For the past two and a half years University College London (UCL) has been talking to Camden Council about sponsoring an academy school in the borough. It has been a long haul because there is a mountain of bureaucracy to navigate, a new school to plan and a site to find for the building. But in this case there has also been the mother of all political rows about the very existence of an academy in Camden.
UCL has found itself involved in a ferocious internal Labour Party struggle that has pitted Fiona Millar, Alastair Campbell's partner, and Frank Dobson, the former health secretary and local MP, against the New Labour establishment, notably Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary and Lord Adonis, the Schools Minister. UCL has been caught in the middle of an angry war of words.
"UCL have behaved abominably," says Dobson. "As someone who has been urging them to become more engaged locally, I am not opposed to them being involved but they refused to take part in any of the discussion on the need for another school until it was announced there was to be an academy – and they were to be the sponsors.
"They have said they want to help a deprived area but not many people would put the area around Swiss Cottage in the deprived category."
Needless to say, UCL denies these charges, arguing that it wants to help Camden and the children of deprived families, wherever the school is based. The location of the school was not a matter for UCL but for Camden Council, according to Professor Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost.
"We have never shunned public debate. We have been engaged with a whole raft of initiatives at many of Camden's secondary schools, and indeed primaries too. What we want to do now is to ramp up our commitment by focusing on a close relationship by sponsoring a single school."
This dogfight between members of the old Labour Left and one of Britain's leading universities shows just how controversial is the Government's push to persuade all higher education institutions to adopt an academy. UCL is doing so willingly, and is receiving a lot of flak in the process. Its efforts appear to be succeeding, however. This month a judge ruled that there was no case to answer when a couple of Camden parents sought judicial review of the council's decision to opt for an academy.
Lawyers acting for them are, however, demanding a full oral hearing, so the case is set to continue. "There is a lot of unhappiness at the way the local authority has handled the matter," says Fiona Millar, vice-chairman of the Campaign for State Education (Case) in Camden. "We feel that they have not been straight with parents. There is a lot of confusion about the school's admission policy and campaigning will continue until the bitter end."
UCL counters that Millar and Dobson are putting out inaccurate information as part of their campaign against the setting up of an academy in Camden. It has said all along that the academy would be a completely comprehensive school and that admissions would be in line with the council's admissions policy, according to Worton.
"They [those opposing the scheme] don't like academies. Everyone wants better aspirations for all students and believes that all the schools should be trying to be better. If you look at the data, there are some good schools but there are others that are not functioning at the top end. We just want to help. It's a long-term relationship. We're not a fly-by-night organisation that is in it for any ideological gain."
No one denies that Camden needs another school to accommodate children in the borough. The argument is over what kind of school it should be.
Case and the parents associated with it want a community comprehensive on the grounds that academies are divisive. The UCL/Camden plan is for an academy that will specialise in maths, science and foreign languages. "Our main focus will be on the curriculum and on the notion that schools and universities should talk to one another a lot more," says Worton. "The only way that both sides can learn from one another is through a one-to-one partnership."
UCL is hoping that the relationship will serve as a kind of laboratory in which it will learn about the problems faced by young people going to university from families with no background of higher education. It is hoping thereby to feed into national policy on exams and to help with teaching in schools.
But the difficulties it has encountered along the way must give other universities pause for thought. Oxford and Cambridge have turned down the idea of sponsoring an academy. Both universities say they see themselves as having a national rather than a local role. "Given the competitiveness of admission to Cambridge, significant involvement in an academy could lead to a conflict of interest," said a statement from the university.
Professor Roger Brown, former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University and now co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at Liverpool Hope University, says that, like Fiona Millar, he is not in favour of academies. That is one reason why Southampton opted for the trust school option.
Under this, schools become part of a trust and go into partnership with a university or universities, in this case Southamp-ton Solent and the University of Southampton. "Academies drive a nail into an integrated local school system because they become local independent schools funded by the state, just like direct grant schools of old," says Brown. "But with trust schools you get the benefits of schools and universities collaborating without the downside."
Other universities have also come in for flak for supporting academies – though none have encountered the level of opposition being shown in Camden. Like UCL, they have no ideological commitment to academies, simply a desire to help.
Liverpool University met opposition when it sponsored an academy in north Liverpool that opened in 2006, according to Professor Drummond Bone, Liverpool's vice-chancellor, who makes light of it now. "It's nice to say that it seems to have gone away," he says.
"There was quite intense opposition. We met it up front and tried to persuade people that an academy would be a better solution than what they had before. You are faced with children in a particular area who have received extremely poor schooling. The question is do you opt for something that is available to you to improve that schooling or do you struggle on in the hope of what you think might be a yet better solution?"
Liverpool University chose the pragmatic route and can point to some success. It has just got its first university entrant from North Liverpool Academy.
The first academy to be established with a university sponsor was in Bristol where the University of the West of England (UWE) joined forces with Bristol City Football Club to open an academy in the south of the city.
This is an area of deprivation and poor educational performance. Only 5 per cent of young people in south Bristol go to university compared to 80 per cent in the north of the city.
The effect of the new academy has been to push up the number of pupils achieving five A to C grades at GCSE to 50 per cent. At the same time applications to UWE from the school have increased from 16 in 2002 to 49 now. "It has given us the chance to learn how the university can engage with secondary schools and that has helped us work with other schools," says Ron Ritchie, the assistant vice-chancellor.
Next year another academy school is opening in Bristol, this one sponsored by Bristol University and the Society of Merchant Venturers.
Like UWE, Bristol University wants to play its part in improving educational attainment in a city that has a lot of children creamed off by independent schools. "We're doing it because academies are the show in town and we have skills that are useful to them," said a spokesman for Bristol University. To date 20 universities are involved in sponsoring academies and 13 have linked up with school trusts. Most take a pragmatic approach to the kind of school they become partners with, on the grounds that any link with a local state school is better than nothing.
Steve Smith, the vice- chancellor of Exeter University, says that his personal view is that it is better not to put all your eggs in one basket. Exeter has links with a trust school in Dartmoor but is open-minded about supporting an academy.
"At the moment we have not gone down that route but we see it as our social obligation to do that sort of thing," he says.
The argument in brief
Why does the Government want universities to sponsor academies?
Because it hopes thereby to raise standards in those schools and encourage more young people to go to university.
Why is the issue so hot politically?
There is a big debate on the Left about academies. Those opposing them regard them as divisive because they are schools that are independent of the local education authority although funded by the state. The fear is that they will be popular with middle-class parents and take children away from local comprehensive schools.
Will academies receive more money?
No. Initially organisations sponsoring academies had to put up £2m but that condition has been dropped by the Government. But they receive more than £20m in start-up funding for new buildings and equipment. LH