Christians, car dealers and West Bromwich Albion

A bizarre mix of sponsors will bankrolla huge expansion of academies next month, reports Graeme Paton

What have West Bromwich Albion football club, HSBC and one of Britain's biggest pub owners got in common? From next month, they will all be running state schools in England.

September will herald the biggest expansion yet of academies, the controversial "super schools" designed to raise standards in deprived inner-city areas. Eighteen academies, privately-sponsored schools independent of local council control, will open next month. They will join the 27 already established as ministers drive towards their target of opening 200 academies by 2010.

Sponsors include those from the world of sport (West Brom FC and John Madejski, chairman of Reading FC), faith groups (the Church of England), banks (HSBC) and businessmen (Jack Petchey, a former London cabbie who recently bought 200 pubs from Punch Taverns).

Westminster academy lost its sponsor earlier this year after Multiplex, the Australian firm behind the delayed Wembley stadium redevelopment, pulled out. The Government says it has found a potential replacement, but it is too early to say who it is.

Critics, including the Liberal Democrats and teaching unions, have called for academies to be halted until proof of their effectiveness can be established. But ministers made clear their intent to hasten the programme by announcing measures last week to make it easier for private backers to sponsor academies. Sponsorship - normally pound;2 million - will no longer have to be pledged up front to help pay for new buildings, but instead can be paid over five years for "educational innovations". This formalises a deal that ministers have been promising sponsors for some time.

The Government found further backing for its policy when two parents opposing new academies in London saw legal challenges fail. The High Court ruled the academies in Islington and Merton should proceed, disagreeing with campaigners' claims that they would erode children's human rights. A third High Court showdown was averted this week when Robina Allum, a mother of six, withdrew her application for a judicial review of the decision to open an academy on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

Ministers said that academies were proving popular with parents after an independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, published last week, showed three applicants for every place at the schools opened so far. The study showed that new buildings - each costing almost pound;30m - had raised the morale of staff and pupils, absences were down and leadership was raising standards.

However, academic performance remains questionable. Researchers said results at key stage 3 easily exceeded those nationally, but "it is not universally the case that improvements are being made and some academies have been performing less well than the national average and other similar schools".

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats' education spokeswoman, said:

"Ministers should halt the scheme and take stock about whether it really offers value for money."

Further doubts will be raised by a TES analysis this week, which shows that none of the academies opened so far has replaced a school in special measures, despite ministerial assurances the scheme is designed to tackle educational failure.

Of the new academies, seven are linked to faith groups, including one to the Church of England and one to Bob Edmiston, the Tory donor and founder of the IM Group, who also set up Christian Vision, a charity to spread Christianity around the world.

But the biggest single sponsor of is the United Learning Trust, an Anglican charity which lists Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, among its trustees.

It is opening five academies, adding to four it has already. Two are being paid for by a leading Iranian businessman behind a charity promoting Islam in the UK. Mahmoud Khayami, an industrialist who fled Iran in 1979, was named as the principal sponsor of the Sheffield Springs and Sheffield Park academies at an official ceremony to mark the start of work on the new schools.

Despite such a high-profile Muslim donor, the trust says the academies will have a Christian ethos like its other schools.

The involvement of Mr Khayami - who made his fortune in Iran building and exporting cars, before founding a charity to promote causes such as the education of underprivileged children and understanding of Islam - came to light as Sheffield Park was criticised by teachers at the school that it will replace, Waltheof comprehensive.

They are angry Waltheof is being demolished to build Sheffield Park, just eight years after it was rebuilt at a cost of more than pound;5m. They claim to have been left in the dark about new contracts and the way the new school will be run. They are also concerned that Andy Gardiner, Waltheof's head, will not take permanent charge of the school, despite earlier assurances that he would. One said: "This was the final straw for many who put up with a lot of uncertainties because we trusted the head."

But a spokesman for the trust said the academy was going ahead as planned and had won support from most parents consulted. He said it would have been too expensive to keep part of the existing Waltheof campus.

The trust praised Mr Khayami's contribution, saying: "We both share the desire to give young people of all faiths and none the education they need and deserve. Mr Khayami's commitment to inter-religious dialogue and contribution to industry and education are well known."


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