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Computer-mad children turn to volunteers to fill schools IT gap

Category : Business

Tech bosses have decried the poor IT content in the national curriculum, but here and abroad, mentors from the industry (and kids) are doing it for themselves

When David Jay became frustrated by his inability to find out what was on the school lunch menu, he took action in the way only a technically minded 11-year-old would – he decided to create an app for it.

David would have won the approval of Dick Olver, chairman of defence giant BAE Systems, who last month attacked the Department for Education’s proposed new design and technology curriculum for focusing on cookery and gardening and not meeting “the needs of a technologically literate society”.

Olver is not alone. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, has complained that Britain’s ICT curriculum gives pupils no insight into how software is made, and Mike Short, president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, has said computer science must be taught as a subject in schools or the UK could lose its globally competitive position.

Young David’s idea was to take the food choices from the menu published online by the independent Thomas’s school in Battersea and write a program for his phone to display what they would be eating that day. But, in apparent confirmation of Olver’s concerns, the school can take no credit. The app idea emerged not in a classroom but on a Saturday afternoon in the offices of Forward, a web company in Camden, north London, which hosts monthly session teaching children computer skills, including writing code.

This Coder Dojo – which borrows the Japanese term for a martial arts school – is one of 180 around the world. From Brooklyn to Uganda to Bolivia, IT professionals are giving up their spare time to teach children as young as seven how to become tech wizards.

Started two years ago by a young Irish computer enthusiast, James Whelton, the movement has spread rapidly, with an ethos of volunteer-led teaching in an industry increasingly concerned by a shortage of skills in information and communication technology, or ICT.

At the Camden dojo, 15 other children, parents in tow, are being mentored by professionals as they work on their projects for three hours on a Saturday afternoon. Andy Kent, one of the Camden mentors, says the dojos do not focus on teaching particular skills, but allow children to question how technology works. It is the modern-day equivalent of taking a radio apart and putting it back together.

“I think there is a certain stigma attached to coding,” he says. “If you like football, you go and do more of it at the weekend, but we don’t really have that for tech stuff, or any academic things.”

David’s father is Alan Jay, one of the founders of film database IMDb before it was sold to Amazon in 1998. He says: “It is a logic and a language, just like learning French, and if you teach them when they are young, they don’t think they’re learning something complicated.”

Michael Gottlieb, an IT manager whose son Josh is at the dojo building an interactive game, says one of his fears is that in schools, children are taught how to use products such as Word and Excel, but not what goes on behind them: “It is the difference between being able to drive a car and knowing what goes on under the bonnet.”

The Coder Dojo movement was born out of a mixture of these frustrations two years ago. Whelton, then an 18-year-old computer enthusiast who had run a computer club in his secondary school in Cork, co-founded the movement with Bill Liao, an Australian entrepreneur who was concerned about the skills gap. It soon mushroomed through, naturally enough, Twitter and Facebook.

“This was not being done in schools,” Whelton says. “As a young person who wasn’t academic, wasn’t sporty and couldn’t play guitar, computers were my thing. And not having that outlet in school was incredibly frustrating.”

Dojo sessions have been held at sites as varied as the European parliament building in Brussels and a rural island off Ireland’s west coast, but they have attracted international attention. Last December, Forbes magazine named Whelton one of “30 under 30″ to watch in 2013. One Dojo student went on to develop a game called Pizzabot that topped the iPhone paid-for download charts in 2011.

BAE’s Olver is merely echoing frustration among IT professionals about the teaching of coding skills. A year ago John Naughton, emeritus professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University and Observer technology columnist, wrote an open letter to education secretary, Michael Gove, calling for a radical “reboot” of computer science teaching in schools.

A spokesman for Gove says that in the past year the DfE has scrapped the outdated ICT curriculum and is consulting on a new one under which children from age five will learn to write code.

“We have also recognised the importance of computer science by including it in the EBacc, and we are enticing top graduates to teach computer science with a £20,000 scholarship programme,” he says.

Nonetheless, BAE’s Olver is adamant that “something has gone very wrong” with the new national design and technology curriculum, which includes cookery and horticulture, but leaves out computer-aided design and electronics.

So in an unintended adoption of the big society principles trumpeted by Gove and his colleagues, volunteers are filling the gap. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, which a year ago launched a credit-card sized basic computer that sells for £16, says it is still at an early stage in its mission to teach children to code. It has so far sold just over a million units.

Co-founder Eben Upton says those Raspberry Pi units that do end up in schools tend to have been bought by teachers at independent schools using discretionary funds.

“Reintroducing coding as a mass-participation activity for children will,” he says, “require a mix of hardware – obviously we believe the Pi is useful here – software, teaching and learning materials, industry participation and teacher training. We’re seeing good feedback from schools lucky enough to have teachers who have programming ability, which is an encouraging sign.”

Enfeebled, yes, but parliament is still the best judge of scandal | Nick Cohen

Category : Business

Like many, I favour a judge-led inquiry into the banks fiasco. But what could it realistically achieve?

Poor parliament. Its powers stripped by the European Union, the courts and the devolved assemblies. Its proceedings controlled by the executive. Its members so mocked by the media and the public it appears that the British loathe the sight of their politicians, and wish only for an escape from representative democracy.

As soon as a crisis begins, the cry goes up for an outside agency to take charge: for the unelected officials of the Bank of England to acquire more powers; for the Office for Budget Responsibility to deliver accounts of the national debt politicians cannot be trusted to provide. As soon as a scandal emerges, offended parties call for lawyers to hold “independent” inquiries and judicial reviews.

Bob Diamond’s condescension to the Treasury select committee demonstrated the ignominy into which parliament has fallen. Diamond would never have dared address a judge by his or her first name. But the gilded banker felt no qualms about calling the gelded members “Jesse”, “Andrea”, “Michael”, “David” and “Andy”. If he had been before a judge, Diamond – or should that be “Bob” or maybe “Bobby”? – would have made sure that his evidence was beyond reproach.

As it was, when Andrew Tyrie, the committee chairman, asked: “Is it true the FSA [Financial Services Authority] was concerned about your appointment as chief executive and sought assurances there would be a change of culture?” Diamond replied: “I got very strong support for my appointment to chief executive.” Maybe the £120m he pocketed between 2005 and 2012 clouded his memory, but letters from the FSA in Tyrie’s possession showed that it was concerned about Diamond’s promotion and wanted assurances from the Barclays board that its aggressive culture would change.

Add in the sight of George Osborne and Ed Balls turning the ruin of the hopes of millions into an excuse to abuse each other, and the case against parliament seems complete.

But you cannot escape politics, nor should you want to. Although, like many others, I want a judge to investigate the worst riot of capitalism since 1929, I know that the history of judicial investigations into politically sensitive scandals is mixed. They are like psychoanalysis: the process is revealing, but the conclusions are banal.

The evidence to the Leveson inquiry produced an exposé that tabloid journalism will never live down. But if you imagine that Lord Justice Leveson’s findings will force Jeremy Hunt to resign, remember the dashed expectations of all those who thought that Lord Justice Hutton’s inquiry into the Iraq war would force the resignations or Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon.

Or consider Lord Franks’s report on the Falklands war of 1982. The judge itemised all the blunders that allowed the Argentinian junta to invade. But he could not bring himself to hold a single minister responsible in his concluding comments. “For 338 paragraphs he painted a splendid picture, delineated the light and the shade, and the glowing colours in it,” said James Callaghan in the Commons debate on the Franks report. But “when Franks got to paragraph 339 he got fed up with the canvas he was painting, and chucked a bucket of whitewash over it”.

