Leading article: A timely defence of a sound principle

Most of what he said was entirely sensible. The principle of investing heavily in failing inner-city schools remains a sound one. Modern buildings and well-equipped classrooms make a considerable difference to the quality of education. Mr Blair was also right to emphasise the need to increase parental choice. At the moment all the choice lies with oversubscribed schools. A new generation of city academies has the potential to put it back in the hands of parents. The Prime Minister also, rightly, argued that local authorities should become "commissioners of education and champions of standards", rather than direct providers of schooling. The old top-down system of education provision is failing. With this in mind, it is right that academies should develop an individual specialism and a distinctive ethos. Diversity is a virtue in secondary education - as the rude health of the independent sector plainly shows.

But there are, nonetheless, problems with the scheme that cannot be glossed over. Some existing academies are performing badly. They must, of course, be given time to prove their worth. But they will ultimately be judged on their results. Care must also be taken to ensure that a gap does not open between academies and less privileged schools.

And then there is the question of influence. It is possible for anyone to buy a stake in an academy for £2m. This allows the sponsor a degree of control over the school's staffing, curriculum and ethos. This can be a good thing if it brings constructive input from local businesses and entrepreneurs into the classroom. But it can also be deeply undesirable if this influence is used irresponsibly. One academy, sponsored by an evangelical Christian billionaire, began teaching creationist theories in science lessons. Academies ought to be given a large degree of independence, but - as this case demonstrates - there must be limits.

The scheme to reform the ethos and provision of secondary education must proceed - but with caution and close scrutiny.

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