William Hulme's Grammar School isn't your typical comprehensive. The red-brick 19thcentury façade of its main building would look more at home on the campus of a Russell Group university. Its wooden revolving door and panelled reception calls to mind a Victorian merchant bank. And this sense of antiquated refinement extends to the behaviour of its pupils.
Where the foyers of many state secondary schools teem with boisterous, scruffy teenagers, here pupils of all ages – from 11 to 18 – troop calmly from classroom to classroom, immaculate in their royal blue blazers and navy jumpers.
But the fact that it feels is so different from what Alastair Campbell once labelled "bog standard comprehensives" should come as no surprise. Until last month, William Hulme's, in the leafy Manchester suburb of Whalley Range, was an £8,000-a-year independent school. This term, to the consternation of some, it joined Liverpool's equally respected Belvedere School in taking the unprecedented step of opting into the state system. Faced with complex local demographic changes, and keen to retain a diverse social mix, they've become the first private schools to convert into academies, under a spirit of rapprochement between the Labour government and the independent sector.
Their abandonment of fees and academic selection comes as talks continue between schools minister Andrew Adonis and a number of other private schools interested in becoming academies. Lord Adonis, who repeated the Government's invitation to the sector in a speech to this week's Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, has told The Independent he expects to announce further defections shortly. Bristol Cathedral School and nearby Colston's Girls' School have already confirmed they are reopening as academies next autumn.
"Since the first school announced its intentions, I've had at least a dozen inquiries – and there are other conversations going on," said Lord Adonis. "I'd expect to see some come to fruition shortly."
So why are so many independent schools suddenly so keen to sacrifice their autonomy and sign up to a comprehensive system long sneered at for its bureaucracy, centralism and erratic academic standards?
For Stephen Patriarca, principal of William Hulme's, the move is about continuing to reflect the ethnic and social diversity of Manchester. With nearly three-quarters of pupils drawn from minority communities, it's Britain's most racially mixed independent school. But a recent change in the demographic of the surrounding streets from affluent owner-occupiers to "studentsville", combined with the double-whammy for many parents of rising mortgage rates on the one hand and real-terms salary cuts on the other, has seen numbers drop. In the mid-1980s, when still a boys' school, William Hulme's boasted some 760 pupils, according to the records of the then Independent Schools Information Service. Today, as a co-ed for children aged three to 18, it has 419. In light of such statistics, Patriarca's dilemma was simple: rebrand it as a "stockbroker school" or take a deep breath and accept the state shilling.
"We could have marketed ourselves more exclusively and bussed in children, but William Hulme's has long been a Manchester city school, and we wanted to keep it that way," he explains. "We take pride in contributing to community cohesion. I taught in Oldham for 25 years – I saw the race riots – and I know the biggest problem there is racially segregated education. So I started looking at bursary ideas and writing to politicians, including local MP Gerald Kaufman. Then the Government's White Paper was published, talking about academies. At that point I approached Andrew Adonis and said, 'can we talk?' And we talked."
The end of across-the-board selection (academies may only select 10 per cent on ability, related to a designated subject specialism) has ushered in a complex new admissions procedure at William Hulme's. Applicants still sit a test, in non-verbal reasoning, but are split into five bands according to the results.
Places are allocated to equal numbers of children from each band on the basis of national criteria: first priority is given to those with statements of special needs and half the remaining places are offered to children from outside the immediate catchment area.
William Hulme's is adjusting well to its new status. Applications doubled this year, with 618 external pupils applying for the 75 year seven places available beyond the 25 reserved for its junior school pupils. It is also benefiting from a £10m capital building programme designed to boost its capacity to 1,000 – courtesy of HM Treasury.
Patriarca attributes the comfortable transition to the school's " accidental" prior status as a fully fee-based school. Until the mid-Seventies, it was a direct grant school, receiving subsidies in return for admitting poorer children for free. Only the abolition of this system, by a previous Labour government, induced it to bring in universal fees, buoyed after 1980 by the introduction of the assisted places scheme for lower income families (scrapped by Labour in 1997). For the past decade, it has struggled to make up for the loss of state support with bursaries worth up to 50 per cent of fees for some households.
