Alan Smithers: Can academies solve so many problems?

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The Independent Online

What connects failing schools, educational apartheid and widening university access? Yes, it's ... academies! The Government, or Lord Adonis at least, apparently sees them as the answer to the three seemingly intractable problems.

Just what are these magical schools? They began with Kenneth Baker who, when Conservative education secretary, envisaged a new type of school that would revitalise education in rundown city areas, give more autonomy to head teachers and involve employers in both the funding and the running of these institutions. Unfortunately, business would not cough up the cash for these city technology colleges so the plan foundered, to be replaced by the specialist schools programme.

The CTC concept was revived by David Blunkett who, as Labour's education secretary, was at his wits end over what to do about failing schools. He was persuaded that the best thing would be to start again with essentially Baker's schools re-branded as academies. Labour ran into difficulties attracting sponsors but a tax injection got the scheme going. Tony Blair set a target for 200 by 2010, soon raised to 400, and to see it through, he elevated Adonis from policy chief to minister.

Several independent schools attracted by the prospect of fee-less autonomy bid to become academies. It then dawned on the Government that these schools could help bridge the state and independent divide. Also, prompted partly by taunts and partly by the need for more sponsors, the Government opened up sponsorship to universities, independent schools and local authorities. It further dropped the requirement for an injection of £2m and began applying pressure to come aboard. Universities were encouraged to see participation as a contribution to widening access, independent schools as helping to justify their charitable status, and local authorities as being able to tap into the schools' rebuilding pot.

Academies have thus acquired different purposes to which Adonis believes the key is autonomy. This is supported by research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which shows that across the world autonomous schools generally do better than government-run schools. There are also signs that some academies are achieving their original aim. Mossbourne Community Academy, built on the site of failing Hackney Downs School, has 1,000 applicants for 180 places – though one wonders what happens to the children who are displaced.

But it is difficult to see how a link between one university and one school can widen access, especially if, as in the case of Camden, the school seems to be for high-fliers in a posh part of town. Similarly, it is difficult to understand the part to be played by independent schools. If parents think the independent school experience is on offer for free, why should they pay fees to go to, say Wellington, rather than its new academy?

The involvement of the local authorities smacks of compromise in the Brown government. In outlining the new approach to the academy programme, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, dropped the key phrase of "independent state school" for "strong links with local authorities" and "collaboration with the local community".

So where will academies eventually take us? Will some future government continue down the Adonis road of creating a hierarchy of autonomous schools? Will it perhaps go the whole hog, recognising that there are not enough good teachers to go round and that pupils differ considerably in their abilities, interests and aspirations, and so free up schools to make their own way in the world? It could even allow them to admit as they wished, including by academic selection, so that without a rigid tripartite system we would have a range of schools.

Or will it take the view that compulsory education is about equivalent opportunities for all – which depends crucially on equitable admission? The means is at hand: parental choice, with oversubscribed places being allocated by lottery. If Brighton is anything to go by, this does not seem to be popular with the voters, but it is widely used in other countries which, in consequence, do not suffer England's sharp polarisation.

Academies could go either way. They could be freed up to enjoy genuine independence or they could be integrated into admissions arrangements that operate across all schools. The Government has so far concentrated on individual schools, but it will soon have to make up its mind about what shape it wants for the overall system.

The writer is Professor and Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham