Education experts say there is no evidence to suggest academy status improves standards

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Serious doubt has been thrown onto the future of the academy system as evidence reveals it has had little or no impact on the county’s struggling schools.

In the most worrying cases, ‘failing’ schools which were turned into academies under the Labour government are continuing to underachieve with two highlighted among the worst performing in the country.

Honorary secretary of the Kent division of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) John Walder said the “buzz” surrounding academies simply covered up underlying problems.

“There is no evidence that just by becoming an academy schools will improve,” he said.

“They may benefit from more money and new buildings but while they are living off the buzz the problems still remain.

“Schools that are on the up and become academies continue to go up, and schools that are down and become academies stay down. It makes no difference.”

Schools that become academies are free of local authority control and have access to more funding.

But GCSE figures for the past three years show little improvements in academies in Kent and Medway with a handful failing to meet the Government target of 35 per cent of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Archers Court Maths and Computing College became Dover Christ Church Academy in September 2010 but it has remained below the target at 28 per cent for the past two years.

Medway Community College and Chatham South School merged to become the Bishop of Rochester Academy in September 2010 and despite the change in status was exposed as one of the worst performing schools in the county this year, with just 16 per cent of its pupils achieving the benchmark of five good GCSEs.

The Isle of Sheppey Academy, which opened in 2009, met the target 35 per cent but was served a Notice to Improve by Ofsted earlier this year.

And in one of the most shocking cases, the Marlowe Academy, which replaced the Ramsgate School with a £30m rebuild in 2005, was this week put in Special Measures by Ofsted after inspectors said standards were well below the national average.

While the number of children gaining five good GCSEs had improved at the school, the figure only stood at 20 per cent in 2011 – well below the Government benchmark.

It is also the second time the school’s failings have been exposed by Ofsted, after being served a Notice to Improve in October 2010.

The New Line Learning Academy in Maidstone, which opened in 2010, saw just 30 per cent of its pupils meeting the Government GCSE target – seven per cent down from the previous year.

All these are examples of old style academies, which were planned or opened under Labour.

Through education secretary Michael Gove’s new system any school can become an academy and schools marked as outstanding by Ofsted were invited to apply first.

But education experts said it was unlikely to make any difference.

They stated that academy status did not change problems including social deprivation.

The Marlowe Academy’s catchment area includes one of the most deprived wards in Kent and Mr Walder said while he did not want to comment specifically on the school, he admitted the £30m revamp five years ago was just a “tart-up” covering up problems.

“There is still the same social deprivation, becoming an academy doesn’t change this,” he said.

“There is no evidence anywhere to say turning into an academy improves the level of performance.

“I don’t agree with the attack on the democratic schooling system. That’s one of the problems here; schools which are not academies are democratically controlled and open to scrutiny.

“But who is accountable with academies?”

Mr Walder said he was also concerned about the knock-on impact where teachers may be put off from working in the county.

“When I talk to colleagues from outside Kent there is a reluctance to teach here because of the selective system,” he said.

“Kent has a mish mash of a system and the addition of academies is just muddying an already muddied pot.

“Academies are also failing to recognise the importance of unions and if they refuse to recognise this, staff could find themselves in considerable trouble and there’s not a lot we can do.

“It would mean children being served by demoralised and frightened teachers.”

Gravesend-based education expert Peter Read said he could not see how becoming an academy would have any impact on performance.

“Unless there has been unsatisfactory leadership in the past and leadership improves, I can’t see how it has an affect,” he said.

“The assumption that turning a school into an academy would improve standards proved to be false and the Marlowe Academy and Isle of Sheppey Academy underline that.”

He added: “The big issue is that parents don’t want to send their children to these schools; the Marlowe is half empty and over half empty for the coming year. These schools aren’t viable.”

Mr Walder and Mr Read would not be drawn into commenting on whether part of the problem was down to academies being run by companies and sponsors with no education experience.

However, Mr Read said while some people have experience in management, they are not necessarily used to managing schools.

Corporate director for education, learning and skills at Kent County Council Patrick Leeson said when an academy approaches the authority for help it provides them with support.

“If an academy was in need of any support for improvement, their first port of call would be their lead sponsor or trust.

“Where an academy approaches us for advice or support we provide them with all the support and guidance at our disposal.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman defended academies and said they were improving at twice the rate of other schools.

But she admitted results in a minority remained “stubbornly low”.

“We will not tolerate underperformance year after year – academy or not. We are taking tough action on all underperforming schools,” she said.

“In March 2011, the Secretary of State required the sponsors of all academies below the 2010 floor standard to provide plans on how they were going to make rapid and sustained improvements. This request included a number of sponsored academies in Kent.

“In 2011, the number below the floor standard or in Ofsted category fell from eight to five.”

Commenting on The Marlowe Academy, she said: “The strategies and actions put in place by the academy Trust since September, including working with another strong sponsor are beginning to have an impact and the quality of teaching and learning at the academy is improving.

“We will continue to monitor progress at the academy on a monthly basis.”

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