Today's announcement that sponsorship requirements will be relaxed for new academy promoters reflects a significant shift in the direction of the programme over the last few years. More academies are being sponsored by universities, FE colleges and other schools than before, and it has been unrealistic to ask them for the £2 million that a philanthropist or corporation might have been willing to contribute. Moreover, the £2m has more recently become an endowment rather than a capital contribution, as academies are built through the Building Schools for the Future programme.
Contrary to popular mythology, neither of these developments represented a 'new direction' after Tony Blair stepped down. Both were approved before then, and were seen by Andrew Adonis as a way of expanding the programme more rapidly. The key issue for sponsors should be the extent to which they engage in school life more than the depth of their pockets. So, provided a strong commitment of personnel and support comes with sponsorship, these changes should be an opportunity rather than a hindrance to academies.
With academies showing a remarkable five point leap in GCSE results - including English and Maths - this year, three times the average improvement of all schools last year, it is clear that the programme has come of age. Of course, there are one or two academies that have not initially worked. It would be extraordinary if there were not. But the key point which the teaching unions need to recognise is that, taken as a whole, this is now proving to be the single most successful intervention in inner city schools of any government in recent times. The churlishness of ATL general secretary Mary Bousted on Today this morning was unbecoming, though, to be fair, she is on the moderate wing of union opinion on academies.
The real significance of today's announcement was the welcome willingness of Ed Balls, the schools secretary, to start talking up this success. And when he did so, his Tory opposite number Michael Gove was left uncharacteristically floundering for something sensible to say.
UPDATE: I've also written about academies at the Public Finance blog. This posting has also been picked up by Progress Online.