Some private schools are engaged with Academies, most are not

Politicians seeking to move the agenda forward


Politicians are keen that private schools play a much greater role in support of Academies. Andrew Adonis, the architect of the initial academies scheme, memorably said that he wanted the independent sectors DNA transferred to state schools, though Academies, which are autonomous state schools. “Everything about academies” Adonis  said, in a summer  speech to the SSAT,  “is in the DNA of the successful private school: independence, excellence, innovation, social mission. And the benefit is not only to the wider community, it is also to the private schools themselves, whose mission is enlarged, whose relative isolation is ended, and whose social engagement, beyond the families of the better-off, is transformed.”

It is no secret that Michael Gove and David Cameron are also keen for this to happen. Indeed, Cameron has been leaning on his old school Eton , encouraging them to become more involved.  David Cameron recently had a meeting at No 10 on bridging the gap between the two sectors and Academies were very much on the agenda. Some 28 independent schools are already helping to run academies. Dulwich is successfully sponsoring an academy in Sheppey. The King Edward VI Foundation is sponsoring an academy in Birmingham, alongside its two private schools and five state grammar schools. All of these academies are replacing failing comprehensives. The Girls Day School Trust has converted two of its outstanding private schools, in Liverpool and Birkenhead, into state academies. Three of the most impressive academy chains – built up by the Mercers Company, the Haberdashers Company, and the City of London Corporation – have grown out of the management of historic private schools, leveraging this educational expertise and experience to establish chains of academies alongside. The City Corporation, historic sponsors of the City of London Schools for Boys and Girls, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, now sponsors three academies in its neighbouring boroughs on Islington, Southwark and Hackney. The Mercers, historic managers of St Paul’s Girls and St Paul’s Boys Schools, now sponsor an academy nearby in West London, and a chain of academies growing out of the Mercers’ outstandingly successful Thomas Telford School – one of the original City Technology Colleges – in Telford. The Haberdashers, with their historic private schools in Elstree and Monmouth, now have two clusters of successful academies, one in Lewisham and the other in Telford. Wellington College has established an Academy in Tidworth, Wiltshire  Anthony Seldon sees the establishment of the Wellington Academy as a means of not only satisfying his schools public benefit requirement under Charity law  but as the key lever to help break down the barriers between the sectors. He  shares Adonis’ belief that the benefits of such engagement are not just  one way. Good State school teachers have honed their skills in how to maintain class discipline and   teachers can often really add value with difficult and challenging pupils, getting  the very best out of them in class and through  their pastoral support.

Seldon is also critical of the idea that bursaries are the best means of satisfying the charitable purposes of schools benefiting the few rather than the many.

But not everyone is supportive of the idea of independent schools supporting Academies.  Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, who now heads Cognita, a for-profit schools consortium, says that it would be “morally” wrong to ask private school parents who have already sacrificed so much to help to finance another school. It is probably true that if you asked parents to fork out more in fees to help set up an Academy most would be pretty unimpressed particularly given that fees have been rising well above inflation.  But this is avoidable if you ring fence funding support for an Academy, using outside funding sources, in Wellingtons case this came from alumni. In short, Wellington parents were not asked to dip into their pockets. Woodhead also values the independence of the for profit Cognita group,  which is not subject to interference from either the Charities Commission, which has made a bit of a pigs ear of explaining the  public benefit requirement, or politicians who  often seem to think that they know much  better than  Heads, governors, teachers, or Trustees  for that matter, on how to run  their  schools. Most private schools are still resisting any moves to support Academies arguing that they already have a number of schemes in place to benefit the local community and local schools, and it’s up to them to decide how best to meet their charitable purposes.  There is also a reputational risk . If an independent school is associated with a failing Academy, it will  tarnish its brand . Also  , inevitably,  if you are supporting an Academy some staff time, quite a lot  in fact, will have to be  allocated to the Academy and there is a danger that you short-change your own pupils and fee paying parents .

Meanwhile, the unions bleat that Academies are about the privatisation of the system and want nothing much to do with the private system which they claim is elitist, exclusive and irrelevant to the needs of most pupils.

But Academies are here to stay and so are private schools. Probably best it they don’t just stare at each other over the equivalent of the Berlin Wall but instead work out ways in which they might find common ground for mutual benefit. Whether politicians can help much in this process is a moot point but one thing that won’t work, for sure, is coercion or bullying.

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