When they sit alone in their study, investigating judges must wonder what right they have to bring down politicians. Britain is a democracy, not a judgocracy. It is the job of MPs to end the career of ministers. If they do not, the voters can remove them at an election. Who are judges to interfere?

I have no way of knowing whether Leveson will break with tradition by forcing Hunt out, or instead apply the customary coat of whitewash. But there is a second restriction on “independent” inquiries he is already observing. If an investigating judge wants to change the law, he has to persuade the despised politicians to change it for him. During the Leveson inquiry, there was a telling, and alarming, moment when the judge explained to Michael Gove his plans for a new press regulator. Membership would be voluntary, but if a newspaper refused to join, the courts might hit it with “exemplary damages”, he said, because the paper could have had the libel or privacy action resolved “very easily” under the Leveson system.

The journalists he imagined defying him and receiving “exemplary” punishment were not the Peeping Toms of the tabloids but the staff of Private Eye, who expose corruption in the City, media, government and the law rather than find pleasure from making Sienna Miller cry. I had forgotten, until Leveson reminded me, that the legal establishment has always been the enemy of serious journalism. I was as struck by the judge’s reaction to Gove’s reply. The minister implied that Leveson was 30 years behind the times. Every web page was now a newspaper. Everyone who wrote online was now a journalist. Were all of them to submit to the judge’s new regulator or face “exemplary” punishments? A truculent note entered Leveson’s voice as Gove contradicted him. He realised that for his controls to work, politicians must approve them, and the politician in front of him would not.

People who hate all politicians end up hating themselves. By all means hate this minister or that party, but remember the difference between politicians and judges, journalists, bankers and European commissioners. The electorate can remove its elected representatives. Say that power does not matter because “they’re all the same” or “only in it for themselves” and you are denying the possibility of democratic renewal.

In their small way, the Commons select committees have been making the possible real. The public accounts committee (PAC) has responded to the crisis by pushing the permanent secretary at Revenue & Customs into taking early retirement because of his sweetheart deals with the vulture capitalists of Goldman Sachs.

The PAC and the other parliamentary committees could do much more, but they need help. The American equivalent of the PAC has 120 staff. A British committee is lucky to have just one clerk. Those who would deny our representatives resources because they think that all politicians are crooks are only serving the interests of Bob Diamond and his kind.

Leaving all other considerations aside, the prime minister establishes “independent” public inquiries, while select committees are free to examine what they will. When the prime minister refuses to initiate a judicial investigation into the banking scandal or any other scandal, we are where we always have been: stuck with parliament. A poor thing, but our own.

• Comments on this article will be turned on at 9.30am BST on Sunday 8 July.

Michael Gove open-minded over state schools being run for profit

Category : Business

Education secretary hints at Leveson inquiry that policy would be allowable in second term of Tory-led government

The education secretary has given his clearest indication yet that a future Conservative government would let state schools be run for profit.

Giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking, Michael Gove was asked whether he hoped free schools would be able to make profits in a Tory second term.

He replied: “It’s my belief that we could move to that situation but at the moment it’s important to recognise that the free schools movement is succeeding without that element and I think we should cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Allowing schools to make a profit is politically toxic. A Populus poll this year found overwhelming public opposition.

It is also a sore point in the coalition. Nick Clegg made a speech in September last year in which he ruled out profit-making, saying: “Let me reassure you … ‘no’ to running schools for a profit, not in our state-funded education sector.”

Alluding to coalition tensions, Gove said: “There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit. I have an open mind.

“I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.”

Previously he has said that while he is a “pragmatist” on the question of profit-making, it was not necessary at present.

A shortage of capital is a barrier to the expansion of the government’s free schools programme, and private investment would provide an injection of cash for new school buildings. While academies and free schools are run independently, they are classed as public bodies and their surpluses cannot go to shareholders.

At the inquiry Gove was questioned about a News International proposal to create an academy school in east London, which fell through because the Department for Education (DfE) could not afford to pay for a new building. He said: “We took a decision to step back and say we cannot provide the capital.”

