We're moving stateside

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Fight for fee-paying pupils in the North pushes independent schools to become academies

WILLIAM HULME'S grammar school is a long way from the kind of failing schools academies were designed to replace.

Behind an imposing gothic facade in Manchester's Whalley Range, the selective independent school scores enviable exam results.

Eighty-five per cent of its pupils achieved five A* to C grades including English and maths at GCSE last year, compared to a Manchester average of 29 per cent.

However, from September the school will become one of the first two independent schools, with Belvedere, in Liverpool, to move to the state sector as academies.

With William Hulme's struggling to recruit enough pupils who can afford the fees, the move is a matter of survival.

"We could continue in the short-term, but in the long-term the situation was untenable," said Stephen Patriarca, the headteacher. "Either we had to go for the affluent middle class population of Cheshire or, if we wanted to continue to serve our community, we had to change."

The school will be sponsored by the United Learning Trust, the Christian education charity, and receives almost pound;10 million from the Government to pay for improvements. It will more than double in size from 500 to 1050 pupils over the next five years.

The school attracted almost 700 applicants for the 75 places available in year 7. It will retain a strong academic focus and will offer Latin and extra curricular activities, including a combined cadet force. "We were never particularly academically selective. I'm confident we can help pupils of all abilities," said Mr Patriarca.

William Hulme's grammar will maintain its links with the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents some of the best-known independent schools. Mr Patriarca will be an additional member of the group.

Financial concerns are also part of the reason why 23 of the Church of England's 43 cathedral school foundations have expressed interest in academy status.

The Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury, said: "The financial contribution that cathedrals make to their schools is a huge burden."

Bristol Cathedral school is the first to go public with its academy plan. Hugh Monro, headteacher, said: "We needed to secure our long-term future. With small cohorts, we weren't getting the numbers of choristers we needed, which is the main reason we exist."

Colston's Girls' school in Bristol is also planning to become an academy next September. All four schools so far committed to switching are former direct grant schools.

In addition to state grammar schools, direct-grant schools took a proportion of state-funded pupils with the rest paying fees. With this background, it has been suggested the ethos of these schools makes them most likely to consider the academy route.

According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) there were 136 direct grant schools in 1979, the majority of which became private.

Sam Freedman, head of research at the ISC, said Manchester and Bristol had a surplus of independent schools. Demand for places at private schools in the south of England remains high, but schools in northern towns and cities face tougher competition, he said.

Schools will only go for academy status if they are concerned about their long-term survival, Mr Freedman said. However, any changes that make academies less independent will make them less attractive. This includes the announce- ment, since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, that academies will have to follow the national curriculum, he added.

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