Page last updated at 09:01 GMT, Wednesday, 3 August 2005 10:01 UK

'Positive picture' of academies

By David Bell
Chief Inspector of Schools for England

David Bell
David Bell says progress is being made

Over the past three years, I have told the story of a steadily improving education system.

In my annual report published in February, I noted that many of the conditions were in place for further improvement, recognising that some schools continued to face many obstacles.

Nowhere is that more true than in some of our inner city areas. For too long, successive governments have wrung their hands in anguish at the state of city schools and hoped, often forlornly, that doing more of the same will bring about change.

And to be fair, some urban schools have improved dramatically. But too many have not.

And that is what makes the city academies programme so important.

For the first time, a post-war government has attempted to bring about radical change, in a systematic way, to areas of the country facing the greatest educational need. That is not an easy or straightforward task.

'Much to do'

This week, Ofsted reports on its 13th monitoring visit to an academy.

No-one who has read all 13 academy monitoring letters could pretend that everything in the garden is rosy.

There is much to do if pupils at all academies are to benefit fully from this new-style approach to education.

But it is very important to stick to the facts on academies.

On the 13 monitoring visits my inspectors have made, they found that five academies were making good progress and most were making at least satisfactory progress.

In some cases, what has been achieved in a short time is nothing less than remarkable.

For example, the Capital City Academy in Brent is under very good leadership and has already demonstrated a significant capacity to improve. Or take the Manchester Academy where inspectors commented on the strong team spirit among staff and pupils and the positive support from parents.

Other academies such as Greig in Haringey, the City of London academy in Southwark and Kings in Middlesbrough are making significant inroads into a legacy of poor behaviour and low attendance.

There is no doubt that much remains to be done to improve academic standards in the academies. But it is worthy of note that, already, a number of academies are achieving better than their predecessor schools, and than other schools in similar contexts.

It is also important to remember that many of them were starting from a low base and frankly it would be unrealistic to expect dramatic improvements overnight.


Crucially, though, there is now hope in areas where previously there was none or little worth talking about.

Inspired leadership, committed staff, and supportive parents, great facilities, pupils who want to learn and are proud of their school - these are the factors that have the potential to make a dramatic difference to the educational opportunities of thousands of young people.

So why the hostility to the city academies?

"They cost too much," say some critics. Actually, the costs of failure are considerably higher.

And, in many of the areas in which the academies are located, there has been generation upon generation of failure. So, if the brand new city academy is unlike anything else that has ever been there before, then it is no less than the young people deserve.

Some are concerned about the impact on other schools.

Frankly, a few schools in some places could do with a healthy dose of competition. And it will be no bad thing, particularly if parents no longer have to despair about choosing private education when they actually want their child in a state school.

We should not have such low aspirations for our school system that we believe that emerging good new schools mean the inevitable demise of others. Diversity

Actually, it will be a dramatic improvement in some areas if, for the first time, parents have a genuine choice of schools of different types, all of which could serve their children equally well.

The increasing diversity of the state system is also a useful rejoinder to those who think that it stands for nothing other than dull and uniform mediocrity.

For some schools, it may mean losing children who currently travel a long distance to attend, as the academies increasingly become the local school of choice.

But that, surely, is what almost every parent aspires to: a decent school in the neighbourhood that their son or daughter, and their friends, can attend.

I am well aware of the hostility towards city academies expressed by sections of the educational establishment. But I take a different view.

Whatever its flaws, this is an initiative that is designed to transform the life chances of young people, many of whom come from the most deprived sections of our society.

I have never accepted that bad schools are all right as long as they are for other people's children.

My inspectors will not pull their punches when it comes to reporting on the quality of education, even in schools that are part of a flagship policy.

But sticking to the evidence means reporting openly and honestly where a broadly positive picture is starting to emerge about city academies.

It is early days - but I welcome a programme that may help consign generations of inner city failure finally, and properly, to our educational past.

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