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Monday, April 02, 2007


Captain Spaulding

The £24 million pound question is, are academies good value for money? £24 million is, according to the National Audit office, the average cost of an academy.

Just about every Labour supporter agrees that extra money should go to kids in inner-city schools, to combat social deprivation. But all this vast investment has produced so far is a modest GCSE improvement is some – but not all -academies, and not necessarily in the crucial subjects of English and maths.

There are other ways of improving performance which are as effective but cheaper. For example, the most important factor in any school is getting a really good head teacher, and not enough governors realise the discretion allowed them to adjust salaries to attract the right people. Most school improvement projects (bringing in advisers etc) are much cheaper than building new schools but the evidence has shown, in London and elsewhere, that they can have a dramatic effect on students’ performance.

So what do you think – are they really good value for money, Mike?

It would be good to get a discussion going around this issue.

Mike Ion

Captain - I agree that a debate around the need for the academy programme is to be welcomed.

Standard of achievement and attainment - things are improving and there are some encouraging indicators. Ofsted has stated that academies are having "remarkable" effects but there is more work to do to ensure that they all successful. A PWC report said that academies had largely won the support of pupils and parents but still faced problems, including widespread bullying and inappropriate buildings.

The 2006 GCSE results showed several academies doubling the number of pupils achieving five Cs or better at GCSE. The Greig City academy, in Haringey, increased the proportion achieving five good GCSEs from 26% last year to 52% this year. At the City academy in Bristol, the figure rose from 33 to 51%, and at Djanogly City academy in Nottingham, it rose from 52 to 57%.

As to the VFM debate - the reality is that only time will tell. You suggest other means that have been successful in moving schools forward (new head, better curriculum and quality support and challenge from the LA or from Ofsted)but what happens when these measures are consistently tried and then fail? Academies are a more radical approach.

Manchester is a good example for how the programme might develop in the future. The City council (Labour) has announced that it will create 6 new academies. These academies will be at the heart of regenerating secondary education in Manchester. The blueprint for them was forged last year with a simple, yet ambitious goal: that there should be at least six new academies across the city, mostly located in areas of disadvantage, each focusing on a future skills priority for the city, and each with a lead sponsor and other partners from the relevant employment sector, able to give real leadership and curriculum credibility to the work of the academy. Each new academy will be clustered, in terms of expertise and facilities, with other secondary schools to be rebuilt under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

Manchester itself has taken the lead in identifying the specialisms and sponsors, based on its analysis of the city's six key employment growth sectors: health and bioscience; construction and the built environment; business and enterprise; finance and professional services; the creative and media sectors; and digital communications.

These sectors will account for most of the 125,000 new jobs to be created in the city over the next decade. The academies will give the strongest possible momentum to ensure that the life chances of Manchester's young people are enhanced.

I think other LAs may well follow Manchester's lead. It would be great to see a LA in partnership with the GMB, Amicus or Unison setting up an academy in an area of low educational aspiration and achievement - that is how I would like to see the programme develop.

Captain Spaulding

Thanks for your response Mike

The NAO’s February report indeed shows good GCSE results at some academies, but there have been critical Ofsted reports at others. For example, the Unity City Academy in Middlesborough has actually gone into special measures and the Business Academy in Bexley had received a Notice to Improve. Furthermore the performance of academies’ sixth forms has been universally poor, even though, if we really wish to tackle deprivation, then more kids have to stay on and succeed in sixth forms.

In response to my question about value for money you say that “only time will tell”. I do not think that this is quite the government position but they have indeed been vague about the VFM question. This may be because the rationale for academies has changed – originally private sponsors were supposed to put in a realistic contribution, but this has gradually diminished, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab – as with the new Manchester schools to which you refer.

In other public services we insist on value for money. For example it is impossible to build a new hospital without proving that it meets strict financial criteria, all NHS drugs are assessed for cost-effectiveness etc. So why should schools be any different? If “time will tell” whether the academies will work then it is not very sensible to double the number, as has been proposed, when the first lot have hardly bedded in.

You talk about school support schemes as if they always fail, but this is not the case. Only last week Alan Johnson announced an extension to the “London Challenge” school support/improvement scheme that has brought about a dramatic improvement in GCSE results for more than 16,000 pupils in London’s schools. The scheme will now be extended to another two urban areas. “London Challenge” has cost £40.00 million annually, so according to my arithmetic that’s about eight times more cost-effective than building academies.

You refer to the “building schools for the future” programme but the government has admitted that this is in a mess. For example, the secondary school of which I am a governor is in a relatively deprived area and is supposedly due for a slice of BSF money about now. A mere million quid or so on new sixth form accommodation would really make the difference for our school, but who knows when we’ll get it. As I’ve said on a previous posting, if a minority of schools are being picked out for special treatment one must wish them success, but it is not much comfort to Labour governors whose students are stuck in crumbling schools.

Let’s be frank, academies have been Tony’s pet project. Some cynics have even suggested that Tony Blair and Lord Adonis have been attempting to rush through more academies before there is a change of mind. Whether this is true or not, a change of leadership is now nearly upon us and it is only fair to our schoolchildren and taxpayers for Labour to review the programme and reconsider the options.

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