What now for failing academy?

Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate - given bottom marks by Ofsted Credit: ITV Meridian

The coalition government has had a clear and simple message ever since it came to power...academies are good, failing schools are bad. So what do you do when those two things become one and the same ie you have a failing academy on your hands?

Schools inspectors from Ofsted have just put the Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate in special measures. An inspection visit carried out in November gave it the lowest of four gradings now possible under new classifications - "Inadequate".

The attainment and progress of students there? "Inadequate". The quality of teaching? "Inadequate. "

Marlowe in Kent is an old style academy - converted under Labour when academy status was reserved for under performing schools in deprived areas that were seen to need a fresh start. They were given freedom from local authority control, the freedom to follow their own curriculum and financial independence. They had sponsors from industry to help them try a new approach.

The government has spent the last year concentrating on only getting the best performing schools to opt for the freedom and flexibility that academy status offers. Now it's turning its attention back to the same kinds of school where the whole idea began twelve years ago.

It's linking 200 of the worst performing with sponsors and strongly encouraging them to convert to academy status, convinced it will up their game and improve standards. So in many ways the latest developments at Marlowe Academy couldn't have come at a worse possible time. If it hasn't worked for Marlowe in seven years, why should academy status work for these schools? Is conversion really the only answer to a whole plethora of questions about how to improve the standards in schools?

Investment of £21 million has so far failed to bring about change for the better in Ramsgate. Why? Presumably because nice new buildings and a fancy name aren't an automatic passport to educational success. Especially when you're in a county where the eleven plus still exists and the overwhelming majority of high achieving students are hoovered up by the local grammar schools.

Marlowe says it's making progress - it has a new principal with a reputation for turning round school performance - and an improved academic record where 20 per cent of pupils now achieve five A to C passes at GCSE including English and Maths (still way below the national average).

In a letter to parents, the sponsor and chair of governors who used to run Saga, Roger De Haan, says: "Nearly 100 children have gone to university where none went before. The new team is continuing to advance teaching standards and is confident that academic results this year will again show significant improvements."

"Although there is still work to be done, we feel we are now well-placed to build on the progress that has already been made. The governors remain committed to securing the best possible outcomes for your children."

Marlowe Academy - a new team in charge to improve performance Credit: ITV News

And of course this is just one school. The government points to the fact that overall performance in academies is improving faster than in maintained schools - up around five percentage points in the 166 sponsored by charities, philanthropists and educational groups like universities between 2010 and 2011.

But a spokesperson for the Department for Education told me: "Results in a minority of sponsored academies remain stubbornly low. We will not tolerate underperformance year after year – academy or not. We are taking tough action on Marlowe Academy."

Several of the poorly performing schools that converted to become academies have proved stubbornly difficult to transform. They struggle with tough catchments, find it difficult to attract good teachers. They've had a lot of success rebuilding their science blocks and less success rebuilding their reputations.

The question is, with academies effectively going it alone, outside of local control, what can you actually DO to sort things out once you've handed over control to sponsors?

The Secretary of State has powers to intervene in weak academies, which includes removing a sponsor, or taking control of the governing body. Yet at the moment Marlowe is just being monitored on a monthly basis. The message is improvement and change are coming

But exactly how much longer are the pupils expected to wait?