John Rentoul: Why Estelle Morris is wrong about academies

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The Independent Online

Ms Kelly was, no doubt, grateful to be told that she was doing it all wrong. The academies programme, pouring public money into new schools in deprived areas, "won't by itself achieve universally high standards", Ms Morris wrote. "Worse than that, it could be a distraction ... In five years' time, whose children will be going to these new academies? Will choice and market forces once again squeeze out the children of the disadvantaged?"

One despairs. That is the principled, considered and serious objection to academies? That in five years' time, they might attract middle-class children? I have doubts about academies, principally that the policy does not go nearly far enough in disrupting the status quo that serves children in deprived areas so badly, but this is just unthinking conservatism.

Why are academies so unpopular? Because it is easier to complain about them than it is to propose an alternative. Yet so many of the complaints do not bear a moment's examination - for instance, the idea that academies are simply reinventing the iniquitous grant-maintained schools under a new label. People have forgotten what the problem with GM schools was. It was not that some schools were better funded than others. It was that schools that were already advantaged were being better funded than those that were disadvantaged. Academies are the precise opposite. Those who believe in equal educational opportunity ought to support more resources going into the lowest-achieving schools and the areas they serve.

But it is divisive, say the critics. Schools in deprived areas should be funded equally. Yes, but at some point the problems have to be tackled school by school, and, because most academies are new schools, they need extra money to start with. The opponents of academies argue, in effect, that if all schools cannot move forward, no school should. Ms Morris last week asked the rhetorical question, will academies "realise the holy grail of making every school a good school"? To which the answer is, no they will not. But the more important response should be: "What should be done if such a holy grail turns out to be unattainable in this life?" This misplaced egalitarianism is simply an excuse for doing nothing.

Then we have the complaint that there is no evidence that academies work; that the experiment should be halted until white-coated independent arbiters have judged the issue in a double-blind longitudinal study, preferably lasting 30 years. This tactic of the teachers' unions is not an excuse for doing nothing, it is a demand that the Government do nothing.

A study threw doubts on the effectiveness of the Sure Start scheme of pre-school intervention, stated a leading article last week in a national newspaper that wears its commitment to social justice on its redesigned sleeve, but: "Labour was right to make the expansion of early years [support] a flagship programme and it must not be diverted by an initial research project which has produced disappointing results."

There is not much evidence that academies work because there are so few - too few - of them. But the evidence is there. Last month's GCSE results showed most of them improving. The Key Stage 3 results earlier this month were good, too. Of Ofsted's 13 monitoring reports, five found good progress and most of the rest satisfactory. "In some cases," said David Bell, the Chief Inspector, "what has been achieved in a short time is nothing less than remarkable." There have been well-advertised difficulties at a handful - is that surprising, considering the problems of their predecessor schools? Does that mean Ms Kelly should just give up too?

Again and again, supporters of academies ask: who has got a better idea? All we get is waffle about things that the Government has done, such as paying teachers more, or excursions into the more unrealistic reaches of telling parents to which school to send their children. Or there are the critics of academies who let slip that they are "lucky" to live in the catchment area of a good comprehensive. So those, then, are the alternatives offered by critics: give up or get lucky. Why is Ms Kelly not being hounded by the left for her failure to expand the academies programme much, much faster?

The writer is chief political commentator for the Independent on Sunday