City academies, too, must be judged by results

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The Independent Online

The main teachers' unions are joining forces to campaign against the Government's plans to set up hundreds of city academies - the privately sponsored schools intended to improve educational standards, mostly in areas where existing schools are poor. The unions say they are a threat to "fair" state education and could be susceptible to the influence of religious fundamentalists.

The main teachers' unions are joining forces to campaign against the Government's plans to set up hundreds of city academies - the privately sponsored schools intended to improve educational standards, mostly in areas where existing schools are poor. The unions say they are a threat to "fair" state education and could be susceptible to the influence of religious fundamentalists.

That the teachers' unions have taken against city academies is not necessarily a bad sign. Indeed, it could be interpreted as a perverse kind of recommendation. At best, it is an indication that such schools are starting to offer parents a real alternative to failing establishments and that unionised teachers, notoriously averse to change, fear the competition for pupils from more innovative institutions.

A suspicion of the unions' motives, however, is no reason to dismiss their objections out of hand. For, while choice is to be encouraged and the academies have proved popular with parents, there are grounds for scrutinising the finances and performance of these schools far more closely than is currently being done.

One reason why parents are so enthusiastic is that the other available options are so dire. Another is that the facilities bought with private money are so obviously superior to the shabby and poorly equipped schools that were on offer before. It remains to be seen, however, whether the teaching and the results will be significantly better. Nine of the 11 academies recently reporting national tests for 14-year-olds were among the bottom 200 schools in the country.

The Government should also be obliged to consider whether the academies are cost- effective. Would smaller infusions of cash into existing schools yield equivalent - or even better - results? One of this government's recurring weaknesses, not just in education policy, is that it rushes to embrace a new, seemingly quick-fix, solution before its worth has been proved. By all means let us have city academies, especially where local schools are failing. But they should be treated as pilot projects. The ethos, results and wider implications of such schools must be assessed before hundreds of them are planted across the country.

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