Prescott's home city backs Blair with new city academy

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The Independent Online

John Prescott says he is not convinced a major reform of schools is necessary. But it would seem his local council, Hull, begs to differ. Early in the New Year it will be unveiling plans to set up one of Prime Minister Tony Blair's cherished academies as it battles to shed its former image of being the worst education authority in the country.

The Deputy Prime Minister, in his now famous interview with the Sunday Telegraph, said he thought there was "a great danger" academies could become the modern grammar schools.

Hull, though, sees the establishment of one of this new breed of independently run, privately sponsored schools in the city as a key element of a £160m plan to refurbish every secondary school.

"Every school will get some level of investment," said Nigel Richardson, director of children and young people's service for Hull. "They will either be rebuilt or relocated - or get major or minor refurbishment."

Up to three schools, though, could be closed as a result of the reorganisation. The school in line to become an academy is Pickering, a specialist sports college established four years ago after the closure of three secondary schools.

It is described as "good" by inspectors despite still having "some significant issues" such as weak maths teaching and low literacy standards to tackle.

Hull may also get a second academy, as one of the voluntary aided faith schools in the city is understood to be considering plans to become one.

Next month's reorganisation plans - part of the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme - is designed as a major attempt to raise standards in a city which has for years languished at the foot of the secondary school exam league tables.

Only last year it was bottom in the table showing the percentage of youngsters getting five or more A* to C grade GCSE passes, second from bottom in the table that showed which councils gave more added value to children's education and sixth from bottom in the truancy tables.

A report for the Prince's Trust earlier this year showed it was one of four of the ten most deprived areas in the country to show an increase in the number of youngsters leaving school without a single GCSE pass over a four-year period.

Two of its schools were among 71 in the country where fewer than one in five pupils obtained five top grade passes at GCSE last year. One, Endeavour High School, which failed its inspection by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, was one of only seven to get less than ten per cent.

Notwithstanding this, though, signs of a major improvement are already emerging. This year's league tables - to be published in January - will show around 44 per cent of pupils in Hull achieving five top grade passes. That is a creditable rise of nearly ten per cent on 2004, and should mean at least seven other local authorities are lower than Hull in the table.

The city's flirtation with the academies project should not be seen as a sign of a rift between its councillors and their MP, council leaders stress. Peter Clark, the council member with responsibility for education, said the council fully supported what [Mr Prescott] said but he acknowledged the council was putting its weight behind an academy. "We want to see how it goes," he said. "The academies are untested as yet."

The project will be opposed by local members of the National Union of Teachers who see it as an attempt to "privatise" the education service. Michael Whale, divisional secretary of the union, said: "The NUT is fundamentally opposed to the academies programme. I would certainly oppose, say, a fast-food chain getting involved in running a school. I wonder whether the Government would have the courage to turn down an application from McDonald's."

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