More than a year of public school charm and persuasion has at last paid off for Prime Minister David Cameron and education secretary Michael Gove: one independent school has agreed to sponsor a struggling primary.
The government has approved plans for New Hall School in Chelmsford, Essex, to take nearby Messing-cum-Inworth Community Primary under its wing, making it the first primary academy to be formally sponsored by an independent.
Messing-cum-Inworth, which has just 40 pupils, approached the pound;22,000-a- year New Hall for help following a poor Ofsted inspection that plunged the school into special measures and raised the possibility of closure.
The partnership is one of just a handful of formal sponsorships between private and state schools. But despite some high-profile exceptions (see panel, right), top independent schools have so far largely resisted signing up to formally sponsor academies. Mr Cameron hosted a summit last year in a bid to encourage the likes of Eton, Harrow and Winchester College, but until now has not reaped any rewards with primary schools.
Katherine Jeffrey, New Hall's principal, said that while she was aware there were no guarantees that the partnership would succeed, she felt her school could help turn the primary around.
"One of the big issues for private schools is the effect it could have on our own reputation if the sponsorship fails, but I feel we have a significant and substantial amount of expertise that we can bring to Messing, which will be of tremendous benefit to the school," she said. "If it doesn't work then I would rather be one of those schools that went out there and tried to make a difference. We don't want to sit on the fence."
New Hall had intended to sponsor a secondary academy, but Ms Jeffrey said her staff and governing body voted unanimously to sponsor Messing when the primary came calling.
Bob Wiggins, chair of governors at Messing, said that joining forces with New Hall was an "exciting and positive step". "This is a unique opportunity to share expertise between the independent and state sector and for (us) . to benefit from a school with a proven track record of excellence," he added.
Schools minister Lord Hill said he was "delighted" by New Hall's decision and hoped that other independent schools would "choose to follow its lead".
But David Levin, headmaster of the City of London School, a pound;13,000-a-year day independent, said this was unlikely to happen widely. Mr Levin, who is chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference primary academy group, claimed the fact that independent schools would be forced to pay off pension deficits for academies' back-office staff was putting off his colleagues in the private sector.
"The government requires schools to clear all pension deficits for support staff within seven years, which will take quite a chunk out of a school's annual maintenance grant," Mr Levin said. Back in March, he told TES that the issue with pension liabilities was a "deal-breaker", and added that the burden of taking on the administration, payroll, and health and safety of state schools was too much of an obstacle.
Mr Levin believes independent schools will only become involved with academies that are already in formal sponsorships with established academy chains, such as Ark. "I have become chair of governors at an Ark-sponsored primary in West London, which, if successful, will see a number of other independent schools enlist and enrol with academy chains," he said this week.
Privates on parade
Wellington College was one of the first independents to formally sponsor an academy, giving its name to the Wellington Academy in Wiltshire.
Dulwich College, the pound;32,000-a-year boarding school in South London where author P.G. Wodehouse was educated, sponsors the Isle of Sheppey Academy in Kent.
Marlborough College, the alma mater of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, is co-sponsor of the Swindon Academy along with car manufacturer Honda and football association @Futsal.
Eton College, David Cameron's former school, has not entered into any sponsorship agreements.