Andrew Adonis: Private education could help achieve social justice

Boarding school placements can meet the needs of children in care
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The Independent Online

Education is the foundation of social justice, which is why eradicating entrenched school failure is a top government priority. Presently, children in care are a particular cause of concern. Last week's Barnardo's report highlighted their often desperately poor educational achievement, and the impact of frequent changes of placements and inadequate access to good schools.

We are acting decisively to tackle both issues. A new national minimum allowance is being introduced for foster carers, to ensure they are not out of pocket and so increase the quality and stability of placements. We are also changing the law on school admissions to give children in care an absolute priority in admission to schools, including successful oversubscribed schools.

This includes a local authority power to require children in care to be admitted to almost any school at any time in the school year, not just in September. Instead of coming at the back of the queue, children in care are now going to the front.

We also intend to pilot the use of boarding school placements where these can better meet the needs of children in care, particularly at secondary level. Such placements come at a price - but they could prove good value in terms of greater stability and educational success for looked-after children in the right circumstances. Many state and private boarding schools are keenly interested in participating.

A good school in every neighbourhood, however deprived, is the imperative to tackle disadvantage of all kinds. The number of secondary schools below the national "floor target" of at least a quarter of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs declined from 369 in 2001 to 108 last year; preliminary figures show a further sharp improvement to fewer than 50 this year. But more needs to be done.

The academies programme is a case in point. Academies are independently managed state schools, run with partners from educational foundations and other successful charitable enterprises. They are non-selective and located in areas of disadvantage, mostly replacing weak or failing schools and inheriting their pupils.

Both the expense of academies, and the principle of independent management outside the traditional local authority system, have been criticised by those hostile to change and investment. Yet last week's results speak for themselves.

The proportion of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs increased by about four times the usual national average in academies - including in the core subjects of English and maths. Average GCSE performance in these 21 academies is now more than 50 per cent higher than in schools they replaced.

No surprise, then, that there are now three applications for every academy place this September, with some of the brand new academies - with no inheritance of failure with which to contend - six or seven times oversubscribed. It is now clear that academies succeed and that parents want them. The government's response? More academies, as fast as reasonably possible. Nearly 50 new academies are scheduled to open in the next 13 months. The only question is how far and fast we go beyond this. We must be as ambitious as parents are demanding.

All our structural reforms in education are focused on higher standards, backed by extra investment. This includes the vital changes taking place to the school curriculum to make it fit for purpose in today's society.

Hence the introduction of new specialised vocational diplomas beginning in 2008 in 14 key employment sectors, including construction, engineering and health and social care. There will be a national entitlement to study these new diplomas.

Equally important is the systematic introduction of citizenship, health and social education into schools, alongside healthier school meals, sporting facilities, and extended school days, so that all pupils get the start in life that the better-off take for granted. Last week I visited a range of "summer university" pilot projects in London, aiming to extend summer courses across the capital, with subsidised provision targeted at those from poorer backgrounds. The results are impressive. Research from the United States shows that participation in summer programmes reduces school drop-out and improves results.

Every child matters and every child can achieve. Reforms such as academies, specialist schools, trust schools, extended schools and summer schools are focused, above all, on making this principle a reality. They need to be taken much further before we can be satisfied that the education system offers true equality of opportunity.

The writer is Minister for Schools