Football club's goal to help fund Blair's city academies

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The Independent Online

New Labour is turning to football to boost Tony Blair's flagship programme for academy schools.

John Madejski, chairman of Reading, who are playing in the Premier League for the first time this season, is sponsoring one of 19 new academies to open for the first time this week.

It is one of a number of academies - which have, in the main, replaced struggling inner-city schools - to have links with top clubs.

The new £27m academy, which opens tomorrow, will have a specialist sports focus, giving pupils at the academy the chance to gain specialist training at the club's football academy.

They can also take part in a programme which aims to provide youngsters with after-hours classes in the three Rs, in the atmosphere of their football club.

The school will also have a fledgling sixth-form - which its predecessor, Thamesbridge College, did not - which will specialise in sports-related courses.

West Bromwich Albion are co-sponsoring another academy in Sandwell, and a third team has links with newly promoted Watford.

Mr Madejski is adamant that the two strands to his life are separate. And he points out that the academy will also have links with London Irish rugby club.

"The academy goes back to an invitation I had to 10 Downing Street when [Charles] Clarke was Education Secretary," he said.

"They had quite a few entrepreneurs and businessmen there. They wanted me to get involved in launching an academy in London. I was very attracted to the scheme, but wasn't interested in London.

Mr Madejski said he had attended a number of private schools during his youth in Reading, but had left without a single qualification. "I wanted to put something back into the area that I grew up in. Our kids are our future, but all the time are left in Dickensian buildings that are falling to bits. These academies give them something better."

The new academy, with its covered glass walkway and spacious classrooms, is already winning back parents, with every one of its 155 places this year snapped up.

It will have its work cut out to succeed, though. Two years ago, only 10 per cent of pupils at Thamesbridge obtained five A* to C grade GCSE passes - although this improved to 30 per cent, leading some critics to say that the turnaround had already begun.

The Madejski academy, as it will be named, is confident of being able to improve on this. The services of an award-winning head, Catherine Shaw, have been secured. Ms Shaw was secondary headteacher of the Year in last year's national teaching awards.

Mr Madejski makes no bones of the fact that he is not an educator, but has sought to bring in expertise to run the academy's governing body. Anthony Hudson, a former principal of the nearby private school Pangbourne College, is its chairman. Its members also include David Murray, a former chief superintendent, who was educated at Thamesbridge College.

* The first competition to run a state school is being launched this week. Under the Government's school reforms, any attempt to open a new state school has to be advertised from this month to allow potential sponsors, church or parents' groups to register an interest.

The first proposal, to open a new secondary school in Wood Green, north London, will be advertised this month by Haringey Council.

New centres of learning

The other 18 new academies to open this week are:

* Sandwell: West Bromwich Albion, Mercers Company, Thomas Telford and Tarmac group.

* Petchey, Hackney: Petchey Foundation.

* Paddington, Westminster: United Learning Trust (ULT), a Christian group.

* North Liverpool: Liverpool University and Granada Learning.

* Grace, Solihull: Bob Edmiston.

* David Young, Leeds: Church of England.

* Barnsley: ULT.

* Walthamstow, Waltham Forest, east London: ULT.

* Sheffield Springs: ULT.

* Sheffield Park: ULT.

* The Harris Academy, Bermondsey: Lord Harris of Peckham.

* Harris Academy, Merton: Lord Harris.

* St Mark's, Merton: Southwark Diocese, and trusts CfBT and Toc H.

* Westminster: new sponsor expected shortly.

* Harris Academy, East Dulwich: Lord Harris.

* Burlington Danes, Hammersmith: Ark (charity).

* Landau Forte, Derby: Landau Foundation.

* Gateway, Thurrock: Ormiston Trust.