Academies in Croydon: What has the impact been on education in the borough?
EDUCATION SPECIAL: Last summer's GCSEs featured, for the first time, pupils taught in academies for the entirety of their secondary education, from Year 7 all the way through to Year 11. In a special report, Gareth Davies assesses the impact of academies on Croydon...
IN 2004 just 13 of 124 pupils left Haling Manor High School in South Croydon with five or more good GCSEs.
A mile or so away, 91 per cent of pupils at Ashburton Community School failed to gain at least five A* to C grades, including English and maths, while at Stanley Technical High School for Boys in South Norwood just 14 of 111 pupils met the new standard upon which secondary schools were judged.
One in ten left with no qualifications at all.
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In all, just 18 per cent of the 755 pupils at Ashburton, Stanley, Selsdon, Coulsdon and Haling Manor high schools achieved five good GCSEs.
That year marked the low point of an education system which was failing hundreds of pupils, particularly – but not exclusively – those from the most deprived areas of the borough.
If not quite a generation of underachievement, the council's chief executive points to the period as a factor when business leaders bemoan the present lack of skilled and qualified young workers in Croydon.
Over the past five years these failing schools have been forced to become "sponsor-led" academies. Their names were changed, new uniforms were handed out, strict new rules were imposed and many of their old teachers left, some not by choice.
When pupils at the Harris academies in South Norwood and Crystal Palace took their GCSEs last year, they were the first pupils in the borough to have spent their entire secondary school education in this system.
For these pupils at least, the contrasts between the secondary system they entered and the one they left last summer appear stark.
In 2007, just 24 per cent of pupils left Stanley Tech with five good GCSEs. A few months later it was taken over by a federation of schools led by Lord Harris of Peckham.
Last summer, 80 per cent of pupils at Harris Academy South Norwood achieved five or more A* to C grades in their GCSEs or equivalent.
The borough's six secondary academies (it should be noted that attainment was already high at Harris City Technology College before it became an academy in 2007) are improving at a significantly faster rate than Croydon's local authority-controlled schools, some of which are getting worse.
Critics have said the Harris admissions process, which involves a non-verbal reasoning test, is selective, and allows its schools to "cherry pick" the best students.
Yet half of its pupils at South Norwood last year were from a disadvantaged background, 72 per cent of whom achieved A* to C grades in both English and maths, twice that of state schools such as Westwood Girls' College and Edenham High.
Such figures prompted Education Secretary Michael Gove to describe the Harris Federation as "undoubtedly the biggest force for social progress and mobility in the whole of south London".
Since Ashburton, Stanley, Selsdon, Coulsdon and Haling Manor became academies, three times more pupils reach the expected levels. While 135 of their pupils left school with five good GCSEs in 2004, last summer 491 did.
If there are aspects of the academy system which are difficult to like – the changes to curriculum, the power to alter teachers' pay and conditions, the selective admission policies and a narrowing in the range of subjects taught – it is equally tough to argue against such numbers.
There is no magic formula, or anything particularly intrinsic in the academy system, behind this improvement. When asked about the difference between Stanley Tech and Harris Academy South Norwood, Sam Hainey gave the sort of answer one might hope of any head teacher.
"The key thing is teaching," he said.
"We have excellent teachers and we train them to be more effective.
"We know the students very well.
"Not only is the overall curriculum very strong but every lesson counts. We don't waste any time."
Oasis Academy Coulsdon was, jointly, the borough's most improved school last year, with the proportion of students achieving five good GCSEs rising from 49 per cent to 67 per cent.
"The hard work we started putting in when we took over the school in 2008 is beginning to bear fruit," said principal David Millar.
"We focused on systematically improving the ethos of the school. The teachers have higher expectations of the pupils and of themselves.
"Teachers work harder than they did before. When we came in we made it clear we would not tolerate inadequate teaching. Those staff who weren't up for it, left.
"Now we have consistently good and outstanding lessons."
Tim Pollard, cabinet member for children, young, people and learners, believes this change in culture is the key difference between academies and the struggling and unpopular schools they replaced.
"Harris has got the same type of challenging students who used to attend Stanley Tech up to 80 per cent," he said.
"They've achieved this with an absolute pig-headed determination that every single one of them has it within them to succeed. That's the culture they have created.
"Academies have demonstrated very clearly that challenging intakes can achieve very well. They challenged the preconception that schools were doing the best with the pupils they had. They weren't."
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Critics claim academies exclude more pupils than local authority schools as a way of skewing their results by removing difficult pupils.
Academies feature prominently on the list of last year's permanent and fixed-term exclusions, but state school Addington High tops the table for permanent exclusions, while Edenham High is top for fixed-term exclusions.
Exclusion from schools and academies for 2011/12: permanent
- Addington High: 9
- Oasis Academy Shirley Park: 6
- Harris Academy South Norwood: 5
- St Mary's Roman Catholic High School: 5
- The Quest Academy: 4
- Thomas More Catholic School: 4
- Oasis Academy: 4
Exclusions from schools and academies for 2011/12: fixed term
- Edenham High School: 197
- Oasis Academy Shirley Park: 132
- Addington High School: 99
- St Joseph's College: 89
- Oasis Academy Coulsdon: 86
- The Quest Academy: 73
- St Mary's High School: 64