Private prep schools believe they are better suited to sponsoring academies than some of the prestigious public schools that ministers are trying to woo.
David Hanson, the new chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, told The TES that some of its members had privately expressed a desire to be involved in one of the 400 semi-independent state secondary schools that are planned.
The prep schools, which typically teach pupils up to the age of 13, feel their expertise with a broader range of children could help academy pupils who struggle with the basics.
Mr Hanson said he had written to Lord Adonis, the schools minister, to find out how they can take the next step and become sponsors.
Lord Adonis has redoubled efforts to recruit elite fee-charging schools to the programme, including Eton, after Dulwich College, Wellington and Winchester pledged their support. He is also keen for Oxford and Cambridge universities to play a role, although they have so far declined.
Ministers have said they want to use the independent sector's "educational DNA" to improve low-performing state schools.
Mr Hanson, who took up his new post last month, said he saw no reason why prep schools should not be sponsors as well. "In a way there is a more natural fit with prep schools than senior schools that focus much of their attention on Oxbridge. Prep schools are used to developing the skills that some pupils entering academies lack," he said.
He suggested prep schools could become the lead sponsor of an academy or join with a commercial partner. The twin pressures of league tables and inspection means many state primaries offer a narrow curriculum, he added.
Mr Hanson has extensive experience of academies, having previously been the director of education for the United Learning Trust, the Christian charity that is the largest single academy sponsor. He is also a former comprehensive school teacher and Ofsted inspector.
His comments come after statistics by the Independent Schools Council show private nursery and prep-school education is popular despite fee increases. The number of pupils in private nursery schools rose by 5.6 per cent over the past year. Numbers of five- to 15-year-olds in independent schools remained largely constant, in contrast to falling rolls in the state sector.