Leading article: The jury is still out

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The Independent Online

The Jeremiahs of the education world cannot take much encouragement from the latest study of the effectiveness of the Government's academies programme. It is true that the review by the consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers identified truancy growing at a faster rate in the academies than in the rest of the state sector, higher exclusion rates, less improvement in pupil performance and a deterioration in exam performance in some of these schools.

Yet the review also found that, in terms of GCSE results and national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds, the improvements in academies are greater - overall - than in other state schools. There are, then, snippets to comfort both sides in the argument over whether Mr Blair's drive to create 200 privately sponsored academies by 2010 is the right way forward for the education system. The most honest answer must be that the jury is still out.

Meanwhile, we must remember that most of the 27 academies that are up and running either provided new schools in areas of deprivation or replaced failing schools. Most of the pupils taking GCSEs in them had four years in a failing institution before the launch of the academy. It was always going to be difficult to overturn such a legacy of underachievement in such a short space of time. The real test of academies will come when their pupils have spent all their years of secondary schooling in one establishment.

And there are strong reasons for keeping faith in this project. It is worth noting that the evidence of parental support for the academies is encouraging. In some cases, there are as many as 20 pupils for every place. This is likely to mean that in inner-city areas, where many middle-class parents have traditionally shunned state education or tried to send their children across artificial local education authority boundaries to find a better school, many are thinking again and are prepared to give the academies a chance. If this is so, it sends out a refreshing message of confidence in the state system. This could be the single most important factor in ensuring pupils' motivation levels in their new schools are higher - and that exam results and attendance records improve in future.

A word of warning, though. It seems that, for all the money spent on the new school buildings, the designs are not of as high a quality as Mr Blair envisaged when he talked of producing a world-class education system. More thoughtful planning would probably help improve attendance records. In education, as in the rest of the public sector, it is not a question of how much money is spent, but how effectively.