Despite much opposition – indeed downright hostility from some quarters – it would appear that the government’s flag ship academy programme is beginning to prove successful. There are now 83 academies open in 49 local authorities. They are achieving fast-rising results. The proportion of pupils in academies getting five or more good GCSEs has doubled over the past six years, compared to the underperforming schools they replaced, and their rate of improvement is almost double the national average over the same period. Their rate of improvement in English and maths is also significantly above the national average in both GCSE and the national key stage 3 tests sat by 14-year-olds. Last year, the National Audit Office reported that academies are "on track to deliver good value for money", and are meeting their attainment objectives. As for parents, they are voting with their feet. There are, on average, three applicants for every academy place.
Despite all of this the idea of creating an additional 400 academies - backed by Gordon Brown - is still too much for many teachers and education commentators. The common argument against academies is that once established they might well end up sucking resources from other local comprehensive schools. But will they? Academies are required by law to be all-ability schools; they have to comply fully with the admissions code and this is monitored by the government directly. The 2007 school census shows that the proportion of pupils with special educational needs in academies is 29.5% - compared with an average of 19.2% for all schools. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in academies is 33.8% - compared with the national average of 13.1% for secondary schools. Speaking at the recent NASUWT conference Ed Balls highlighted the fact that academies are also collaborating with other schools in local behaviour partnerships, ensuring that they take their fair share of "hard to place" and excluded pupils
What many critics of the academy programme overlook is that in the setting up of so many of these new academies in areas of significant social and economic deprivation, the government has rediscovered what many used to call "compensating measures".
The truth is that for communities trapped in a cycle of educational failure and under achievement the academy programme can and does offer new energy, new purpose and new opportunities for young people and for local communities who have long deserved better.