Magazine article The Spectator

Never Mind the Sleaze, Look How Pupils Benefit

Magazine article The Spectator

Never Mind the Sleaze, Look How Pupils Benefit

Article excerpt

It may be hard to believe in these enlightened times, but until recently anybody brave enough to suggest that private companies should involve themselves in funding and even helping to manage state schools would have been seen as either hopelessly naive or downright evil. Private fundraising, when it wasn't banned by left-wing local councils that preferred to see schools starved of cash rather than accept ideologically unsound handouts, was deemed fit only to pay for school trips. An iron curtain kept state education apart from the commercial world; private companies were to be kept away from the school gates at any cost.

Those bad old days have thankfully gone, replaced by educational perestroika. Thanks to reforms introduced by the Conservatives and hugely expanded under Labour, virtually all secondary maintained schools have now received at least some funding from the private sector -- and in some cases very substantial sums.

Oracle, the US software giant, has sponsored over 100 schools, as has HSBC, the banking group, which has donated more than £3 million. The bank focuses its efforts on schools that specialise in languages, especially Mandarin and Portuguese, in recognition of two of its biggest markets, and provides a governor for each of the schools it sponsors. Sir Philip Green, the billionaire owner of the Bhs and Arcadia retail chains, is another leading sponsor.

Sir Peter Lampl, an educational philanthropist, has sponsored 28 schools through his Sutton Trust. Like most of the corporate sponsors, Sir Peter doesn't just hand over the money and walk away. 'We want to get involved in helping to run schools from the inside, ' he says. 'We believe there's a considerable element of business ethos which can be usefully transferred to the running of schools. We can help with development planning and we think we can support schools in meeting their development targets.' One remarkably successful partnership is that between Sholing Technology College, a comprehensive community school for girls in Southampton which became a specialist school in September 2002, and VT Group (formerly Vosper Thornycroft), the shipbuilder and defence contractor. Pupils attend seminars at VT, which also provides work experience for children of all academic abilities. Pupils have been able to use the company's state-of-the-art laser-cutting facility for their coursework and regular visits are organised to the shipyards. The company also sends some of its female staff to take part in technology lessons at the school and to serve as role models and career advisers.

City Academies, which take over and replace existing failing schools, rely extensively on private money. For a donation of 10 per cent of the capital costs of a new Academy, or a maximum of £2 million, the sponsor is given a say in its curriculum, ethos, physical design and subject specialism, as well as the right to appoint governors. But the main route for a state school to gain access to private funding is to achieve specialist status. This scheme was first introduced by the Conservatives; one of those typically modest reforms of the John Major era which New Labour made its own.

Another 100 schools achieved specialist status earlier this year, taking the total to 2,602, or 82 per cent of maintained secondary schools.

Each prospective specialist school must obtain sponsorship of at least £50,000 in cash or kind from the private sector, choose from one of 12 possible specialisms (technology, performing arts and sport are the most popular) and submit detailed targets for improving the school's performance. About two thirds of bidders get through first time; some schools have had to bid several times before their application was accepted. …

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