Leading article: Blair must stop this blackmail

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The Government's blunt warning that councils could lose their cash for school repairs if they refuse to consider establishing Academies - the flagship programme for improving education in poor areas - needs to be challenged, because it is blackmail.

The Government's blunt warning that councils could lose their cash for school repairs if they refuse to consider establishing Academies - the flagship programme for improving education in poor areas - needs to be challenged, because it is blackmail. When he announced the government's five-year plan for education, Tony Blair made great play of saying that the package was all about offering parents choice and diversity.

Well, in some areas of the country - such as Doncaster and Waltham Forest - parents have spoken and they don't want academies. In Doncaster, the Vardy Foundation, criticised for its promotion of creationism, has been planning an Academy to the distress of local parents; in Waltham Forest, parents opposed a plan by multimillionaire designer Jasper Conran to take over their local school. No amount of dragooning local councils will make these mothers and fathers change their minds. And, what is wrong with schools in a local education authority getting together to create a network of specialist schools - each taking a different subject - and sharing their expertise?

Research has shown specialist schools to be successful in raising standards. By contrast there is no research to show yet how effective Academies have been. It may be that Academies will, in future, be shown to be good at improving inner-city education. But at the moment, there is no reason to penalise an l.e.a which does not want to go down the untested Academy route.

It should also be remembered that it won't only be the authority that is penalised if it loses its school building programme. Thousands of children will be sentenced to remain taught in decrepit buildings. That should shame a Government that is committed to improving standards of education.

The Department for Education and Skills argues that the Government will not allow local authorities to sustain failure by refusing to engage with Academies. The Department might have a point if it could be proved that standards would suffer as a result of the lack of an Academy in a given area. Evidence shows, however, that many schools have been successful in improving themselves without resorting to Academy status.

We are not against academies, but they should not be the only show in town. Ministers should think again before continuing their assault on the freedom of LEAs to shape their education systems themselves.

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