In emails published by the inquiry a senior DfE official told News International the “very tight” spending review meant a new building could not be funded.

Gove said on Tuesday that the publisher of the Sun and the Times was also interested in creating a second school in west London.

“I understand … that they had wanted to set up one school in the East End in order to ensure that their sense of corporate social responsibility was fulfilled. There was some talk at one point that another might be located in west London but that was the limit of their ambition.”

Gove said he believed Rupert Murdoch was only interested in opening a free school for “purely philanthropic” reasons. He said he knew nothing about News Corporation’s educational subsidiary, Wireless Generation, until he “read about it in the Guardian“. The firm’s software helps teachers analyse pupils’ performance.

Gove said that he was aware Murdoch and others had an interest in the way technology would change education.

There was a hint Gove planned to make this announcement on Tuesday; his special adviser Henry de Zoete was present in a annex for the press at the inquiry and encouraged reporting of the comments.

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “It is well known that in Sweden one of the major ways in which schools make profits is by employing non-qualified staff to do the jobs of teachers. Michael Gove has already made it within the law that free schools are not required to employ qualified teachers.

“The free schools policy is a licence for the private sector to make money and is not in the interest of children, families or the taxpayer.”

Clegg and Cameron’s cruellest day | Polly Toynbee

Category : Business

From business to the disabled, Monday was special even for a cabinet whose dogmatic bungling is unrivalled in modern Britain

Greece, the birthplace of democracy, has set off a voters’ rebellion against the dictatorship of financiers. In the eye of the vortex, no one knows if the centre can hold or what happens next when voters say no to austerity imposed by the same financiers who caused the crash. JP Morgan’s reckless derivatives gamble lands on cue to make the point. As François Hollande and Angela Merkel meet for the first time on Tuesday, Karl Marx could not have devised so perfect a crisis of capitalism.

At first the voters acquiesced, tightened their belts, obeyed the iron laws set by bankers whose grotesque pay flows from bailouts by states they impoverished. But the prospect of years of unremitting high unemployment and stagnation shows the great austerity experiment has failed, and even its north European proponents are being gingerly forced to acknowledge it.

In Britain the failure of that experiment is most telling, because no one imposed it on us except our own government. Inflation is predicted to stay obstinately high while wages lag, shrinking demand in households with ever less to spend. Industry now begs the government to kick-start the economy. Bond rates here fell even lower on Monday: our government can borrow more cheaply than for 300 years. The refusal of Cameron and Osborne to borrow and invest in housing, energy, schools and transport is the ideological fixation that will destroy them. Once a Conservative government loses the trust of industry, it’s in deep trouble.

The cabinet’s only response to criticism is to attack, but how unwise to set upon business. Stop whingeing, said Philip Hammond. Stop complaining, said William Hague: “There’s only one growth strategy – hard work”. Impudently he ordered firms to get “on a plane, go sell things overseas”, as if every country isn’t desperately trying to export its crisis by selling into one another’s moribund markets.

The British Chambers of Commerce retorted: “Businesses up and down the country are busting a gut to find new growth opportunities at home and abroad. They think that the government could do more.” And to Eric Pickles’s assertion that “we should all work that little bit harder … Government can’t create growth”, the BCC replied tartly: “The government needs to recognise that it is a major customer, a maker of markets and the guardian of Britain’s infrastructure.”

Indeed, the public realm is an essential partner in growth and prosperity. Hammond blamed companies for hoarding £700bn, but they won’t invest without a glimmer of consumer demand. Babcock, the engineering group, calls for ministers to invest £4bn a year in an industrial bank. Even dry as dust John Cridland of the CBI agrees, while other engineering firms and Sainsbury’s Justin King join the chorus. For a serious government, this would be Plan B time.

