At long last, there is a real prospect of dismantling the Berlin Wall between the state and private sectors of education. The academy programme is breaching the divide in two ways. First, it is enabling successful private schools to sponsor and manage state academies alongside their fee-paying schools without compromising their independence. Second, successful private day schools are themselves becoming academies, giving up fees and social exclusivity while retaining their independent character and governance.
I believe we are close to the point where "private school academies" sweep across the education system, to the huge benefit of both the state sector and the private schools themselves.
In sponsoring academies, private school foundations set up new independent state schools alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private- and state-funded independent schools. This has been done successfully by, among others, Dulwich College, Wellington College, the Haberdashers' Aske's Federation, the Mercers' Company and the Girls' Day School Trust.
Academy sponsorship goes far beyond "partnership" with the state system. Most such partnerships are ad hoc and pretty minor: the loan of playing fields and the odd teacher or joint activity. Sponsorship, by contrast, involves independents taking complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of academies, staking their reputation on the offshoots' success as they currently do on the success of their fee-paying schools.
This could end the isolation of private schools from the state system. Apart from the direct grant scheme abolished in the 1970s, the two sectors have been kept rigidly separate since the foundation of state education in the 19th century. The Left spent most of the 20th century in a cold war with the private sector, willing to wound yet afraid to strike. Meanwhile the Right preferred to let sleeping dogs lie and to avoid causing controversy with the Left by proposing an enhanced role for the private schools to which most Tory politicians sent their children.
The leaders of state and private schools were - and many of them remain - similarly isolationist. It was an article of faith among the leaders of the comprehensive movement that private schools were not only socially divisive but also, in their educational practice, largely irrelevant. This remains a pronounced view, even among some academy headteachers. They say, to paraphrase: "What can that lot who just spoon-feed the children of the rich ever know about education in Hackney and Knowsley?" As for the heads of the private schools, many of them have been only too eager to agree, especially when the suggestion is made that they might manage academies. Pressed further, they often say it is not about ordinary children versus privileged children but about non-selective schools versus selective schools, an argument made by Sir Eric Anderson when provost of Eton College, which I found ironic, given that until recently Eton was basically an all-ability comprehensive for the rich and titled.
We need to put these outdated attitudes behind us. Those on the Left and in the state sector who see private schools as an irrelevance simply need to look at their huge footprint in almost every national elite from politics and business to the media, sport and the arts. To those in the private school world who are reluctant to embrace academies, I appeal to their professionalism and their charitable missions. In the academies programme, they have an opportunity to engage in state-funded education without compromising their independence, thereby renewing their essential moral and charitable purposes.
These charitable purposes could not be clearer. William of Wykeham established Winchester College mainly for the education of poor scholars. Henry VI set up Eton College for poor scholars. Charterhouse was established by Thomas Sutton, the wealthiest commoner in England, for - yes - more poor scholars. Elizabeth I endowed Westminster School for the same purpose. I could go on through the founding charters of hundreds of private schools. It should not take the Charity Commission to challenge private school foundations about their charitable missions. Their trustees and governors should look to them constantly as a matter of conscience and duty.
A new 'direct grant' movement
It was from the outset one of my key objectives for the academies programme that it should be a vehicle for a modern version of the "direct grant" scheme, which until its abolition made it possible for leading independent day schools to be state-funded without fees. I had in mind a simple model. The private school would become an academy, fully retaining its independent management and character but without fees for any pupils. It would exchange academically selective admissions for all-ability admissions, with a large catchment area and "banded" admissions to ensure a fully comprehensive ability range. There would also be a large sixth form, underpinning continued very strong academic performance.
A new direct grant sector on these lines is gathering scale. I encouraged and oversaw the transition of five historic fee-paying secondary schools to academy status (William Hulme's Grammar School in Manchester, Belvedere School in Liverpool, Birkenhead High School, and Colston's Girls' and Bristol Cathedral schools in Bristol). These schools remain strong academic performers as academies, while expanding their intake and greatly broadening their social range. The coalition government has continued this policy. Liverpool College, Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire and King's School Tynemouth - all of them successful independent day schools in localities with high levels of deprivation - have recently decided to become academies.
There could soon be 50 or 60 more "direct grant" academies. Over time these could sponsor new academies, replicating their ethos and success within the academy system.
Andrew Adonis was minister for schools under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. His new book, Education, Education, Education, is published by Biteback.