Substance behind the soundbites

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Fran Abrams' important analysis on page 18 seems to confound the expectations of those - including this newspaper - who fear Labour's city academies will become bastions of middle-class privilege. It is a shock - albeit a pleasant one - to find that behind the political rhetoric there appears to be substance. On paper at least, the admissions arrangements of academies ought to ensure this massive investment is targeted on the disadvantaged rather than used to cream off talent from comprehensives for miles around.

We had, of course, heard it all before when city technology colleges were mooted. But there do seem to be significant differences this time: strict guidelines on admissions with most giving preference to local children; and discouragement of dubious aptitude tests. Academies really are being sited in areas of deprivation. And none are created without the agreement of the local authority - though it remains to be seen whether any councils are included in the Schools for the Future capital programme without an academy proposal.

Whether or not academies prove to be beacons of excellence, they are certainly beacons of expenditure. Is creating 50 academies by 2007 really the most sensible or fair use of pound;1.3 billion? Any brand new school looks like unfair competition to neighbouring comprehensives also in need of refurbishment. But at least the investment this time does seem to be targeted where it is needed most. That may provide a welcome incentive for more good teachers to work in the most challenging areas - though it is not the only way to do this.

It will be a while before Labour can justify its lavish spending on academies, their independent status and the claims that sponsorship reinvigorates the governing of these schools. But in principle this looks like a progressive policy whose critics need to answer two questions: what better models are there which ensure the deprived get a better secondary education than many do at present? And what would the education service gain from shunning these new independent schools?

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