This government’s blend of incompetence and ideological rigidity would be a fascinating spectacle if we were distant bystanders. The bungling and dogmatism are unrivalled in postwar Britain. Let’s take just one day of their collisions with the real world: see with what insouciance they can create new flotillas of unlikely and needless enemies. Insulting business was just one self-inflicted black eye, but here are others that Monday had to offer.

Iain Duncan Smith seems to enjoy shocking Telegraph readers with a boast that half a million people will lose disability living allowances: thalidomide victims and servicemen who have lost limbs may not qualify. All will undergo new tests: “They were just allowed to fester,” he says. Exactly £2.24bn will be saved, so he must have preordained the number who must fail.

Will they go quietly or will they fester very noisily indeed? As two-thirds of disabled children lose their allowance, is it politically wise to pick on them? The Institute for Fiscal Studies says 88% of benefit cuts are still to come, so it’s hard to gauge how voters will respond to housing-benefit evictions forcing families hundreds of miles, or disabled people left housebound. But enough voters will be shocked – and 74% of other public service cuts are yet to come.

Nick Clegg makes yet another speech claiming to promote social mobility, despite myriad policies to the contrary. Does it fool any of the people any of the time? The IFS says education funding is cut by 13%, the largest cut since the 1950s. Early years take a heavy hit, yet that’s where deprivation is best countered. Over half of schools say they use Clegg’s pupil premium to plug holes in their other spending: some are using it well to re-employ education welfare officers lost in the cuts. The IFS says the lost education maintenance allowance did well at keeping poorer pupils in post-16 education. But Michael Gove, speaking to private school heads, asserts: “Deprivation need not be destiny.” He says Finland has equal outcomes with less spending – but he ignores Finland’s place as one of the most socially equal countries, while Britain is one of the most unequal.

In the real world, Gove’s free schools take half as many pupils on free school meals as average while his academy scheme gives top schools extra money. Every Child a Reader brilliantly rescues six-year-olds from failing to read, but this year 9,000 fewer will get this programme that shoots the deprived ahead permanently. So until ministers’ deeds match their words, they would do well to be quiet about social mobility: it only angers those who care.

These are examples from one day in the life of this austerity government. Add in another of the day’s random ineptitudes: David Cameron will meet Mitt Romney as a candidate, having snubbed Hollande. Boris Johnson calls for a Tory – “someone who is free market” – to be BBC director general, setting a terrible precedent by making it a political post. Whatever they do, the crass and the cruel collide with cuts designed to diminish the state for ever.

Try though George Osborne did to frighten the markets with the comparison, luckily we are not Greece. We have choices. We need not cut so deep, we can borrow to invest, as Blair, Mandelson and Darling now join forces with the two Eds to urge. Business is protesting at scorched earth austerity after two years of failure, and Labour policies for investment in growth now look mainstream, while Tory austerity looks extreme. YouGov on Monday reported Ed Miliband polling higher than David Cameron, who with every passing day looks increasingly like the prime minister of a one-term government.

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England’s schools revolution: a progress report, two years on

Category : Business

Education in England is changing fast, and the pace of change has accelerated since the coalition came to power in 2010

Vincent Palumbo opens a jar of gel and smears some on his hair in front of the class. The science teacher is chattering like a classroom Jamie Oliver: “Get a bit of the old hair gel, slip it on your hair. I needed a bit – so that’s sorted.”

The lesson is on polymerisation, the process of linking molecules together to make complex chains. The abstract topic is made simpler and more relevant with an everyday polymer – the gel. “The problem is,” Palumbo says. “If I go to the seaside – if I go swimming – my hair just flattens. Why does that happen?” He demonstrates by squirting gel into a petri dish and tipping in some salt. “Imagine you’re near the sea … along comes the salt.” As he adds the salt to the gel, the polymer collapses. The sticky globules disintegrate into a translucent puddle. The children’s eyes gleam.

This is the kind of engaging lesson that happens at every good school. But for years, this wasn’t a good school.

