A "lost year of education" for Academy school?
- 7 Nov 06, 08:42 PM
I've been at the Paddington Academy in North London to see what staff and pupils there hope does not go down as the first big failure of the new public-private education system....
Its predecessor school, says the government, was failing: just 25% of pupils were leaving with 5 A-C grade GCSEs. The plan was for the school to "decant" to an older building for a term, then move into a brand new building, with an enriched curriculum specialising in media and performance, and - because the school is backed by a software charity - whizzy new computers.
But the plan went wrong. Instead of a single term, students face a year coping with facilities that - according to documents I've seen - are substandard. Toilets were, allegedly, a health hazard; less than half the computers worked; rubbish and graffiti greeted teachers arriving to start the new venture.
The delay in moving to the new school is due to a contract dispute between the builder, Gleeson, and a subcontractor working on the cladding. Nothing new there to anyone familiar with the construction industry: but managing that challenge has proved difficult; it was only last week that students were told they would not get into the new building until next September.
Padraic Finn, NUT rep for the borough, told me his members had to clean and decorate the temporary school in the first week of taking over.
But the situation has more than just the unions on the warpath. Former Labour minister Karen Buck MP, whose son attends Paddington Academy, has championed the move to Academy status: now she says the building is not fit for purpose and worries that there is no clear plan as to who will pay the estimated 1/2 million pounds needed - on top of 365,000 already advanced - to clean up the mess.
Paddington Academy is run by United Learning Trust - which already runs nine out of the 40 Academies in operation. Chief Executive Sir Ewan Harper told me that staff were not wholly wrong to be complaining about the state of the building but promised that the school could begin to deliver its curriculum- pointing to IT and other investments that have been brought forward from the new building.
But there is a wider issue: Academies are supposed to be better value than what Labour used to call "bog standard comprehensives": they cost more to set up, mainly because of the costs involved in single site procurement; but that is supposed to be offset by better academic results. However the National Audit Office says it's too soon to tell whether Academies are value for money, and education boffins have accused Academies of boosting their exam results by putting children through GNVQ exams, which count as four GCSEs.
But who will pay to sort out the problem? Westminster has certainly had enough of paying: its CEO told me the Academy should recover the cost from the builders; the academy is hoping Andrew Adonis, the education minister who has the thankless task of micromanaging this crisis, will come up with some taxpayers' money.
As I've been making this piece, I've been cold-called by numerous local campaigns against Academies - as word got round on the parent/teacher grapevine. But I think this case poses questions even for those who support Academies: if there are only 40 now and we're due to get more than 200 by 2010, where is the management skill within the Academy sector, and within government and LEAs, to manage challenges on this scale? Will we have to construct a whole layer of regulation and oversight to replace that relinquished by LEAs, and if so - what's the point?
The culture in councils like Westminster is to move away from providing education to regulating those who do; likewise government effectively assumes an arms' length role with Academies. Now there is project management and quantity surveying expertise inside councils, government and organisations like ULT - but clearly something has failed here, since the completion date has crept from next Christmas to next September. The purpose of bringing in private sector expertise is to make things work better. Clearly in this case they have not. Likewise, is there a danger that with so much personal kudos invested in Academies by top New Labour ministers is there a danger that third sector providers come to believe there is no effective penalty for failure?
These are all questions we wanted to ask Lord Adonis, the schools minister, who's heavily involved in sorting out this mess. But he's too busy to come on Newsnight. HE sent a statement:
"ULT have made a number of improvements to the North Wharf Road site – both over the summer and during the recent half term break - and will be doing more over the coming weeks. These include improvements to the Academy’s ICT, science labs and music facilities, which will ensure that a full curriculum can be delivered to students this year. The Department is working closely with ULT to support the Academy this year and to ensure that the Academy’s outstanding new buildings are completed in time for next summer. Academies are transforming results for the better across the country by replacing schools with a history of failure."
However, senior staff at the school believe parents might be justified in thinking a whole year of their children's education has been lost.