Hidden away in Hackney Wick, a strikingly average corner of east London largely ignored by all except its residents until the capital won the 2012 Olympic Games, is a small derelict sports club called Eton Manor. The modest cluster of buildings in Villiers Park, on the edge of Hackney Marshes, was built at the end of the 19th century by a group of philanthropic Old Etonians, who wanted to give something to those less privileged than themselves.
Until it closed in 1967, Eton Manor offered poor boys in and around the East End the chance to be taught anything from athletics and boxing to drama and debating. The random acts of kindness by society's upper crust, as seen in Eton Manor, were as much as could be expected when it came to England's elite independent schools becoming involved in the country's poorer neighbourhoods.
Many would argue that little has changed since then; that the glass wall between the independent and state school systems is as impenetrable as it ever has been. But education secretary Michael Gove is eager to change that, to see the two sectors working more closely together, as he believes that within the independent school lies the secret to success. To realise this goal, Mr Gove is looking to his vast and ever-increasing expansion of the academies programme.
Speaking at a conference in May, Mr Gove said independence has made Britain's private schools "the best in the world" and that greater independence for the country's state schools would ensure they became world class as well. Seeing private schools step in to sponsor academies is, in the minister's eyes at least, an opportunity for private schools to lend them their expertise.
It is a move that has long been championed by Labour peer Lord Adonis, who was keen for independent schools to sponsor academies when he helped introduce the new type of school in his role as junior schools minister during Tony Blair's premiership. Giving a lecture for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in June, Lord Adonis called for every successful private school to step in and sponsor an academy to create state-private school federations.
"Everything about academies is in the DNA of the successful private school: independence, excellence, innovation, social mission," he told the assembled maintained sector heads. "And the benefit is not only to the wider community, it is also to the private schools themselves, whose mission is enlarged, whose relative isolation is ended, and whose social engagement, beyond the families of the better-off, is transformed."
It is a nice idea, but questions remain as to whether this is really possible in any meaningful way beyond the elegant rhetoric of politicians. In an educational world of mutual misunderstanding and, worse, stereotyping, there are many who are prepared to bad-mouth the idea of collaboration. "What on earth can we possibly learn from them?" one side says, while the other asks: "What can we possibly offer?"
Take, for example, veteran left-winger Hank Roberts, incoming senior vice-president of the ATL union. "If Cameron and Co think the solution to the problems of inner-city schools is to hand them over in some way to people like this with so-called superior intellects, they are wrong," he says. "They are people who are used to minimal behavioural problems - what are they going to add? A good number of teachers in inner-city schools think this is a facile understanding of the situation."
Despite such doubts, both Mr Gove and prime minister David Cameron believe that independent schools sponsoring academies will be the best way to improve performance and close the gap between the state and independent sectors. The pair even played host to a group of 10 headmasters from the country's leading independent schools, including Eton and Harrow, in September in an attempt to impress the idea upon them.
To date, around 30 independent schools have obliged, either as a full sponsor or educational partner. Perhaps the most high-profile is Wellington College's sponsorship of Wellington Academy. Led by its headmaster Anthony Seldon, the #163;30,000-a-year boarding school took on the opportunity to sponsor Wellington Academy in an act harking back to the college's original mission 150 years ago, to offer free education to military orphans in the wake of the Crimean War.
Two years ago, Wellington Academy opened in a #163;32 million new building, offering more than half its places to children of military parents. Although umbilically linked, the two schools could not look more different. Wellington College is the archetypal red-brick boarding school set in acres of manicured grounds, whereas the gleaming, new Wellington Academy in its glass and wood, sitting on the edge of a business park in Wiltshire, looks more like a small, provincial airport than a place of learning.
But despite their obvious differences in wealth and looks, the college is eager to emphasise the relationship is one of genuine parity, rather than that of master and tutor. Robin Dyer, second master of Wellington College, describes the partnership as being "double edged". "We're not doing it so we can run Wellington Academy or make it an extension of the college, for us to make it a public school in state-school clothing. The headline philosophy is that it is a good thing to bridge the gap between the two systems. Our view is that the existing apartheid between the two is unhealthy for the country as a whole," Mr Dyer says.
For Mr Dyer, independent schools have as much to learn from state schools, particularly in areas such as teaching and learning, as state-maintained schools have from independents. It is for this reason that he does not understand why more schools are not entering into the partnerships. "It seems to be odd to me," he says candidly. "Why wouldn't you want to share best practice across the divide? Why should there be a divide? It doesn't seem sensible to deny yourself that opportunity."
Speaking a different language
But denying themselves they are. With so few independent schools taking up the opportunity to work with an academy it would appear that the politicians' words have so far had little effect. Even the head of Wellington Academy, Andy Schofield, is not entirely certain the partnership he has with Wellington College can be easily replicated.
"It would be good to see more schools doing what we're doing," he says. "If you have an independent school that is as open-minded as Wellington College there is a good chance it will work. But, more broadly, I think what we have is pretty special and I'm not sure how successfully it can be expanded."
