Will Balls' quality stamp split academy sponsors?
Here is one thing we know about the academies programme for sure: its expansion in some shape or form is inevitable. With a general election little more than six months away at most, the main parties are all committed to getting more outside organisations to run schools that they deem to be underperforming.
But with potentially hundreds of different organisations taking control of schools, how does any government ensure that sponsors are up to the job?
As reported in last week's TES, Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, has announced plans for a new accreditation scheme for organisations that want to sponsor academies, trust schools and federations.
Before they can take over, the charities, businesses and faith groups that were previously able to work out sponsorship deals in private will have to win a public seal of approval to show that they are fit and able.
The same kitemark will also have to be won by high-performing schools that want to federate with lower-performing neighbours.
With 200 academies already open, some critics have suggested that starting an accreditation scheme for sponsors at this point is a little late in the day.
Just last week, Mr Balls announced the approval of a further 114 trust schools, working with partners including Sainsbury's, British Airways and the Co-operative Group.
But the new accreditation rules will not be applied retrospectively, meaning existing sponsors will only have to win the kitemark if they want to embark on further projects.
Given that the Government warned a council off using its biggest sponsor of academies, the United Learning Trust, over concerns about its performance, this could help to avoid potential embarrassment.
But the move toward accrediting sponsors appears to be more than political lip-service about upholding standards.
Contained in a consultation document on the plan are significant rule changes that would outlaw sponsors without an educational partner and give ministers stronger powers to remove failing sponsors.
Part of the original academies grand plan was a firm belief that bringing in successful business sponsors could have a transformational effect on schools, even if those sponsors had limited previous experience in education. But the days of the millionaire businessman being handed control of a school appear to be over.
Any sponsor that is not an "educational organisation" will now have to apply with an educational co-sponsor or partner. Having an entrepreneurial spirit and wanting to "give something back" will no longer be enough to get your name above the door.
Instead, all providers will have to demonstrate a strong model for managing schools, a track record of improving outcomes for young people and the capacity to bring "transformational change".
The move, while significant, is also part of the direction of travel for academies under Mr Balls, which has resulted in a curtailing of their independence.
A number of the original freedoms over the curriculum have been removed, meaning schools have to follow the national curriculum in core subjects.
Mr Balls has also angered a number of academies' heads and sponsors by calling for the schools to co-operate in children's trusts - set up to coordinate services for young people following the death of Victoria Climbie - and behaviour partnerships, which are designed to make all schools take their share of expelled pupils.
The Independent Academies Association, which represents more than half of academies, has also complained about the power to oversee school performance being handed next year to the Young People's Learning Agency, another Balls initiative.
The Schools Secretary believes the accreditation system will encourage collaboration because it will be easier for schools and local authorities to choose the right partners.
Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who has previously described sponsor selection as a "secret garden", praised the idea of accreditation.
"I welcome the greater openness with which academy sponsors will be selected and matched to schools and the fact that there are to be clear criteria for this process," he said. "But it is extremely important that this scheme should not become a bureaucratic burden that works against good schools being called upon, sometimes at very short notice, to support schools in difficulty."
As well as increasing transparency of the way sponsors are chosen, the accreditation plans will also give ministers increased powers to remove sponsors that fail to reach high standards. Organisations can be stripped of their power if they fail to have a positive impact on schools or are found to have acted illegally.
This development follows questions raised at the end of last year when David Ross, multimillionaire co-founder of the Carphone Warehouse and sponsor of Havelock Academy in Grimsby, admitted breaking City rules when securing loans.
While no charges were ultimately brought against Mr Ross, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was challenged over its powers to remove sponsors that are found to be unsuitable or fail to raise standards. The Government can flood governing bodies with its own appointments and subsequently take sponsorship away. But the new proposals make the process for removing substandard sponsors significantly clearer, quicker and easier.
The Tories are reported to have recruited Mr Ross to attract wealthy backers for schools should it win the general election. The party has said it wants to put "booster rockets" under the academies programme by opening hundreds of new schools run by parents' groups, charities and other organisations.
John Bangs, head of education at teaching union NUT, said the launch of the Government's accreditation scheme was an attempt to put "clear blue water" between Labour and the Conservatives.
"It is an election move, which says we believe in academies but we believe in quality," said Mr Bangs. "The Tories want the naked market and would let things sink or swim, with children's education suffering in the process.
"It's part of a move that the Government has been developing for some time, by putting requirements on sponsors that the Tories would never dream of."
The New Schools Network, an independent charity with close links to the Conservative party, was launched last week to advise groups wanting to open schools should the Tories win power.
Rachel Wolf, the charity's director, said it will help all groups unless they are "obviously unacceptable".
And the Conservatives have dismissed claims by a former education adviser to Tony Blair that it will be besieged with requests from religious "cults and sects" wanting to open new schools, and said all groups will face close scrutiny before receiving funding.
Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, described the accreditation plans as bureaucracy that would "bog down the academies programme".
"Of course potential academy sponsors need to be properly vetted but this looks like a time-wasting, and expensive, hoop-jumping exercise," he said.
"We want to see more outside providers coming into education to raise standards, particularly for the poorest children. Adding yet more barriers to entry and expansion can only deter future sponsors."
MAN ON A MISSION
A new academy is to be sponsored by an academic for the first time under plans for a unique school that will offer university degrees. Portland Academy in Dorset is to be sponsored by Professor Stephen Heppell, an education IT expert at Bournemouth University, in a ground-breaking move for the programme.
The Government last week announced that all academy sponsors will either have to be, or be partnered with, an educational organisation. It is the latest move by Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, who has previously encouraged all universities and high-performing state and independent schools to work with underperforming schools.
But officials have now taken the innovative step of allowing an individual academic, rather than a university, to back a school.
Professor Heppell became the preferred sponsor for Portland Academy after concerns were raised about the suitability of the United Learning Trust, a Christian charity, which had been the original choice of sponsor.
"I am involved in the development of schools in different countries and this is a chance to sit down with a blank piece of paper and build something quite exceptional," said Professor Heppell.
The radical plan for the all-through school, which will be co-sponsored by the local authority, is to eventually offer education for 3- to 21-year-olds, including university qualifications in workplace learning.
The academy will replace the Royal Manor Arts College secondary school and will include local primary provision.
"The idea of an all-ages academy is a recent innovation," said Mr Balls. "The idea that an academy could provide university places too is truly pioneering.
"Professor Heppell has a huge range of experience in educational innovation, both in this country and internationally."
More primary schools should enter into federations in a bid to improve standards, the Government said last week.
Under its plans for accrediting new sponsors of schools, the Government pledged to approve high-performing primaries that are looking to work in trusts or federations with lower- performing schools.
But while there has been an increase in all-through academies for 3- to 18-year-olds, the Government ruled out stand-alone primary academies as not being a "proportionate or cost-effective" response to underperformance.