City academies win approval, but doubts remain over management

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister's cherished £5bn academies programme will be given cautious approval later today by the first in-depth study of how the scheme is working. But ministers will be warned the independently sponsored inner-city schools need stricter management controls.

Figures show the first 27 of the proposed 200 flagship schools have cost taxpayers £48.5m more than the anticipated budget.

The study, carried out by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers for ministers, will say the scheme has been successful in raising standards in what were some of the country's worst-performing inner-city schools.

It will also claim the project is popular with parents, saying the academies, which have largely replaced schools struggling to fill places, were oversubscribed and receiving around ten per cent more applications, on average, than they had places available.

Many of the existing academies still languish at the bottom of exam league tables. Critics claim this shows the programme is failing, but it will be argued today that most academies took over from failing schools and had a long way to climb before their GCSE results approached the national average.

The report, which will be welcomed by the Schools minister Lord Adonis, comes as the controversial programme received a major boost when a mother lost the first of a series of legal challenges to the programme in the High Court yesterday. Mr Justice Wilkie dismissed an action by Hayley Powers, whose two children attend St Mary Magdalene Church of England School in Islington, north London - a popular primary school with excellent results which is due to be replaced by an academy.

The judge had been asked to rule that the Schools Adjudicator, the independent ombudsman in charge of school admissions policies, had acted unlawfully in approving the closure of the school so that its buildings could form part of an academy.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said: "This judgment is a victory for parents who want a better education for their children," he said. "It is also a vindication of academies.

"This judgment confirms that the Government is right to proceed with academies to give children the chance of a good education."

A second challenge to the programme, from Rob MacDonald, in south London, who is objecting to Merton Council's decision to close his son's school, Tamworth Manor, is yet to be heard.

Under the academies programme, independent sponsors put up £2m in return for being given some control over the running of the school. The Department for Education and Skills will pay the bulk of the cost, typically around £23m. The programme has been caught up in the "cash for honours" row, with some sponsors being recommended for peerages.