North Liverpool Academy sent its first student to the University of Liverpool this year. It was a proud achievement for a school that opened less than three years ago, but it was all the more remarkable in that it also represented the first time a pupil from either of the two local schools that the academy replaced had gone on to higher education.
The University of Liverpool, too, had reason to be pleased, for it is one of the academy's sponsors. Its vice-chancellor, Drummond Bone, says: "We have always had a commitment to widening participation and proper access, so it made every sense that we should help schools in Liverpool that are in trouble. The academy programme was one very obvious way of doing that."
The university's decision to get involved was motivated by a desire to help more of the community's young people than it could otherwise, he says. "We wanted to signal our commitment to schools in Liverpool. In some sense this was a symbolic way of doing it. We're not really in this to recruit students to (the University of) Liverpool, even though it's nice when they come. The key thing is to raise aspirations for students in general to make them think about going to university."
The Liverpool academy is one of 83 so far in the Government's controversial city academies programme. Critics say that the scheme, which partners businesses and institutions with failing schools in an attempt to turn them around, puts the education of children in inexperienced and inexpert hands. The requirement for sponsors to provide £2 million in funding gives wealthy business leaders the power to direct teachers and to determine the curriculum, they argue. And when academies got caught up in former Prime Minister Tony Blair's cash-for-honours scandal, many critics hoped that it would spell the end of the scheme.
Despite fierce opposition, however, academies continue to be rolled out. There is a commitment to open 317 more (200 of which will be operating by 2010). Meanwhile, the sponsorship net has been cast more widely, and more universities are setting up formal partnerships with academy schools, a move that the Government is keen to encourage. In July last year, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, urged all universities to partner an academy in an effort to further the widening participation agenda. To encourage them, universities were exempted from having to pay the £2 million sponsorship fee. So far, 25 universities have signed up, and 30 more are in discussions over sponsorship.
But vice-chancellors such as Bone are keen to distance their involvement in academies from any political agenda. He says: "Our concern is that this becomes something that is part of a political ideology. We're not in it to send any message like that. We're in it for purely educational reasons."
His caution is understandable, especially as his university faced internal criticism for getting involved. "There was quite a bit of resistance," he says. "I think universities do have to watch that they don't get themselves overstretched. I think higher education does have a responsibility in secondary education, but what it mustn't do is try to control it. Having a role and seeking to control it are two different things."
This role is important, believes Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' umbrella body. It fully supports the scheme, which it says allows universities to forge close links with schools, and it has already hosted conferences helping members to explore sponsorship.
Meanwhile, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has appealed for institutions to become sponsors by speaking to them in their own language and terms - through a prospectus. "Universities have clear views about the skills and attitudes they wish to see in their students, and now have the opportunity to play a leading role in school education," it says. "We want universities to apply their professional expertise in matters of teaching, learning, curriculum enrichment and organisation to enable their partner school to shape their ethos and thrive. This is an opportunity to develop, nurture and influence the undergraduates of tomorrow."
And Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, wants to encourage universities to help select and shape young academic talent. "The biggest rewards will go to those institutions that are most successful in unlocking talent, wherever it may be," he says, "and for universities, direct engagement with secondary education is the natural next step in identifying and nurturing potential."
The first higher education institution to sponsor an academy school was the University of the West of England, which linked up with City Academy Bristol in 2001. "Part of our mission is to be supportive of local schools and colleges," says Ron Ritchie, an assistant vice-chancellor at UWE. "We're committed to seeking to raise aspiration in the local area. When the opportunity arose for a partnership, we were very interested in exploring the implications."
The partnership has been successful in improving GCSE results and encouraging pupils to consider higher education - applications from the school to UWE rose from just 16 in 2000 to 49 in 2007. But expanding its pool of potential recruits is not the reason that UWE is involved, Ritchie says. The partnership grew out of a commitment to help young people to "aim higher, whatever that may look like".
There are, of course, risks in forming such close relationships between schools and universities. If numbers of applications from an academy to its sponsor university increase, other local schools could feel neglected; universities could then find themselves facing accusations of favouritism and questions about their admissions policy.
To avoid that situation, UWE is as open about admissions as is possible, says Ritchie. "There have been ups and downs," he admits. "There is a risk that other schools would be unhappy that a university is giving more support to one school than another without that transparency."
Not surprisingly, Rammell does not believe that the academies programme fosters favouritism. "Whatever the relationship between individual universities and schools, admissions decisions remain the sole responsibility of admissions tutors, who will choose candidates who, in their opinion, show both the attainment and the potential for successfully completing the course they have applied for - irrespective of their background or type of school attended," he says.
"I am, however, keen that all universities should have a clear and transparent admissions policy and that measures are in place to ensure their admissions policies are fair and consistently implemented."