The Harris academy in South Norwood, south London, opened in September 2007, on the site of the Stanley technical high school for boys. It was a new type of school, directly funded by central government and backed by a private sponsor rather than having its money channelled through the council. In this case, the benefactor is Lord Harris of Peckham, the self-made millionaire who founded Carpetright.

And this is not his only school – the Harris Federation has 13 academies in the area (12 secondary and one primary school), with five more set to open.

The landscape of education in England is changing fast, and the pace of change has accelerated since the coalition came to power nearly two years ago. From being a tool to turn around failing schools, the option of academy status has been extended to all schools. Last week, the Department for Education confirmed that more than half of England’s secondary schools are, or are about to become, academies.

Hundreds of primaries are facing conversion too (though so far only 5% of primary schools are, or are in the process of becoming, academies). The education secretary, Michael Gove, has also permitted parents, teachers and charities to set up “free schools”.

Academy sponsors appoint most of a school’s governors, and the schools have greater freedom over pay and conditions. At Harris schools, teachers typically get an extra ££1,500 on top of their standard pay. There are also fringe benefits, including a 20% staff discount at Carpetright. The academies also own their land and strike deals directly with external suppliers to buy in services such as truancy officers or speech therapists.

For years, only a fifth or so of pupils at the Stanley high school got five good passes at GCSE, including English and maths – the benchmark of success at school. This level of achievement was far below the local and national average.

Last summer, 74% of students at Harris South Norwood achieved five good passes in English and maths. The national average is about 58%. Ofsted now rates it as “outstanding”.

The transformation is evident in how the school’s catchment area has shrunk; from eight miles to 0.8 of a mile.

Back in the chemistry classroom, the children are being asked to think about how to frame a scientific inquiry. How can they design an experiment that is repeatable and fair? As the teacher dashes between the octagonal desks, the pupils are focused on their tasks, despite the potential for chaos when you mix a gaggle of 14-year-olds and half a dozen tubes of gel.

A much bigger experiment is going on in England. It involves every school and the man mixing the potion is Gove. When the education secretary speaks about academies, his claims soar. There is a prime example of this on a video the Department for Education uploaded to YouTube last summer.

Over images of a teacher in shirtsleeves helping enthusiastic children with their reading, Gove says: “When a school becomes an academy, there’s only one focus – the children. And the question that everyone asks is: how can we ensure, working with the additional freedoms and resources that we have, that we focus on raising attainment for the very poorest?

“And the great thing about the academies movement is that it relies not on central direction by politicians, or by bureaucrats second-guessing those in the classroom. The academies movement is all about liberating and emancipating teachers and teaching leaders to do the best for young people. I think it’s a fantastic principle that we should say that those who are most idealistic about education should be given control of education.”

It is an appeal to left and right. Anyone who cares about social mobility should back academies, Gove implies. But they should also be supported by anyone who believes in a small state.

The government’s critics say academies do not really generate the success that is claimed. Or if they do, it is because they inflate their results with vocational subjects or exclude far more of the most difficult children than schools that are still maintained by local authorities. The aim of the academies programme was to raise standards by giving schools a measure of independence. This, combined with pressure and outside expertise from the sponsors, would help drive up the attainment of pupils, it was thought.

Research by Stephen Machin and James Vernoit of the London School of Economics found that Labour’s academies – which were formerly failing schools – experienced a “significant increase” in GCSE performance due to the conversion. This held true even after controlling for the fact that they attracted pupils of higher ability after the change of status.

However, it is too early to say whether the coalition’s acceleration of the policy, and its extension to high-performing schools, is having a positive impact. Indeed, Machin wrote in the Guardian this week: “We have been somewhat surprised to see [our research] used extensively by supporters of the coalition’s policy on academies: for example, by the Department for Education in a recent debate with the Local Schools Network, and again by Jonathan Hill, the under-secretary of state for schools, last month. This seems rather hard to justify, given that the new academy programme is different in a number of ways [to Labour's].”

