Minister spearheads drive for more academy schools in Norfolk

Norfolk's great and good gathered for Lord Nash's speech in praise of academy schools. Photo: Bill S

Norfolk's great and good gathered for Lord Nash's speech in praise of academy schools. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Bill Smith - Archant

The drive to create more academy schools is the key to improving education in Norfolk, according to an education minister holding a series of three unique events to recruit new academy sponsors.

Lord Nash last night flew into Norfolk to address the first gathering of community leaders the Department for Education has held on this scale to push for more academies – schools that are independent of the local authority.

Leaders from the worlds of business, education, charity, faith and local government were told the county needed leaders with the ability to set the strategy and direction of schools.

He told them: 'Please take advantage of this opportunity, if you can, because now more than ever before our schools need to be internationally competitive and there's never been a more important time in recent history to get involved in education. Your country and your county literally need you.'

Academy sponsors are responsible for recruiting headteachers, setting the curriculum, and deciding pay and conditions of staff and the size and composition of governing bodies.

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Lord Nash told the EDP: 'We felt [Norfolk] would be a good place to start to try to get the wider community involved in schools. Under this government the door is wide open for people to help the school system and that's unusual.

'Because of the geographic diversity, the problems are more difficult, but if we can crack it here we can crack it elsewhere.'

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He added: 'The attraction of the academy model is that we have a group which has clear autonomy and clear accountability and is literally in control of its own destiny. When you talk to people who are academies they often say it's our school...that feeling of ownership. They are not at the whim of the ups and downs of local issues.'

Theodore Agnew, a Norfolk multi-millionaire who sponsored the Great Yarmouth Primary Academy and chairs the Department for Education's Academies Board, said the department chose Norfolk because of low educational standards, and because there were too few academies and not enough sponsors.

He said the local authority was supportive of academy sponsors, but felt strongly they should be local people, something with which he agreed. He said potential sponsors with no background in education would be matched with specialists in that field.

Questions from potential sponsors included how radical sponsors can be, whether academies can be selective – they cannot unless their predecessor school was – and how restrictive the national curriculum is.

The event was hosted by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, who co-sponsored the first academy in the county.

He said: 'What I think the academy movement has done is spread responsibility, increase partnerships with all sorts of institutions, and it invites us all to become involved in the education of a rising generation.'

The continuing focus on education in Norfolk follows Ofsted's one-week blitz of 28 school inspections in March, which found that three out of every five schools assessed were not providing a good enough education.

The inspectors last month targeted the county council itself for a first of a new kind of inspection to examine how it supports schools to improve, with the verdict expected to be announced before the summer holiday.

Lord Nash was due to hold a breakfast meeting with Norfolk business leaders this morning, and a later meeting with education leaders about how they can 'shape and lead Norfolk's academy programme'.

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