Andrew Adonis on Academies: 'It's about giving children an equal start in life'

Adonis is known as the architect of Labour's academies programme. Ten years after the first one opened, how does he think they're doing?

Andrew Adonis offers to make a cup of tea or coffee in his swanky offices just off Piccadilly Circus. It is, perhaps, a sign of the changed times since he had ministerial flunkies to perform that task for him. Not a bit of it, he argues. "I used to do it at the department for education because I got in so early there was nobody else around."

"Mr Academies" – which Lord Adonis admits would be an apt epithet for him – had a reputation for hard work, harrying potential sponsors, particularly from amongst independent schools, to do deals and support what was then Labour's flagship programme.

He is working for the Institute for Government (IfG) at present but has kept a finger in the pie of the academies programme, accepting a post as president of the Independent Academies Association, the umbrella body that represents academies.

He is also about to publish a book about his time with the Labour government and his programme for the future, Reinventing England's Schools, which he expects to finish later this month. "The first half is about education reform and the second half is a blueprint for education reform over the next 10 years," he says. He will be giving up his job as chief executive of the IfG – where he has been campaigning for more key cities around the UK to adopt the London model of having their own Mayor – at the end of the year.

As he talks about his campaign at the IfG, he asks: "Can you tell me the names of the leaders of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds city councils?" I fall at the first hurdle. "Exactly," he replies triumphantly. "If they had Mayors, it would put them on the map."

This campaign is in line with the mantra that keeps spurring him on. "When I see a failing public service I instinctively have to reform it," he says.

He is very much back in the academies fold now. though, and intends to spend his time after the new year plotting the programme that Labour will need to adopt to improve education if it is returned to power at the next election. "I'm passionate about all that the academies are seeking to do in giving pupils an equal start in life," he says. "Hardly a day passes without me speaking to an academy sponsor."

It is no surprise, therefore, to find that he was a participant at the meeting that David Cameron held at Downing Street this month with heads of the country's leading independent schools – at which he sought to persuade Eton, amongst others, to sponsor an academy. "I especially would like to see more independent schools set up and manage academies," he says. "We've already got Wellington College, Dulwich College, the Girls' Day School Trust, which are now engaging in the providing of academies."

The benefit, he argues, is that it leads to heads of independent schools spending as much time talking about reform of the state system as they do running their own schools. He talks of how staff at Wellington College now hold joint sessions with the teachers at the academy it has set up, discussing how they can jointly improve their teaching practice. "My key priority is to close the gap between the best and worst performing schools," he says. "That's the single most important challenge facing the national education system. We have at the top of our system the best schools in the world but far too long a tail of under-performing schools. That's why I was so relentless about maths and literacy – phonics and effective teaching of reading in primary schools. I'm passionate about improving pay and conditions for undervalued teachers, passionate about Teach First – which gets more highly achieving graduates into the most challenging schools. It is why I pioneered the academies programme to act as a battering ram for high standards."

It seems his plea for the private sector to join the academies fold is taking off within the Coalition Government. In his speech at the Conservative Party conference, David Cameron talked of the need to end the "apartheid" between state and private schools. Sponsoring academies, both Lord Adonis and Mr Cameron would agree, would be one way of doing that.

Lord Adonis is adamant that – if the academies programme can succeed in persuading more independent schools to back it and devote their energies to improving the state sector, it will help increase social mobility in the country as a whole, giving better life chances to disadvantaged pupils. "It can bridge the private/state divide, which I regard as a cancer not only in the education system but in society at large," he says.

It is a belief that has its roots in his own schooling. He himself came from a broken home and was the beneficiary of a grant to attend a private boarding school, Kingham Hill, which he used as a platform to gain a place at Oxford.

Many of the themes that he displays such passion over are in tune with the kind of rhetoric that can also be heard coming from the lips of Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Indeed, in the run-up to the last election, both Mr Cameron and Mr Gove made it plain there would be a job for him in a Conservative administration if he wanted it. He rejected the overture. "I'm a Labour man," he says emphatically.

So how does he rate the Coalition Government's performance – especially on academies now the emphasis has switched towards schools ranked as "outstanding" by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, transferring to academy status? "In so far as the Coalition is taking forward the academies' policy, I've been supportive of them," he says. "I would have given a much lower priority to changing the legal status of successful schools, though. That is not the critical issue facing the education system. I'm not opposed to any attempt to give schools more freedom, but it is not a priority."

One aspect of new government policy that he is highly critical of, though, is Mr Gove's introduction of the English Baccalaureate. Pupils will be awarded it if they obtain five A* to C grades at GCSE in English, maths, science, a foreign language and a humanities – history or geography. "Why should the state be saying that it is more important to be studying the Tudors and the Stuarts than engineering?" he asks. "All 16-year-olds should have a good level of literacy and maths. Beyond English and maths, though, I think it should be for school students and parents to decide the best combination of subjects."

Timeline: the academies programme

2001

The first academies launched, with sponsors required to cough up £2m towards opening new schools or turning around failing inner-city schools.

2010

Labour leaves office with 200 academies up and running. The rules for setting them up have changed, though. Sponsors are no longer required to part with £2m upfront. Instead, universities and private schools are coming forward to sponsor them. They are offering cash in kind, ie use of facilities, sharing teachers with the academy.

2011

More than 1,000 new academies have been created since the election after Michael Gove announced that all schools – including primary and special as well as secondary – could opt for academy status.

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