Why academies will triumph

As the architect of the Government's controversial academies programme, Lord Adonis has come in for heavy criticism. He tells Richard Garner why it was the right thing to do
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Andrew Adonis is in buoyant mood as he talks about his pet project, the Government's flagship academies programme, that has put the education establishment at loggerheads with ministers. That morning Ofsted, the standards watchdog, produced what can only be described as a gushing report on one of the latest - the Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London.

He also just happens to have the last report on the former Hackney Downs school, which the academy replaced. At the time it was dubbed the worst school in Britain and was the first to be closed as part of Labour's crackdown on underperforming schools. "There is underachievement among the majority of pupils in two-thirds of the subjects of the national curriculum," say the inspectors. "There are unsatisfactory levels of attainment overall."

The Schools Minister looks animated. "There you are," he says excitedly. "If it can be done in Hackney, it can be done anywhere."

No wonder Lord Adonis, 43, is looking so cheerful. As Tony Blair's man in the Department for Education and Skills charged with overseeing the academies programme, he has received a horrible press and has become somewhat of a hate figure. His earlier policy ideas - top-up fees and Fresh Start, the policy of closing and reopening failing schools with new names and new staff - were also extremely controversial. But the academies have weathered the most extraordinary blizzard of bad publicity - about their sponsors, their academic results and about the poor architectural design. But now the headlines are beginning to go his way.

In an in-depth interview to explain Government thinking behind the £5bn academies programme, Lord Adonis gives an indication for the first time of why he was so certain the project - whereby sponsors pay £2m for the privilege of running a state-financed school - would succeed in raising standards where all else had failed.

When he first entered No 10 as Tony Blair's policy adviser on education, and before he became a minister, Adonis resolved to visit as many schools as possible to see what worked. He was an ex-SDP supporter and edited the official biography of Roy Jenkins, so he was by no means steeped in Labour Party dogma. "It became clear to me that the City Technology Colleges [set up by the Conservative government as privately sponsored state schools outside the local government system] had by far the best record in value-added [education]," he explains.

"All of them had a good record in improving pupils' potential and I began to think, 'If this succeeds, why can't we apply this rigorously in all areas of disadvantage to improve standards?'"

The Tories had struggled to find enough sponsors to back a modest programme of just a dozen CTCs, but Lord Adonis was convinced that attitudes towards sponsorship could be changed. "To me there was nothing in the CTC concept, if it was targeted on deprivation, that was antipathetic to the concept of local government," he continues.

"Local authorities basically stopped running education 20 years ago [after the introduction of local financial management of schools]. If we could provide a model offering the prospect of real success, what could be wrong with that?"

Thus Lord Adonis explains the genesis of the Government's plan to establish a network of 200 academies in disadvantaged areas. The name "city academies" was dropped out of recognition that rural areas could also benefit from an academy. One is now being established in Herefordshire. Lord Adonis would welcome approaches from county councils wanting to back the academies programme.

He believes the key to the success of the CTCs - and now the academies - is the way in which they are run, in that they are free from local authority control and able to appoint their own governors. "It gives them the power to implement all the things they need to create a successful school," he says.

Lord Adonis was not starry-eyed, however, about the difficulty of introducing a raft of new independent academies to England by 2010. Some people in Whitehall believed he was "too confident" about success, he concedes. Indeed, during the first few years of the programme, he was worried there might not be the political will to carry through the programme.

And progress towards improving standards was painfully slow, leading to headlines that they were still among the worst schools in the country despite the millions spent on them.

This year, however, has seen substantial improvements. GCSE results were impressive, with the proportion of academy pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs increasing by about four times (6.3 per cent) the national average improvement. As a result, Labour MPs are now beating a path to Lord Adonis's door to ask if he will support an academy in their constituencies, he says.

"We're going to meet the 200 target early," he explains. "We will have 80 academies up and running by next September. The other 120 I'll have commissioned and have in the pipeline by next summer."

The debate then will be over how far we want to go, he adds. "There are two remaining arguments left: the suitability of particular sponsors and the opposition by the National Union of Teachers and a very small part of the left to self-governing schools."

He has countered the first argument about the suitability of sponsors by involving local authorities more in the choice of them In Birmingham and Manchester, for instance, the councils are being given the opportunity to choose the sponsors themselves. Lord Adonis would like to see higher education and business foundations become more involved in sponsoring academies. (The initial list of sponsors was dominated by faith groups.)

That is why he is delighted that Nottingham University has become a co-sponsor of a new academy to replace a strugg- ling inner-city school, William Sharp.

Its students, he says, can act as role models to persuade youngsters from disadvantaged communities to go to university. "I doubt if anybody from William Sharp in the past has gone on to Nottingham University," he says. "In five to 10 years, I would like to see every secondary school having links with external partners including further education, higher education and employers.

"The links would enrich their curriculum and give them additional support from outside to achieve their mission and to make staying on in education after the age of 16 routine for everyone."

The Schools Minister is also closely involved in discussions with a number of private schools about their "opting in" to the state school sector. Around 20 independent schools are engaged in discussions about either sponsoring an academy or opting in wholesale to the state system, or fostering partnerships with state schools through the new "trust" status.

Two have already declared their intentions. The first is Belvedere Girls School in Liverpool, which for the past few years has run an open-access scheme whereby poorer pupils' fees are funded by the philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl. The second is William Hulme, a £7,422-a-year grammar school in Manchester, established in 1887. As a result, both schools will abolish fees and have open access not based on selection. The fruits of his discussions will pave the way for a new style of direct-grant school, Lord Adonis believes.

The difference will be that the schools will no longer be grammar schools. But they will offer pupils the chance of an education that for centuries has been provided in a successful traditional independent school.

Many traditional Labour supporters will be rolling their eyes that a Labour government should be harking back to direct-grant schools and basing its new academies on a Thatcherite idea, but Lord Adonis, for one, will be unrepentant.

A leading university to the rescue

Nottingham University is the latest convert to the Government's academies programme. Its decision to co-sponsor an academy, to replace the struggling William Sharp school in Bilborough, Nottingham, is being seen as a breakthrough by ministers in persuading more universities to support the programme.

The other universities involved are Liverpool University (which has supported a school in the city), City University (which is behind an academy in Islington), and the University of the West of England, which is supporting an academy in Bristol. Brunel University withdrew from sponsoring an academy after its vice-chancellor resigned.

The Nottingham academy, which will also be sponsored by the businessman David Samworth, will be one of the first specialist health schools in the country, and is to open in December 2009.

At present, the Nottingham venture is in its infancy. One proposal is to open the new school to children from the age of three to 19 - from nursery school to A-levels. "We're very excited by it," says the pro-vice-chancellor Professor Diane Birch. The link with the university will allow the school access to its prestigious department of medicine. Students will also visit the school to act as mentors to children and to help with individual reading sessions.

At present, only 25 per cent of pupils at William Sharp school obtain five A* to C grade passes at GCSE. "This will be a wonderful opportunity to raise their aspirations," says Lord Adonis. RG