One of the biggest players in the Government's academies programme has admitted that some of his schools could fail to see enough of their students secure the minimum level of GCSE grades next summer.
The Rev Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister, at present runs nine of the privately sponsored schools in the academies programme, which has been much lauded and promoted by Labour. Mr Chalke's Christian charity, Oasis, has four more in the pipeline and aims eventually to operate 25.
Under the programme, schools are run independently of the local authorities. The national target is for at least 30 per cent of students to gain fiveA* to C grades, including in English and maths. Yet Mr Chalke told The Independent he is unable to guarantee that all his academies will hit this minimum national target.
"Come September will all our nine academies be above the floor target? I can't be sure they'll be able to reach it," he said. "What will have happened is that they will have made progress, and the academy results will be ahead of where they were last year and where they were the year before."
Mr Chalke was one of the first sponsors singled out by the architect of the academies programme, Lord Adonis, as he sought to ensure its success during his spell as former prime minister Tony Blair's policy adviser on education at Downing Street.
"If you live in an area which is all white indigenous middle class, your chances of getting 30 per cent plus English and maths are much improved, compared with where there are 30 different mother tongues in the school and 40 per cent of the pupils are from homes where a language other than English is spoken," Mr Chalke said.
He also takes issue with the claim by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, that poverty should be no excuse for poor performance in schools – made on the day exam league tables showed 445 schools had still to reach the Government's target. "Yes, we can all find the story of some kid who was brought up in an East End dump whose father was an alcoholic and he was beaten black and blue every day until the age of 11 but who's now at Oxford.
"The point is he's just one, and there are 10,000 others from his background who have failed – and it takes a lot of work until you can begin to breathe some success and confidence into them."
To criticisms that Oasis has not focused enough on exam results, he responds, "We're more into community transformation than education standards ... you do have to have more than just a focus on exam standards."
The academies movement is under growing strain, with one – the Richard Rose Central academy in Carlisle – failing an Ofsted investigation last week and seeing its chief executive sacked. And a strike threat by the National Union of Teachers in Newham, east London, has forced the local authority there to make concessions over a plan to open a new academy. Mr Chalke argues that academies need time to prove themselves. Some things can happen overnight – like restoring a sense of pride in a school through the introduction of uniforms. Others, such as improved exam results, take time, he believes.
Profile: Steve Chalke
*Steve Chalke remembers having this thought when he was 15: "I believe I was made by God and my life has importance. I believe I should start a hostel, a hospital and a school."
After becoming a minister, he launched a hostel for vulnerable people in Peckham, south London, and set up the Oasis charity, which operates worldwide and supports a hospital in India.
A school came in 1999 through Andrew Adonis, then Tony Blair's senior policy adviser on education. "I met him and he asked me if I would have tea with him. I discovered he was as keen to involve me with academies as I was to get involved," Mr Chalke said.
Oasis is insistent it does not "impose an educational blueprint on the academies". It may be a Christian charity, but its schools are not faith schools. However, it does insist on a uniform. "Each Oasis academy has a uniform which reflects the Oasis brand," its brochure says. "The uniform consists of a blazer, tie, white shirt and trousers or skirt, as well as socks, shorts, a polo shirt and rugby shirt for PE."
Nine are running, in Enfield, Coulsdon (Croydon), Lord's Hill and Mayfield (both Southampton), Bristol, Brightstowe (Bristol), Immingham, Wintringham and Salford.