Richard Garner: Expand specialist schools and forget academies

Are they value for money? On that ground, the answer has to be no

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On the one hand, the teachers' unions believe their very existence will destroy any last vestiges of the comprehensive education system. On the other, ministers insist they're the only way you can improve standards in our most deprived inner-city areas.

We are talking about Tony Blair's independently run state-financed academies and, as ever, the truth is somewhere in between. At present, there are 27 of them up and running. Mr Blair hopes to have 200 in place by the end of the decade. What research there is about them at present paints a mixed picture. Yes, the majority of the 16 who have already educated pupils to GCSE level have significantly improved the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes.

Many of them are, though, still amongst the worst performing schools in the country and - when you look at the Government's new league table measure of insisting all schools record the percentage of pupils with five top grade passes including maths and English, their performance tails off. They are, it seems, relying on an old wheeze of putting pupils in for vocational qualifications - deemed to be worth four GCSE's - to boost their performance in the league tables.

The reason the academies spark so much venom from teachers' leaders - notably the National Union of Teachers - is the power that is handed over to the academy sponsors. For a £2m outlay, you can control the governing body and determine what is included in the curriculum. There is already widespread concern over allegations that academies and the City Technology College sponsored by the Christian evangelist, Sir Peter Vardy, are teaching creationism alongside evolution in science lessons.

Teachers' leaders argue that it is wrong that millionaires can fork out £2m to - as Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the NUT, so graphically put it, "peddle their prejudices" to pupils. They are worried that they could become elitist and select their pupils. As a result, the NUT passed a motion at its annual conference at Torquay calling for strikes in schools which are seeking to become academies - or the new "trust" schools planned in the Government's current education legislation - if there are any attempts to interfere with their working conditions.

Their fears on the second score are groundless. Existing academies do take great care over admissions (some use banding which ensures they take an equal number of children from each of several different ability bands).

On the first complaint, while ministers have conceded there should be a vetting system for potential sponsors, it is worrying if the creationists can slip through the net. What is unarguably true is that the academies movement is very Christian- based, with 42 of the present 100 in the planning stage having Christian backers. The academies programme is without doubt a means of spreading the influence of faith schools in the education system.

Indeed, with the controversy attached to millionaire business leaders receiving peerages for cash, the academies movement may have to be even more reliant on Christian backers if Mr Blair is to reach his target.

The key question is: will they improve standards to the extent ministers claim and are they value for money? It would be wrong to judge them on the standards issue just yet - as we should wait until pupils taking their GCSE's have spent their whole secondary school lives at an academy rather than two years in one and three years in a failing comprehensive.

Are they value for money? On that ground, I think the answer has to be no (the typical academy has £2m worth of private sponsorship plus £20m of government capital funding thereby making the whole programme worth £5bn). The specialist schools programme, which, from September, will account for almost 2,500 secondary schools in England, seems far better value for money. Latest figures show they have a substantially larger percentage of pupils achieving five top grade GCSE passes than non-specialist schools.

It has been a real success story and it only takes £50,000 worth of private sponsorship plus limited extra Government funding. The reason for its success is that schools have to devise a strategy for improving standards to obtain specialist status. This concentrates the mind wonderfully and schools can be stripped of their specialist status if they fail to meet their targets.

While I can see the value of having some detailed research into the academies movement to see if it will live up to Mr Blair's hopes, my own gut feeling is that we would have been better off expanding the specialist schools programme even further - and forgetting about the academies.

r.garner@independent.co.uk

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