A bridge across the great divide: Winchester College joins the academy programme

Do the words "Winchester College" and "comprehensive education" really go together? At first glance, there would appear to be very little to connect state schooling with Winchester, the cerebral seat of learning founded in 1387 by William of Wykeham, Chancellor to Richard II.

Yet all that has changed in the past year, as the Hampshire institution has joined a growing list of some of England's most famous public schools that are forging close links with the Government's new academy comprehensives.

Winchester, one of the oldest schools in the country, has teamed up with one of the newest, Midhurst Rother College, in West Sussex, to forge a partnership that aims to break down barriers between the two sectors.

Midhurst is one of 200 academies set up by the Government across the country since 2002. They are semi-independent schools, non fee-paying and largely non-selective, but privately sponsored and replacing secondaries that were deemed to be underperforming.

Winchester is a sponsor of the Midhurst academy, having contributed six governors to its board, including Dr Ralph Townsend, Winchester's headmaster. In recent months, Winchester boys have visited Midhurst to give musical performances to youngsters, with year-11 Midhurst pupils returning for an evening of Indian music, in the company of Bollywood actors, at Winchester. And a group of 25 gifted 15- and 16-year-olds from Midhurst travelled to Winchester for a day of university-style lessons, before spending a day and a night in an Oxford University college.

Winchester, whose teachers are called "dons" and which has its own subject, "div", and a language of its own, "Notions", is described in the Good Schools Guide as having been somewhat "removed from the big, bad world" in the past. Townsend says the project had given it the chance to "look outward".

For Midhurst, the arrangement is partly also about broadening horizons. Jen Weeks, Midhurst's assistant principal, says: "The partnership has given our students the chance to meet people from different backgrounds. Private education can be seen as elitist, but it doesn't have to be seen like that."

Another spin-off has been teacher co-operation between the two schools, which has included Winchester staff going to Midhurst to work with pupils and therefore gain qualified teacher status, which all state staff must have.

The Winchester-MRC partnership is part of an accelerating trend. In November, The Independent revealed how Eton was to share its sporting facilities with pupils from Langley Academy, outside Slough. Wellington College has sponsored and given its name to The Wellington Academy in Tidworth, Wiltshire, which opened in September and has many of the features of its near-neighbour, including boarding places and a Combined Cadet Force (CCF).

St Paul's School, in south-west London, is to develop a partnership with the planned Hammersmith Academy. The academy will join a scheme that St Paul's has developed with four other local secondary schools. This has seen St Paul's teachers leading "enrichment" classes in maths and, in future, science, for pupils from the state schools, and helping coach 65 pupils from the partner schools towards Oxbridge entrance.

Uppingham School in Rutland has links to three academies sponsored by old boys of the school. This "Uppingham Collegiate" has helped Havelock Academy in Grimsby set up a CCF and house system, while Samworth Enterprise Academy in Leicester has had support from Uppingham for the gifted and talented, and literacy and numeracy programmes. The Northampton Academy has sporting links with Uppingham.

Fifty independent schools are involved in partnerships with academies, with 20 more interested in getting involved. This builds on a project set up in 1997 by the Government to build bridges between the state and independent sectors.

Richard Harman, head of Uppingham, says the Tories would want to extend the projects. "Partnership clearly has benefits on both sides, and for us, it's a great way of fulfilling the 'public benefit test', if you like," he says.

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