Editorial - Mind how you go with academies

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
Tories should take stock before charging ahead with programme expansion

Many recent reports have it that David Cameron's shadow cabinet, readying itself for a widely forecast election victory, is increasingly distracted by one pressing concern. The Cameroons are determined that, should the party win a hefty majority, it is in a position to "hit the ground running". Key party figures such as Francis Maude are resolute that a Tory government must have reforms ready for implementation from day one. Keeping them awake at night is, of course, the fear of appearing to repeat the mistake of Tony Blair's post-1997 landslide administration, which some perceive as having wasted a historic opportunity to force through an epoch-defining public-sector revolution.

That Michael Gove's policy wonks are already drawing up a schools white paper, which includes the wholesale expansion of academies, illustrates this perfectly. They have also given their tacit backing to the launch this week of the New Schools Network, an independent organisation that will support the creation of state-funded independent schools under a Conservative regime.

The idea of having their transition pre-planned to the nth degree is, to be sure, admirable, and many a political neutral will be comforted by the idea.

But when it comes to the academies programme, the Tories should perhaps take a short breathing space and assess the educational landscape before heading into Sanctuary Buildings, all guns blazing. While the theoretical arguments for and against this policy have been endlessly repeated, there are practical issues to which Mr Gove, whose full ambition was spelt out at the Tory party conference earlier this month, would be well advised to turn his celebrated brain.

It is not hard to track down evidence of problems. Take the much-vaunted United Learning Trust (see page 1). This Anglican charity - the biggest academy sponsor so far, with 17 schools under its control - has not exactly had an easy time.

It has, of course, a number of celebrated successes, including the impressive Manchester Academy. But it is more or less impossible to find any Goveian reference to the fact that the ULT has had to sack more than half its heads less than two years after its schools opened their gates. Nor did they seem too keen to comment when both the ULT's Sheffield academies received damning Ofsted reports within weeks of each other at the end of the last school year.

None of the problems at the ULT schools are big or controversial enough to derail the idea of academies or the adoption of what is enigmatically known as the "Swedish system", but they do point to quality-control issues that need to be ironed out.

If Mr Gove is indeed to take over the Department for Children, Schools and Families, perhaps he should first take a deep breath, pour himself a gin and tonic and have a look around. He might even find a window in his diary to say something supportive about the many comprehensives that are doing exceptionally well just as they are. It is fantastic political strategy to shout from the rooftops about academies and their sponsors. However, the devil, as with much of government, will be in the detail.

Ed Dorrell, News Editor, TES E ed.dorrell@tes.co.uk

Gerard Kelly is away.

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