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Most academies have made good progress in improving GCSE results, and the programme is on track to deliver good value for money. Performance is rising faster than in other types of schools although results in English and maths are low. Academies have cost more to build than other schools, but most academy buildings are high quality.

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These are some of the main findings in today’s NAO report to Parliament, which concludes that if the trends in raising attainment continue, the Academies programme will meet its objective of raising attainment in deprived areas.

The full impact of the first academies will not be known for several years because all pupils who have taken GCSEs in academies have spent time in other secondary schools. Evidence so far indicates that performance is improving compared with the predecessor schools. Most academies’ results remain well below the national average, but good progress is being made towards that target. Academies are raising the achievements of pupils from deprived backgrounds. Taking account of pupils’ personal circumstances and prior attainment, academies are performing substantially better than other schools. Overall performance in English and maths is low, but the position improved with the 2006 GCSE results. Academies are also improving pupil attendance faster than other schools.

Most academies are not achieving good results at advanced level. This reflects in part a lack of priority given to sixth forms in academies’ early years, the small size of most academy sixth forms and predecessor schools’ historically low attainment. The report concludes that while there can be a good case for having a sixth form, the grounds need to be solid and address the potential risk of lowering the standards of post-16 education in the area.

One of the Academies programme’s three objectives is to drive up standards by raising achievement across the local area, but there has so far been little collaboration between academies and neighbouring schools. The Department expects new academies’ first priorities to be improving education and standards, but as academies become better established themselves they need to step up collaboration so that their benefits are more widely spread in the communities in which they are located.

Two thirds (17 out of 26) of the first academy buildings have suffered cost overruns averaging £3 million (the other nine were within their original budgets), and academies have cost an average of £24 million (£27 million for those that are entire new buildings) which makes them more expensive than other secondary schools. It is difficult to make direct comparisons with other new schools owing to differences in location, school size, site constraints and age range of pupils. Most academy buildings have been better designed and built, compared with a group of other new schools.

Today’s report also states that the Department and HM Treasury need to agree on an appropriate way to enable academies to raise community usage above the 10 per cent threshold allowed under the regulations governing eligibility for VAT relief.

"Our report today shows that the Academies programme is improving the standards of education and raising the achievements of pupils from deprived backgrounds. These are early days and more remains to be done, especially in improving English and maths results. The challenge for academies is to sustain the improvements while also spreading their benefits more widely in their communities.

"For the programme, the challenge is to manage capital costs better for the hundreds of new academies still planned to be built and to use the lessons from the programme, for example on good quality school buildings, to get good value for money for the large capital investment currently being made in academies and other secondary schools."

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO


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