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Can the suits do the business?

Academies have their critics, but it seems Tony Blair is not for turning.

As the government forges ahead with its flagship education policy, Wendy Wallace talks to the men behind the so-called revolution in our secondary schools

Up on the roof of the new London Academy a strange scene is unfolding. A crowd of Year 7 pupils, teachers, government officials and building company representatives is gathered under looming skies for the topping-out ceremony of the Norman Foster-designed school in Edgware. As a conifer lurches in its pot, one of the executives from Wates gets up on the platform to carry out a trade ritual, "asking the bad spirits to stay away and the good spirits to stay with us into the future". Then a man in a sharply tailored suit - the academy's multi-millionaire sponsor, Peter Shalson - steps forward, picks up a silver trowel, pats a patch of concrete and the building is officially topped out.

The academies programme continues, the Government's commitment apparently unwavering in the face of scepticism from the Commons education select committee and a lukewarm second annual report from PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year. Indeed, the education minister Andrew Adonis is working on a white paper to go before Parliament this autumn that will herald a rapid expansion of the programme and is expected to give government the power to force local councils to accept academies in their areas.

In return for a donation of 10 per cent of the capital costs up to pound;2 million - less if the academy is sited in existing buildings - sponsors take control of the vision and ethos of the flagship schools, which each cost around pound;25 million. Seventeen are open, nine more go live this autumn and a total of 200 are planned. But who are the men - and they are all men - putting up millions of pounds and substantial chunks of time to sponsor these new schools? And why are they doing it?

Peter Shalson, chairman of venture capital company SGI, is involved with charities for sick children and the Prince's Trust as well as education; but he is probably best known for the reported pound;8 million he spent on his wedding to his third wife Pauline, a sumptuous affair at London's Roundhouse that included performances from Elton John and Cirque du Soleil.

Like many academy sponsors, Mr Shalson's experience of school was not good; he says he was "sort of asked to leave" and had to go to a crammer to pass his exams. Now worth pound;175 million, according to the Sunday Times rich list, he made his fortune in the rag trade; these days he has commercial interests in property and pubs, and a personal interest in community. Putting pound;1.5 million into Edgware, a failing school close to where he grew up in north London, is, he says, "a real buzz. Worth all the pain and effort."

His involvement with the London Academy began four years ago. Already a Labour party donor, he read about the initiative and contacted Lord Adonis, then a Number 10 education adviser and architect of the academies initiative. Funding has been complex; part of the original Edgware school site has been sold off to developers, raising pound;6 million, to make a total budget of pound;32 million. Mr Shalson sees his input - less than 5 per cent of the total cost because the school is a "remodelled" building - as a "donation". "It belongs to the community," he says. "I don't see it as a possession."

Much of the criticism of the academy programme stems from the fact that the ethos of the new schools is up for sale; sponsors - whether from the spheres of religion, business or sport - can determine the flavour of the education on offer, in areas where families usually have little choice over which schools their children attend. Sponsors control appointments to the governing body and have a significant say in the appointment of the headteacher. Most of these principals are headhunted for the posts, which carry six-figure salaries. But there is huge pressure to deliver quick results and several resigned within months of being appointed. Greig City Academy in the London borough of Haringey, for example, is in the hands of its third head, but this year was one of two (with the City Academy in Bristol) to double the percentage of pupils gaining five A*-C GCSE passes.

Ten others also had improved results.

Sponsors may be motivated by the desire for self-promotion, saving souls, showing educationists how schools really ought to be run, or just - as they unanimously claim - to do good. Peter Shalson is chair of the board of governors of the new academy, but is indignant at the suggestion that he wants to exercise undue influence. "I could not run a school. I am not qualified and I don't wish to. Certainly I am not trying to impose my own beliefs or trying to model it to my own dream. I just wish to assist and get joy from watching the academy develop, improve and an increasing percentage of pupils become winners," he says.

