The quality of the academies programme is being put at risk by its rapid expansion, an influential group of academy heads has warned.
Politicians too often assume that academies are the best way to improve failing schools and force through potentially unsuitable projects, according to Mike Butler, chairman of the Independent Academies Association.
"Academies should not be seen as a panacea," said Mr Butler, who is also the principal of Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham. "They should not be rushed into without exploring all the options.
"In many cases, academies have been the right solution, but it's too easy a conclusion to say they are always the solution."
Mr Butler's comments are critical of the Government, which has "fast-tracked" a number of projects, including Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, which was subsequently put into special measures. But it is also a strong warning to the Conservatives, who have said they want to put "booster rockets" under the programme.
The Tories plan to shut all primaries and secondaries in special measures for more than a year and re-open them as academies.
The Independent Academies Association (IAA), which represents almost 100 academy heads, yesterday launched a manifesto at its annual conference in London. It is against a Tory proposal to exclude vocational qualifications from the main school league tables.
A report by the think tank Civitas in December criticised some academies for using vocational qualifications - which can be worth up to four good GCSEs - to artificially boost league table rankings.
But the IAA manifesto said that a school's "whole achievement" should be reflected in the tables. "Schools should not be penalised for encouraging pupils with a practical aptitude to sit vocational qualifications," it said. It also wants the practical element of diplomas to be increased.
Mr Butler attracted headlines before last year's conference for writing a letter to then schools minister Jim Knight criticising the Government for the "erosion" of academies' independence.
"That is still a very strong concern," said Mr Butler. "We jealously guard our independence because we believe it gives us the ability to do the best for our youngsters and the communities we serve.
"You can take any policy in isolation and say 'OK, it's not a massive erosion of independence', but when you put several together you start to question where the distinction is between academies and other maintained schools. The ability to rapidly improve standards could be curtailed."
Mr Butler said the association was particularly concerned to protect its curriculum and funding freedoms and is resisting moves to make PSHE teaching compulsory.
The IAA is also calling for all schools to be funded to offer international GCSEs and the international baccalaureate where there is student demand.
Despite concerns that the expansion of academies could "dilute" their success, the IAA wants academies to open where there is strong parental demand, even if there are surplus places.
But procurement for projects has raised concerns if they "genuinely provide value for money", Mr Butler warned. "There are lots of middle men and consultants who perhaps do not have sufficient experience," he said.
The Independent Academies Association says it aims to:
- Guarantee current curriculum and funding freedoms;
- Maintain the position of vocational qualifications in league tables;
- Support a premium for poorer pupils as long as it does not take away money from schools in deprived areas;
- Ensure the Government and Ofsted take more account of school progress when making judgments;
- Open academies in response to parental demand even if there are surplus places.