Come on you sponsors!

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Chairman of failing Premiership side Sunderland is the fourth football boss to back an academy, reports Graeme Paton.

He has become something of a local hate figure after seeing his football club plummet to the bottom of the Premiership. But Bob Murray, chairman of Sunderland, insists that failure on the field is not a bad omen as he becomes the fourth football boss to sponsor one of the Government's flagship academies.

The sponsorship represents welcome positive publicity for Mr Murray, whose team has won just twice all season. He has been blamed in part for the club's Pounds 40 million debt and was the focus of violent protests by fans after Sunderland's latest defeat at the weekend.

"Some schools in this city are depressing and built for a different age. I am in a position to help change that and want to play a part," he told The TES. "I hope we'll have more luck than we've had this season."

Mr Murray, an accountant by trade, who made his fortune selling kitchens, has joined other football bosses John Madejski (Reading), John Laycock (formerly of Bristol City) and David Meller (Watford director) by personally bankrolling an academy in his home town. A fifth, in Sandwell, in the West Midlands is being sponsored directly by West Bromwich Albion.

Mr Murray said: "Many football club chairmen are local businessmen who have a community conscience that extends beyond the club. The clubs are the focus of inner-city conurbations, which is where academies are being planned. It is logical that the two will overlap."

His investment is part of an ambitious pound;45m project to create three academies in Sunderland. Mr Murray and the Sunderland Housing Group will jointly invest some pound;1m to turn Pennywell comprehensive, and neighbouring Quarry View primary, into an academy for four to 16-year-olds.

Northumbrian Water will invest a similar amount in an academy replacing Castle View comprehensive and Leighton, an IT group, will back the failing Hylton Red House school.

Sunderland council will co-sponsor the three academies - investing pound;1m in each - and in return will retain some control over the schools.

The move represents a radical departure for the programme. Academies so far have been independent of local authorities, and controlled their own admissions, exclusions and curriculum.

However, the Sunderland academies will have the same admissions codes as other local-authority schools and be part of the same admissions process .

Moreover, unlike the 27 academies opened to date, they will only be for children aged up to 16, with pupils going on to Sunderland's sixth-form colleges.

Critics say such changes make a mockery of the programme, which has been lauded by the Prime Minister as delivering true autonomy for headteachers.

But Terry Walsh, Sunderland's acting director of education, said: "Working in partnership is the ideal way forward. No one wants an academy plonked down in the middle of their authority if it is going to destablise the other schools in the area."

This week it emerged that the council had rejected an attempt by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, the charity launched by Sunderland-born car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, to be one of its academy sponsors.

Mr Walsh said there had been irreconcilable differences between the council and Emmanuel, which has attracted controversy over the teaching of creationism and high exclusion rates at its academies elsewhere in the North.

* The academies programme received a boost this week when Capital City academy, Brent, was praised by Ofsted for improving "significantly" since it opened in 2003.

Meanwhile, plans to turn a successful comprehensive in Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency into an academy have been dropped.

Mr Blair was criticised by local parents over plans by Darlington council to close Hurworth school and merge it with nearby Eastbourne comprehensive, creating a new pound;25m academy. Hurworth will no longer be part of the academy.


Money men

Bob Murray, chairman, Sunderland.

Fortune: Made through Spring Ram bathroom firm, and Omega Kitchens. Size of wealth unknown.

Academy: Investing undisclosed amount, alongside other sponsors, in a four-19 academy to replace Pennywell comprehensive and Quarry View primary.

John Madejski, chairman, Reading (who have won promotion to Premiership).

Fortune: Property and publishing magnate, worth an estimated pound;325m.

Made his name launching Auto Trader magazine in 1977.

Academy: Investing pound;2m in the John Madejski academy, Reading, which replaces Thamesbridge college in September this year.

John Laycock, ex-chairman Bristol City (in Football League 1).

Fortune: Brandon Hire, tool hire firm, and industrial fasteners firm he sold in 1989. Wealth unknown.

Academy: Invested pound;2m, alongside other sponsors, in City academy, Bristol, which replaced St George's college in 2003.

David Meller, director, Watford (third in Championship).

Fortune: Senior partner in family firm Julius Meller, a toiletries and logistics business, which supplies Marks Spencer among others. Wealth unknown.

Academy: Invested pound;1.5m, alongside other sponsors, in Harefield academy, Hillingdon, which replaced John Penrose school in 2005.

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