|Andrew Adonis is in a buoyant mood. He hasn't given up on the idea that Eton will become a sponsor of the Government's flagship academies programme. And Oxford and Cambridge
universities are being targeted, too.
"I have spoken to all three of these institutions," says the Schools Minister, looking as though he enjoys persuading
reluctant institutions to sign up to a programme
that they have not exactly rushed to join.
"I had a very amiable dinner with Sir Eric Anderson, who incidentally was at Lincoln College [Oxford] when I was a student there and is now chairman of the school's governing
body, and I talked to Tony Little [Eton's head
master]. We discussed outreach work that the
school could get involved in and I put a strong
case for an academy. Ultimately, it's up to
them whether they decide to take it on."
Cambridge, Oxford and Eton are so far non-committal
about his advances, but Lord Adonis has had
a spring in his step since it was announced
two months ago that Winchester College, one
of the country's most venerable independent
schools, had joined the programme and was planning
to back an academy in Midhurst, West Sussex.
Winchester will not actually be giving money;
instead, it will be appointing people to the
governing body and providing teachers to help
the academy, which is replacing the existing
Midhurst Grammar School, a comprehensive in
West Sussex that had been in special measures
"I think we're getting quite close to
the point where it has become mainstream for
private schools and the independent sector to
become involved with academies," says Adonis.
"Universities see it as an essential part
of their attempts to widen participation. It
is part of that dynamic."
The Winchester announcement was followed by
another that Gordonstoun, the Scottish independent
school attended by royalty and founded by the
German educator Kurt Hahn, was also backing
the academies programme.
It will be supporting the Samworth Church Academy
in the Mansfield area of Nottinghamshire, arranging
pupil exchanges on a regular basis and placing
one of Gordonstoun's deputy heads, Tony Gabb,
on the governing body. Pupils from Samworth
will be given the chance to learn how to sail
on Gordonstoun's 80-foot training vessel.
This brings the number of private schools backing
the academies programme to 19 – including
such well-known names as Marlborough, Dulwich
and Wellington. What's more, the number of universities
signing up has risen to 39 – with Nottingham
becoming the first member of the Russell Group
(representing the top 20 research institutions
in the UK) to join. It is the declared aim of
Lord Adonis and Ed Balls, Secretary for children,
schools and families, that every university
should have a link with an academy.
The way was cleared to some extent by a government
decision to waive the sponsors' fee for private
schools and universities.
According to a source at Winchester, when the
idea of backing the academies' project was first
discussed at the college, there was apparently
some concern among parents that their fees would
go towards helping children in another school
rather than their own offspring. "They
felt any money they paid should go towards the
education of their
The school's dilemma is summed up in a letter
written by 10 of the heads involved with academies,
including Graham Able, the Master of Dulwich
College, and Dr Anthony Seldon, of Wellington
In it, they argue: "In our case 'sponsorship'
involves academic and administrative leadership
and governance. ... We do not think we have
all the answers, but we do feel that the success
within our sector suggests that we have something
to offer in helping the establishment and development
of the academics."
Lord Adonis believes that Winchester's concerns
about providing direct financial aid to academies
were "perfectly valid" when the £2m
was being demanded from academy sponsors. "We
don't regard it as reasonable to expect charities
that exist to provide education to come up with
a sponsorship fee," he says.
Controversy still surrounds the programme,
however, not least because some state school
teachers resent the way Lord Adonis has been
portraying the independent sector as the saviour
of failing state schools. Adonis told the annual
conference of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses'
Conference, which represents the top independent
schools including Eton, that he wanted to see
the private schools "educational DNA"
imprinted on the academies programme.
This provoked some scathing comments, including
this one from a blogger campaigning against
the establishment of the Midhurst Academy: "A
more damning insult to the professionalism of
those who have declared all their efforts to
working in a public service for the benefit
of their communities could barely be imagined!"
Moreover, the NASUWT teachers' union, traditionally
the Government's ally and a keen supporter of
partnership with ministers,
has warned of industrial action over attempts
to establish new academies. It is worried about
the terms and conditions of their members working
in academies, especially regarding union recognition
Lord Adonis counters that, on the ground, teachers
are keener on academies than are national union
leaders. "At local level, their members
are fighting for teachers' jobs in academies,"
he says. "We have not had a single serious
industrial dispute in academies. They are highly
attractive employers and they find it easier
to recruit than the failing schools they replace."
One thing is for certain. His enthusiasm for
the academies programme appears undimmed. At
present, 83 have been established and ministers
are still aiming for 400, although Lord Adonis
would not rule out even more in the longer term.
The programme has been tweaked, however, so
that more emphasis is being placed on sponsorship
by independent schools and universities rather
than maverick entrepreneurs. In addition, academies
must have the support of the local authority
on whose territory they will be sited.
The academy movement is growing rapidly. "There
are 100,000 secondary school pupils in academies
and the entire membership of the HMC only represents
200,000 places in their schools," he says.
Adonis is anxious to ensure that schools that
fail to reach the Government's target of 30
per cent of pupils with five A* to C grade passes
within four years (at present 638 fail to reach
that hurdle) are top of the list for being replaced
by an academy.
He talks personally to all those wanting to
back an academy. "It's only fair that they
should know of the Government's commitment to
the programme," he says. Now that the Conservatives
and several Liberal Democrat-controlled councils
are supporting it, he believes he can persuade
any potential backers that it is not a fly-by-night
This is why he will be banging the drum at
Uppingham School later this month, with a keynote
address on the subject. David Samworth, sponsor
of the Samworth academy and a Nottinghamshire
businessman, is an old boy of the school and
has persuaded six old boys to back the programme,
too. Adonis is keen to woo more of its old boys
into parting with their cash. And he is intensifying
his charm offensive against Eton, Oxford and Cambridge.
News by Independent - 1st May 2008