Rise and rise of city academies
This Government's flagship policy has been the introduction of city academies. The first three opened in September 2002 when it was forecast that there would be 33 academies by 2006. Their main aim was to raise pupil attainment in disadvantaged communities. Schools and governors wishing to seek city academy status needed a sponsor to fund 20 per cent of the capital cost of providing state-of-the-art buildings for the new school.
As principal of Greensward college in Essex and executive principal of the Greig city academy, in Hornsey, London, I have had to develop a split personality. On the one hand I have revelled in the freedoms of overseeing the development of one of the first city academies. Yet I am forced to continue to challenge the bureaucracies and limitations of being principal of a "foundation" school.
What a delight it was, therefore, to read the front-page headline in The TES last week (April 2) reporting that the Prime Minister was considering relaxing the rules, so that they would no longer need to find sponsorship cash to build new buildings, or be in socially deprived areas.
Greig city academy serves a community which has a number of extremely challenging circumstances. Its predecessor school had lost the confidence of the community and its feeder primaries. Things are changing, however, and rapidly.
As a city academy, Greig enjoys a number of freedoms. First and foremost among these is the freedom to make its own decisions about its future for and with the community. We were free to become a specialist school and enjoy all the benefits of joining what is regarded internationally as one of the most dynamic school improvement communities. We chose to be a specialist technology college and accordingly have been able to offer state-of-the-art information communication technology facilities to our students, local primaries and the community. And we were free to develop links with local schools, adult education providers, community groups, sports clubs as well as business and enterprise in the area. Successful city academies seek to share resources with the local school community and will seek to offer far better use of their outstanding facilities.
The city academy programme offers the Government, parents, students and the country the freedom to innovate by creating secondary schools at the heart of communities. City academies can and will be what Elizabeth Reid, chief executive of the Specialist Schools Trust, describes as the "community learning hub". Offering 24-hour learning programmes 365 days a year, they will be able to respond to "people not structures".
The Connexions Service forecasts that young people will have to change jobs up to 10 times during their working lives. If true, these hubs will be required to train the community; schools as we know them will be committed to the history books.
Of course, none of the above can be achieved unless schools have the freedom to fund what the local community sees as a priority. We have already seen in the Chancellor's Budget speech that there will be a significant cut in the number of civil servants and bureaucrats as power and responsibility are devolved. If we are truly to develop "stronger communities" then the Government must trust communities to determine their futures. Newton taught us that for every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction. As the number of new-style city academies grows, the power, influence and need for local education authorities will diminish.
City academy principals are constantly reminded that their schools are part of a programme and cannot be viewed as a series of projects. As more and more secondaries accept city academy status, they will join a transformation programme. I have no doubt that we will hear calls for the retention of LEAs so that they can continue to be responsible for primary schools. But I would argue that primary and junior schools should get a chance to be part of the community learning hub, linking with other public services to provide world-class services for their local community.
I applaud the Prime Minister and at last look forward to being part of what history may record as the greatest period for education, education, education.