Academies' country roots

9th September 2005 at 01:00
A Christian charity run from a farmhouse is the driving force behind the PM's flagship scheme. Graeme Paton reports

A tiny village with a population of just a few hundred people is hardly the sort of place you would expect to find the seeds of revolution being sown.

Titchmarsh, eight miles outside Kettering, in Northamptonshire, is the picture of rural tranquillity. It is accessible down a thin track off a dual carriageway, there is little to be found between the neat rows of stone-built houses, other than two pubs, a church and a small primary school. But it is here - listed on the village website beneath the local chimney sweep and a dog-walking service - that the United Learning Trust has emerged as the leading force behind one of the Government's most controversial education policies for years.

The Christian charity, a subsidiary of the United Church Schools Trust, has become the biggest single backer of the academies programme, the drive to create 200 cutting-edge, independent state schools.

It is sponsoring seven schools, with at least four more in the pipeline.

But the trust's headquarters is an un-signposted farmhouse, where the only clue to its importance is the unusually large number of cars parked outside.

The catalyst behind the trust for the past 15 years has been its equally reserved chief executive, Sir Ewan Harper.

He may have the ear of Tony Blair and Lord Adonis, the education minister who is the architect of academies, but a quick trawl of national newspaper archives over the past two years reveals only six mentions of his name.

Sir Ewan, whose seemingly contradictory public profile is represented in his attire: a conservative grey suit offset with a colourful tie and a pair of bright red socks, said: "Our responsibility is to the children; being in the papers every day and giving quote after quote to the media will not help us to do that job any better."

Sir Ewan moved the trust out of its base in Holborn, central London, when he was appointed in 1990 because of concerns over property and salary costs in the capital. It was a decision the former businessman had already made years earlier, when he shifted his family-owned export company to nearby Wellingborough for the same reasons. While running the company, which he later sold, Sir Ewan always maintained links with the church and young people. He was tutored at Cambridge by Robert Runcie, then Dean of Trinity Hall and later Archbishop of Canterbury, and through their personal friendship he helped set up the Lambeth Fund, which provided additional support for the Archbishop's ministry. He was also vice-chair of Wellingborough borstal board of visitors for 12 years and, until recently, governor of University college, Northampton.

The United Church Schools Trust, formed in 1883 to provide a Christian-based education for poor children, seemed a logical move. Sir Ewan saw the academies as a great opportunity to expand. "It seemed to fit perfectly with the aims which we set up to achieve all those years ago," said Sir Ewan, who uses his influence within education to help raise the pound;2 million (from third parties) needed to sponsor each school.

Naturally, he is quick to defend the academies project, insisting fears over the power that private sponsors can exercise over their schools are unfounded. "There have been very unkind things said about some of the academy sponsors, but the strongest critics are not coming up with any of the answers about how to deliver real educational opportunities to these children," he said.

But, as a Christian charity (The TES reported last month how more than a third of academies are backed by organisations with Christian links), the trust leaves itself open to added criticism. Some of the biggest concerns so far have been reserved for Sir Peter Vardy, the evangelical Christian car dealer, who has been pilloried for recommending the teaching of creationism alongside secular philosophies at his academies in the North-east.

Sir Ewan said: "UK education is based upon Christianity; there is still a requirement for state schools to hold Christian assemblies. We have the same Christian ethos which tends to exist in the traditions and attitudes displayed within our academies, but they are not church schools. We accept children of all faiths and none."

But he said that reforms of the project, including dropping the requirement of private sponsors to invest pound;2m in new buildings, may alienate some backers who will want help to create "a strong individual identity" for their schools.

Yet his vision for the project is unwavering. "We are committed to sponsoring 11 academies but we may well support more - I cannot see the Government stopping at 200," he said.

Given the size of the trust's growing educational empire, Sir Ewan may not stay out of the media gaze forever.

John Hall, chief education officer for the Church of England, which is another big sponsor of academies, said: "Ewan has enormous energy and commitment to education and the work of the church.

"It is immensely impressive the way he has been able to move so effectively into a new academic sphere, like the academies programme, with such expertise and wisdom. He has a real commitment to education for the disadvantaged as well as everyone else."

Friday magazine 10

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