Give academies a chance

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Why do schools that bring new hope and huge investment to our poorest areas provoke such fierce hostility? asks Philip O'Hear.

The publication of the second evaluation of academies by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers was greeted with familiar controversy. Opponents of academies seized on the evidence of bullying and renewed their attacks, while others found encouraging signs of early progress.

For those of us inside academies, the attacks are frustrating and perplexing. Why reject a policy that seeks to replace 200 of the lowest achieving schools in disadvantaged areas with new schools partly funded through sponsorship and free to innovate to achieve success? The long tail of poorly performing schools remains a fundamental weakness in our schools system.

Most of the opposition is based on two charges: first, we are privatised and outside the local authority family of schools; secondly, we are unfairly advantaged and will draw good students away from other local schools.

Both are unfounded. We are not privatised - we are state funded independent schools, bound by most of the rules that apply to other state schools.

These include making no profit; charging no fees; not selecting pupils by ability; accepting pupils with special needs and setting targets.

We do, however, have more flexibility over the curriculum and staff conditions. At Capital city academy, we have developed learning pathways that suit our students and we reward teachers for extra-curricular work.

Brent education authority plays a key role in our school. The redevelopment of the adjacent sports centre will complement our specialist work in sport and the arts and strengthen grassroots sports development. Our Year 10 sports leaders coach primary pupils while our basketball club provides basketball on housing estates, helping to reduce crime in local hotspots.

We are not unfairly advantaged. Academy capital costs are set by a Department for Education and Skills formula based on the number of students and regional building costs. Our annual funding is the same as that of other Brent schools. Over the next 15 years, all schools will be redeveloped on the same formula under the Building Schools for the Future programme, starting with disadvantaged areas.

We also participate in the local scheme for secondary admissions. Like all state schools, our main admission criterion is distance from the school. In our third year we received 622 applications for 196 places, up from 40 applications for our predecessor school. Consequently, most of our new Year 7 students will live within a mile of the school.

Like all specialist colleges we can admit up to 10 per cent of students for their aptitude for our specialism. We use this opportunity to give talented athletes access to our tailored programme to combine education with sporting development - an opportunity normally only available in the private sector or abroad.

We work closely with our neighbouring schools. We are part of the local sixth-form consortium and are working to develop a broader school improvement partnership to meet the needs of our highly diverse community.

Our partner schools are strong and well subscribed.

There is absolutely no reason why a good school like Capital city academy should push other schools down; it will simply ensure that no family is faced with the choice of a poor school and that fewer opt for schools out of the area.

But, will we succeed in meeting our high expectations? At Capital city academy, we have made a strong start. This reflects the drive and commitment of the sponsors as well as the gift of first-class buildings and resources. They are helping us raise standards and win the confidence of the community. Our recent inspection visit found that "much has been achieved", including "a calm and purposeful ethos" and "making the pupils'

experiences purposeful and fun". The Office for Standards in Education concluded that we "have the capacity to improve the provision".

But there is a long way to go and academic results will not improve in a straight line. Cohorts vary in schools which are half empty and have high pupil turnover, such as our predecessor. We achieved an A* rating from Ofsted for our KS3-4 added value which resulted in 29 per cent getting five Cs or better at GCSE in 2004. But adding the same value to our current Year 11 will mean 20-22 per cent achieving this benchmark.

The first cohorts to join the academy also have well below average prior attainment. We are providing them with increasingly good teaching and have established a sense of pride and confidence. Our target is for these groups to reach national average attainment at key stage 4 from 2008. Our needy students deserve nothing less if they are to get the life chances they deserve. It is a huge challenge but one I relish.

So I would like to pose a challenge for our critics: what is their alternative for our lowest achieving schools and the communities they serve?

Philip O'Hear is the principal, of Capital city academy in Brent, north-west London

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