don Lillistone on the pernicious effects of the three academies that have been set up in Middlesbrough

The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple. Wilde's witticism describes the complex reality of academies, as evidenced by the three (Unity, King's and Macmillan) that now educate a third of Middlesbrough's secondary pupils.

According to the Government, academies have replaced "failing schools", are helping to "break the cycle of underachievement" in deprived areas, "will offer local solutions for local needs", but are funded "on a comparable basis to other schools in their areas with similar characteristics".

Let us take these four points in turn.

First, as The TES has already revealed, none of the schools replaced by academies in Middlesbrough was failing. Indeed, the most recently established, Macmillan, previously a leading-edge school, was described in its last Ofsted report (2005) as "highly effective with many outstanding features".

Second, in terms of deprivation, Middlesbrough council's figures show that King's aggregated pupil deprivation score is the second lowest in the borough, whilst Macmillan's is fourth lowest out of nine.

Unity, on the other hand, serves pupils who have the highest deprivation score. However, to date, Unity has failed to build on the strengths of its predecessor schools and the Ofsted inspection in March 2005 judged that it required special measures. Is Unity an indication that academies are not the solution to the problems of deprivation?

Third, with regards to providing local solutions for local needs, it is difficult to see the logic of state-funded independent schools that are free to operate outside the remit of planning bodies such as the local authorities and the Learning and Skills Council. Indeed, academy governors have a legal duty to act only in the interests of the academy. So it is not surprising, to read in the Middlesbrough area Ofsted 14-19 inspection report that "there are plans to increase advanced-level courses in the recently-formed sixth form at the King's Academy. These plans have not taken into account the needs of learners in Middlesbrough as a whole."

Fourth, funding is a significant concern. In response to my query, the Department for Education and Skills has stated that, in the current academic year, the funding per post-16 student at Macmillan is pound;4,722 in comparison with the pound;4,022 per student at my sixth form college, St Mary's, ie a gap of more than 17 per cent. The Government has recognised a funding gap of 10 per cent between school sixth forms and sixth form colleges, although it claims the gap is being reduced. The Learning and Skills Development Agency research shows the gap to be more like 13 per cent.

It is difficult to see how a gap of more than 17 per cent can be justified, even allowing for what the DfES calls "an additional allowance for the money which local authorities hold back from maintained schools". This held back money is, of course, funding that is not allocated to sixth form colleges, which are also not part of the local authority. Is the level of funding taken into account when Ofsted judges value for money?

On the basis of the experience in Middlesbrough, an academy established in an area of real deprivation, and genuinely serving the young people of that area, does no better than the school it replaces.

On the other hand, where academies are set up on the back of successful schools, they serve relatively affluent areas and benefit from generous revenue and capital funding funding. They are, as a fellow principal drily put it, "doomed to succeed".

The gap between government rhetoric on academies and the reality is so great that one is reminded of Pilate's cynical question: "Truth? What is that?"

Don Lillistone is principal of St Mary's college, Middlesbrough

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