Mr Schofield is clear that Wellington College may not know how to run a state school, but it is in other, more specialised areas where the private school becomes invaluable, such as having "very high standards of excellence". The academy is also keen to follow in the footsteps of the high-performing Mossbourne Community Academy in east London and secure places for its pupils at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities - something Wellington College knows a great deal about.
The state-school head is also abundantly clear that the reluctance to work together comes from both sides of the fence, state and independent. The reticence from the independent side, Mr Schofield says, is inherently linked to its ethos of being independent. The idea that the Government should be instructing them how they should go about their business goes against their very nature, he adds.
What is more, the offer has become a little less attractive for private schools in recent years. The flow of money that enabled Wellington Academy to build its new #163;32 million home has become little more than a trickle. "Trying to turn around a struggling state school in the back end of nowhere with just a refurb is going to be a real struggle," Mr Schofield adds.
Then there is the all-important brand to think about. How would it look from the outside if Eton or Harrow were to take on an inner-city comprehensive, only for the state school to make little or no improvement? "I think independent schools are terrified of being associated with a school that does not work out," Mr Schofield adds. "Why would you take on a poor-performing school, put your name on it, but not know how it is going to work out?"
Yet despite these disincentives, Mr Schofield believes it is those in the state system who are more likely to dig in their heels. They see those in the independent sector as simply a different breed.
"I would say there is more reluctance at our end than at theirs," he claims. "Their people are intrigued by what we're doing. I think there is a sense of state schools saying: 'What does an independent school know about teaching our kids - they only know about the privileged. I'm not going to listen to them. They come from a different gene pool and they speak a different language'."
It is a commonly held belief among the state sector and, for many, a very understandable one. After all, there are quite different challenges to teaching a pupil in an inner-city academy in Liverpool from those from the #163;30,000-a-year Eton. Joan McVittie, headteacher of Woodside High, a comprehensive in north London, and president of heads' union the Association of School and College Leaders, worked in the independent sector for six years and as such is ideally placed to look at whether the maintained sector has anything to learn. Although private schools face their own set of challenges, she does have doubts about independent schools taking on academies as sponsors.
"I do have my reservations (about independent schools sponsoring academies)," she says. Many academies operate in very challenging circumstances, she points out. "They will be dealing with young people from backgrounds they are not familiar with; there will be challenges they are not familiar with. Some will succeed and some will fail. I don't think being a headteacher at an independent school will give you the skills and experience to deal with an inner-city school."
Most independent school heads have their own reservations about sponsoring an academy, primarily because they do not want to be condescending towards state schools. It is a view that Anthony Little, headmaster of Eton College, subscribes to. No other school has produced as many prime ministers as Eton. But despite educating the current incumbent of Number 10, the school has so far resisted David Cameron and his Government's overtures to take up the offer of sponsoring an academy.
Academies, while laudable, Mr Little says, are "not the only show in town", and a formal sponsorship is not always the best solution. "We are a highly selective independent boys' boarding school, we are not a co-educational day state school," he says. "We can't transplant our ethos and our approach into something that we know nothing of; it would seem to be patronising to do so."
For Mr Little, one of the key challenges facing state schools in closing the gap between them and their more privileged cousins is a lack of ambition among both staff and pupils. "We need to raise the levels of aspiration of our young people across the board," he says. "I have visited schools around the country, and there is still that notion of 'That is not for the likes of you', particularly from classroom teachers. Clearly you need realism, but young people have to believe in the possible."
Far from shunning the state sector, Eton is involved in a number of less formal partnerships with local state schools, and it also runs a host of summer schools that aim to give state-school pupils the very confidence that Mr Little believes is too often lacking in their schools. Indeed, many independents claim there are already bridges over the divide and that they have been there for quite some time.
The Independent Schools Council (ISC), one of the largest member groups within the independent sector, stated that such co-operation between schools mainly takes place organically, without involvement from governments.
"As a sector we have always been very encouraging for partnerships between independent and state sectors," ISC deputy chief executive Matthew Burgess says. "It is not new - it has been going on for many, many years." The ISC claims more than 1,000 of its 1,300 members have some sort of involvement with state schools.
The Labour government set up an Independent State Schools Partnership (ISSP) forum to try to forge more relationships between the sectors - and achieved a modicum of success. And, according to the ISC at least, the current government is keen to do the same, only "under the proxy that the funding has dried up". The ISSP forum has since been abolished, and the Government has turned its focus on academy sponsorship.
But Mr Burgess is cynical about the Coalition attempting to coerce schools from both sides into taking this route. "It comes down to priorities," he says frankly. "We have 1,300 individual schools all with their own history, ethos and culture and working in their communities. Why would they turn their back on that and sponsor a school in a different part of the country, in an area in which they have no experience?"
