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Leading Article: Academies could be divisive

The educational establishment is strongly opposed to the Education Secretary Michael Gove's invitation to all state schools in Britain to become academies, which amounts to the biggest shake-up in the way schools are run since 1902. They dislike the fact that academies are outside local authority control, arguing that this will make them much less accountable than mainstream state schools, and they claim that the move to grant academy status to high-performing schools will create a highly divided school system.

Gove now wants all schools rated "outstanding" by the education standards watchdog, Ofsted, to be fast-tracked to academy status. This changes the original concept of Tony Blair's academies, the schools that began life in 2000 as a way to turn round failing schools. In those days, schools were given new names, extra freedoms, new buildings and more cash from a sponsor in the hope that they would transform themselves. And some of them did. The academies in the east London borough of Hackney are an example of what can be done by a group of energetic and committed people who combined with the town hall to think up a borough-wide plan to tap the available money. Mossbourne in Hackney is a stunning example of what can be achieved, given the cash and the drive. Its GCSE pass rate (grades A* to C) has now reached 85 per cent. Not all academies have been so successful.

The latest figures show that academies are improving at a faster rate than the average state school, though it is not known whether that success is down to the extra money they receive or enthusiastic teachers or the freedoms they enjoy. Academies can award bonuses to staff and pay their head teachers more. Because they are not under local authority control, academies are subject to less red tape and have more control over their budgets. We believe most good schools respond to being freed up from local authority control, so we welcome Mr Gove's initiative. But we would argue that academy status is not essential to turning a lacklustre school round.

What appears to be important is that a school has clear direction from an effective head teacher and the support of families who are interested in education. And there's the rub. The Government cannot force parents to choose academies for their children. Many won't bother and it is their children who will end up in the "sink schools". The critics have a point. With more and more schools becoming academies, the local authority schools will be shunned by sharp-elbowed parents, leaving them with declining reputations and their pupils with a deteriorating education.