The Excellence Academy epitomises both the benefits and the virtues of the Government’s free schools policy.
It is an attempt to create a new type of school which will achieve what traditional local authority schools are arguably failing to do.
According to the founders of the Excellence Academy, traditional schools in inner city areas just aren’t ambitious enough. They’ve fallen for the mantra that children from modest backgrounds can’t get into Britain’s best universities. This is an illusion that the Excellence Academy will shatter, by proudly focusing on academic standards and achievement.
It will give less wealthy children the type of education that their more affluent peers take for granted and benefit enormously from, in other words.
The implied criticism of some traditional state schools may be unfair.
But it’s not a new criticism. Education ministers from all parties have complained about a culture in parts of our schools system which encourages a belief that working class children, and in some cases children from ethnic minorities, can never be expected to achieve the same level of success as those from middle class white families.
A school guided by the philosophy that this is nonsense, and founded by teachers, professionals and parents who are determined to put something back into their community, is exactly what Education Secretary Michael Gove was hoping for – and it seems to be what he is getting.
At the same time, however, the Excellence Academy highlights the misgivings some people have about the free schools policy.
Like other free schools, it will be state funded – but it will have no connection with the local authority, unless school and council voluntarily decide to build a relationship (which seems to be happening in the case of the Nishkam School in Birmingham).
As a result, Sandwell Council had no idea that the school had been approved. The authority only knew what was happening when Mr Gove stood up in the House of Commons and announced that he and his officials had decided the Excellence Academy was worthy of state funding.
Indeed, it seems that the school has ambitions to serve both Sandwell and Birmingham. But Birmingham City Council also appears to know little about it.
Sandwell has worked hard to improve its schools system, and it has not been helped by the fact that its school buildings are run down and often too small to cope with pupil numbers.
But the sudden introduction of a new school into the mix only makes it harder for the authority to know where it should spend the resources it does have. Then there is the question of the Excellence Academy’s “guarantee” – a fine statement of intent but somewhat worrying if taken literally.
Isn’t it naive to offer a guarantee that every pupil will get good GCSEs? Given that there is no entry criteria, won’t the school find that some pupils simply cannot meet that target?
On the other hand, perhaps the Excellence Academy will prove our scepticism wrong. And we hope they do.
Mr Gove should consider giving local education authorities a break and keeping them a bit more informed about what his department is doing.
And the school’s leaders might want to follow Nishkam School’s example and forge links with its local councils – and local authorities will also then be under an obligation to respond positively.
Most of all, we welcome the Excellence Academy’s ambition of ensuring that every child, regardless of wealth, has access to a world-class education designed to win them a place at a top university.
It will be easier said than done but it’s a goal well worth striving for.