Different class: The case for the defence of academy schools

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The Independent Online

There has been considerable coverage in the news recently about academy schools. Are they just a bid to solve the ever-intractable problem of ensuring high quality education for 11- to16-year-olds? Are they a new solution, with the potential to make a difference? How we teach our young people can have a frighteningly long-term effect on the wealth and stability of our nation - decisions made today can affect us for half a century into the future - so it is important that the academy solution is fully explored. We should welcome informed debate.

What do academy schools offer? They have never been seen as a total educational solution. Tony Blair, the champion of academies, expressed his determination that academies, while being independent state schools, should integrate into, and not be apart from, the local community of schools. In the four years since the first academies were created, the results increasingly indicate that academies are offering an educational environment that nurtures academic success. This success is often being achieved with students that have previously been written off as difficult or even uneducable.

Academy sponsors are a vital part of the academy programme, providing a £2m cash injection to every new project. The influence of academy sponsors has, however, been somewhat exaggerated, and the idea that "£2m buys a school" is clearly untrue. Instead, the finance provided by the sponsor offers the academy the opportunity to create a different type of school. This can mean better facilities, smaller classes, new buildings, better teachers. In short, the money allows academies to offer what all schools should be able to offer: a richer and more personal educational experience for their students.

The involvement of most sponsors has not stopped with a one-off donation of cash, however. Virtually all of the academy sponsors are also involved in the everyday life of the school. This involvement is not curricular, disempowering the teaching staff; it is much more benign. Student mentoring is common, bringing awareness of work into school and providing a different adult role-model to those available in the home environment. Prize-giving and other student recognition activities are subsidised, sometimes generously. School visits and inter-school competitions are supported with time, money and people. The sponsors are enriching the learning of the students in many different ways, but perhaps the most important way is simply by being visible. This creates awareness that school is not an isolated interlude but an ongoing part of life. This awareness allows students to view their school achievements as part of their future success rather than just achievements for their own sake.

Now universities are becoming involved as academy sponsors. They do not need to pay the £2m financial support, so what can they offer to their sponsored schools? Just as commercial sponsors provide an experience for students that has previously been largely unavailable in schools, so universities are able to add their own unique skills sets to the school environment. For instance, they can give access to educational resources that a school just cannot afford, provide ongoing teacher training and offer novel ways to enhance the curriculum.

What is happening here is not really about academies or sponsorship, it is about providing an educational experience that links the student's life together in a comprehensive way, an effective education that equips rather than just informs. In this model, students are taken through an educational chain from secondary school to university to work. It provides an integrated experience that allows the student to understand the importance of each link in the chain. Perhaps it is time to ask why this is not part of every student's school experience - why don't all secondary schools have partners throughout the educational chain?

Martyn Coles is the principal of the City of London Academy