From Del-Boy Trotter's flat in Nelson Mandela House to the CLR James library here in Hackney, you would like to think that if a public building carried a person's name, it was a tribute to some contribution they had made to humanity.
But now, you can get your name over the portal by making a different sort of contribution - of the monetary variety. How? Sponsor an Academy.
What's more, you will get more in return than your name in lights. You get to control the ethos and management of the school, can select up to 10% of pupils, and report to the DfES instead of those pesky local education authorities.
You don't even have to pay the full cost! Not even half! Or even a quarter! Yes, in the bargain of the century, you can have your own school to play with for the knock-down price of "up to 10%" of the start-up cost, capped at £2m. So long as you are rich. Or a business. Or some kind of 'Trust'.
The government usually stumps up around £14m to build a new school. But for an Academy, it will put in up to £25m.
There are currently 17 open in England, 30 more are in the pipeline, and the government wants 200 by 2010.
Academies are the brainchild of Andrew Adonis, who appears to have a great deal of power despite never actually having been elected.
The government claims that they are the answer to 'failing schools', although the TES reveals this week that hardly any of the schools that closed down to make way for Academies were 'failing' at all.
A January '05 survey of 11 Academies reported that five had not improved on the predecessor school's GCSE results, and some were worse than the schools they replaced.
I live less than half a mile from one of the flagships - Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney (sponsored by - and named after - Sir Clive Bourne). In four years' time, I will face the torture that is the shop-around for a secondary school place.
Getting in to Mossbourne
This year, there were 1,200 applications for 180 places at Mossbourne. Lord Adonis came over all aglow about this, gushing on Radio 4's Today programme about how this proves how popular - and therefore what a good idea - Academies are.
What it actually 'proves' is that there is a desperate shortage of secondary school places in Hackney, and that lots of parents and kids want a place at a school which is local, mixed-sex, non-religious and brand spanking new. I would have put Mossbourne as first choice for my sons. But that is despite, not because of, its Academy status.
Mossbourne even refused places to kids whose older siblings already attend the school and live just minutes' walk away (Hackney Gazette 14/7/05). This has left at least one single parent taking her kids to different schools. One rejected child is a 'junior leader' at Mossbourne's after-school club, and also lives just round the corner, in Shacklewell Lane (Hackney Gazette 8/9/05).
Experience is leading people to suspect that - in practice if not in policy - Mossbourne controls its admissions to cherry-pick the pupils it thinks will give it good results. That could run true to form, as the Commons Select Committee reported that some Academies achieve good results by excluding children who are harder to teach and reducing the population of kids from deprived backgrounds. So is our flagship Academy restricting entry to children whose disadvantaged circumstances might stand in the way of them shining in exams?
Mossbourne swears that it is 'non-selective' and not biased against local working-class kids. But the Academy is strangely unwilling to provide the facts to back this up.
Hackney Teachers' Association reckons that Mossbourne has a significantly lower-than-average number of kids on free school meals: a strong indicator of social class. Mossbourne refused to tell the Hackney Gazette the figure.
After parents raised the issue, our Tenants' & Residents' Association wrote to Mossbourne asking for figures for how many applications were received and refused from our estate. The school would not divulge.
Its admissions policy is, roughly speaking:
- 60% of places go to applicants who live within 1km of the school.
- applicants sit an exam (really, the school is not selective, honestly!), and are grouped into four bands according to their results - 25% of places are given to applicants from each band in order of geographical distance taking into account the location of alternative schools.
So, you can fail to get into Mossbourne because you are too clever, too thick, too mediocre, live too near, too far, or too near the catchment area's border.
Didn't the government say that Academies would be located in deprived areas so that they could benefit the whole area?! Mossbourne is certainly in a deprived area, but it is hard to see how it benefits the area when loads of local children can't even get in.
So why not have a straightforward catchment area, where all the kids living nearby get a place. Apparently, the school was concerned not to provoke the phenomenon of house prices rocketing in the streets next to popular schools. This is a genuine concern in some places. But really, there is no need to stress about flats on the Pembury going on the market for half a million.
Choice: who wants it?
There are many ideas which started with the Tories but now find voice through the mouths of New Labour. In this case, it is "choice" when it comes to schools. When did they ask parents (let alone kids) whether we want this "choice"?
Most parents and children want a place at a good-quality local school. Possibly, Blair, Adonis, Kelly et al prefer the views of what writer Fiona Millar stingingly described as "that particular group of London chatterati who bemoan the state of their local schools to justify their decisions to opt out of state education and are sadly over-represented in the social circles of some ministers".
Sadly for Hackney, our two local MPs are Blairite Meg Hillier, and Diane Abbott, supposed left-winger who exactly fits Millar's description with the exception that her social circle appears to include ex-Tory ministers rather than current Labour ones.