University sponsorship of academies is different from commercial sponsorship. The investment is in kind, rather than in cash; it is the practical input from the university that really makes the difference. Typically, appointments will be made to the board, and university representatives will have input into the curriculum and be able to make decisions about the hiring and firing of key staff. The university might also offer its facilities to help train teachers. At best, academy sponsorship is an open exchange of skills between secondary and tertiary education.
Of course, universities are not the only academy sponsors. It is vital that they can build a relationship with their co-sponsors, who are likely to be individuals and organisations firmly rooted in the world of commerce. At the University of Nottingham, those involved in setting up the University of Nottingham Samworth Academy have enjoyed a pleasant experience. The university's partner is David Samworth, a local businessman who has provided the funding for the academy, which will open its gates in September 2009.
Di Birch, pro vice-chancellor at the university, says that working with Samworth has been a positive experience because the two have complementary expertise.
"We describe it as a partnership of equals. In terms of the input into the project, in terms of the decision-making, I think we are working to the same end from slightly different angles. In terms of what we want to deliver, the ethos is absolutely lined up," Birch says. "Whenever the crucial decisions have had to be made, for example about appointing a head teacher, we haven't had any difficulty agreeing."
Birch also believes that co-sponsorship is better for the academy because it allows access to a broad network of useful contacts within and outside education. "Between us we cover a wide range of interests and possible contacts for the school. A school in a really deprived area needs friends in high places - the links parents would offer in a more well-off area.
"I think it's been easy. I haven't felt at odds with David and his team at any stage. I'd say we have been lucky," she says. "The political bit is much harder than the partnership with David Samworth."
The University and College Union remains unconvinced of the merits of academies and opposes the programme on both practical and ideological levels. It outlined its concerns in a pamphlet published with the Anti Academies Alliance. "Vice-chancellors may proclaim sponsoring an academy is being done in the name of social justice, but the reality is that the university-sponsored school will be seen as 'better' than other schools. The hierarchy will be strengthened," the pamphlet argues. "In some areas, there are plans to sponsor a number of schools, in effect becoming a mini education authority. But what experience and mandate do they have to run our schools?
"The academy programme is a controversial experiment that runs contrary to social justice. Involvement as sponsors carries the threat of reputational damage. Instead, universities and colleges should concentrate on widening participation by expanding and developing partnership schemes," it concludes.
There is considerable sympathy for such views among academics. Richard Hatcher is senior lecturer in education policy at Birmingham City University and a member of the Anti Academies Alliance. He is unhappy that his institution is to sponsor Birmingham's eighth city academy. For him, there are too many unanswered questions about the university's involvement. Who will be elected to govern the school? Will academic staff be expected to take on an additional workload?
Hatcher hopes that the UCU and the Anti Academies Alliance can encourage universities to pause for thought before they commit to a close and potentially problematic relationship. "I hope it will make universities think again about what they're up to," he says. "I can see the attraction to university managers. They are anxious to do anything they can to establish good relations with the Government, and acquiescing in this particular government programme seems to be one way of doing that. Of course, the reason why they (universities) are being asked is because the Government's original plan to get companies to get involved hasn't been successful."
Academics such as Hatcher also hold fundamental ideological objections to the programme. The planned academy with which Birmingham City University is to be paired will be geared towards the creative industries. Its pupils will be selected by aptitude for the creative arts at age 14 and 16.
"I think that this will turn out to be a form of social selection," Hatcher says. "It's the opposite of widening participation. Birmingham is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. What's much more likely to happen is that the school will end up being a surrogate grammar school specialising in creative arts.
"We already have a divided schools system, and the move towards specialist secondary schools is just part of that. The academies add to that. There are financial advantages, in that most of them have got expensive new buildings, plus they get additional bonus payments for the first few years."
The UCU shares Hatcher's ideological objection, but it has practical concerns, too. Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, worries that the creation of academies does little to ensure that higher education is available to all based on ability. "Sponsoring an academy would inevitably lead to weaker links with other schools in the area and a stretching of resources," she says. "The UCU is not alone in its concerns about the transparency and accountability of these new schools, especially as there is reduced staff involvement on the governing body."
At University College London, political objections to the programme have delayed plans for the institution to pair up with a new academy. Michael Worton, the vice-provost, says UCL has a close and honest relationship with schools in Islington, so he was keen to sign up and become a sponsor.
"We are the biggest employer in Camden, and we really wanted to work more with our local borough. We would be able to find new ways of teaching and learning that we would then share," Worton says.
From the start of discussions in 2005, opposition within the university and the local community delayed the process. Academics were sceptical about the time and energy that the institution would have to expend on the project. At the same time, Labour lost control of the London Borough of Camden to a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition - a group that was fundamentally more sceptical of the project. Despite these hold-ups, the university was confirmed as a sponsor of the proposed new school in November.
