The Spectator’s Schools Revolution conference is being held on Tuesday next week. One of the special guest speakers, Lord Adonis, here gives the present government three lessons gained from his experience of the academies programme. Other speakers include Michael Gove, Michelle Rhee and Barbara Bergstrom, all of whom will take questions from the floor. There are still tickets available.

Last year Mossbourne Academy in Hackney celebrated one of the most remarkable achievements ever recorded by a state comprehensive school with a largely low-income intake. It got eight students into Cambridge and another 70 into Russell Group universities. If every comprehensive was in this league, social mobility would take off and England’s class barriers come crashing down.

Mossbourne, founded in 2004, was one of the first academies and its success is a result of all the key features of the academy programme. It has strong independent governance put in place by an effective business sponsor, Sir Clive Bourne.  It is free of local authority red tape. Leadership is exemplary (until last year the headteacher was Sir Michael Wilshaw, appointed Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools last year because of his record at Mossbourne.)  The academy has brilliant teachers instilling aspiration, achievement and discipline, including teachers drawn from top universities by the transformational Teach First scheme. It also has an award-winning Richard Rogers building — although, without all the above, this would be a white elephant, not an inspiration.

Apart from the building, all this is replicable. Indeed, it is being replicated up and down the country. The challenge for Michael Gove and the coalition is to scale up academies without compromising quality.

I offer three lessons from my experience of the academies programme since its launch twelve years ago.

First, to create academies and free schools (and free schools are simply academies without a predecessor school), you need a highly active state. Parents want good schools, and they will exercise choice to the extent that the state allows them. But try to set up a new school in Hackney of Hull, or to close a failing one, and see how far you get without the power and resources of central and local government. The success of academies rests on their independent governance and leadership, but very few of them are established by parent power alone. The state has to act, which means ministers and officials of the ‘can-do’ variety doing the business project by project in support of the sponsor-managers.  

This includes vetting the bona fides of academy sponsors so that only those with good credentials and credibility are allowed to run state-funded schools. And recruiting many of the sponsors in the first place. Good sponsors, such as universities and the most successful private and state schools, often require a lot of encouragement by ministers to take on the challenge. They rarely come forward spontaneously.

Mossbourne exemplifies how difficult this can be. It took a huge exertion of executive power to get the academy established. But even then, it lacked a sixth form. There was strong opposition to a sixth form from nearby further-education colleges and from the government’s own funding agency.  It took years of agitation by Sir Michael Wilshaw, and a decision by me simply to overrule the opposition, before one was set up.  Without its sixth form, Mossbourne would be only half the powerhouse it now is.

Second, all that stuff about the end of targets — don’t take that seriously. Unless you instil in the mind of Whitehall and the media what needs to be done and by when, everything will drift. Once the academy model was got right, the breakthrough came when Tony Blair set the first target for there to be 200 academies open by 2010. We then doubled that to 400. There should now be a target to replace every underperforming comprehensive with an academy, where it is not fast improving under its existing leadership.  

This target should be for ‘classic’ academies — that is, replacements for underperforming comprehensives, and entirely new schools in areas of low educational standards, not the new breed of successful schools switching to academy status. It is worrying that Michael Gove conflates these conceptually different types of academy when trotting out statistics as to how fast the coalition is accelerating the programme. He bandies large numbers about, but Whitehall and the world outside is confused as to what he is really trying to achieve. Worse still, he may believe that simply getting already successful schools to change their status is a quick fix that will radically improve English education. It won’t.

Third, keep innovating. Primary-school academies, and all-through academies for pupils aged from three to 18, are positive innovations. University Technical Colleges — which recruit students at the age of 14, not 11, for a focused technical education — are also becoming a key part of the academy programme and ought to be scaled up. There should be more academies with boarding provision, and more successful independent schools transferring into the state sector without fees by means of academy status. Failing ‘pupil referral units’ for excluded pupils should be replaced by academies.  All this needs to be encouraged and organised by ministers. There is a massive task ahead.

Andrew Adonis was Minister for Schools, 2005-08. 

Tags: Andrew Adonis, Education reform, Michael Gove