Downing Street bash set to canvass headteachers of independents to invest in the future of state education. Michael Shaw reports
Downing Street is to hold a reception for up to 40 leading private-school headteachers as part of a sales drive to persuade them to sponsor academies.
The event, due to take place later in the summer, is one of a series of meetings organised by Number 10, which is campaigning for greater involvement of independent schools in state education.
Tony Blair and his advisers are casting around for ways of promoting academies, a new type of semi-independent state school sponsored by business, as a central plank of Labour's manifesto for the next election.
Some private-school heads are dubious about the scheme. They say that running a selective independent school full of well-motivated pupils requires different skills from those needed for state schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country.
They are also concerned that independent school teachers will be drafted in to their state neighbours.
One of the invited heads said they saw the event as a sales drive for the academies, and that they had been promised "mentors" who would help them if they supported a bid.
David Miliband, the minister for school standards, has urged independent schools to consider sponsoring academies in an article for the latest edition of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) magazine, Conference amp; Common Room.
"We hope that, in time, academies will bring benefits to partner independent schools by providing new vocational options, sports and special educational needs provision," he said.
At least 14 academies are being developed with support from independent schools or companies which run them.
The Church Schools Company, which oversees eight private schools, is likely to give a presentation at the Downing Street reception about its work.
The Christian group hopes to establish at least six academies and has set up a charity, the United Learning Trust, to manage them. The trust has raised more than pound;5 million.
The trust's first academy has already opened in Manchester, and it will open sister schools in Northampton and south London this year and in west London and Salford in 2006.
Edward Gould, master of Marlborough college in Wiltshire, told The TES that he hoped his school would sponsor an academy in Swindon.
The headteacher also plans to work for the United Learning Trust's academy programme when he retires from Marlborough in August.
Each academy requires at least pound;2 million in sponsorship - around 20 per cent of the start-up costs. But many of the individual private schools involved in the scheme will not provide funding themselves. Instead they will offer services "in kind", by sharing facilities, staff and curriculum materials.
North London collegiate in Edgware is sponsoring a pound;30m academy in Hackney, which is due to open in 2007.
Other independent schools which intend to support academies include King's school in Canterbury, Oundle in Peterborough and Dulwich college in south London.
Colston girls and Colston collegiate schools in Bristol revealed this week that they would help plan a new academy for the south of the city.
Martin Stephen, high master of Manchester grammar school and chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said this summer's meeting followed a similar one for headteachers and business sponsors around six months ago.
He added that the schools which would attend were self-selecting because they had expressed an interest in the academy programme.
Mr Stephen, who is a governor of Manchester academy, said it was unsurprising that independent school headteachers would meet with Downing Street officials to discuss the next steps for the programme. "There have been a series of meetings and obviously people from the independent sector are among those who are interested," he said.
A Downing Street spokesman said the reception was not listed in the Prime Minister's diary, but that such meetings regularly took place between policy unit officials and "frontline workers".