Wellington to back Blair's troubled academies

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One of the country's leading independent schools is poised to throw its weight behind the Government's academies programme.

Tony Blair's biographer, Anthony Seldon, the new master at Wellington College in Berkshire, is anxious to link with one of the 200 privately run academies to be set up by 2010.

His decision is a considerable coup for the Government as Wellington College - fees £23,000 a year - has just been declared the best leading independent school in the country for improving pupils' performance. Exam league tables published last week showed it was eighth out of all 4,108 secondary schools in England and Wales for improving performance. It was also first among those which are members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents all the leading traditional independent boys' schools, including Eton and Harrow.

Dr Seldon's pledge will give a timely boost to the academies programme - coming as it does less than a week after the same league tables revealed that three of the existing academies were among only 39 in the country that had failed to reach the Government's current target for GCSEs of 20 per cent of pupils getting at least five top A* to C grade passes. All have been told to improve by this summer.

The week of woe for the academies programme ended with the institution singled out by Mr Blair as his "vision of the future of education" being condemned by inspectors. Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, served a "notice of improvement" on Bexley Business Academy in Kent - citing poor teaching standards, bad behaviour in class and poor A-level results. The notice is one step short of declaring the academy failing.

Until now, support for the academies programme - under which private sponsors can run a state-financed school at a cost of £2m - from the independent sector had been lukewarm.

The Schools minister Lord Adonis, who was Mr Blair's senior adviser on education and is widely considered to be the architect of the plan, went to the HMC conference a year ago to plead with heads in private to back the programme.

However, only Dulwich College in south London and Uppingham have expressed much interest in supporting an academy. Others are said to be worried about how how parents of their pupils would feel about expending school resources on children who do not pay.

The lukewarm interest comes despite David Miliband, the former schools minister, declaring at a conference organised by Dr Seldon that he would like to see the programme create the Eton of the state sector.

Dr Seldon is anxious to foster closer links between the private and state sectors, saying: "I think that the initiative launched by Labour in 1998 of getting both sectors working together was pioneering and in every way excellent. It has been the most imaginative response of any government in history towards both sectors working together - but it has run out of steam and needs a new impetus ... Wellington College is certainly involved in looking at whether it can be involved with and support an academy."

The school was established nearly 150 years ago from public subscriptions to the memory of the Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon. It is a boarding and day school and will become fully co-educational in September. At present, girls are only admitted to the sixth-form.

Dr Seldon also plans to introduce the International Baccalaureate to run beside A-levels.He echoed criticism from the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson, who said A-levels were "killing scholarship in almost every subject".