A Christian charity has announced a major expansion of its academies programme after winning support from two of the biggest companies in the UK.
The United Learning Trust this week unveiled plans to sponsor two more academies, independent state schools supported by private finance, following the guarantee of financial backing from car manufacturer Honda, and Vodafone, the mobile phone company.
It will increase the trust's portfolio of open or proposed academies to 12, establishing it as the biggest single supporter of the controversial schools so far.
The trust, which is chaired by Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said this week that it expected to sponsor at least four more by securing similar backing from big business.
The announcement comes as Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which is driving the Government's academy programme, admitted problems finding backers outside London.
Around 80 academies are open or in development, with another 130 under consideration, but many are based in the capital. "We are still looking for sponsors in certain parts of the country," he said. "But it is not going to be that difficult to persuade some of the supporters in London to switch to other parts of the country."
Honda has joined forces with Sir Anthony Greener, chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to invest pound;2 million in an academy to replace Headlands school in Swindon.
Headlands was placed in special measures in 2002 and later won multi-million pound investment under the Government's Fresh Start initiative. It hit national headlines in 2004 when Malcolm Walker, a history teacher, sparked a mass walk-out by pupils after writing to them saying they were being failed by the school. But following a recent inspection, Ofsted said Headlands was now making real progress and commended the standards of teaching and pupils' behaviour.
The new academy, which will include nursery and primary provision, catering for children aged 0 to 19, is likely to open in 2008, pending talks with the local community. Honda Motor Europe, which has a major plant in Swindon, will leave the running of the academy to the trust, but will provide work experience and a vocational link for pupils. Sir Anthony will also make a personal capital investment.
Meanwhile, a similar deal has been brokered with the Vodafone UK Foundation, a charity set up by the telecoms firm. This will provide backing for an academy to replace Drayton school, Banbury, which has been described as "good and improving" by Ofsted since coming out of special measures in 2001. Vodafone is one of Banbury's biggest employers.
Eleanor Sturdy, ULT's development director, said: "There is great interest among British companies to have a social responsibility and education is one of the best ways to achieve that. For any sponsor, supporting an academy is a significant commitment, but you need to know how to run a school. That's not Honda or Vodafone's expertise, so to have a partner like ULT seems entirely appropriate."
A third of the academies the Government has opened so far are being sponsored by Christian groups, prompting intense criticism from secular organisations.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "I am very suspicious of big business bank-rolling religious schools.
"The ULT says its schools are non-denominational, yet they have a Christian basis to them. I fail to see the difference."