The government has adopted a brisk approach to broadening the day-to-day management and running of schools to include people who are not necessarily professional educators.
The previous Labour administration’s academies programme is to be expanded, while Michael Gove, Conservative education minister, has added to the mix free schools – charitable charter schools set up by private groups but funded by the state.
While Mr Gove’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners appear less convinced about the path that has been set, business organisations and parents’ group are more positive.
“Business has been encouraged by what has been going on,” says James Fothergill, head of education and skills at the CBI. “We support the widening of the academies programme, but we would like the government to go even further to include not just ‘outstanding’ schools but those that are coasting.
“There is also a strong case for allowing profitmaking companies to set up and manage schools themselves. That is not possible at the moment.”
It was a Conservative government that launched the idea of allowing business to become involved in schools free from local authority control when it created city technology colleges in the mid-1980s. Labour developed the idea and expanded the scheme to about 200 academies.
These are intended to take a more creative approach to education, although they must still follow the national curriculum in the core subjects of maths, English and science.
They depend on a private sponsor, which can be an individual, a trust or a company, whose vision is meant to drive the school.
Sponsors were originally expected to contribute 10 per cent of the academy’s capital costs, up to a maximum of £2m ($3m), though this requirement has been relaxed to allow sponsors without the money but with the skills and leadership to run an academy.
This was intended to allow organisations such as universities, private schools and local authorities to become sponsors.
The academy’s other capital and running costs are met from local authority grants. In return for their backing, sponsors are able to influence the academy’s curriculum, specialism, ethos and its buildings. The sponsor can also appoint people to the school’s governing body.
Criticism of academies has focused on their performance, some have done poorly, and concerns that academic improvements have been achieved by excluding weak pupils. They have also been accused of draining funds from existing state schools.
Despite this, the government is seeking to increase the number of schools qualifying for academy status and has widened the criteria to include primary schools. More than 1,500 schools have applied to become academies, of which half are primaries, and about 900 of which have been ranked as “outstanding” by Ofsted.
The original academies were established to improve standards at poorly performing schools and there is a worry, including among business people, that little will be gained by including schools performing well.
Concerns about their impact on existing schools surround the government’s programme of free schools. Based on a Swedish model, they would allow parent groups, charities, universities and businesses to set up schools, though most attention has focused on parent-backed proposals.
The original target was for 50-100 of these schools to be set up each year, though only 16 have been approved to open in September 2011 and all of these could struggle to open in time to meet the deadline.
Lord Harris, one of the original backers of academies who supports a federation of nine such schools in south London, has no doubts about the government’s programme. The government’s policies “could not be more positive for children,” he says.
“We need more academies to put more pressure on local authorities to improve their schools. If this [programme] weakens them, it is because they have got bad management. They should be saying to themselves: ‘We have got to do something to keep up.’ ”
Lord Harris says there is strong demand from parents for his schools. A survey of parents in Croydon, where the federation has three schools, showed 28 per cent want their children to go to one. He is considering plans for two more schools in Croydon and intends to expand the federation to a total of 25 schools in south London.
But as the government presses on with these initiatives, some of those involved in bringing business and schools together have expressed concerns about the complexity of the education framework.
“Governments have overcomplicated the system with a plethora of qualifications and agencies that business struggles to understand,” says Tim Hutchings, chief executive of Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce, which runs schoolwork placement and training initiatives.
Business is willing to contribute to the cost of training, he says, and in the current economic climate will probably be asked to do more. But in return, it expects the state to help students achieve the right standard of education. The government’s latest plans will depend on business getting even more involved.
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