Rona Kiley: Stop knocking the academies

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The Independent Online

Today the Prime Minister is due to visit Mossbourne Academy in Hackney.

Today the Prime Minister is due to visit Mossbourne Academy in Hackney. In so doing, he is set to give very public support to the education policy with which he is most personally associated: the academies programme. By 2010, the Government plans to have 200 academies open or in development, 60 of which will be in London. Within the next decade, 200,000 mainly inner-city school children could be educated at academies. It is the largest and most concerted attempt to tackle failing schools for a considerable time.

The academies programme has been subjected to intense scrutiny and quite rightly so. What shocks me, however, is that the debate does not focus on what the programme offers or what the academies are doing; but largely on myths, untruths and wholly unrealistic expectations. The crux of it is this: academies have sponsors. Sponsors represent a range of organisations including guilds, trusts, businesses, faith bodies and independent schools. Sponsors, many of them with long experience in education, bring in new talent, innovation and ideas to turn around failing schools. These are schools that have repeatedly proved immune to improvement in the past; schools in deprived areas that are failing their pupils and communities.

In order to build a new ethos to break the cycle of under-attainment, for real expertise to be offered to school specialisms, and for greater clarity to be given to the running of academies, sponsors play a role in their management and governance. This is what really sticks in the craw of academy critics: the notion that an organisation traditionally outside the closed world of education might have something valuable to offer.

The response of some critics has been simple scaremongering. "Faith groups have established a stranglehold on academies," warns one of the academies' more prominent critics. He goes on to fear that children will be "force-fed an extreme form of right-wing Christianity". Another warns that children will be given "compulsory doses of creationist codswallop".

There is more than a hint of calculated black propaganda in these assertions. People will be surprised to learn that all sponsors have to be vetted by the Department for Education and Skills; academies must teach the core subjects in the National Curriculum (this includes the theory of evolution in science classes); academies must carry out Key Stage Three assessment tests and all academies are inspected by Ofsted.

From those who have long bemoaned the underfunding of state education comes an entirely different accusation: academies are "mind-bogglingly" costly.

Yet it seems that no real attempt has been made to examine the costs. Academies physically replace the dilapidated, often asbestos-ridden buildings of previous schools. Often for the first time, schools are equipped with adequate facilities and resources. In fact, while academies receive an initial capital investment in their buildings, £2m of which is given by sponsors, they are simply sharing in the Government's plans to replace or modernise every secondary school in the next 15 years. Is anyone seriously suggesting that we should not commit this sort of funding to communities that for decades have suffered from poor infrastructure and chronic under-investment?

In January, academies published their academic results. "Flagship schools at the bottom of the class" screamed one newspaper headline. "Flagship Academy 'failure' at GCSEs" roared another. Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, wasted no time: "with four of the eleven reporting academies coming in the bottom 200 schools, the message is that academies do not represent a magic solution." I couldn't agree more.

They have replaced some of the country's worst-performing schools. The first three of the 17 existing academies opened only in September 2002, so they will take time to demonstrate progress. However, academies are showing significant improvement in attendance, behaviour and attitudes to learning. I am encouraged that within such a short space of time, a majority are showing improvement on their predecessor schools. Parents are the first to recognise this and many academies now face problems of over-subscription.

So with the Prime Minister's visit, there will be a renewed focus on academies. But now let's deal with the issues rationally and realistically.

The writer is the chief executive of the Academy Sponsors Trust