Concerns over bullying in Tony Blair's flagship academies for inner-city schoolchildren have been raised in an independent evaluation of the scheme.
A survey of pupils in the first 11 privately sponsored academies found that four out of five children were aware of bullying at their school. The report, by the consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, called for further investigation to see whether academies were tackling bullying effectively. Overall, it suspended judgement on the scheme, saying the jury was still out on how much it had improved standards.
Ministers seized on the report as a vindication of their policy, citing a poll of parents in which 87 per cent said they were satisfied with the quality of education. Jacqui Smith, the School Standards minister, said: "Tackling an inheritance of failure can take time. The Government never claimed academies would bring overnight success when they are inheriting failing schools. But the evaluation shows we are on track and that progress is being made."
Ms Smith said she was also pleased with a finding that 97 per cent of pupils thought their teachers believed they could succeed. "We know one of the problems of the predecessor schools was low aspirations for pupils," she added.
Ministers said the evidence on bullying was that it was on a par with the level at other schools, but they acknowledged that behaviour was a problem with the predecessor schools.
Critics of the academies programme claimed the report vindicated their stance that the programme should be halted until there was further evidence on whether it has been successful. In particular, the Labour-dominated Commons Select Committee on Education called for a freeze on further expansion. Mr Blair has set a target of creating 200 academies around the country by 2010.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "We have grave reservations about the Government's determination to introduce further academies while their effectiveness remains unproven."
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, said: "It is staggering that there wasn't more improvement in these schools. Despite their extra money, some academies are still failing to improve."
One school, Unity Academy in Middlesbrough, failed its inspection last month and was put into special measures by Ofsted, the watchdog for standards in education.
Yesterday's report questioned the Government's insistence that the academies are "publicly supported independent schools", adding: "Academies are not fully independent, like private independent schools, because the majority of their funding comes from the state."
In exchange for putting in £2m, private sponsors are allowed to run the schools.
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