The often touchy relationship between the state and independent sectors was once separated by seemingly ineradicable demarcation lines. But it is about to become a good deal closer after a group of well-known independent schools signalled their intention to sponsor swathes of struggling primaries.
The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), which represents the likes of Eton and Harrow, has set up a whole new structure, the Primary School Academy Group, to enable some of the country's top independent schools to sponsor underperforming primaries, rather than the more well-trodden route of taking on secondaries.
The move comes as pressure mounts from Number 10 and education secretary Michael Gove, who are both determined to see more independent schools sponsoring both primary and secondary academies in a bid to raise standards.
Such is prime minister David Cameron's belief in the power of private schools to improve academies, he held an hour-long summit at Downing Street with heads from the country's leading independents to convince them to sponsor academies.
But David Levin, headmaster of the City of London School and chair of the new HMC group, has a slightly different take, arguing that independent schools will have the biggest impact on state schools via the primary sector. "It is our belief that the best way to tackle social mobility would be to try to help struggling primary schools," he said. "The educational gap between the rich and poor widens particularly between the ages of nine and 10."
As such, Mr Levin has written to all members of the HMC to urge them to consider sponsoring a primary school alongside a business or charity. "In our view, primary schools offer the means to make a really big difference to social mobility and close that gap," he added. "The gap isn't as great in primary schools, in-roads are much simpler and easier to achieve. Things like the love of learning, interest in reading, the whole area of nurture and competitive sport can be instilled more easily at that age."
Mr Levin also attended the meeting with Mr Cameron earlier this month, which saw 10 heads of leading independent schools - including Eton, Harrow and Radley - discuss the possibility of establishing formal partnerships with state schools.
Among those present was former Labour schools minister Lord Adonis and new HMC general secretary William Richardson.
"The PM was seeking views from everybody who was there," Mr Richardson said. "I wasn't surprised Andrew Adonis was there. He's clearly someone who the Government seeks advice from. The Government's policy priority in relation to the reform of secondary schools is to turn them into academies. Therefore independents are an attractive group in all of this."
But Mr Richardson said the big public schools would have to be convinced that attempts to get them to back academies would be worthwhile. "The Coalition is formally saying: `We wish to encourage you to actively work with state schools.' There isn't a sense that this is anything other than an appeal to get involved, but it has to be mutually beneficial."
Indeed, independents are already looking to work more closely with their peers in the state system, with many schools already sharing teachers and sporting facilities. Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) chief executive David Hanson, who also attended the meeting with Mr Cameron, admitted that yet more reforms were needed.
"There needs to be a closer working relationship between the public and private sector. There has been a Berlin wall between the two in the past," he said. "This meeting was about trying to move from the passionate philanthropy of a few to the active engagement of the many. The next stage is to work with the Department and the commissioner on the nuts and bolts of how this will work."
But Mr Hanson, who was a director at the biggest academies sponsor, the United Learning Trust, before joining IAPS, also had a warning: the Government needs to get rid of the red tape surrounding the academies programme for it to be attractive to independents. "What will slow (the idea down) is a fear of the unknown and bureaucracy. When I was involved with the academies, the bureaucracy was mind-numbing," he said.
In January, Lord Adonis attacked independents in an interview for the in- house magazine of IAPS, claiming "they are far more comfortable with sitting on the sidelines and carping about the problems of standards in state education, while not taking any responsibility whatsoever for doing anything about it".
If Mr Levin's new group spawns a clutch of sponsored academies, there's every chance Lord Adonis might finally get his way.
Lord Adonis has long been a champion of the idea of leading private schools stepping in to sponsor academies.
The former Labour schools minister, who is often credited as being the "architect" of academies, has spoken at length of the need for independent and state schools to forge a "new settlement".
Speaking at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust annual lecture in the summer, Lord Adonis called for private and state schools to form hard federations.
"Every successful private school, and private school foundation, should sponsor an academy or academies, in place of existing underperforming comprehensives," he said.
"They should do this alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private and state schools."
He added: "And by sponsoring academies I don't just mean advice and assistance, the loan of playing fields and the odd teacher, etc.
"I mean the private school or foundation taking complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of an academy or academies, and staking their reputation on their success as they currently do on the success of their fee-paying schools."
WELLINGTON LEADS THE CHARGE
To date there are around 30 private schools sponsoring academies in England. Perhaps the most high-profile is Wellington College's sponsorship of Wellington Academy.
Spearheaded by Wellington College's headmaster Anthony Seldon (pictured below), the pound;30,000-a-year public school in Berkshire became lead sponsor of Wellington Academy, located in Wiltshire, two years ago.
In a move that harks back to the College's original goal 150 years ago to offer free education to military orphans following the Crimean War, half of Wellington Academy's places go to children of military parents.
The partnership is also the only one in the country where the academy bears the same name as its private school sponsor.
Original headline: Public schools plan to chum up with struggling primaries