Public schools set to sponsor state sector to boost inner cities

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The Independent Online

Public schools are ready to help finance a new type of state school designed to regenerate inner cities, according to the new head of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference - the body which represents schools such as Eton and Harrow.

The fee-paying schools could sponsor or even run the city academies being planned by the Government. Fifty of the schools are set to be built over the next four years in a project Tony Blair has described as "the future for state education".

In an interview with The Independent, Graham Able, master of Dulwich College in south-east London, said that he expected independent schools would go into partnership with city academies.

Mr Able said that he foresaw "bridging links" to be built between the independent sector and the academies. "I don't see them as a threat to the independent sector," he said. "I think they will make us all better on either side. If we're not good enough then we don't deserve to succeed."

Links are already being developed, with the top performing London girls' school, the North London Collegiate School, helping to open an academy on the site of the former Hackney Downs school - the first school to be closed down under Labour.

Bernice McCabe, headmistress of the North London Collegiate, will help select a head for the academy.

Oundle School, the mixed boarding school near Peterborough, has also backed the scheme, saying that it may be interested in helping to set up a school specialising in technology and science.

The academy programme is likely to provoke criticism at this week's Labour Party conference. Critics of the scheme, including Max Morris, of the Labour-affiliated Socialist Education Association, claim that it is "obscene" to spend so much government money on just one school in a neighbourhood. A typical academy can cost £18m to construct - with only 10 per cent of funding coming from private sponsorship.

Mr Able rejected the criticism, saying: "I did some research about the relationship between physical environment and learning development of adolescent boys in the 1980s.

"There was undoubtedly a considerable effect in that the better the environment, the better they behave and the more they concentrate.

"I don't think that it is satisfactory to teach in run-down, badly maintained buildings. If you have space and corridors [as these academies have], you get much less anti-social behaviour than if you have crowded corridors."

The move to back the city academies is part of a growing attempt by the private education sector to build links with ministers.

Some are aware that they could lose their charitable status under new regulations designed to make them live up to charters which state that they should provide education for the needy.

Mr Able, who will chair the HMC's annual conference in Dublin next week, predicted a major boost in the number of free scholarships being offered by independent schools to parents who could not afford to pay for a place.

"What I wanted to get people in the independent sector to consider this year was how they distributed their financial aid," he said. "I'm a firm believer that we should spend most of such resources helping those who couldn't otherwise afford to come to our schools."