Magazine article Public Finance

Because They're Worth It?

Magazine article Public Finance

Because They're Worth It?

Article excerpt

The Storm raging around the government's plans for education in the inner cities shows no sign of abating. The city academy programme could soon join foundation hospitals on the list of issues guaranteed to provoke Labour MPs to apoplexy.

'There's gathering concern over whether this policy works as it should. There is a real issue of public accountability,' says Helen Jones, MP for Warrington North and a member of the education select committee, which published a critical report on the academy programme earlier this year.

City academies were conceived by Andrew Adonis,Tony Blair's erstwhile policy adviser and newly ennobled education minister. For many MPs, that is part of the problem - Adonis is deeply unpopular.

An academy is a new type of school, rebuilt and rebadged, and offering choice to parents desperate for a decent education for their children. Local authorities are shunned in favour of private sponsors, entrepreneurs and organisations that will bring finance and expertise to the table, helping schools to find new solutions to old problems. There are 17 academies and the government plans to have 200 by 2010. In return for a £2m cash contribution, sponsors are handed considerable control over the new school.

Last week the government published a PricewaterhouseCoopers evaluation of the programme, but the report failed to defuse the controversy surrounding the policy. It said that the schools had won the support of parents and pupils; a finding that ministers seized on. 'It's this backing by parents, and engagement by pupils, that will make a real difference to the success of these schools,' said schools minister Jacqui Smith.

But loyalty is a strong factor in surveys like this - failing schools have similar levels of support from pupils and parents, and the PwC results were by no means universally positive. Almost two-thirds of academy pupils thought that their head teachers were 'really good', but 10% didn't know their name. The majority of parents expressed satisfaction with the quality of education on offer, but 13% were dissatisfied.

Critics of the academy programme were quick to highlight the negatives tucked away in PwC's findings. 'Even this highly spun report concedes that five out of the 11 academies covered have shown little or no improvement in performance,' said National Union of Teachers general secretary Steve Sinnott. 'There are disturbing issues that PwC highlights, such as confusion over special educational needs, poor behaviour and bullying.'

Local authorities have been consistently critical of the cuckoos in the nest. A report last year found little town hall enthusiasm for the academy programme. 'Academies cannot be separate from existing and future partnership between local authorities and other schools,' said a Local Government Association spokesman. 'They must be part of any partnerships that address school admissions issues. Local authorities are champions of local education and have strategic responsibility for children. If local authorities are to improve outcomes for all children, academies cannot be completely separate.'

At the Academy Sponsors Trust, chief executive Rhona Kiley said that the PwC report 'recognises the crucial contribution sponsors make to academies'.

But it's the unique contribution made by some sponsors that has been generating the headlines. King's Academy in Middlesbrough is sponsored by Sir Peter Vardy, chair of the Reg Vardy national car dealership. Vardy has offered to set up a network of academies across the north of England, but his non-conformist Christian beliefs and the King's Academy's approach to the teaching of evolution are controversial. King's teaches the creationist account of the origin of life alongside Darwinism, a practice that has outraged scientists and educationalists.

In Doncaster, a parents' group successfully fought against the imposition of a Vardy-backed academy. In response, the multimillionaire was quoted as saying that he would take his money elsewhere. …

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