The school's unstuffy outlook is reflected in the down-to-earth profile of its pupils. Many are the sons and daughters of aspirational lower middle-class parents – taxi drivers and office workers – who have raided their savings, taken out loans and called on relatives to help fund their children's education. Patriarca concedes a few parents were worried about the school admitting children from the wrong side of the tracks (four junior pupils were removed in protest), but says the majority were quickly won round.
One mother, self-employed Helen Gresty-Browne, whose 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, has attended for nine years, says her only concern was about the stigma of being linked to the academies policy, which she'd associated with "failing schools". A cool-headed appraisal of the situation changed her mind. Having had to call on family financial aid in the past, she's also relieved to see the back of fees. "We're fee-paying in an area where house prices are escalating but salaries aren't," she says.
But what of those whose opinions matter most: the children? "Until a year ago I went to a state school with 1,500 pupils. It had an aggressive culture so I wanted to move," recalls Venice Fielding, 15. "My mum found out William Hulme's was entering the state sector, so we'd only have to pay fees for a year. The atmosphere here is much more comfortable, and it's not changed really since September."
Stephen Schilizzi, 16, who has been at William Hulme's since he was eight, adds: "There are still only six people in my Latin class. Here a big class is 15. In the state sector, they're usually 30."
The William Hulme's experience is galvanising Bristol Cathedral, another ex-direct grant school. Numbers at the £9,000-a-year institution, founded by monks in 1140, have been tailing off for years due to a local over-supply of independent schools (there are 17 in Bristol). Declining applications have hampered the school's ability to recruit enough boys qualified in its own particular subject specialism: choir singing.
"As boys' voices break earlier nowadays, demographic predictions have left us wondering where future choristers will come from," says head teacher Hugh Monro, who paid a fact-finding visit to Manchester last month. "But now we can attract pupils from a wider range of backgrounds."
At Belvedere it was a question of either taking the academy route or reverting to a selective system, which sat oddly with the inclusive profile the school has established through a pioneering collaboration with educational charity the Sutton Trust. For seven years, the trust has subsidised the school, enabling it to admit pupils chosen on merit, irrespective of their parents' ability to pay. While Belvedere must now drop selection – a move some fear could jeopardise the 99 per cent five A-C GCSE pass rate it's achieved with the trust's help – the alternative is to sacrifice the "open access" ethos it has come to cherish.
Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl approves of the school's move, but feels equality of opportunity for children from all financial backgrounds can only be achieved if ministers return to subsidising private school places for poorer families, as well as extending academies. "It's unlikely the majority of our very popular and successful private day schools will revert to the state sector – there's no incentive to do so," he says. "The only way around this is by a government-backed scheme to open up these schools to [poorer] children."
The independent sector scoffs at the notion that – having long given up on abolishing private schools – Labour is now trying to co-opt them into the comprehensive system instead. It's equally dismissive of the suggestion that we're witnessing the start of a trend.
"We've got 1,280 independent schools altogether," says Jonathan Shepherd, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, "and so far you're talking about four – that's not even a trickle."
Yet, with four independents becoming academies and another 21 involved in the network through partnership deals, the rollercoaster shows no signs of slowing. Like Sir Peter, Lord Adonis champions a culture shift. But he sees academies – not a subsidised private sector – as successors to the old direct grant schools.
"I see this as the creation of a modern direct grant scheme, but it's different in that these schools aren't selective," he says. "One of my biggest aims is to break the link between 'independent' schools and fee-paying, selective schools. I hope to generate the notion that there are two independent sectors: one of independent fee-paying schools and one of independent schools without fees. I don't see why independent management should be the preserve of the fee-paying sector."
City academies: the lowdown
Academies are independently run state secondary schools, funded by the Government in partnership with private sponsors. The first opened in Bexley, Kent, in September 2002, sponsored by retired property tycoon Sir David Garrard.
The Government has set a target to open 400 academies by 2010
There are 83, with another 50 due to open next year
Twenty-five independent schools are engaged in the academy system – most as sponsors. These include Wellington College. Venture capitalist and Old Wellingtonian Tim Bunting donated £2m to an academy in Wiltshire
The biggest academy sponsor, the United Learning Trust, runs 13 academies. JM