City academy seeks to expel old school failings

You could be forgiven for thinking that the person who decided Willesden High School in north-west London should be the site of one of the Government's first city academies had an eye for mischief.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the person who decided Willesden High School in north-west London should be the site of one of the Government's first city academies had an eye for mischief.

For a start it was a "flagship" comprehensive in its day, praised by school inspectors for its work. Now it is the prototype for the death of the "bog standard" comprehensive.

Its first head was the firebrand leader of the National Union of Teachers, Max Morris, who was widely associated with a period of union militancy in the 1960s and 70s and who now derides Tony Blair and his education advisers as "ignoramuses". One of its teachers during the 1970s was Charles Clarke, the current Secretary of State of Education who is presiding over its baptism as a city academy and is, unsurprisingly, a staunch defender of the programme.

So, given the fuss, has city academy status been good for Willesden High? Has it been good for the borough of Brent as a whole? Do city academies live up to the Blair vision of "independent state schools"?

There is no doubt Willesden High had slumped from its flagship comprehensive status by the beginning of the 21st century. It was on Ofsted's list of failing schools, and was only taken off it two years before its demise.

When a new head, Frank Thomas - now head of the new Capital City Academy - there was a debate over whether it should close. In the year before closure only 49 parents opted for it as their first choice of school. It had 200 places to fill.

Now, a year on from gaining academy status, it is a specialist sports academy with £2m worth of sponsorship from the sports agent Frank Lowe, and £25m of capital funding from central government. The old school has been demolished and will become a sports field.

Mr Thomas, who is retiring this summer, can cite some immediate gains. He has introduced a longer school day, giving an extra three and a half hours per week of lessons. Teachers, too, work 80 hours a year more than at a non-academy state secondary schools, and are paid 6 per cent more.

Already, its status as a sports academy has led to improved facilities and performance in games by its pupils, 15 of whom now have their timetable tailor-made to meet their training needs. One, Ousman Cherry, 18, is a contender for a place at the Olympics.

Mr Thomas has introduced the feel of an independent school, with a house system and a new uniform policy - white for year 8 (13 and 14-year-olds), light blue for year 9 (14 and 15-year-olds) and a darker blue for 16-year-olds taking their GCSEs. In the sixth form they are asked to wear "appropriate attire" - meaning no jeans or trainers. Hayley Wall, aged 14, admits having initially disliked the idea of uniforms but now concedes that they "look good". The proof of the pudding, though, will be in exam results - and Mr Thomas is confident. Last year only 13 per cent of pupils obtained at least five A* to C grade passes. Next month he expects the figure to be around 30 per cent.

One of the criticisms of city academies has been the tag of "elitism". But there is no selection by aptitude or ability at Capital. "Our admissions system is based more on the model for Brent than any other school in the borough," said Mr Thomas. "After special cases [such as siblings], it's based on proximity to the school."

Critics argue that , spending so much on the academy deprives other schools of resources. But Mr Thomas counters that his facilities benefit nearby schools - some pupils come to Capital for sixth-form lessons, others use the sports facilities. And he is in no doubt that he can bring about change more quickly than under local authority control. In that sense the concept of an "independent state school" is working.

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