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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 June 2005, 01:49 GMT 02:49 UK
Are city academies the answer?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
When will we know whether city academies have been a success or a failure?

Politics, and for that matter journalism, seeks instant answers. But education does not work like that.

It takes five years for a cohort of pupils to pass right through a secondary school up to GCSE exams.

It takes even longer to be sure of a genuine trend in exam results.

The first city academies have been open for less than three years. Those pupils who have taken exams so far spent more of their time being taught at the predecessor schools than in academies.

But parliamentary politics works on a much shorter cycle: you need results before the next general election comes around.

Definitive evidence

This week, ministers welcomed the report from the management consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers as positive news about the academies.

Yet, in fact, all this really told us was that - on the basis of opinion polling - the first few academies are popular with the parents and pupils who have chosen them.

They were somewhat less popular with staff and it was noticeable that one academy refused to distribute the PWC questionnaire to its staff. What was it frightened of?

In most other respects, though, the report told us little that could be taken as definitive evidence either way.

Bullying was a problem in some academies, but no worse than in other schools. In about half of academies exam results have risen. In the other half they have not.

In reality, the PWC report told us no more than the Commons select committee had concluded - it is still too early to say how they are doing.

Bexley business academy
The government wants 200 city academies

For the government that is reason enough to keep going. For opponents it is grounds for stopping the whole programme.

Of course, there is the middle way adopted by the select committee - keep going, but with a rather less ambitious programme than the 200 planned for the end of the decade at the huge cost of 5bn.

But there are two arguments the government can put forward to defend its decision to press ahead.

First, most of these schools are in areas of deprivation where previous schools have failed. Even if it is experimental, and expensive, the children in these areas deserve a major effort on their behalf.

Open admission

Second, education reform requires momentum. A slackening of the pace may be as good, or as bad, as calling an outright halt.

It was interesting this week to note the open admission by the government that it had borrowed the city academies idea from the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.

Normally the government is coy about acknowledging this debt to the city technology colleges programme launched in 1986.

There are understandable reasons for this shyness - first, the obvious reluctance to admit stealing ideas from political opponents, and second, the fact that, in political terms, the CTCs were a flop.

After being announced with great fanfare by Kenneth Baker at the Conservative party conference in 1986, the CTC plans foundered because of the difficulty of raising enough money from business sponsors (with CTCs the sponsors were expected to provide all the money for the new school, unlike the contribution of about 10% for academies).

In education reform, momentum is all
In the end, the CTC programme was curtailed after only 15 had been opened. Like the academies they had faced enormous opposition from political opponents, local government and teacher unions.

But those 15 CTCs are still open (strictly speaking only 14 are still operating as CTCs as one has become a city academy).

They may be a political anachronism but they are also highly successful schools. Moreover, unlike the academies, they now have a track record of well over a decade. The evidence is definitive.

I looked them up in BBC News website's performance tables. Excluding Djanogly College, now a city academy, all 14 have GCSE-level results well above the national average - with eight scoring above 85% of pupils achieving five A*-C's or equivalent qualifications.

No slowdown

On the even more telling value added score (charting pupils' progress from their tests aged 11 to their GCSEs), 11 scored above 1000, showing they had improved attainment by more than the national average.

All 14 had value added scores that were higher than the average for their local authority area.

Like the city academies, the CTCs are located in the cities. They admit pupils from the full range of ability.

They may have been an expensive experiment but they can, definitively, be said to have raised attainment.

The CTC project was abandoned (for financial reasons) before these newly created schools could establish a successful track record.

With an eye on this precedent, the government is resisting calls to slow down the city academy programme.

In education reform, momentum is all. That is why the government will press on.

We will know in 10 years whether they were right.

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