UK to accelerate opening of academies

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The annual target for opening new academy schools is set to rise by more than a quarter as ministers move to disarm critics who claim the government is backsliding on Blairite reforms.

Education officials have worked up plans to accelerate the number of academy schools opening each year from 55 to 70 or more as part of a drive to tackle poorly performing schools.

Backing “more academies, more quickly” is seen by Ed Balls, children’s secretary, as a way to undermine attacks from the Conservatives over his alleged lack of commitment to reforms.

But this accelerated pace has been opposed by some existing academy sponsors who feel the strengths of the academy model, particularly the freedoms they enjoy, may be lost if the government cuts corners to open more schools.

“We disagree over the number of academy schools,” said one sponsor. “It is better to get this programme bedded in and established for the long term.”

Academies are state-funded independent schools with governing boards controlled by outsiders – often a business, educational charity or rich donor. There are 83 academies open and the government has set an overall target of opening 400. The annual target was raised earlier this year from 50 to 55 schools.

A spokesman for Mr Balls said that while they were seeking to accelerate the programme, no decision had been taken to raise the annual target. Whitehall insiders said this would depend on winning funding.

In spite of the expansion, sponsors have expressed concern about the direction of the programme. Specifically they are worried that local authorities – once sidelined by the Blair government – are being given more clout over academies.

They fear that letting more councils “co-sponsor” academies could undermine the principle of independence and attract outsider sponsors that are less committed to running the schools. “There are lots of difficult schools and not a huge number of good sponsors,” said one sponsor.

About a third of academy schools proposals backed by the Brown government have used this “co-sponsorship” model, which is seen by ministers as a pragmatic compromise to win over reluctant local authorities.

Officials considered raising the overall target of opening 400 schools, but that was seen as “meaningless” as there was no time-limit to reach the target. But one person closely involved with the programme said the higher annual target could effectively lead to more than 400 academies opening. “That is the logical outcome,” he said.

The expansion of the academy programme comes as the government looks for ways to reach its “National Challenge” goal of having every school have at least 30 per cent of its pupils achieve five A*-C at GCSE by 2011.

About 638 schools have fallen below this threshold, leaving “638 candidates to become academies”, in the words of one official. A detailed strategy on tackling the schools – which is likely to include an increase in the annual academy target – will be announced in May.

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