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Academies: are they a step forward or a step backward?
More and more of our secondary schools are becoming academies but is this creating a two-tier state education system? Health and Education Editor Barry Nelson hears from both sides of the debate.
LAST week a Durham University education expert, Professor Stephen Gorard published evidence which showed that the growth of academies was encouraging greater social segregation.
His research found that largely successful secondary schools which have converted to academies had a much lower proportion of children eligible for free school meals than the national average and poorer children were more likely to be found in local authority controlled comprehensives.
In conclusion Prof Gorard suggested education policy-makers could reduce social segregation by restricting the diversity in the range of schools offered to parents.
The professor pointed out that the first academies introduced by the last Labour Government were very different from what are now known as converter academies.
He argues that while the first academies were set up in the most deprived areas to turn around failing schools, many of the schools which have converted to academy status since the Coalition Government was elected were already successful schools which wanted to enjoy greater freedoms by leaving local authority control.
Prof Gorard tells The Northern Echo that there was still no hard evidence to show that academies had a better record of achievement compared to equivalent comprehensive schools.
"They cant have it both ways. They either know they are better, in which case everybody is entitled to go to an academy, or we dont know, in which case why are we opening more academies?" he adds In a statement the DfE said: "We entirely disagree that there should be less choice for parents. It is absolutely right that parents and pupils have a diverse range of good schools offering the academic and vocational routes that suit them best.
"This month 93 new free schools are opening their doors for the first time. Our reforms are ensuring that all children - not just those of the rich - can go to a good local school."
The DfE said more than half of all secondary schools are now academies and the results "are improving far faster than the national average."
Debbie Clinton, principal of Nunthorpe Academy in Middlesbrough, says:"Our students come from many different backgrounds. Our goal is to ensure they all reach their full potential by stretching their intellectual abilities and equipping them with independence and confidence.
"Academy status has given Nunthorpe more autonomy, enabling us to improve our already very strong performance and to spend our increased budget more effectively in the interests of our students - including those entitled to free school meals."
"The Ofsted chief inspector's annual report, listing all outstanding schools in England, is persistently dominated by the types of school talked of in the study. It is rarely, if ever, dominated by 'bog standard' one-size-fits-all community schools so beloved of the liberal 'intelligentsia'."
"Data is available showing converter academies are 'doing the business' with high rates of progress among all types of students because they are not 'bog standard' in either spirit or structure.
"As an academy, we have no qualms about offering curriculum and qualifications that challenge and stimulate students at all ability levels and from all types of backgrounds.
Mrs Clinton also questions Prof Gorards remedy of reducing choice for parents.
"Does he really mean our children, upon whose education the future success of this country depends, should be taught in uninspiring, unexceptional schools?
A spokesman for Darlington Borough Council said Prof Gorards research was "not relevant" because all secondary schools in the town are academies "and therefore there is no sense of the segregation as reported in the research, here."
The spokesman added: "Our schools all perform well and continue to improve."
However, Simon Kennedy, North-East regional organiser for the NASUWT teaching union takes a different view.
"Our union believes that the overriding rationale for any change to education policy should be to raise standards, tackle disadvantage and inequality and narrow the achievement gap, " he says.
"Any changes should also safeguard and enhance the values and ethos of state education. The promotion of social cohesion is at the heart of public service provision.
"Economically, the creation of academies is a flawed strategy. The Coalition Government is focusing on public service expenditure to seek, it claims, to address the deficit and yet academies will be more costly to the taxpayer as the administrative, financial and specialist central services currently provided by the local authority will need to be replicated in each school.
He says there is no evidence that shows that structural change such as conversion to academy status increases the educational success in schools.
"Some academies have improved but so have community schools with Belmont Community School in Durham winning this year's North-East "Secondary School of the Year" Award."
The NASUWT believes that all state-funded schools should be directly linked to local authorities to enable effective local planning for the provision of high quality comprehensive educational services, to secure the economies of scale to be realised in procurement and to monitor standards of provision.
"A recent study by London School of Economics said they are seriously concerned that the proposed extension of the academies programme will exacerbate already existing educational inequalities. Also Professor Gorard from Durham University has shown in his recent study that having different types of schools increases segregation in education, thus strongly suggesting that although the Government may indicate that they are introducing this programme to reduce disadvantage, the reality is that it is a wholly ideological move and should be opposed."
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