Ross Clark

A new way over the wall

By sponsoring academies, public schools can not only justify their charitable status but can extend their influence, says <em>Ross Clark</em>

A new way over the wall
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Want your sprog to be toughened up on the playing fields of Eton but can’t afford the fees? From September there is an intriguing alternative. You can send him instead to Holyport College, a free school which is opening in the shell of an old special school six miles away. Though the chairman of governors, Simon Dudley, insists his new school is not ‘Eton Lite’, the website offers more than a hint that here is an opportunity to obtain an Eton-standard education for a third of the price, if your child boards, or nothing at all if he doesn’t.

‘Eton College is our sole educational sponsor,’ reads the blurb, ‘and therefore brings its educational and pastoral expertise to Holyport College.’ Pupils are promised the use of sports facilities, evening speaker meetings, and the chance to rub shoulders with Etonians.

Eton is not the first public school to dabble in educational provision for the great unwashed.Wellington College has sponsored an eponymous academy since 2009. The London Academy of Excellence, opened two years ago in Stratford, is sponsored by eight independent schools including Eton, Brighton College and Highgate. As well as borrowing some teachers from the sponsoring schools, the academy runs a buddy system in which its pupils are teamed up with private school pupils.

They even go on visits to see how the other half lives. ‘I got to visit Eton College boys, who wear tailcoats. That was a bit of an experience,’ one pupil at the academy enthused, as if he had just been on a safari.

Independent schools have scored a victory in their long battle with the Charities Commission. In 2006, the commission demanded that private schools with a charitable foundation must do more to demonstrate that they were providing a public benefit, pressing in particular for more bursaries for children from poor families. In 2011, a tribunal at the High Court ruled that yes, schools with charitable status did need to show they were providing public benefit beyond educating their fee-paying pupils, but it did not necessarily have to be in the form of bursaries. The ruling thus opened the way for schools to justify their charitable status through off-site initiatives, such as sponsoring academies.

But is it just a ruse for public schools to show they are good guys, reaching out to the poor but without actually having to contaminate their ancient corridors with the proletariat?

Barnaby Lenon, former -headmaster of Harrow and now chairman of the Independent Schools’ Council, insists it is not. ‘The amount of bursaries at schools involved in academies has continued to grow,’ he says. It is hard not to wonder, however, whether sponsoring an academy allows public schools to extend their influence over social groups to which they might balk at offering large numbers of bursaries. Holyport College, for example, has an admissions policy which gives first priority to children in care or previously looked-after children. Second in line are children with exceptional medical or social needs. Only after that does anyone else get a look-in, starting with children of the founders. It is hard to imagine St Cakes having an admissions policy where even the son of an aristocrat had to wait in a queue behind a line of battered children from the local housing estates.

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, sponsoring an academy is a superior way of proving charitable status to offering bursaries: it offers a large number of children some of the benefits of a private education instead of offering a small number of children all the benefits. It also comes at a surprisingly low cost to the school. I have to admit that when I heard that Eton was sponsoring an academy my first thought was how were Eton’s parents going to take it — shelling out £34,434 a year for their Fauntleroys to go to a proper school and then finding out that £5,000 or £10,000 of that was going to help educate a bunch of oiks down the road?

I needn’t have worried on their behalf. Simon Dudley let me in on the extent of Eton’s involvement with Holyport College. ‘The Old Etonian Association provided £140,000 for an all-weather sports pitch,’ he says. ‘Eton College also provided accommodation for the newly appointed headmaster of Holyport and provided financial support for the bursar. All in all, Eton has provided approximately £200,000 of financial help.’

Eton will also be providing some help on pastoral care and help with university admissions, which is harder to value, yet still it seems a remarkably small amount of sponsorship money for a school which carries its links with Eton so prominently and which is costing £15 million to set up. Take away the money given by the old boys, and the funds provided so far are the equivalent of less than two full Eton bursaries. All of which raises the question: why don’t all independent schools freeze their bursaries, or even chop them, and instead sponsor an academy, promoting their charitable brand without having to hand out free places?

There is good reason to suspect that Holyport College and the like will only be spawned by the larger public schools. Eton could sponsor ten highly successful academies and it is hard to imagine applications to its own school drying up. But what about an independent school in a small provincial town that is already struggling to fill its places? The very last thing it needs is a decent state school on its doorstep, still less one that promotes the same ethos and bears its own brand name.

As Barnaby Lenon says, ‘No independent school would want to set up an academy in their area which was going to take their pupils.’ Indeed not. All the more reason for sponsoring an academy in another area.

This has the potential to get rather nasty. If you are an independent school in X-town, you might sponsor an academy in Y-town, but then what if the headmaster of the local private school in Y-town retaliates by sponsoring an academy in X-town?

Then again, things might not get that far. More likely, I suspect, is that independent schools will develop an unspoken agreement not to open academies which poach each other’s pupils, and that their involvement in academies will be limited to inner cities and other private school deserts. I am sure that Holyport College, which itself is in a well-heeled area of Berkshire — only a couple of miles from the Fat Duck, if you want to spend your money there rather on your kids’ school fees — will offer an excellent education to children who might not otherwise get it. But don’t expect a free-at-the-point-of-delivery mini-Eton in every neighbourhood.