UK: Sponsoring An Academy

Last Updated: 20 December 2011
Article by Sarah Rowley

The Prime Minister recently invited heads of some of the country's leading independent schools to Downing Street with the intention of persuading them to 'sponsor an academy'. The message delivered was that he is keen to see more independent schools becoming involved in the state sector and playing a key role in the support of fledgling academies. While the current political pressure on independent schools to get involved is high, this is not a new approach. The "Academies and Independent Schools Prospectus" was published by the Department for Children Schools and Families in 2007, and espouses a similar message to that being put about by the politicians today.

The extent to which independent schools will think this is a good idea and come on board remains to be seen. Several independent schools which are already involved with academies have recently gone on the record stating that the current political pressure to get involved is not helpful. However, recent press reports suggest that as many as 30 independent schools already have a significant involvement with academies, with Wellington College, Dulwich College and the Girls Day School Trust being cited as leading examples of independent schools engaging with academies in a meaningful way. Many of the other leading independent schools involved in the sector have a connection with City Livery companies, several of which have over the last few years built up chains of academy schools to complement their traditional role of supporting and managing historic and well known private schools.

At least some of the enthusiasm shown by independent schools for supporting academies over the last few years is likely to have been rooted in a desire to demonstrate measurable public benefit, as supporting an academy can be a good way to assist children outside a school's normal catchment, and will tend to be more inclusive and productive than supporting just one or two underprivileged students through the provision of means-tested bursaries. However, in the wake of the ISC v Charity Commission Charity Tribunal case, some independent schools may be wondering whether this level of engagement is above and beyond what is now required. Others inclined to take a more outward-facing view may be questioning whether the apparent move away from the Charity Commission's focus on bursaries now opens new opportunities to demonstrate public benefit where resources permit. Leading schools may now be looking for altogether innovative ways of engaging with the wider community to further their objects for the benefit of a wider cross section of society.

An obvious hurdle in 'selling' academies, especially in the current economic climate, is that it is untenable to expect parents (many of whom will be making sacrifices to educate their own children outside the state sector) to help to finance a state maintained school from which their own children will not directly benefit. However, 'sponsorship' does not necessarily mean the diversion of the school's own resources away from its primary beneficiaries and, as the independent schools already having some involvement with academies have shown, the commitment of leadership and management expertise in running a school independently of government control can be invaluable. Many schools have also shown that it is possible to attract ring fenced funding for the academy from third party funders – even in one case from alumni.

The perceived reputational risks have also so far proved unfounded, with many of the independent schools leading the way using their involvement with academies to boost, modernise and add a new dimension to their existing brand.

Academies and schools in the private sector have much in common and are trying to achieve the same goals. Joint working is therefore likely to have mutual benefits. The sponsorship of academies can mean the provision of advice and assistance, shared facilities, teacher secondments and joint opportunities for staff training and development, through to taking complete responsibility for the governance of an academy sister school or co-sponsoring a school with others. A range of engagement ought therefore to be possible. To make any arrangement work both parties will need to look past any preconceived ideas about education models of the past and consider the benefits of such arrangements flowing both ways. At the very least both parties are likely to obtain positive benefits in the pursuit of inclusiveness and excellence. If your school's governing body is considering sponsoring or otherwise co-operating with an academy, Sarah Rowley would be pleased to have an initial discussion with you, or speak to your usual Charles Russell contact.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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