He admits to choosing the academy's specialism - business, enterprise and ICT - which he says is appropriate to the school, whose pupils speak 56 languages. "We have a lot of ethnic minorities. Business and ICT is going to be more inspiring to them than English history. We are trying to breed leaders for tomorrow." Philip Hearne, the headteacher from Edgware school kept on to run the 1,425-pupil academy, has played a key role. "I would have given up without him. We both want to get the job done and there are no other agendas for him or me," says Mr Shalson.

Academy sponsors, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, are frustrated by DfES spending limits, feel constrained by initiatives such as Excellence in Cities and the Leadership Incentive Grant, and do not enjoy being evaluated by management consultants such as PwC. Most contribute all their capital during the building phase. They can also put in smaller amounts as part of consortiums - such as the United Learning Trust, the Oasis Trust and the Sir Peter Vardy Foundation - that sponsor more than one academy.

Contributions follow the same tax rules as charity donations and are regarded as gift aid for individuals, and tax deductible for a business.

Baptist minister Steve Chalke MBE has an abundance of energy and - when not running marathons or hobnobbing with the Blairs - is to be found in a grotty office opposite Lambeth North tube station in south London. Whereas the first wave of sponsors were successful businessmen from the same mould as the backers of the Tories' city technology colleges - David Garrard, Frank Lowe, Alec Reed, Clive Bourne, and carpet millionaire Lord Harris of Peckham, who has been a stalwart of both programmes - Mr Chalke has no money to give away. But he is on a mission to create a chain of six academies through his Christian charity, the Oasis Trust.

Mr Chalke says his twin passions of God and social justice were both spawned in childhood. His father, from Madras, worked as a railway porter and the young Steve Chalke witnessed the racism his father experienced.

"The poverty and lack of choice gave me a burning sense of commitment to those who lack choice," he says. He had a revelation at the age of 14 - "If God made me, I'm going to spend the rest of my life serving him" - and has apparently not deviated from the path he started out on then. "My whole life spins around that moment," he says.

His Oasis Trust works abroad, building and funding schools, hostels and hospitals in India and elsewhere, and is working hard to raise the funds to sponsor UKacademies. Last spring, he ran the London marathon, raising more than pound;1.25 million from sponsors who included Cherie Blair. The first Oasis Trust school opens in Enfield, north London, in 2007; two others are underway in Grimsby and Immingham, and this summer the trust got the go-ahead to carry out a feasibility study for a fourth academy, in Bristol.

Oasis offers advice to other Christian groups that want to sponsor academies; of the 38 projects underway, 15 are faith-backed. But Mr Chalke denies that his schools will indoctrinate children. "We do not proselytise and we will not impose," he promises. His sees academies as community-builders and centres for social improvement. "What we have got to do is build that community; that is the task of an academy sponsor. I want to say to communities, 'I'll invest my life in this. I'll fight for this'.

It is not, 'I'd like my surname on it'. We'd be involved in anything that helps disadvantaged young people." He says that the new schools will be available full-time to their communities, that they will have trained youth workers on site and follow local LEA admissions policies; teachers will be paid in line with national pay scales.

Steve Chalke is sensitive to the hostile press that academies have received - "I'm a human being and it hurts to be misrepresented" - and insists that once the Oasis-backed academies get going, he will keep a low profile.

"There will come a day when I need to hand them over. My job is to build sustainability."

The millionaire chairman of Reading football club, John Madejski, who made his fortune from Auto Trader magazine, was "summoned to Downing Street" for a meeting with Tony Blair when the academies project was first mooted.

Asked to sponsor an academy in London, he opted to support one in his adopted home town of Reading, not far from his eponymous football stadium.

The sports-oriented academy launches next year.

Mr Madejski, who describes himself as a school failure, says that teachers identify too much with like-minded pupils. He aspires for pupils at the academy to be the best in their chosen areas. "Be the best you can - the best hairdresser or whatever, it doesn't have to be being a rocket scientist. Everybody is good at something and in the past too many kids have been marginalised." And as for the charges of self-aggrandisement, he says: "It is tough going; there are so many meetings to attend. It is a labour of love. I am not interested in politics; we will deliver a fantastic school for the people of south Reading, and will select excellent people to run it. If that's bad, then it's bad."

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