Progressive twist in the academies tale?

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
In the right-wing Spectator two weeks ago, the political commentator Fraser Nelson argued that, under Gordon Brown, the city academies are being strangled out of meaningful existence. "Lord Adonis (schools minister overseeing the initiative) is running a ghost programme. It is over."

Is Nelson correct? Well, as Zhou Enlai said when asked about the effects of the French Revolution, it's too early to say. Mr Brown has announced more academies. The profoundly undemocratic governance arrangements, which give significant powers to unelected sponsors, remain unchanged. I am unconvinced by the requirement (which ministers say isn't new) that an academy can only start up with the agreement of the local authority. But local authorities often get Hobson's choice: if they don't agree to a city academy, they won't get the money to build a new school.

But the central idea behind academies has indeed finished: the involvement of private business, which was expected to put in pound;2 million in sponsorship in return for control. It was never easy to get the money. Much of it came in the form of "services" or "staff time" from the sponsors. As more restrictions are introduced on how academies are run a new admissions code that makes it harder for schools to cherry-pick entrants, and the requirement to follow the national curriculum) potential sponsors will be even less enthusiastic. They are not used to playing by rules.

In future, it seems, most new academies will be sponsored by universities, colleges and schools that will not need to put up the pound;2m. The risk of wholesale privatisation of state secondaries, with local education authorities withering away, has receded.

Even if Mr Brown tried to keep all new schools out of local authority hands, he would probably fail. Where there is a need for a new school, authorities must hold a competition for providers, and if the council is among the bidders, the decision goes to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. The first such case was completed in May in the borough of Haringey, north London. It involved four proposals, three of them from private trusts (two of which proposed city academies), and one from the council itself. The council won. The adjudicators ruled that the authority's knowledge of the locality, its experience in providing education there, and its proposals for collaboration with other local schools should win the day.

If you want an idea of academies' future, keep an eye on Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. He has elegantly surfed two decades of educational change and is now working with his fourth prime minister and his 11th secretary of state. He now says academies should use ballots to determine admissions and ensure socially and academically balanced intakes, and that multi-faith academies could achieve racial desegregation in towns such as Oldham.

Perhaps, after all, city academies will become vehicles for progressive policies or, as The Daily Mail would call it, "social engineering". No wonder The Spectator is upset.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the 'New Statesman'

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