Sky may be the limit for academies

13th August 2004 at 01:00
When the British and French decided to build Concorde together they omitted to include any get-out clause in the agreement. As a result, when the costs went supersonic before the aircraft was even airborne, ministers found their treaty obligations meant they could not cancel this prestige project.

And because they were committed to build the airliner come what may, the Government found it had to pay whatever the aircraft manufacturers demanded.

In the end, billions of taxpayers' pounds were spent on development costs which had to be written off. The fate of the official responsible for Concorde at the then Ministry of Technology was to be put in charge of the Department for Education and Science. Sir James Hamilton left the department in 1983. But the spirit of Concorde lives on in the city academy programme.

Once again a prestige project is handing millions - soon to be billions - from the public purse to private organisations which seem to be able to escalate costs at will. The pound;10million price tag David Blunkett put on academies already has tripled in some cases.

The sponsorship that was supposed to underwrite one-fifth of the cost has not reached anywhere near that level. The private sponsors running these projects have in some cases spent very little of their own money and a great deal of the public's to build schools at costs far exceeding what any local education authority - working under strict government guidelines - is allowed to spend. Indeed, in many cases this will be at the expense of much-needed improvements in equivalent schools.

The sponsors and governing bodies are less publicly accountable than any normal governing body. Yet they hire and fire staff and dictate what and how children should learn. Some even use taxpayers' money to pay sponsors'

firms for services to the schools.

Where are the normal checks and balances on the public interest in these institutions? Who is ensuring value for money and the public good in schools that have yet to demonstrate they can fly?

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