And he adds: "It would mean a head saying: 'I am going to stop doing X, Y and Z to do A, B and C'. There will always be people who want to be torch-bearers, but there has not been a large number of them and I don't see that anything has particularly changed. But this is not a negative message - at a local level there are all sorts of engagements between state and independent schools."
This may well be so, but it is unclear whether these "organic" relationships are helping to close the divide between the two sectors, which is why Messrs Cameron, Gove and Adonis are pushing for a more formal, structured partnership.
In response, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) has decided to dip its toe in the water and try to sponsor underachieving primary schools. A new body within the HMC, the Primary School Academy Group, has been established with David Levin, head of boys' independent the City of London School, as its chair. The move has been criticised by Lord Adonis for not going far enough in its ambition to support the state sector.
"The best way to tackle social mobility would be to try and help struggling primary schools," Mr Levin says. "The educational gap between the rich and poor widens particularly between the ages of nine and 10."
The HMC believes that instilling a "love of learning, an interest in reading" and "developing competitive sport" is easier at a younger age. "A lot of HMC members felt uncomfortable going in and telling their colleagues in the state sector what they are doing is wrong," Mr Levin adds. "Many in the independent sector are very aware that their schools are very different from those in the state sector. With primary schools we have a totally different possibility. In our view, primary schools offer the means to make a really big difference to social mobility and close that gap.
"The gap isn't as great in primary schools; in-roads are much simpler and easier to achieve."
While it is undoubtedly true that primary schools are smaller and intervening earlier is most likely to have the biggest effect on a child's learning, an inner-city primary school can still be as challenging as any inner-city secondary. The behavioural challenges that an under-privileged child brings into school in one of the most disadvantaged wards in Tower Hamlets, for example, will be a world away from those of a child attending one of the schools that make up the HMC's membership.
On the whole, the response to the Government's efforts to bring independent schools in as sponsors of academies can be described as tepid at best. But despite this, the divide between the selective independent sector and the non-selective state sector, while still great, has never been smaller.
It is telling, for example, that research from the Centre for the Economics of Education says the biggest source of new teachers into independent schools is experienced teachers from state schools. Clearly, the independent sector is by no means averse to opening its doors to the state sector when it sees fit. Few would deny that the two sectors are unlikely to ever reach parity, but there is a better chance of achieving it than relying on the benevolence of Old Etonians, such as with Eton Manor. There are, however, a whole world of prejudices and attitudes to overcome first.
Until the old oppositions between the two sectors are tackled, the gap between state and independent is always likely to remain wide.
Most of the country's elite private schools have their roots in free, state-paid education.
The #163;31,000-a-year Winchester College was originally established by the Bishop of Winchester William of Wykeham in the late 14th century for the education of poor scholars dedicated to the service of God. Only a minority of "noble commoners" were allowed to study there.
Based on this model, Henry VI founded Eton, again for poor scholars, in the mid-15th century. Charterhouse in Surrey was set up by Sir Thomas Sutton, one of the wealthiest men in Jacobean England, and its first pupils were yet again poor scholars.
Similarly, Elizabeth I endowed Westminster School for the purpose of educating scholars in part of Westminster Abbey. And Harrow School was created as a free grammar school for boys from the parish.
TOP SCHOOLS ARE QUALIFIED FOR ACADEMY MISSION, SAYS ADONIS
Lord Andrew Adonis described the idea that the country's top independent schools were not capable of making a success of academies as a "comic proposition" in a lecture earlier this year.
Speaking at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust's 15th annual lecture, the Labour peer said: "As for the idea that these great schools are not capable of making a success of academies with more challenging pupil intakes, this is a comic proposition.
"The governing body of Eton is chaired by my distinguished colleague in the Lords, and former minister, William Waldegrave. Its members include three professors, three knights, five PhDs, and the former private secretary to the Prince of Wales. The Dean of Westminster, who chairs Westminster School's governing body, is my good friend John Hall, the former chief education officer of the Church of England, who was the driving force behind the CofE's decision to set up more than 30 academies.
"His fellow governors include the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, two professors, two canons, two knights, one baron and one dame.
"Every public-school governing body in the country is a catalogue of the very great and the very good, including eminent business and educational leaders. The idea that these organisations, if they have the will to do so, cannot command the resources and the expertise needed to run a successful school or schools in less advantaged areas - well, if that were true, then England would indeed be Greece, about to default on its whole society, not just its government borrowing."
A report released by the Sutton Trust earlier this year laid bare the "stark inequalities" often found between state and independent schools.
The most startling statistic from the report was that just four independent schools, and one sixth-form college, sent more students to Oxbridge than 2,000 schools combined over the three years of the study.
The research found that high-attaining comprehensive school students were significantly less likely to attend the country's top universities than their independent school counterparts.
The study showed that students with the equivalent of at least three As at A-level were a third less likely to go to one of the UK's top 30 universities.
According to the stats, just 60 per cent of students from the top 30 comprehensives went to the UK's leading universities, compared with 90 per cent of students from the 30 highest achieving independents.