Is this the way to save sink schools?

13th May 2005 at 01:00
The academies programme has caused controversy because of its business connections. We asked two young teachers to give their verdicts

NO says Anthea Davey, whose school was deemed failing - then turned into an academy to rescue it

Our local comp was renamed in September 2002, heralding a brave new world of high standards and educational achievement. Its redesignation as a city academy suggested an ordinary school was being transformed into an elite establishment attended by the children of the rich rather than some of the most deprived residents of north London.

However, this rebranding masked a more deep-seated change than previous attempts to improve failing schools. The focus was as much on bringing in the "vision" of the private sector as it was on added investment to improve the place.

While the academies programme has meant more funding for some of the most hard-pressed schools in the country, the scheme has so many flaws that it risks doing more harm than good.

The basic starting point behind most government education policy is that some schools are good and some are bad. Successive governments have tried to do something about "bad" schools, from naming and shaming to permanent closure

However, it is generally accepted by those not trying to win elections that schools are typically only as good as their intake. Changing this would mean doing something very unpopular: abandoning the commitment to so-called choice and ensuring all schools have children from all backgrounds.

Alternatively, you can tart a school up, give it a new name and swanky facilities, then hope that its reputation will be forgotten. The problem is that, even if this succeeds by the academy scheme's own yardstick, it fails in reality: schools can only take so many pupils. If middle-class students do start arriving in numbers, space must be found for them.

Academies introduce the idea that the private sector has some kind of magic dust to sprinkle over schools in the form of vision and ethos. The private sector has not proved more successful than the public when introduced into health and transport, but the Government seems to believe that if you can run a carpet company, sell cars or believe in God, you can run a school.

Sponsors of academies are presented as noble individuals who selflessly invest time and money into schools, even though their role gives them a large amount of power through the school's governing body - not to mention a boost to their egos.

How their vision and success will be transferred to the school does not have to be explained before they are given the go- ahead. The Government has dreamed up the oxymoron "publicly funded independent schools", but there is little accountability. Local communities could well summarise the policy as follows: "We pay, but have no say."

The process of choosing sponsors is also open to question. The Department for Education and Skills refuses to say which individuals have been refused and why. The criterion that they must be successful certainly seems loosely applied, given the proposal to establish an academy in Blackburn with Rod Aldridge, the executive chairman of Capita, as the sponsor. This is the Capita group which was fined pound;1 million for poor customer care over its running of London's congestion charge and was responsible for the fiasco over the vetting of teachers for the Criminal Records Bureau in 2002, which led to chaos in many schools.

Rona Kiley, chief executive of the Academy Sponsors Trust, rejects the idea that the running of schools involves some level of prior experience in education (not just having attended a school some years previously). One might argue that it's not a closed world, but that you can't simply buy entry into it with two million quid.

All the unproven and potentially flawed assumptions behind the scheme could be forgiven if there was evidence that academies really are going to improve education, but the evidence just isn't there. Although Tony Blair was quick to judge them as successful on the basis of exam results, their key stage 3, GCSE and value-added scores fail to show conclusive evidence of improvement and, in some cases, results have got worse.

MPs on the House of Commons Education Select Committee have also said that there is no "coherent overarching strategy" to the investment in academies, and no sign that they are delivering the transformation that might be expected. Ms Kiley has complained that critics who argue that academies aren't delivering better exam results should wait as "they will take time to demonstrate progress", but Tony Blair argues that the academy programme should be extended because the exam results are so good. You can't have it both ways.

Schools do need the investment that academies promise, but, in practice, the need to attract both middle-class parents and rich donors means that far too much of this money goes on window dressing, consultancy fees and gimmicks.

I know it's not likely to excite voters or donors but, having taught in a school heading for special measures, I would argue that a more effective investment for failing schools would be to reduce class sizes and insist on high-quality staff, instead of encouraging artificial competition more suited to the world of business.

But then what do I know? My specialism is only in teaching.

Anthea Davey teaches English at Palmers Green high, north London

YES argues Victoria Bodgers, who has started her career in one so new that it's still a building site

Early in my PGCE I decided that I wanted to be part of a new school, preferably in London. The first school I visited with a view to applying was an academy. I read up on the initiative, and I was sceptical to say the least.

However the reality of teaching in one convinced me. Although the school is still in prefab buildings, its facilities far outshone those in my placement schools. There are enough laptops and hardwired computers to enable all pupils to use ICT simultaneously. Every classroom has an interactive whiteboard and every teacher has a laptop. In the English department, we have enough texts to ensure that pupils do not have to share, which certainly reduces bickering.

All these factors go a long way to making my teaching more enjoyable and interesting. The pupils love using ICT and are so much more enthusiastic when you put a laptop in front of them. I can incorporate ICT in every lesson if it's appropriate.

One of the greatest advantages is that the classes are capped at 24 pupils.

It makes a noticeable difference in my relationship to the class. I know individuals better and it's much easier to get round all pupils to give them attention.

However, as far as I'm concerned, the reason why working in a academy is so rewarding is because I am teaching in a school that is giving some of London's most disadvantaged pupils a better education. The pupils are benefiting from facilities and opportunities normally reserved for private school pupils or those from the leafy suburbs.

The initiative has received substantial negative media attention: it has been claimed that it is failing. However, it is important to remember that academies are built in areas of low achievement. The majority of academies have simply replaced former failing schools.

No matter how much money you put into a school you cannot change the pupil's home lives or the cultural attitude to education that surrounds them. Academies are still inner-city schools; behaviour is still challenging; but the facilities and money do ease the problems and it certainly feels like you're making a difference.

Victoria Bodgers teaches English at City of London academy, Bermondsey


* Schools = academy

* Headteachers = principals

* Classrooms = learning environments

* Gimmicks = innovation

* Rich persons = sponsors

* Common room = enterprise zone

* Prefects = academy ambassadorsl Many computers = ICT-rich

* Parents and teachers = local stakeholders

* No union or LEA agreements = flexible pay and conditions



* You will be paid more than state-sector colleagues

* You will work in state-of-the-art facilities

* You don't have to register with the General Teaching Council

* There is an atmosphere of optimism and innovation - at least initially

* It's high profile: you may get to meet a high-ranking civil servant from the DfES or even a government minister


* You don't automatically have the same rights as teachers in other schools

* Your boss (the sponsor) has no deep knowledge of education

* You will be part of an experiment

* It's uncertain what will happen to the funding after the first few years

* Your school will previously have been judged as failing; it is in an area of deprivation, but will be expected to attain much better exam results


Read the hostory and politics behind the academies, how they runa nd Labour's hopes for their future at

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