Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Blair's education revolution bears fruit

Not having read Tony Blair's book yet, I shall leave it to others to litter their blogs with extracts and index-referencing. But it is notable that his memoirs appear on a day when the government has published remarkable data confirming the success of academies.

This is not about Michael Gove's decision to focus his attention on persuading outstanding schools to join the movement, or the development of free schools, on which initial overambition has been replaced by cautious realism. Rather it is about the relatively unsung success of Blair's academies which were embraced (albeit with some pointless interference with their independence) by his successor despite earlier misgivings.

Today sees a lot of attention on the limited number of 'new' academies - there are 32 outstanding schools that heroically managed to convert in time for a new term, with 110 more on the way - but it is also the start of term for 64 academies that had been initiated by the Labour government. They are largely in disadvantaged areas, replacing failing schools and offering new hope and leadership for thousands of youngsters.

Early indications suggest that academies taking GCSEs in both 2009 and 2010 have seen their GCSE results rise by a fifth - from 35% to 42% of pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and Maths - in a single year. This is three times the national average improvement rate (after several years of similar such improvements). Results in schools run by Harris and Ark have exceeded an 11% rise, and the remarkable Mossbourne Academy has stayed above the 80% mark despite a slight dip. When one considers that half of all secondary schools in England couldn't get 30% of their pupils to achieve the five good GCSE standard in 1997, and many inner city schools found 20% a challenge, this is a remarkable result. [Fewer than 200/3200 schools are likely to be below 30% this year]

The challenge for the coalition is three-fold. First, having devoted so much energy to encouraging outstanding schools to become academies, they must refocus their energies on failing schools and turning them around; there are fewer than before, but the challenge remains. Second, they must ensure that their pupil premium does not take money away from academies in disadvantaged areas, which it could well do if the Treasury has its way, and consider linking part of the premium to improvement. And third, they should be much more imaginative in encouraging the development of new academy trusts, particularly for primary schools but also to link outstanding academies with schools that need extra support. There has been a lot of rhetoric about social mobility: we have yet to see the real detail.

Academies are a success story for disadvantaged pupils - but they will only continue to be so if the detail of the policy focus is as relentless as it was when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

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