Friday, 29 February 2008

Government and Academies

Ed Balls and Andrew Adonis (please don't laugh, those of us involved in education in the UK are now used to this conjunction of names), respectively Secretary of State for the DCSF and the minister responsible for the schools aspect of DCSF, are today promoting the programme to found more Academy schools. For visitors from distant lands ... DCSF is the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and Academy schools are Government funded schools which are independent in their governance. Academy schools have greater freedoms than most other state funded schools, which are run by local authorities. An Academy is set up with a sponsoring body, which enters into a funding agreement with DCSF, and in most cases will have new buildings and a disproportionately high capital set up investment compared to the setting up of other state funded schools. They are criticised for their lack of accountability to local communities and the fact that, despite their disproportionately high investment in plant, there is no universally recognised improvement in student achievement. Herewith an extract from the DCSF press release, with my emphases and comments.

Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls and Schools Minister Andrew Adonis today approved funding agreements for academies in Norwich and Blyth, Northumberland, and gave the go-ahead to look at plans for new academies in Camden, Watford and Enfield. Plans are also underway for three new academies in Oldham and one in Bolton....

New academies

Heartsease High School, Norwich, will become an Academy for 11 to 19 year olds, specialising in environmental science. It will be sponsored by the Bishop of Norwich and a local businessman, Graham Dacre in partnership with the local further education college – City College Norwich. The sponsors have made clear that the new Academy will not be a faith school, and will serve the whole community. Interesting to note that not being a faith school is highlighted here, as if it is a selling point. Government are trying to defend themselves against criticism here, but unfortunately giving credence to a misconception about faith schools. There is a subtle implication that the reason for the Academy serving the whole community is that it is not a faith school. Not so ... surely we are entitled to suggest that faith schools do make a contribution to the whole of society, through their service to a particular community. Any school directly serves only a part of the whole community - ie its own pupils and families - and through them society as a whole. Faith schools are in no different a position than any other school in this regard. Norwich is a Church of England diocese, not a Catholic one. The statement that it will "not be a faith school" means that it will not have a religious designation, though its relationship to the Diocese of Norwich is not clear from the press release. The Academy will offer 750 places for 11 to 16 year olds and a 200 capacity sixth form. Heartsease, whilst improving recently has been of concern for a number of years and has been in and out of special measures.

Plans are also being looked at for two Academies in Camden. Funding has now been released to develop the Borough’s plans for its first Academy, which would specialise in science and mathematics with an additional focus on languages. The Academy would be sponsored by University College London (UCL), it would have a comprehensive intake and a secular ethos. Does this mean a neutral ethos or does it mean an ethos that is deliberately opposed to religion? A comprehensive (ie a non-selective) intake will include pupils from families with religious faith. If the Academy is going to be actively secular, will these pupils and families be discriminated against? Camden has some very deprived areas and a strong need for good new schools. It would provide much needed new places in the North West of the Borough. The Camden Academy would have 900 pupils at 11 to 16 and post-16 provision for 250. The Academy would open in 2011 in new buildings. The department is also working with Camden Council and local parents to explore the possibility of a second site for an Academy, south of the Euston Road.

Bede Academy in Blyth, Northumberland will be a completely new school for 4 to 18 year olds, with places for 1,780 pupils, including a 250 place sixth form. It will specialise in engineering and enterprise. The Academy will open in September 2009 in new buildings on the sites of the former Blyth Ridley High and South Beach First Schools. Bede Academy is sponsored by The Emmanuel Schools Foundation (ESF), an experienced sponsor organisation. and an organisation with an evangelical Christian background, though this is not referred to in the press release. An ESF school has in the past been subject to media attention over the teaching of creation science. They have achieved significant improvements at their existing schools, which have transformed educational attainment in very disadvantaged areas.

Funding has also been released to look at the Francis Combe School and Community College in Garston, Watford becoming an Academy in September 2009. It would be co-sponsored by West Herts College and the University of Hertfordshire, and build on successful partnerships of further and higher education. The Academy would specialise in English, art and media. Drawing on the strengths of the sponsors, it would seek to address performance, raise standards and motivate learners.

In Enfield the Albany School, which has been underperforming for some time, would be replaced by a second Academy in the area sponsored by Oasis Community Learning whose website says "Its roots are strongly based in Oasis UK, a charity founded in 1985 by Steve Chalke, whose Christian faith inspired him to create ways to develop people and build communities". It would specialise in music and mathematics with a strong focus on ICT. It would open in September 2009 and offer over 1,400 places. ...

Though Academies are criticised for their lack of accountability to the local community, an accountability that most other state funded schools achieve through their dependence on their local authority, the sponsoring bodies indicated in the press release do seem to reflect their local communities - through local businesses or local higher and further education institutions.

The silence in the press release about the Christian nature of some of the sponsoring bodies, and the trumpeting of the secular status of others, reveals just how much anti-religious feeling exists in the world of education in the UK today.

PS. Don't tell anyone in my union about this post - ATL policy is opposed to both faith schools and Academies ....


Anonymous said...

Another fabulous post..the school thing is so worrying..

Joe said...

One of the issues for the teacher unions with regards to academies is that of trade union recognition. The unions are rather used to the fact that local authority schools, via the fact that the local authority is in most cases the employer of the staff, and in other cases (eg voluntary aided schools) the schools by and large follow local authority practice on this, all recognise the main trade unions. This is not automatically the case with Academies. But I notice from the report of my union's Executive Committee to the Annual Conference that some of the leading Christian organisations sponsoring Academies either have entered into union recognition agreements or are engaged in discussions about it. This seems a real plus to the Christian engagement in the Academies programme.