Time to forge a clear game plan for academies
Academies are popular with parents and beginning to do well for pupils. So I am happy to nail my colours to the mast in support of academies, but...
And I have four "buts".
First, the evangelists for academies should stop talking as though academies are the only means of raising achievement in areas of deprivation or underperformance. There are many inner city schools that can tell a fine story of improvement. And, arguably, London Challenge and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust have been every bit as effective as academies in transforming underperforming schools (and at a significantly lower cost).
Second, the government needs to sort out the arrangements for sponsoring academies. Billions of pounds of public money are going into the programme, yet the basis on which sponsors are selected and provide funding is, to say the least, opaque.
In July, the government announced that they were dropping the requirement for sponsors to contribute to the cost of building an academy, but they would still have to provide pound;2 million, which would go into an endowment for the new school and local community. That seemed clear enough.
Except that the latest academy to be announced, which is to be sponsored by Wellington College, does not involve any such funding. My point is not to knock the involvement of independent schools, but to highlight how this sort of inconsistency undermines the integrity of the programme.
There are no clear "rules" or principles governing the criteria for being a sponsor - it is entirely down to the advice of officials and the decision of ministers who is accepted and who is not. Before the Select Committee or Public Accounts Committee forces them to do so, the Department for Education and Skills should advertise openly - as it rightly does with all other procurement programmes - for sponsors and set out transparently the criteria for being approved as a sponsor.
The third "but" concerns the way schools are selected to become academies.
According to the latest academy prospectus, academies are targeted at "areas of historically weak education performance", but the DfES makes each decision "on a case by case basis". Again there is a lack of transparency around the criteria for the selection process.
In part, it seems to relate to where a sponsor has links. Partly it depends on the attitude of the local authority. Some have or are projected to have six or more academies, while others, with comparable levels of performance, have none. That, no doubt, reflects the relative enthusiasm of the authorities concerned, but is it right that such a strategically important programme has a rather random feel to it?
Finally, academies need to be part of the whole school system, not just innovative free-standing institutions. Our objective should not be to create pockets of excellence. "Every school a good school" must be the aim.
That requires all academies to be part of local school partnerships - as some are now beginning to accept - sharing responsibility for hard-to-place pupils, 14-19 diplomas and school improvement. Academies should not stand apart, and other secondary schools should embrace rather than resent them.
Academies started as outriders on the fringe of the system. They have come of age. They are now part of the mainstream. The way they are rolled out and managed needs to reflect this change. What's more, by making changes, the government will build support for a valued and valuable initiative.
Robert Hill is a former special adviser to Tony Blair and now a consultant on public policy issues