The Government may love academies but other schools have doubts. Hilary Wilce reports
Two hundred academies are planned by 2010. Seventeen have opened so far, 40 are in the pipeline, leaving a further 143 to be created in the next five years.
But this is just about the only thing that adds up about the Government's pound;5 billion programme to inject educational energy into the country's disadvantaged areas by setting up ritzy, privately-sponsored schools.
As the programme grows, so do the bad-news headlines. The funding, sponsorship and exam results of these new schools are all coming under fire. Last week the teacher unions had a go. Last month the Labour-dominated Commons Education Select Committee called for the programme to be halted until there was evidence that the expensive experiment would bring returns. Committee members, like others, fear that the headlong roll-out of the programme is more about politics than education, and that these well-fed cuckoos will inevitably start to squeeze their scrawny neighbours from the nest.
Beyond the immediate worry of whether academies are going to work, a much bigger one is starting to emerge: what on earth will happen if they do?
Paul Holmes, Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield, and a member of the select committee, has no doubt. "They become popular. People beat a path to their door. They become more and more selective, and then you've got a two-tier system."
The programme has the laudable aim of tackling entrenched educational disadvantage, and has had its successes. The Academy Sponsors Trust says academies have already virtually doubled the number of children getting five good GCSEs, compared with the results of their predecessor schools three years ago.
But costs are spiralling. Initial estimates of pound;10 million per school, have risen to an average of pound;26m per school, with the high-profile Business academy in Bexley, designed by Foster Partners, having a capital budget of nearly pound;36m. The select committee estimates that the set-up costs of places at academies are pound;21,000 as opposed to pound;14,000 for regular new secondary school places. "While we welcome the Government's desire to invest resources in areas of educational underachievement, we consider that the rapid expansion of the academy policy comes at the expense of rigorous evaluation," it says.
"Masses of public money, both revenue and capital funding, are going into them," says John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "The big question is the extent to which they will raise achievement in their areas as a whole."
Then there is the highly-charged question of sponsorship. For pound;2m or less, a sponsor gets significant control over a school set up as a limited company, and can even pass this control on to their heirs. But big companies have been slow to come forward, and it has been individuals such as the car dealer and Christian philanthropist Peter Vardy who have jumped in. His Emmanuel Schools Foundation has sponsored academies in Middlesbrough and Gateshead leading to an outcry about children being taught Biblical creationism. In Doncaster last year parents fought off his proposal for a third because of fears of indoctrination.
Other local battles have also erupted (see box). Meanwhile, teachers'
unions are up in arms about the way that academies can go their own way on pay and conditions. Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says a teacher who works in one is expected to be a jack of all trades, taking on lunchtime and other duties.
Then come the disappointing exam results. Nine out of the 11 academies whose results for key stage 3 were published recently were in the bottom 200 schools in England, while figures published in January this year showed that five of the 11 have not improved pupils' performance at GCSE and that in some cases, the percentage achieving five A*-C grades has actually declined. And although it obviously takes time to improve performance in disadvantaged areas, the long-term signals are not good. American charter schools, on which academies are modelled, are not only lagging behind ordinary publicly-funded schools, but also other schools serving the same sort of disadvantaged areas.
But the Government is unswerving. Charles Clarke, when he was Education Secretary, was known to have had doubts about the programme, but Tony Blair, and his adviser Andrew Adonis, are determined to forge ahead, and appear to have resorted to serious arm-twisting to do so. Many local authorities report that getting funds from the Building Schools for the Future programme now depends on buying into the academy idea. "Stories are coming out from all sorts of areas," says Paul Holmes. "In Newcastle, I know it's true, because I've spoken to the people involved. People are being told it is the only game in town."
Number 10 loves academies so much because it sees them as a way of keeping middle-class parents in the state system. Blair knows at first hand the middle-class Londoner's despair over secondary schooling. Academies, so the plan goes, will not only bring new hope to low-achieving pupils, but attract abler ones as well, bringing harmony back to the capital's divided communities.
But attractive city schools rapidly create their own divides. School improvement experts know that collaboration, which many Labour policies encourage, is what works best in helping all schools in an area improve.
"All the stuff I've learned from London is that this is what really makes the difference," says Professor Kathryn Riley, of London university's institute of education, "but academies positively set people up to compete."
Only a small proportion of academies have chosen to select some pupils by aptitude, but they can choose who they kick out. Last year the King's and Unity academies in Middlesbrough were challenged by Professor Stephen Gorard of York university about their higher-than-average number of permanent exclusions, after they had expelled 61 pupils between them since the start of the school year in 2002, compared to just 15 from all other secondary schools in the borough.
In some areas, such as Enfield, in north London, harmony appears to be emerging through local goodwill and collaboration, but in other parts of London, as in Liverpool, Belfast and Wakefield, city heads are privately furious at finding the playing field tilted so hard against them. Public talk might all be of co-operation, they say, but the reality is completely different.
"Schools start to see that certain pupils are attracted away from their door," says Elaine Kay, regional secretary of the northern region of the National Union of Teachers.
"They're enticed by the new buildings, the new resources, and those who can get there, or be taken there, start to move over. So schools start losing their mix of pupils, they lose that balance, and they start to sink. But it is such a gradual change you don't notice until it's too late."
"It is very worrying for the future of education," stresses Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the NUT. "It is a privatisation too far. There is no evidence that academies are to the benefit of the children of this country."
ARGUMENTS OVER ACADEMIES
* In Islington, north London, parents are protesting about a proposed academy which would involve knocking down a popular primary school. They also say the plan means putting too large a school on to too small a site.
* In Hackney, east London, Bernice McCabe, head of the North London Collegiate, a top private girls' school, had to pull out of a proposed academy after parents fought the private school's sponsorship plans.
* In Waltham Forest, north-east London, the fashion designer Jasper Conran pulled out of a plan to sponsor an academy specialising in clothes, garden design and cookery following protests from parents and teachers.
* In Doncaster parents saw off a plan by Sir Peter Vardy, the car salesman and evangelical Christian, to sponsor an academy because of fears pupils would be taught creationism.
* In Bexley, south London, the Business academy has been fighting the Office for Standards in Education over an inspection report which highlighted unsatisfactory teaching and learning, saying inspectors "intimidated and humiliated" staff and pupils.
* In Lewisham, south London, a sports hall built less than 10 years ago, with pound;750,000 of lottery funding, was knocked down last summer to build a new academy - specialising in sports. VAT rules apparently made it necessary.