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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Super new schools are thin on the ground
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker
The prime minister was visibly impressed when he walked into the brand new, 31m Bexley Business Academy this week.

"I have seen the future of British education," he announced, "and this is it."

Anyone who has been to visit this flagship city academy would, I think, have to agree it is impressive.

If, like me, you had also seen the old school before it was taken over by the new management, you would be even more stunned by the transformation.

I swear the children sat up straighter and prouder than when I visited them in their old school
The old school building was a 1970s monstrosity, a concrete jungle which, appropriately, had been used as one of the locations for the violent film Clockwork Orange.

Despite the name, the Bexley Academy is really in Thamesmead. This has little in common with any pastoral image of riverside meadows. It is an area of brutal, high-rise blocks.

So the pupils of this locality can hardly believe this school is for them. It is all plate glass, carpets, flat-screen monitors and chrome.

Raw deal

The design is unusual. Around the three vast interior courtyards - the Business, Technology and Arts Courts - there are no traditional classrooms, but light, spacious (and surprisingly quiet) alcoves.

Bexley Academy
Not an average secondary school
There is not a blackboard, linoleum floor, wooden corridor or leaky radiator to be seen. Not only would the facilities be exceptional in the state school sector, they are rarely matched by independent schools.

And the best of it is that they are being enjoyed by a community that has had a raw deal for a long time.

I swear the children sat up straighter and prouder than when I visited them in their old school. They could not wait to tell you how much they liked their new surroundings.

One swallow

For the prime minister it was, no doubt, a proud moment. In his current circumstances, a solid manifestation of his educational reforms was welcome relief.

Beset by problems over the war in Iraq and the prospect of a backbench revolt over university "top-up" fees, he might have been excused a wistful glance back to the days in 1997 when he came into power declaring his priorities were "education, education, education".

But, of course, one city academy does not solve the country's education issues. Nor do the 12 which are now open (although not all yet in such magnificent new buildings). Even the planned 50 within four years will be a drop in the ocean.

That is not to deride the achievement of this school. This innovative combination of private sponsors, private management company and the Department for Education has created a most unusual independent, but state-funded, school.

I suspect it will be much visited by politicians and educators from other authorities and other countries. The model may spread, although finding enough sponsors with deep pockets will be a major problem.

But the wider problems of teacher shortages and school budget shortfalls will not be eased by the creation of a few city academies
Nor has the path of the Bexley Academy always been a smooth one. The mind-set of private sponsors and private management is very different from the mind-set of Whitehall. There have been rows along the way.

But the wider problems of teacher shortages and school budget shortfalls will not be eased by the creation of a few city academies.

When you ask the children at Bexley what is different about their new school they do not initially talk about the buildings. They talk about their teachers. They are just pleased to have them.

That is because in the past, their old school could not attract enough staff. There was a constant reliance on short-term contracts and supply staff.

Indeed, the impressive results that have been achieved by Bexley Academy so far owe nothing to the new buildings, since they occupied them fully only this week.


For the past year they have continued to occupy the old buildings as they watched the new school go up on the site next door.

Bexley Academy
The open-sided classrooms are quieter than you would think
Bearing in mind that these are the same pupils as were at the old school, the results have been impressive.

In 2002 just three students (not 3%, but three individuals) achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C.

In 2003, 20% of students achieved this. Four in 10 have stayed on for the sixth form.

This has been achieved, then, through changes in management, curriculum and teaching methods, not by the new buildings.

The achievement of a full staffing complement (perhaps helped by the prospect of the new buildings) was a key factor. There has also been a big injection of funds.

This week, an international comparison compiled by the OECD showed that the UK's staying-on rate in education for 15- to 19-year-olds was one of the worst among leading industrial nations.

Meanwhile ...

The day it came out I visited another inner city school. It too is improving its results from a very low base.

Walsall Academy
If the look of a building says anything, the new Walsall Academy is shouting that it means business

The head teacher, though, said he could do so much more with better resources. For him the key was his staff. They had to be energetic and committed.

Yet he could not pay them any more to entice them to his inner-city school on an estate you might not feel safe in at night.

Getting enough of the right teachers is the key to raising motivation, standards and staying-on rates of pupils.

And if there are not enough trained teachers, and not enough money, to go around then surely there is a case for a much bigger premium for budgets and salaries at schools in deprived inner cities.

That is why - for all the achievement of Bexley - the government must get its schools' funding right this coming year.

What about us?

Too many head teachers, and parents, must be eyeing the money spent on Bexley Academy and thinking what they could do with some of that.

Some of the schools that have suffered most in this year's budget changes were those in difficult circumstances who lost their Standards Fund money into the general funding pot.

For showing what it is possible to achieve, the government surely deserves praise for creating the conditions for the Bexley Academy.

But if ministers are to deliver on their promises for education, there are many more communities who need what the people of Thamesmead have been given: a school with teachers and facilities to be proud of.

The OECD report this week showed that Britain's overall educational record is good, except amongst the lowest-achieving 25 to 30%.

If Bexley is about anything it is about focusing resources on an area of greatest need.

We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

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