The London borough of Lambeth is not known for the excellence of its secondary schools. In a famous remark, Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor, said he would rather beg than send his son to a state school in the area. And local parents are so disenchanted by the lack of places, even at the least desirable schools, that they were prepared to sign their children up for the brand-new Lambeth Academy in Clapham without visiting it. This term 180 children turned up in new black blazers to enrol in a school that is part of Tony Blair's vision for secondary education; 700 more had to be turned away.
The academies are New Labour's flagship experiment to raise education standards in the inner cities. But they are controversial because they are bankrolled by private organisations and individuals, and because they receive much more funding than ordinary comprehensives. "Although there wasn't much to go on, we felt it was an opportunity to be part of something starting out," says Sue Goffe, an animation producer, whose daughter Ellie started in September. "And much as that can be a risk because you're going into the unknown, everyone involved seemed passionate about making it a success."
One thing the parents could rely on was that the academy would have state-of-the-art everything. That was because it was the recipient of a £25m investment: £2m from its sponsors, the United Learning Trust, a Christian educational charity closely involved in the management of the school; the rest direct from the Government.
What no one can know is how well the experiment will work in the long-run: Ofsted inspections don't take place until the fifth term after its opening. So far, there has been a general improvement in GCSE results - although at the Greig City Academy in Haringey, north London, the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs declined from one-third in 2003 to 28 per cent this year. And at the Business Academy in Bexley, an Ofsted inspection found "significant weaknesses" as well as "remarkable progress"; the report was never published because the school contests its findings. Critics say the Government is being too hasty in ploughing on with its plan for 200 academies by 2010, before they have proved their worth.
Until now Lambeth parents didn't have much choice: before the academy opened there were just 1,000 places for 2,500 Year 7 pupils. Some children had to travel up to three hours a day to schools far outside the borough. So it's not surprising that parents greeted the academy so enthusiastically. Everything about the school is breathtakingly new, from the plasma screens making announcements in different languages to the professional recording studio. Anyone who visits is bowled over. "It doesn't look like a school - it looks more like a really smart, modern office," says Teleri Allen, 11. "When I first came I thought it was amazing."
Perhaps the least school-like element is the plush white carpet in the office of the principal, Pat Millichamp. It's a bold, perhaps foolhardy choice, but her pupils are well impressed. She's inviting them in for hot chocolate in small groups, to find out what they want from their school.
According to the chair of governors, the writer John O'Farrell, a city academy works because the group that sponsors it - whether it's a company, charity or entrepreneur - focuses its energy on one school. "The result is a more dynamic management structure than you get with a local authority, with all its myriad concerns," he says. "We were worried that the United Learning Trust would impose a head, or Christian assemblies, but that didn't happen. And they know about teachers' contracts and staffing levels, whereas some of the other academies are run by organisations who know about balance sheets, but don't know about teaching."
Millichamp is well aware that the academy could put other schools' noses out of joint, and is hoping to have regular meetings with local heads. "I think the other schools were anxious that somehow I would massage things so that I only took in the bright and the middle-class children," she says. "Now they can see that I haven't, and that I've got the same sort of mix as them, they're more comfortable. In fact, I think we've got a higher proportion of statemented pupils than most Lambeth schools."
She has gone out of her way to ensure the academy is a genuine comprehensive - unlike other academies, which select 10 per cent of pupils because they have specialist status. Lambeth has two specialisms, languages and business and enterprise, but Millichamp decided against selection. Instead she "banged on doors" on the nearby Notre Dame council estate, because she wanted those families as much as the middle-class crew from Abbeville village. Admission is decided purely by location: all pupils live within walking distance.
Of course, what matters most in any school is not flash facilities, but the quality of the teaching and the curriculum. Classes are small at Lambeth, containing 22 pupils, and often have two teachers. That's just as well, according to a group of girls discussing an incident in art that morning: "Small classes are good, because there are probably more children who disrupt the classes here than children who don't. And if our class had more disruptive children the teachers wouldn't be able to cope."
The impeccably turned-out teachers seem happy to work a long day that includes "enrichment" sessions from 4 to 6pm. It may help that they are better paid - they make £1,000 each a year more than in other schools, although each salary can be individually negotiated with the head. It also helps that city academies don't have to follow the national curriculum, which fires up teachers such as Simon Glasson, one of the four learning directors, who are keen to focus on learning by doing, rather than just talking.
The school puts the student at the centre of the curriculum, says Glasson. Each has an individual learning plan. "That's enhanced by a cross-curricular support mechanism, which is just kicking in - so, for example, if a teacher is looking at evolution in religious studies, he can get support from the science staff." Each child does two enrichment sessions a week, in subjects they choose - anything from dance to music to another language. All the children wear yellow badges indicating the languages they're learning, and a green one for their first language. Even the head is trying to master Yoruba, a Nigerian language spoken by some of the pupils.
This chimes with Millichamp's philosophy that teachers - and parents - should keep learning, too. Family days when parents take part in activities alongside their offspring are planned "so that learning becomes something that is seen as valuable by everybody". No one at Lambeth Academy, and certainly not Millichamp, denies that they face big challenges. "I've got kids who I've got to get on track for learning, who've not learnt that ethic yet," she says.
So far the academy has had things comparatively easy, with an initial intake of just 180 pupils in a school built for 1,250. In the early weeks, one of the problems has been disciplining a Year 7 with no older role models, all jostling for position in the hierarchy. Until the end of term, Millichamp will be spending her lunchtimes with a boy who is doing community service, clearing away plates and tidying chairs in the canteen. "I explained to his mother that he had to make reparations to the academy," she says. "It's easy being told off, you can just shut your ears. What children have to do is take responsibility. That's quite tough - and it can be quite tough for the staff, as well."
The real challenge, as for all the academies, will be to keep the enthusiasm alive when the paintwork is beginning to flake and the classrooms are full. But the biggest test of all will be whether the parents are still as bright-eyed at that stage. The academies' experiment has only just begun.
BLAIR'S FLAGSHIP PROGRAMME
The first three city academies opened in 2001; there are 17 now. By 2007, there will be more than 50, half of them in London.
City academies are a key part of government plans to improve secondary education. They are non-fee-paying, all-ability schools established by sponsors - charities, businesses or individuals - who contribute £2m towards the cost of new or refurbished buildings. The DfES provides the balance, and continues to fund running costs directly.
Academies are outside education authority control and don't have to follow the national curriculum.
They generally have at least one specialism, which allows them to select 10 per cent of pupils for their aptitude in that subject, and entitles them to extra funding.
Heads have extended powers: they appoint staff and are responsible to their chief executives, not a board of governors, for budgets.
Staff are not bound by teachers pay and conditions of service, and salaries can be negotiated individually.