The new government has just promised 2,000 more academy schools. Is this a sensible policy? Despite the huge sums invested by Labour, their performance has been patchyby Lisa Freedman / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls, open the City Academy, Hackney
Twenty-five teenagers are silently studying in a bright classroom. The headmaster enters and they rise to their feet, immaculate in their grey uniforms. “Good afternoon, sir,” they chorus.
It’s a scene out of a Ladybird book, but this is Mossbourne Academy, a secondary school in a part of Hackney, east London, dubbed “murder mile” for its gang killings. Mossbourne was one of the first “academies”—the new type of school aimed at the educational underclass.
The school Mossbourne replaced, Hackney Downs School, had educated Harold Pinter and Michael Caine in its grammar-school heyday. But by the mid-1990s, it was so bad that the tabloids called it “the worst comprehensive in England.” It was closed down in 1995. Nine years later, Mossbourne rose from its ashes with new Mondrian-style buildings by the Richard Rogers Partnership, a knighted “superhead” in the form of Michael Wilshaw, and a £2m subsidy provided by Clive Bourne, a local boy who made his fortune in freight shipping. Last summer, Mossbourne’s first intake of students took their GCSEs and it made the headlines again—this time for delivering some of the best state school results in the country.
How was this achieved? Like all academies, Mossbourne is a non-selective, all-ability secondary school. But academies take a radical approach to school administration. Their defining characteristic is their freedom from local authority control—instead, they are managed by a sponsor, who appoints a board of governors. The governors choose the head and take responsibility for administration. Academies receive funding directly from central government, are given new buildings, and are encouraged to innovate in teaching, pay and the curriculum.
Labour launched the academies programme in 2000 to reach the significant minority of children leaving school without basic qualifications. David Blunkett, then education secretary, said academies would “target seriously failing schools” and “break the cycle of underperformance and low expectations.” But from the start, he met fierce opposition. Critics said academies were locally unaccountable and would create a two-tier system with their unfair advantage in admissions, exclusions, salaries and funding. The influence of the sponsor on the curriculum and balance sheet was also questioned.