The effect of the changes is to radically diminish the role of local authorities in education. Councils are going from a situation in which they employed teaching staff and held back cash from schools for central services to a more “hands-off” role in which they will act as a watchdog over admissions and exclusions – but without controlling the purse strings.

The coalition’s reforms open up the prospect of a market in education; the creation of new schools means there is increased competition for pupils, and the government funding that comes with them. Gove is encouraging the expansion of good schools in the hope that this will exert pressure on the rest.

Under the coalition, high-performing schools do not need to have a sponsor when they become academies. Most of the schools that have converted to academies under Gove have done so to gain greater control over their budgets. They have not been required to undertake the changes of leadership and governance that were crucial to the success of academies under Labour.

When the bell rings for break at the Harris academy South Norwood, the children walk quietly down the corridors, chatting and laughing. There is no shouting, shoving or running. The boys and girls in burgundy blazers are the best adverts for the school.

Jason Kyereme, 16 and now in his GCSE exam year, joined the school in its first term as an academy. He is clear about the reputation of the academy’s predecessor. “People [pupils] might be making noise on the roads – you could see that some of behaviour outside the academy wasn’t really good enough. People around here thought this school wasn’t really achieving and also the exam results were not that good. My mum wants me to have the best education; she felt that my coming here would make me have the best education.”

Kyereme is staying on for the sixth form, where he plans to take maths, biology and chemistry A-levels. He has his sights set on a Russell group university: Birmingham, or possibly Imperial College London.

At Harris schools, the sponsor has a hands-on role. Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, said: “We observe a lot of lessons at the start to work out the strengths and weaknesses of teachers and then we design coaching programmes based on those strengths and weaknesses. And, you know, mostly teachers are very receptive to that. If a school’s been in difficulty most teachers say, ‘Come on, how can we get better?’ Where teachers are less receptive, by working with staff from other schools who have done it, that quickly disappears.”

Before Harris took over at South Norwood there were “lots of supply teachers”, he said, and a high staff turnover in the first year after conversion. “It was mainly because they had not been permanent staff before.”

Troubled schools also need a consistent behaviour policy, where teachers are backed by the school’s management. “It tends to be a feature of schools in difficulties, where teachers feel ‘the kids do this, the rules say it’s wrong, but we never get backup’,” Moynihan said.

If academies are frustrated with the quality of support provided by their local authority, they can choose a backer that fits. The shrinking of local government means a new role is being opened up, both for the private sector – Harris schools now get their truancy officers from a private firm – and the not-for-profit sponsoring organisations that back academies.

In Luton, a group of schools has in effect recreated the role of the council, forming a local cluster that includes two academies, a free school and a studio school, which specialises in vocational education. The Barnfield Federation – which hopes in future to run schools for profit – has the collective financial muscle to commission services that all its schools need. But within the cluster, there is diversity.

The Barnfield group of schools includes two that feel radically different. The studio school, open since September 2010, is the first of its kind in England: a small school for 14- to 18-year-olds that leans strongly towards vocational education. The other is a former prep school, Moorlands, which became a free school last September, and where the head describes the ethos as a “high standard of education with small classes”.

The atmospheres in the two schools are sharply contrasting. On a recent visit to the studio school, a group of teenagers were studying the barest bones of a Shakespeare play. The storyline of Romeo and Juliet had been cut up into single-line plot points, and the children were busy trying to assemble them into the right order. The school has a florist, gift shop, hair salon and restaurant attached, giving pupils work experience. It forges close links with local businesses including Monarch Airlines, preparing children for jobs in the retail, hospitality or service industries.

At Moorlands primary school, housed in a cream-coloured Victorian villa, seven- and eight-year-olds are learning French. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” says the teacher, displaying a picture card. “Le fromage – French people like lots of cheese.”

