Lord's prayer: Andrew Adonis on why he still has faith in academies

Despite the hostility to the Government's academies programme, Lord Adonis, the Schools Minister, remains resolutely optimistic. He tells Richard Garner about his plans

Andrew Adonis is in a buoyant mood. He hasn't given up on the idea that Eton will become a sponsor of the Government's flagship academies programme. And Oxford and Cambridge universities are being targeted, too.

"I have spoken to all three of these institutions," says the Schools Minister, looking as though he enjoys persuading reluctant institutions to sign up to a programme that they have not exactly rushed to join.

"I had a very amiable dinner with Sir Eric Anderson, who incidentally was at Lincoln College [Oxford] when I was a student there and is now chairman of the school's governing body, and I talked to Tony Little [Eton's head master]. We discussed outreach work that the school could get involved in and I put a strong case for an academy. Ultimately, it's up to them whether they decide to take it on."

Cambridge, Oxford and Eton are so far non-committal about his advances, but Lord Adonis has had a spring in his step since it was announced two months ago that Winchester College, one of the country's most venerable independent schools, had joined the programme and was planning to back an academy in Midhurst, West Sussex.

Winchester will not actually be giving money; instead, it will be appointing people to the governing body and providing teachers to help the academy, which is replacing the existing Midhurst Grammar School, a comprehensive in West Sussex that had been in special measures butis improving.

"I think we're getting quite close to the point where it has become mainstream for private schools and the independent sector to become involved with academies," says Adonis. "Universities see it as an essential part of their attempts to widen participation. It is part of that dynamic."

The Winchester announcement was followed by another that Gordonstoun, the Scottish independent school attended by royalty and founded by the German educator Kurt Hahn, was also backing the academies programme.

It will be supporting the Samworth Church Academy in the Mansfield area of Nottinghamshire, arranging pupil exchanges on a regular basis and placing one of Gordonstoun's deputy heads, Tony Gabb, on the governing body. Pupils from Samworth will be given the chance to learn how to sail on Gordonstoun's 80-foot training vessel.

This brings the number of private schools backing the academies programme to 19 – including such well-known names as Marlborough, Dulwich and Wellington. What's more, the number of universities signing up has risen to 39 – with Nottingham becoming the first member of the Russell Group (representing the top 20 research institutions in the UK) to join. It is the declared aim of Lord Adonis and Ed Balls, Secretary for children, schools and families, that every university should have a link with an academy.

The way was cleared to some extent by a government decision to waive the sponsors' fee for private schools and universities.

According to a source at Winchester, when the idea of backing the academies' project was first discussed at the college, there was apparently some concern among parents that their fees would go towards helping children in another school rather than their own offspring. "They felt any money they paid should go towards the education of their own children."

The school's dilemma is summed up in a letter written by 10 of the heads involved with academies, including Graham Able, the Master of Dulwich College, and Dr Anthony Seldon, of Wellington College.

In it, they argue: "In our case 'sponsorship' involves academic and administrative leadership and governance. ... We do not think we have all the answers, but we do feel that the success within our sector suggests that we have something to offer in helping the establishment and development of the academics."

Lord Adonis believes that Winchester's concerns about providing direct financial aid to academies were "perfectly valid" when the £2m was being demanded from academy sponsors. "We don't regard it as reasonable to expect charities that exist to provide education to come up with a sponsorship fee," he says.

Controversy still surrounds the programme, however, not least because some state school teachers resent the way Lord Adonis has been portraying the independent sector as the saviour of failing state schools. Adonis told the annual conference of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents the top independent schools including Eton, that he wanted to see the private schools "educational DNA" imprinted on the academies programme.

This provoked some scathing comments, including this one from a blogger campaigning against the establishment of the Midhurst Academy: "A more damning insult to the professionalism of those who have declared all their efforts to working in a public service for the benefit of their communities could barely be imagined!"

Moreover, the NASUWT teachers' union, traditionally the Government's ally and a keen supporter of partnership with ministers, has warned of industrial action over attempts to establish new academies. It is worried about the terms and conditions of their members working in academies, especially regarding union recognition and hours.

Lord Adonis counters that, on the ground, teachers are keener on academies than are national union leaders. "At local level, their members are fighting for teachers' jobs in academies," he says. "We have not had a single serious industrial dispute in academies. They are highly attractive employers and they find it easier to recruit than the failing schools they replace."

One thing is for certain. His enthusiasm for the academies programme appears undimmed. At present, 83 have been established and ministers are still aiming for 400, although Lord Adonis would not rule out even more in the longer term. The programme has been tweaked, however, so that more emphasis is being placed on sponsorship by independent schools and universities rather than maverick entrepreneurs. In addition, academies must have the support of the local authority on whose territory they will be sited.

The academy movement is growing rapidly. "There are 100,000 secondary school pupils in academies and the entire membership of the HMC only represents 200,000 places in their schools," he says.

Adonis is anxious to ensure that schools that fail to reach the Government's target of 30 per cent of pupils with five A* to C grade passes within four years (at present 638 fail to reach that hurdle) are top of the list for being replaced by an academy.

He talks personally to all those wanting to back an academy. "It's only fair that they should know of the Government's commitment to the programme," he says. Now that the Conservatives and several Liberal Democrat-controlled councils are supporting it, he believes he can persuade any potential backers that it is not a fly-by-night scheme.

This is why he will be banging the drum at Uppingham School later this month, with a keynote address on the subject. David Samworth, sponsor of the Samworth academy and a Nottinghamshire businessman, is an old boy of the school and has persuaded six old boys to back the programme, too. Adonis is keen to woo more of its old boys into parting with their cash. And he is intensifying his charm offensive against Eton, Oxford and Cambridge.

The supporters

Independent schools backing academies:

Berkhamsted Collegiate; Merchant Taylors; Kings, Canterbury; Dulwich; Tonbridge; Harrow; Uppingham; Gordonstoun; Marlborough; Winchester; Wellington; Dean Close School; Sevenoaks; and Oundle.

Independent schools converting to academies and joining the state sector:

Colston's Girls' School; Bristol Cathedral; Belvedere Academy; William Hulme's Grammar; and Birkenhead High.

Organisations running academies:

United Learning Trust; The Skinners; The City of London Corporation; Woodard Schools (who run Lancing and Hurstpierpoint colleges in West Sussex); The Mercers' Company; The Haberdashers' Livery Company; the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham; the Whitgift Foundation; and The Merchant Venturers.

Universities backing academies:

Bedfordshire; Birmingham City; Aston; Bradford; Brunel; Brighton; West of England; Bristol; Huddersfield; University College London; Chester; Warwick; Coventry; Cumbria; Sheffield Hallam; Gloucestershire; Queen Mary University of London; Hertfordshire; City University; Greenwich; Kent; Imperial College; Hull; Lincoln; Liverpool; Liverpool Hope; Nottingham; Oxford Brookes; Bath; Kings College London; Sunderland; Durham; Westminster; Central Lancaster; Wolverhampton; Canterbury Christ Church; York St John; and Bolton.

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