AT first glance prospects for those growing up in today's Middlesbrough seem pretty bleak.
In the town's post-war heyday, 30,000 people worked for the flagship employer, ICI. A further 30,000 worked in the steel industry. Since the early 1980s, however, local employment in these industries has virtually collapsed. More than 50,000 lost their jobs, with many families forced to leave to find work. As a result the town's school rolls fell faster than anywhere else. Results plunged with several schools regularly featuring in the bottom 10 in national league tables.
In the past, low achievement was blamed on the large white working-class population, who rarely aspired beyond jobs in local industry. Without such options, a radical rethink became necessary.
Leading this reappraisal is councillor Geoff Connolly, a maths and physics teacher in neighbouring Redcar and Cleveland who chairs Middlesbrough's education committee. Since the mid-1990s he has helped steer the Labour-led authority towards a partnership with industry.
"What we have in Middlesbrough is a whole community - except for a few middle-class pockets - which does not value education. We needed a radical change. It had to be something which would make a major improvement in a short space of time. It had to offer a passport to a future for our kids," he says.
The council turned to Labour's city academies for its answer. Two are due to open in the next 18 months, bringing a likely cash injection of more than pound;30 million. The first to open, in September, will be Unity Academy in east Middlesbrough, sponsored with a pound;2m cheque from the Amey Group, a business support services company with a strong stake in public education. Last year, in conjunction with Nord Anglia, it took over Waltham Forest education authority in north London and it is also helping to manage the pound;1bn refurbishment of Glasgow's schools - the largest private finance initiative scheme in British education. As one of the first of the new breed of publicly-funded, privately-managed schools, the progress of Unity Academy will be closely watched. The city academies'
success or failure will influence Tony Blair's radical second-term plans to use the private sector to deliver higher standards in inner-city schools.
So far, 17 academies have been announced in England and will open between now and September 2005. An initial target of 20 academies by that date has been set. However, the Government is thought to be aiming to set up between 40 and 50 academies by the end of the decade. If it achieves this aim it would mean, in the words of one insider, that "every major town would have its own academy".
Such an ambition carries significant political risks. Labour's former deputy leader Roy Hattersley denounced city academies in a recent Guardian column, as "another item in the (Government's) programme of covert return to selection". The Campaign for State Education, a pro-comprehensive group, fears that sponsors bankrolling academies will be able to control governing bodies and opt out of local admissions arrangements.
Others question whether academies will be any more successful at attracting sponsorship than city technology colleges, a similar experiment launched in the late 1980s under the Tories. Despite much ministerial arm-twisting, few companies or philanthropists came forward and only 15 CTCs were built.
Academy supporters appear confident that the initial figure of 20 will be reached and that there are more than enough sponsors waiting in the wings for further expansion. They say a crucial difference is that academies are being developed in partnership with LEAs, which was not the case with CTCs. Privately, however, some firms remain sceptical, and believe the programme will only really take off if the current rules on sponsorship are relaxed. One idea which has been canvassed is to allow companies to establish academies under the private finance initiative - opening up the prospect of chains of privately-managed state schools.
But perhaps the biggest political risk is whether city academies will deliver the sort of improvements expected of them within the short timescale set by ministers. Fifteen of the 17 so far announced are due to replace schools identified as being in "challenging circumstances", and will thus have to meet the Government target of at least 25 per cent of Year 11 pupils achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE by 2006.
"These are among the most deprived schools in the country. Many will have well over 50 per cent eligibility for free school meals, 25 per cent-plus non-attendance and high pupil mobility, including refugees and asylum-seekers. These schools quite often have high turnover of staff and senior management," says Clive Grimwood, who runs the newly-formed City Academies Support Service.
He will be hoping to steer the academies to the sort of improvements enjoyed during his time as head of Bacon's City Technology College in London, where GCSE A*-C grades rose from 18 to 72 per cent between 1995 and 2001. But, as a successor to the Government's fresh start scheme, which failed to produce the dramatic turn around in struggling inner-city schools expected of it, it will not be easy.
Each academy will follow a "high reliability schools" programme developed by government school improvement adviser David Reynolds. Each academy will set its own goals, and work towards national targets. In the first two years, they will be expected to reach performance levels at least as good as the average for similar schools across the country.
Within four years, they should be able to match the best achievement levels of schools with similar intakes. Thereafter they will be expected to reach or exceed national average standards. Their progress will be helped if, like the CTCs, they are oversubscribed and end up selecting pupils by a "banding" system which ensures that there are equal numbers of pupils from different ability bands. Mr Grimwood says any banding will reflect the local population but that could still lead to academies gobbling up a bigger share of clever children than the average inner-city comprehensive.
Middlesbrough's Unity Academy will be one of the first to try and meet these exacting standards. From September, a new non-profit-making trust will take over the running of Keldholme and Langbaurgh schools, both of which saw higher-grade GCSEs dip below 5 per cent, before recent improvement under current head, Ron Newitt. Twelve months later, the schools will close and the pupils move to the academy's futuristic new home nearby.
The man chosen to lead the new, non-selective academy is Eddie Brady, who hopes to repeat his success at Hermitage School, Chester-le-Street, where during his seven-year headship GCSE A*-C grades improved from 32 to 57 per cent. The aim, he says, is to achieve success by raising expectations and encouraging pupils to value education.
No expense seems to have been spared for this trailblazing project. In addition to Amey's pound;2m investment and the donation of grounds from the LEA on a 100-year lease, the Government is putting in around pound;15m.
Amey does not expect to make a profit on the project. "We see it as a high-profile project at the forefront of government thinking about changing the way we deliver education," says Amey project director Richard Jenner. "That gives us the opportunity to develop our portfolio education projects which we see as being a growth factor in the 21st century."
Whether Amey's eventual aim is to run further academies for profit or not, its intentions as an employer have been received with relief by teaching unions. National pay, conditions of service and pension agreements will be adhered to.
The deal has stemmed a tide of resignations frm Keldholme and Langbaurgh teachers, almost two-thirds of whom have left since the academy was mooted two years ago.
Hans Ruyssenaars, the local National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers representative, now sees Amey as a model employer and believes the agreement will set the standard for other city academies. But he is still opposed to city academies. "I do have grave concerns about the future of the British education system. City academies will have to get results. They will inevitably have to compete and it will inevitably mean the end of the local education authority."
Even academy supporters like Geoff Connolly are uneasy about the Government's overall education policy. "At the moment," he says, "specialist schools are divisive. The basic problem with the proposals is that as many children will lose out as will benefit. What we are working towards in Middlesbrough is every secondary developing a specialism and then sharing their expertise and facilities." Some would argue that if academies rise to the top of the educational pecking order, they will be divisive.
Despite the enthusiasm for the Unity Academy project, much of the support seems to be more pragmatic than heart-felt.
If the new academy succeeds - and the signs are that it will - it will bring a much-needed boost to a community still reeling from the loss of its traditional employment. Whether it will be a force for unity, or division, only time will tell.