Academy sets sights on branching out in Africa
As one of the first academy principals, Ray Priest is used to taking bold steps in education. But his next big step could take him far from the surrounds of The City Academy in Bristol to Africa, where he plans to establish the first foreign branches of an English state school.
Dr Priest wants to open branches in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe as he carries out his school's "mission".
"There would be great benefits for staff and young people and for the brand of the school as well," he said.
"We would see it as part of our global mission. We would want to establish sustainable schools that would serve their communities."
The model of successful private schools opening franchises overseas is well-established, with the likes of Dulwich College in south London and Harrow School in north-west London also operating in China and Thailand.
Dulwich College has said it hopes to open as many as 10 schools to generate funds for means-tested bursaries for its pupils in London.
Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College in Berkshire, who is tomorrow hosting a conference on opening international branches of private schools, will say that high-performing state schools should reap the same benefits.
Dr Priest insists that The City Academy's plan is not to make money, but to create links and opportunities for staff and pupils in both Bristol and Africa. "This concept is something we have thought quite seriously about," he said.
Dr Priest said there was a possibility the branch schools would charge fees, but that they would be "appropriate" to their local area.
The City Academy is currently in the National Challenge scheme, which has threatened with closure any school where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths. Bristol had the highest proportion of schools in the National Challenge when it was first announced in the summer.
Dr Priest said that his school would concentrate on passing that threshold before turning attention to opening schools overseas. The situation could "get moving" by 2010, he said.
The idea has been discussed with the academy's sponsors, but no formal approach has yet been made to the education authorities in either of the African countries.
"We have a sports specialism and initially thought about opening a football academy," said Dr Priest. "But then we thought, why not extend that idea and open a proper school."
One of the football coaches at the academy in Bristol is a relative of the education minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Dr Priest believes could help with the school's ambitions.
The academy has a strong partnership with a school just outside Harare, in Zimbabwe. One option that Dr Priest will consider is whether they can rename and rebrand the school. He is hoping to visit the school next year, when he will be able to discuss the plans more fully.
Both African countries have had difficult and violent recent histories and Dr Priest said he would monitor the political situations carefully before making any commitments.
No public money would be used to establish either of the foreign branches, he said.
"We are sponsored, so as long as we can make a case for it, our sponsors will listen," he said.
"Academy status gives us the freedom to look at things like this, even though we are a state school. If we can finance it, I don't see why it can't happen."
The idea of state schools opening foreign branches has been strongly endorsed by Dr Seldon. "I know that a number of overseas governments want to have prestigious and high achieving British schools starting up in their countries," he said. "I see no reason why that cannot include state schools, many of which are high achieving.
"Establishing schools in other countries would create wonderful opportunities for these schools and I encourage them to consider it."
Dr Seldon said that he expected to be making an announcement within the next six weeks of a new branch of Wellington College in the Gulf.
Sue Williamson, director of leadership and innovation at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, who will be addressing the conference at Wellington College tomorrow, said organising the financial side of opening foreign branches would be too difficult for many schools.
However, a number of state schools were building strong brands by running successful federations, she said. "When they have had experience of doing it in this country, more might consider it internationally."
Stephen Sidkin, a partner with the law firm Fox Williams, who has acted for a number of independent schools opening branches overseas, said it would be possible for state schools to follow suit. He said that to make money from a franchise, schools would need a strong brand that they could export.