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How can private schools get involved with academies?

There are a number of considerations for schools looking at academy sponsorship, says James Riches

Posted by Stephanie Broad | April 26, 2016 | People, policy, politics

The idea of private schools working with academies is not a new one. As far back as 2012, former Schools Minister Lord Adonis urged private schools to use their resources to assist local academies and pass on their “educational DNA”.

It has proved a divisive debate. While plenty of independent schools regard it as their ethical duty to support academies, others have stated that they wish to devote all their attention to their own pupils in order to ensure parents receive maximum value for money.

However, let’s assume for the moment that a private school does want to provide assistance to academies. How has this worked previously?

Funding 

The obvious first step is money. Every school needs it and academies are no different. One of the most high-profile private school/academy partnerships in the UK is between Wiltshire’s Wellington College and Wellington Academy.

The college, which last year charged an annual boarding fee of over £35,000, has gone to great lengths to become involved in the day-to-day running of the academy, with varying degrees of success.

However, one area where the academy has undoubtedly benefited is funding. As part of the set-up process, the academy was given a £2 million donation from college alumnus Tim Bunting, now an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. Mr Bunting is also a governor at the academy.

This sort of financial support provides an advantage enjoyed by comparatively few institutions. If spent wisely, it is a surefire way to improve the fortunes of any academy, providing a greatly enhanced experience for pupils.

Staff

Staff is one of the most important resources for any school. Private schools who choose to work with academies are often keen to offer support in this regard, sending teachers to offer their expertise wherever possible.

On the other hand, this sort of gesture is exactly what puts some private schools off. In 2013, Louise Robinson, headteacher at Merchant Taylors’ Girls’ School in Liverpool, said: “I doubt that my parents, many of whom make great sacrifices in choosing an independent education for their child, would be happy if they knew we had even one member of staff ‘free’ to support another school.”

Those that do share teaching resources have encountered one of the biggest challenges private schools face when working with academies: the teaching approach is not necessarily directly transferable. Former Wellington College head, Sir Anthony Seldon, has admitted that his experiences have shown it is easier for a teacher to move from a state school to a private school than vice versa. A tailored approach is a must.

Of course, in cases where a full-scale staffing change is proposed, this throws up legal challenges too. In Wellington’s case, they quickly elected to remove the academy’s headteacher and replace him with a deputy head from the college. Many others were shown the door too. In the end, staff changes at Wellington became so numerous that a student protest ensued. Any academy looking to go down this route needs to ensure their processes are watertight.

Should private schools and academies work together?

It is down to the individual school to decide which side of the fence they fall on. If a private school does choose to lend its support to an academy, it is important to learn the lessons of the past and do things the right way, both ethically and legally. 

James Riches is a guest contributor from berg, a law firm that works closely with the education sector and assists schools looking to convert to academies.

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