Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

Balls pushes ahead with academies

By Mike Baker

Schools Secretary Ed Balls
Ed Balls says he wants to keep up the pace on creating 400 academies

The Schools Secretary Ed Balls says he will resist calls to slow the pace of the academy programme.

The flagship reform received a blow this week, as a Carlisle school became the second academy to be judged as failing by inspectors.

Mr Balls said it was only to be expected that there would be "variance in performance" among the academies.

An Ofsted report this week placed the Richard Rose Central Academy into special measures.

The inspectors' report noted the school's opening had been brought forward 12 months as part of the government's 'fast track programme'.


The inspectors said the "accelerated" opening of the academy had created challenges that "exceeded the capacity of the leaders and managers to cope with".

Richard Rose Central Academy
Richard Rose Central Academy was put into special measures by inspectors

The government plans to create 400 academies, which are autonomous but state-funded schools. The Carlisle school's failure follows a Middlesbrough academy that was failed in 2005.

Mr Balls defended the need to press ahead with the programme.

"Where you have got schools under-performing, and an academy offers a new resource and new leadership, then naturally people will want to move quickly, and that pressure comes from local authorities and parents as well as from the government."

But he promised that where problems arose "the need for tougher action is greater than in any other school".

Despite evidence from Ofsted that the fast-tracking of the Carlisle academy contributed to its problems, Mr Balls insisted that the government now had "pretty substantial experience" of creating academies and "moving quickly works in the majority of cases".

The Schools Secretary explained that his department had been "monitoring events in Carlisle closely" and as a result he had sent the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, to see it for himself.


Mr Knight had reported back that there were weaknesses in the school's leadership, a view confirmed by Ofsted.

Mr Balls acknowledged there had occasionally been problems with new academies either because of "problems of integration of schools" or "issues of leadership".

Speaking about the Carlisle school specifically, he said "this was a case where two schools did not come together".

He noted there had been "similar problems" in Southampton, a reference to problems at the Oasis City Academy in the city.

Mr Balls endorsed the swift action to remove the academy's leadership, saying "there cannot be one rule for academies and another for other schools - if tough action is needed, then we will be tough".


The Carlisle case has been seen as a setback for the policy of giving headships to non-teachers. The chief executive of the Richard Rose Federation, Peter Noble, was appointed after a career in health service management.

Asked about this, the schools secretary's response suggested he had some doubts about the promoting non-teachers to such high-profile school leadership roles.

Mr Balls said "I am sure this case will focus the minds of local authorities, sponsors and the department in the future."

However, he added that "as a principle, having external input can be pretty positive".

Pressed further, he said only that he had noted the comments from the head teachers' leader, John Dunford, that promoting non-teachers to headships could work but only if they had first spent time as non-teaching members of a school's leadership team.

"John Dunford says eminently sensible things," was Mr Ball's comment.

'Rising results'

Despite the problems in Carlisle, Mr Balls said he remained a "big supporter" of the academy programme as the evidence showed they were delivering "faster rising results in deprived communities".

However he added that they were "part of the wider family of schools, so it is essential that they cooperate with neighbouring schools".

Indeed, it is understood that the government has been considering legislation to require academies to collaborate with other schools on a variety of issues, including behaviour partnerships. The problems in Carlisle came after criticism of another school reform programme championed by the government, the creation of specialist colleges.

A recent report from Professor Alan Smithers says the idea that bestowing specialist status on a school brings better results is "an illusion". He argues they have done well simply because they were efficient schools which had been given more money.

Mr Balls refuted the claim, adding this was "not the first time" he had disagreed with Professor Smithers' conclusions. He insisted that in specialist science schools there had been an improved uptake of single science GCSEs and results had improved.

However the schools secretary did admit that better results were not simply down to specialist status.

"Does introduction of a specialism in itself drive up results? Probably not. But do good leaders in schools value specialism? Almost universally."

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