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How private Wellington drew up battle plans for state sector

Analysis | Published in TES Newspaper on 18 December, 2009 | By: Irena Barker

But the top public school is hoping to bring more than a rifle range and a Combined Cadet Force to its sponsorship of a neighbouring academy. It's one of a growing breed of independents choosing to get involved with maintained schools, as Irena Barker reports

"We could be the top state school at.22 rifle shooting, I'm quite hopeful about that," says headteacher Andy Schofield, pointing to plans for a shooting range at the new Wellington Academy.

The casual observer might find this an unlikely aspiration for a state-school head, and an unusual sports facility - until you realise that the new academy opened this September with the sponsorship of Wellington College, the Berkshire public school named after the victor of the Battle of Waterloo.

With such history, it was perhaps inevitable that the academy, in Tidworth, Wiltshire, would boast facilities for a Combined Cadet Force and a rifle range to provide pupils with targets outside the classroom.

And besides, the idea seems apt, since 40 per cent of the academy's children come from families living on army bases in the area.

But the college is hoping to transfer much more than a military vibe to its state school charge.

Dr Anthony Seldon, Wellington College's formidable Master, has ensured that his passions for pupil well-being and the concept of "multiple intelligences" form part of the core ethos of the new school.

It is even hoped that the International Baccalaureate, another of his enthusiasms, will be available to sixth-formers within three or four years.

The project, culminating in 2011 with the opening of new £22 million buildings, is the fruit of a seven-year slog to achieve Dr Seldon's dream of sponsoring an academy.

The project was finally made possible when he moved to Wellington in 2006. A governor stumped up the £2 million cash sponsorship, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families matched the college with the struggling Castledown School 50 miles away.

"It is the best thing I have done in my professional life, the thing I am proudest of," he told the TES.

However, both sides work hard to stress there is not a patron/client relationship, perhaps to quell fears from locals that Wellington College is trying to create a "mini me".

Four members of the governing body come from Wellington College, and deputy head Lucy Pearson works in the academy as a management consultant once a week.

But Mr Schofield insists that he benefits from great freedom as well as their expertise.

"The college is a sensible sponsor. They have no experience of running a state school so they leave me alone to get on with it," he said.

Wellington College is one of three private schools to have become full sponsors of academies, all of which opened at the start of this school year.

Dulwich College in south London sponsors The Isle of Sheppey Academy, and The Skinners' School in Tunbridge Wells is sponsoring The Skinners' Kent Academy, also in Tunbridge Wells.

Canford School in Dorset is at the feasibility stages, although no firm plans have been announced.

Since the then schools minister Andrew Adonis called for private schools to transmit their "educational DNA" to state-funded academies, 12 others have opted to become co-sponsors and 13 have become "educational partners".

United Learning Trust - whose sister charity, United Church Schools Trust, runs 10 fee-charging schools - has recruited two educational co-sponsors from the independent sector, Marlborough College and Winchester College, for two of its 17 academies.

This may be useful at a time when ULT has come under fire for the standards at some of its academies.

Six private schools have even taken up the option of converting into state-funded academies.

A government prospectus, designed to attract private schools to the project, offers a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to break down the historic divide between the state and private sectors in England".

Despite this, insiders say the burden of bureaucracy is enormous, so few schools have the nerve or resources to be the main backer. Not everyone, they say, has the same enthusiasm as Dr Seldon.

Justifying the move to fee-paying parents is also an issue, as the benefits to the private school may not be obvious. Concerns that the Government is reining in the freedoms of academies have also prompted some private schools to hold back.

However, the scheme enables independents to prove to the Charity Commission that they are contributing to the wider public good, and so retain their charitable status and related tax breaks. But none of the schools involved will admit that this is their main motivation.

Dr Joseph Spence, Master at Dulwich College, says academy sponsorship is "integral" to the mission of the school. Similarly, Dr Ralph Townsend, headteacher of Winchester School, partner to Midhurst Rother College in West Sussex, insists that his school is not involved simply to "tick the boxes".

"It's an ethical issue about what kind of citizenship you want to exercise as an institution," he said.

But Uppingham School takes a different approach, having chosen to be educational partner to a collegiate of three academies with links to successful alumni, including Havelock Academy in Grimsby, sponsored by Uppingham old boy and Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross.

Head Richard Harman talks of relationships "growing organically" into a "mutual network of support".

They are also keen to refute accusation that the scheme is simply a patronising enterprise that assumes private is always better than state.

At Oundle School, educational partner to the £60 million Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough, education development director Philip Couzens says it is not a case of "one school lording it over the other".

"One of the key advantages is members of staff from the different schools having contact with each other. Thomas Deacon is very bold with IT and working with virtual learning environments, and we are able to learn from that boldness."

Despite claims that the relationships are very much two-way, the concept of private schools imposing their "ethos" on to state schools has been criticised by some on the left, who doubt that old-fashioned uniforms and Combined Cadet Forces will cure the "ills" of the state system.

While many say that schools sponsoring other schools is preferable to carpet tycoons and creationists taking charge, others are still uncomfortable with the idea.

Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti-Academies Alliance, compared the concept to "rich people throwing crumbs to the poor".

He said: "There is no evidence that independent schools have any better DNA or better educational experience than state schools. This idea perpetuates a myth that private education is better led and better organised than the maintained sector.

"There is a whole class of people who believe that, because they went to (public) school, lived in houses and did rowing, that it will work anywhere. I'm all for strong discipline, but you need the families and stable communities that allow that to happen. Where is the evidence that top public schools have a remarkable pedagogy that transforms people's lives?"

Indeed, there is no evidence that private schools can help to turn around the fortunes of some of the most challenging schools.

It is clear, however, that the atmosphere is buoyant at Wellington Academy. Pupils praise their new teachers, 100-minute lessons and uniforms, and look forward to the completion of their new buildings as diggers roar outside.

Only time will tell what impact the private school influence will have, or if the link will be sustainable after Dr Seldon has hung up his mortar board.

TWO OF A KIND: THE INDEPENDENT ACADEMY SPONSORS

- Dulwich College, south London: Isle of Sheppey Academy, Kent

- The Skinners' School, Tunbridge Wells: The Skinners' Kent Academy, Tunbridge Wells

- Wellington College, Crowthorne: Wellington Academy, Tidworth, Wiltshire

CO-SPONSORS

- Berkhamsted Collegiate School, Hertfordshire: Wren Academy, Barnet

- Highgate School, London: The Crest Boys' Academy/The Crest Girls' Academy, Brent

- Kings School Canterbury: Folkestone Academy

- Marlborough College: Swindon Academy

- Merchant Taylors' School, Middlesex: Harefield Academy, Uxbridge

- Sevenoaks School: The Vine Academy, Sevenoaks

- Tonbridge School: Marsh Academy, Romney Marsh, Kent

IN ADDITION

- 13 schools are designated "educational partners" to academies and other projects are in the pipeline.

Source: DCSF.


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