Academies: The facts

Tony Blair wants academies to be part of his education legacy, while his opponents say they are unaccountable and a waste of money. With the two sides lining up for a public meeting next week on the proposed academy at Heartsease High in Norwich, education correspondent STEVE DOWNES weighs up the arguments.

Tony Blair wants academies to be part of his education legacy, while his opponents say they are unaccountable and a waste of money. With the two sides lining up for a public meeting next week on the proposed academy at Heartsease High in Norwich, education correspondent STEVE DOWNES weighs up the arguments.

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What is an academy?

Academies are state-maintained independent schools set up with the help of outside sponsors. They were established in 2000 to drive up standards by replacing failing schools in struggling areas. The academy trust, led by the sponsors, runs the schools outside the local authority's control, but operates within the national requirements for curriculum and standards.


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How are they funded?

Academies are directly funded by the government, unlike other state schools, which get most of their money via the local authority. The sponsors must contribute £2m to kick it off, with about £25m coming from the government - usually to provide a purpose built school.

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How many academies are there in England?

There are currently 47, with another 100 in the pipeline - including ones at Heartsease High in Norwich and on the site of the Park High in King's Lynn. Sponsors include BT, Channel 4, University College London, Microsoft, the BBC and Manchester Airport.

Why are academies controversial?

Critics rail at private individuals and companies being able to buy influence in a school. They argue that the sponsors are unaccountable and can use their money to promote their own ideas and doctrines in classrooms. They cite examples including Christian philanthropist Sir Peter Vardy, who is sponsoring academies in the north of England and has been accused of advocating the teaching of creationism instead of evolution in science. Opponents also argue that the large sums of money would be better invested in improving education in a range of schools.

What is proposed at Heartsease?

Christian businessman Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James are sponsors for the scheme, which would almost certainly see the current school demolished and replaced with a new one. It currently has just under 400 pupils, and the sponsors - who plan to put in £1.95m and £50,000 respectively - want the new school to cater for 950.

Why Heartsease?

Heartsease High does not fit the criteria set out by the government for transformation into an academy. Recent improvements in performance mean it is far from a “failing” school. In fact, the government initially earmarked the Park High at King's Lynn and Oriel High at Gorleston as perfect sites for Norfolk's first academy. But Mr Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich preferred Heartsease. Norfolk County Council was always likely to support the plan, on the basis that £2m of private money and £25m from the government was too good to turn down. There are also strong suggestions that the government has told local authorities that their ability to access millions of pounds in cash from the building schools for the future initiative, to transform high schools, is linked to how many academies they successfully promote.

Is the proposed academy at Heartsease a “faith school”?

It depends who you ask. The sponsors are Christians, which has prompted great suspicion. But they insist religious education will come from Norfolk's agreed syllabus (which does not promote creationism) and that the admissions policy will not be based on prejudicial selection by any criteria, including achievement, gender or faith. Mr Dacre said: “We consider the opportunity to support an academy in Heartsease as an act of Christian service. We regard it as a privilege to invest time and energy, extending the best possible start to each and every young person - of all faiths and none - raised or living in Heartsease.”

What is the academy's vision and ethos?

The vision is to improve school facilities, enhance opportunities and drive up attainment among youngsters in a challenging area. The ethos is Christian and the sponsors say it will be expressed through creating a school that is caring and fair to all, teaching them self-respect and to respect others. Heartsease High's engineering specialism would transfer to the academy, which would add an environmental specialism.

Why is it a good idea?

Heartsease High currently educates only 60pc of the school-age children in its catchment area, with the remaining 40pc choosing to go to other high schools. Despite the school's rapid recent improvements, attainment has historically been poor.

The sponsors believe that a new school would provide a fresh start and better opportunities for local children, who live in one Norfolk's most deprived wards. They believe that state-of-the-art facilities would provide a better environment for students to be content and to learn.

Why is it a bad idea?

It's an awful lot of money for little or no guaranteed return. Academies attract more than double the money per pupil of state-controlled high schools. A recent education select committee report concluded that academies had not significantly raised standards. There are fears that the Heartsease academy, which is yet to be given a name, could have a detrimental effect on neighbouring high schools by attracting some of their pupils.

If it goes ahead, what will it be like and when will it open?

A design for the proposed new school has not yet been submitted. The school was originally planned to open in September 2009. But it is now more likely to be put back to September 2010.

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