At another picture, a girl shyly tries to pronounce “chocolat“. It doesn’t come out quite right and the teacher prompts her: “Just try, we’re going to try again.” The teacher enunciates: “Sho-ko-la … très bien.”

At Moorlands, acting head Chris Sillars said that although it is now state-funded, the “culture and ethos has remained the same – maintaining the ethos is key to what we’re doing”.

Mark Cronin, principal of the studio school, outlines three “pathways” that children in Luton’s schools might take. “Pathway A are your A* standard ones. They are your high flyers; the best choice for them is probably the English bacc [baccalaureate – good GCSEs in English, maths, history or geography, two sciences and a foreign language]. They have the choice of doing single sciences, languages, humanities.

“Pathway B children will have the opportunity of doing a language, humanity, and a vocational subject, but not the English bacc.

“Pathway C children are those who probably haven’t achieved quite at the national average. Everyone does their core subjects still at GCSE, but they might be steered towards vocational BTecs,” he says.

To critics of the coalition’s school reforms, this may spell the breakup of the comprehensive system, with children steered down separate paths according to ability at an early age. Some might also observe that removing lower-performing students from a school would be good for its GCSE results.

Academies have a higher rate of exclusions than local authority-maintained schools. Official figures show that 0.3% of pupils at academies were permanently excluded in 2009-10, the last year for which figures are available, while 0.14% of the population at local authority-run secondaries were permanently excluded in the same year.

Defenders of academies point to the fact that the new schools set up by Labour disproportionately serve deprived parts of the country. But when the Department for Education compared academies with local authority schools “in similar circumstances”, officials found the exclusion rate was still a little higher at the new schools, though the margin narrowed considerably.

Academies are not a panacea. Just like any other schools, they can fail. Last month Birkdale academy in Southport – which had been judged good with outstanding features in 2007 – was placed in special measures after a damning Ofsted report. Inspectors said the school was failing to “give its pupils an acceptable standard of education”. The report blamed a failure by the school’s leadership to improve the quality of teaching and tackle bad behaviour. The decline took place over a period of years, but there was no sign that academy conversion in August 2011 had prompted any improvement.

The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has acknowledged this. In an interview with the Times in December, he called for local school commissioners to identify failing schools. He said: “I speak as someone who believes in autonomy and who believes in independence, and as a great supporter of the academy programme, but we know there will be some academies that won’t do well.

“It is no good just relying on Ofsted to give the judgment. By that time it is too late. We need some sort of intermediary bodies, which can detect when things aren’t going well, look at the data and have their ear very close to the ground to determine when there is a certain issue.”

The suggestion is backed by Labour. But the government is not convinced. At a recent select committee hearing, Gove told MPs: “It is important that, having stripped back bureaucracy at the centre and locally, we do not reimpose it.”

So what happens if the experiment fails? It seems there is no plan B.


2000 The education secretary, David Blunkett, announces the Academies Programme. Academies were intended to replace existing failing schools or create new schools in areas of educational under-achievement. They would be state-funded but run in partnership with sponsors such as churches or businesses. The sponsor was expected to provide financial backing for the school.

2002 The first academy opens. The Business Academy, Bexley, is followed by several others including Mossbourne, in 2004, on the former site of Hackney Downs – once called the “worst in Britain”. Mossbourne becomes the most high-profile success of the programme. Last summer, 82% of its students achieved the benchmark of five good GCSE passes including English and maths.

2010 Labour leaves office with about 200 academies open. The coalition’s Academies Act 2010 allows all schools to apply for conversion to academies. They do not need to have sponsors. The legislation also authorises the creation of free schools, which can be set up by parents, teachers or charities.

2011 The first 24 free schools open their doors, including one in west London where the journalist Toby Young is chairman of the governors; a Sikh school in Birmingham; and a Hindu school in Leicester.

2012 At the start of March, there were 1,635 academies in England. By April, more than half of all secondary schools are academies or due to convert.