Everyone should have the right to a place at their local school. Apply elsewhere if you like (although if every school were good-quality and funded as well as Academies, then far fewer people would look elsewhere) - but guarantee a place at the local school.
I can almost feel the shivering of government officials at the prospect of the "capacity problems" this might cause. Yes, you would need to build more schools (note to Hackney's Learning Trust: ... and also stop closing existing ones). And yes, you might have 'spare capacity' some years if your projections of the local 11-year-old population were not spot-on accurate.
But so what? The consequences would be ... er ... smaller classes, less pressure on resources, more individual attention for kids, room to swing a cat, ... Hardly the stuff that people go on protests against.
If numbers drop in one particular year, then the government should not claw back funding (click the link and scroll down to 'Brook Primary'), or even threaten closure. Instead, just enjoy the slack!
For the 800+ who did not get into Mossbourne, "choice" is an Orwellian word. Choice = you don't get your first choice. Or, probably, your second. Or even your third. What you get is stress and disappointment.
Going out of borough
The shortage of places and surplus of 'choice' left 83 Hackney 11-year-olds (67 of them boys) with no secondary school place at all at the start of this term. And it forces up to 40% of Hackney's kids out of the borough to go to school.
You would think the most obvious possible non-solution would be to close one of Hackney's schools. But on 8th September, the Learning Trust published the official notice of the planned closure of boys' school Homerton College of Technology. The notice declared that Year 7, 8 and 9 boys will transfer to other schools, naming four examples - every one of which is outside Hackney.
The potential consequences of children travelling out of their home borough to attend school?
- It is harder for them to see friends.
- Communities become more fragmented.
- There is more potential for friction, both in communities between teenagers who go to different schools, and in schools, between kids from different boroughs.
- Long journeys to and from school - tiring, maybe dangerous.
- The notorious 'school run'. In my humble opinion, complainers about excess traffic (of which I am one) should campaign for good local schools rather than congestion charging.
- Parents vote in the local authority area where they live, rather than the one where their kids go to school, so have even less say in the running of their kids' school than the rest of us do.
- Youngsters feel unwanted, rejected, pushed from pillar to post. And as we know, alienated youngsters can get into all sorts of trouble.
Solution: More Academies?
The Learning Trust assures us that the solution is coming: more Academies! Petchey Academy will open in September '06, Bridge Academy a year later. Petchey (named after Jack, the 'philanthropist' who sponsors it) will rise from the ashes of the old Kingsland School, closed in July 2003 for no good reason after a farcical 'consultation' which ignored the views of puils, staff and the community.
Petchey's specialism will be "health, care and medical science". Kevin Powler, Project Director, tells Hackney Gazette (6/4/05)
readers that "we plan to teach pupils ... the social etiquette of dining". I wonder: is this so they will know how to curl their pinky whilst dining out in the finest restaurants? Or so that can wait on the tables of the rich without putting the spoon in the wrong place or dropping their aitches?
Controversy? What controversy?
Not surprisingly, the government and its local stooges are feeling a bit defensive about Academies.
Alan Woods, Chief Executive of the Learning Trust, talked himself through a question-and-answer page in a Hackney Gazette special education supplement in August this year.
So, Alan, why is Hackney supporting Academies? Answer: Because we need new schools and the Academies programme is how the government funds new schools.
Can't think of anything positive to say about them, then?! Simply, we have no choice, the government has held a gun to our heads.
And Alan, why are Academies controversial? Answer (roughly): Because some of them are run by religious organisations and don't work with other schools in the area. So worry not - Hackney is only getting Academies which are non-denominational, non-selective, and with sponsors who have a "record" in education in the local area.
Well, I'm glad about the non-denominational and non-selective bit (except, as we have already seen, 'non-selective' is a questionable claim). And no, I wouldn't want schools run by people who had never set foot in a school or in east London before.
But really, Alan, there are other, more fundamental, reasons why Academies are "controversial". It is because most people believe in publicly-run, publicly-accountable, comprehensive state education. The Hackney School Governors' Association rightly states that the Academy set-up "undermines the concept of locally accountable state education."
Even in a notable case where creationist fruitcakes had been lined up as sponsors, the successful campaign focused on opposition to privatisation with the religious issue secondary.
State education liberated working-class kids from philanthropy - from relying on charitable hand-outs from rich people with a conscience (or 'trusts' with an agenda). The Academies programme is reversing that liberation.
But never mind, eh? Mossbourne has won a design award. So that's alright then.
I have been told that this article is, apparently, a bit depressing. Surely not!
If you need cheering up, please note that:
(a) there have been several successful campaigns to stop Academies;
(b) Hackney Solidarity will be running a campaign for Mossbourne to admit more local kids.
Andrew Adonis was in fact elected to public office - as a LibDem Councillor in Oxford back in the late 1980s. Quite how that qualifies him to wield so much power over schools policy in a Labour government is beyond me.