Look before you leap into a partnership

November 9, 2007

Academies are still not worthy of tie-ups with the university sector, says Martin Rogers. The Government is encouraging universities to widen participation in higher education through a dramatic increase in their links with schools, initially through closer engagement with academies and trust schools. But before committing themselves, universities should investigate what lies behind the scepticism towards the academies programme.

Widening participation, and Gordon Brown's idea of every secondary school having a higher education partnership, is a desirable policy. But it is essential to construct a strategic approach to overcoming the barriers to learning that hold back so many young people and communities and to build a broad social coalition behind its objectives and its means of implementation. And that's just what's missing from the academies programme.

The challenge of breaking the link between social background and education aspiration and outcomes is one of the highest priorities for it is at last widely recognised as essential to the nation's economic and social wellbeing. But it will require the enthusiastic engagement of all involved if it is to succeed. So it seems perverse to try to create links for every secondary school with a university by basing the initiative on an initial engagement through academies - a radical response to "failure" that came to symbolise the distrust between Government and other stakeholders.

In their present form, academies remain widely disliked by school staff and their unions, local authorities, school governors, many parents and local schools in areas where they are proposed; and staff at University College London, where the initiative was launched, picketed the event to show their disapproval of their university's involvement in a local academy. The Government has recently made welcome changes to the programme - not least to the sponsorship requirements as they affect universities - but there remain serious issues around governance, accountability and the impact on, and relations with, other schools.

The Children's Services Network report, A New Direction , which was commissioned by the Trades Union Congress, points out that many of the claims made for academies, some repeated in the new Academies, Trusts and Higher Education prospectus, do not bear close scrutiny. For example, the evidence suggests that while there have been improvements, they vary greatly, they can also be found in other schools and there is no identifiable "academy effect"; there has not been widespread innovation, nor much work with other local schools; there are no clear criteria for academies; and few (if any) have replaced schools in special measures. If progress is to be made in building a consensual approach to tackling disadvantage, then objections to academies must be taken seriously by the Government and others.

There needs to be a brief but rigorous review by an independent panel of academics and policy specialists of the various elements of recent school improvement programmes to assess evidence for their effectiveness. The Government should then clarify its strategic approach, showing how each element (including academies) contributes and how they all fit together. Ministers should also agree to review the programme to address the concerns of those whose support is essential to the successful implementation of a refreshed strategy.

Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, writes in the new prospectus: "The challenge now is for universities to reach out much further into schools and communities with low levels of participation in tertiary education, and to help build up aspirations from the bottom ... Universities will need in future to engage with children in early secondary and even in the primary phase. It is at these ages that low expectations are all too easily established and reinforced." This clearly implies that universities must be part of a broadly based coalition with clear strategic aims, not merely part of an individual initiative.

I would urge universities to look at our report and to use their influence to help secure the changes needed to the academy programme before signing up to it on the present terms. And I would urge ministers to seize the opportunity to construct such a broad alliance behind a clear, comprehensive and coherent strategy to tackle the link between poverty, barriers to learning and educational outcomes.

Martin Rogers is policy consultant at the Children's Services Network. The report A New Direction: A Review of the School Academies Programme is available at www.tuc.org.uk/extras/academies.pdf . .

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