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Tycoon targets needy schools

Education authorities reacted strongly today (Friday) to speculation that the Scottish Executive is in talks with a number of entrepreneurs to set up "experimental schools" in Scotland.

"Private investment must not be allowed to undermine the comprehensive model or to reduce local authority involvement in education," Ewan Aitken, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said.

But The TES Scotland can reveal that the Hunter Foundation, which has been at the forefront of promoting enterprise education along with the Executive, is now poised to work with schools in the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland. It has already ploughed money into teacher and headteacher training (TESS, May 21 and June 25).

The issue emerged following the announcement by Charles Clarke, Education Secretary in England, that popular schools south of the border would be allowed to expand and 200 "city academies" would be established by 2010 - twice the number announced previously.

Reports suggested that the Scottish entrepreneurs in question - self-made tycoons Tom Hunter, Willie Haughey and Irvine Laidlaw - were all singing from the same hymn sheet, and, indeed, that Jack McConnell, the First Minister, and Peter Peacock, Education Minister, were also of one mind.

Ewan Hunter, chief executive of the Hunter Foundation, said it rejected the creation of schools "which develop pockets of excellence that still perpetuate disadvantage for the rest". This is in tune with the view of Mr Peacock, who has repeatedly rejected what he described in May as policies which "sacrifice excellence for all on the altar of choice for some".

Mr McConnell has none the less consistently shown himself eager to involve business expertise in public sector activity, linking very strongly with Mr Hunter on enterprise education and with Mr Laidlaw on volunteering.

Mr Aitken criticised what he sensed are "all the signs of policy being made on the hoof".

He said: "Scotland's councils have proved that they will support and promote radical and innovative solutions to answer the challenges our education system faces.

"Councils already have a clear understanding of the contribution the wider community can make to education and it is very valued. Schools already benefit from the philanthropic work of PTAs, school boards, teachers working voluntary hours and and local businesses."

Mr Aitken said local authorities are happy to work with anyone who has the will to improve Scotland's schools. "However, any investment in state-run schools cannot be used to buy changes in policies or the curriculum."

The Hunter Foundation's plans involve working with the most hard-pressed communities in Scotland to improve local schools. The TES Scotland understands this will target up to a dozen areas selected on the basis of free school meal entitlement and the number of parents who are in the second or third generation of unemployment.

The foundation has drawn its inspiration from Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technology College, a Church of England school in Southwark, London. A secondary school facing major challenges, it has impressed the Ofsted inspectorate with the way it has turned itself around in the past three years - despite having 51 per cent of pupils with special educational needs, 57 per cent eligible for free meals and more than 90 per cent from ethnic minorities.

The school's website points to an insistence on traditional values such as "courtesy, good manners and excellent standards of behaviour and work". Every unauthorised absence is challenged, it states. The school also runs a series of "enrichment activities" from musical competitions to links with independent schools.

The Hunter Foundation hopes lessons from Southwark can be supported across a range of schools. This will include working with the Columba 1400 initiative on management training and arranging summer school programmes in what is intended to be an intensive 365 day a year experience to bring about "systemic change".

The Columba training, known as the Headteachers' Leadership Academy, has been given rave reviews by those who have taken part. Iain White, head of Govan High, wrote in The TES Scotland last month that the four members of his senior management rated it "the best, most insightful, inspiring and practical training experience in all of our careers".

The training had been entirely relevant for his school which aims to ensure that "learners are self-empowered and . . . their employability skills are maximised".

The Columba course, which is run on Skye, also attracted praise from Jacques Chezaud, head of St Joseph's College in Dumfries. Based on the Grow principle (goal, reality, opportunities and will do), it led to reflection on the role of heads as leaders.

It is expected that around pound;200,000 of unspent cash from the schools enterprise programme, which has been supported by a number of private sector backers, will be matched by both local authorities and the Executive.

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