Academies: one will, one won't

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Tower Hamlets rejects pound;2m Goldman Sachs offer while a former partner of the firm bankrolls the first private school to sponsor an academy

HEADTEACHERS IN Tower Hamlets, east London, have denied claims that the local authority put ideology before the interests of children in failing to back a city academy.

The council has rejected approaches from Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, to provide pound;2 million sponsorship for an academy in the borough.

As the story of the rejection emerged this week, it was announced that a former partner at Goldman Sachs has given pound;2m to Wellington College to sponsor an academy in Wiltshire.

Since Tower Hamlets' decision to turn down the offer was made public, the council has faced a barrage of criticism. It has been portrayed as a bastion of left-wing stick-in-the-muds, afraid of big business. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, has also expressed his disappointment at the decision.

But with GCSE results up 30 percentage points in nine years, and widespread mentoring from some of the City's biggest firms, local headteachers say there is simply no need for an academy.

Alasdair Macdonald, head of Morpeth school in Bethnal Green, said: "All the schools in Tower Hamlets felt that having an academy was not a good idea.

"It's not that we're anti-academy; it's just that our schools are working well and we want this to continue."

The figures support this claim. Tower Hamlets is one of England's most deprived boroughs with 69 per cent of pupils speaking English as a second language. Yet more than 56 per cent of of its pupils achieved top-grade GCSEs last year, only 3 per cent behind the national average. The figure has risen from 26 per cent in 1997.

Results drop to 34 per cent if you include English and maths, against a national average of 45 per cent.

At Morpeth, 76 per cent gained five good grades. The figure with maths and English was 49 per cent, above the national average.

Far from snubbing big business, Morpeth runs a mentoring scheme with some leading City firms. More than 100 teenagers are visited by mentors from organisations such as Lloyd's of London and Deloitte, the accountancy group.

Morpeth is not the only school to cherish its links with neighbouring business districts. The Bishop Challoner Catholic collegiate school in Wapping - a boys' and girls' school and a sixth-form college - works with 127 business mentors, mainly from the Royal Bank of Scotland.

"Most of our children have been brought up in high-rise flats, with their parents doing unskilled, manual work," said Catherine Myers, the executive head. "Mentoring opens up a whole new world, not just in terms of business but in terms of their quality of life."

Kevan Collins, Tower Hamlets' director of children's services, said the strong links between schools and businesses were one reason for the improvement in the borough's results. Firms from Canary Wharf and the City are involved, through governing bodies, in the running of every school in the borough, he said, while thousands of volunteers work as business mentors or read with pupils. The council was not ideologically opposed to the idea of an academy.

"We will do anything to raise standards," said Mr Collins. "Collaboration between our schools is a real strength.

"They offer choice and diversity without fragmentation. We believe this is something worth holding on to and protecting."

Goldman Sachs declined to comment, but confirmed it was involved in business mentoring in Tower Hamlets.

Wellington College, expected to be the first private school to sponsor an academy, can afford to do so because it received a pound;2m gift from Tim Bunting, a former pupil and former partner of Goldman Sachs. The money will be used by the school to sponsor an academy in Tidworth in Wiltshire.

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