Worton believes the academy partnership offers "wonderful opportunities" for UCL. "In the universities we do have a tendency to complain that students are coming in with the wrong kind of maths or not the right kind of English. We don't have as joined-up a system as we would like to think," he says. "We need to be working a lot more closely, in a really experimental way, with the secondary sector. The schools sector can teach us a great deal about the expectations of young people."
But while controversy continues to dog the programme, not all universities can muster the same excitement as UCL for the opportunities it offers to higher education. In a blow to the Government's expansion plans, neither the University of Oxford nor the University of Cambridge has signed up to become a sponsor.
"The University of Cambridge is not in favour of supporting an individual academy," a spokesman confirms. "Given the competitiveness of admission to Cambridge, significant involvement in an academy could lead to a conflict of interest. We see ourselves taking a national rather than local role."
Cambridge is already working with a number of schools, some of them academies, on various outreach schemes. The Cambridge School Classics project is helping to introduce Latin at secondary level, and several local schools have close links with individual colleges. The university has also expressed interest in providing educational leadership in specific subject areas if a mechanism for doing so were developed. But despite its outreach and widening participation work, sponsorship is a step too far for the university.
Where does this leave the programme? With almost half the sector either already signed up or engaged in discussions with academies, it is still in a very healthy position. Although Oxford has refused to get involved, Oxford Brookes University is very keen to do so. It is the lead sponsor of the new city academy due to open its gates in September. Hilary Lowe, assistant dean of the School of Education at Oxford Brookes, says the university has a regional role to support school improvement.
She too has seen opposition to the scheme and admits that the lead-up to the opening will be a "challenging period of transition". "There has been a range of reactions," Lowe says, "(but we're) just trying to explore what it means ... it's a departure for universities."
Universities do, she says, fulfil a national and international role but they are also part of a local community. "We consider it a privilege to be involved."
A NEW SPIRIT IN WEST LONDON
Brunel University is a co-sponsor of Harefield Academy in the London Borough of Hillingdon. As a sponsor of the academy, which opened in 2005, Brunel University has a significant say in its direction and its work. The university has a presence at the academy, and the school regularly hosts events and classes at the university.
"I'm very happy with the relationship. It's incredibly positive," says Lynn Gadd, principal of Harefield Academy. "Our (pupils) realise once they're on campus that the (university) students are just the same as they are. It allows them to believe that university is for them.
"Academics come to the school whenever they're able to," Gadd says. "It's not unusual that someone could come up and speak to the pupils. We use their expertise in subject areas to get our pupils to understand that their subjects (at university) are only an extension of their A levels."
The close partnership that is developing between the two institutions allows pupils to step up comfortably and confidently into higher education.
Both have reputations for success in sports. One former academy pupil, Rion Pierre, a sprinter and Olympic hopeful, is now a student of sports science at Brunel.
"It would be lovely to have a transition through to the university. We know that's a possibility," Gadd says. "While our students don't have preferential treatment for entry to the university, if we get students (capable of university study) we make the case on their behalf to Brunel, and the university takes that on board."
The example of Pierre is helping to raise the aspirations of others in the area, says Linda Thomas, pro vice-chancellor at Brunel.
"We wanted to support the academy idea because what they do is to take areas of the country where the schools are finding it difficult and they offer not just new money and new buildings but a new spirit," she continues.
"What they are managing to do is extraordinary, in my view. Not only are they raising achievement levels of the people in the school, but they are having an effect on the society around them."
Brunel is a co-sponsor of two academies in Hillingdon - Harefield and Stockley Academy (which also opened in 2005). Thomas has taken on the role of governor at Stockley, which Brunel sponsors with its partners Watford Football Club and a local business figure.
The experience has its challenges as well as its rewards for the institution, Thomas admits. "They (other sponsors) come from a different sector and they push us quite hard, but it's always to the benefit of the young people.
"Built-in expectation is a bit of a negative. It's difficult to meet the targets that are set for new academies. Everybody wants them to succeed and to succeed quickly. If you want the academy to reach the average level for any secondary school in the country, it's quite a challenging target - I think anybody would say that."
THE RISE OF ACADEMIES
Academy scheme begins
University of the West of England is the first institution to express an interest in sponsorship of an academy
First three academies open
Government announces that 200 academies will be open or under way by 2010
First academy co-sponsored by a university opens. The City Academy Bristol is co-sponsored by UWE
Prime Minister announces scaling-up of academy programme to 400 schools
Removal of requirement for universities and high-performing schools and colleges to contribute £2 million in funding before becoming a sponsor
Number of academies in England hits 83
Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills publishes a prospectus encouraging universities to sponsor a city academy. Gordon Brown says 50 of the new schools will open in the next three years
Number of universities signed up to sponsor or co-sponsor an academy reaches 25. They include Birmingham City University, Brunel University, City University London, Durham University, the University of Nottingham, Sheffield Hallam University, University College London and UWE. Discussions are taking place with 30 other universities to join the academies programme.