Anthony Seldon: I was naive to think we could sponsor an academy and just watch it thrive

The Independent has an interview with Anthony Seldon and an in-depth look at Wellington Academy – the academy sponsored by his Wellington College – which faced difficulties last year resulting in the head being replaced. This is an extract…

Anthony Seldon acknowledges that he may have been a bit “naive” to think it was enough for an independent school just to sponsor a state-school academy and watch it thrive.

“The only way you can do this is by being fully committed and being fully up to speed with the way that state schools operate,” he tells me.

Dr Seldon is now the executive principal of the Wellington Academy – one of the first academies to be sponsored by a leading independent school (in this case, his Wellington College) – and is spending a term’s sabbatical from the college rolling up his sleeves at the academy.

The decision that Wellington College should take a more “hands-on” approach to the academy followed disappointing GCSE results last year, when the percentage of pupils earning five A*- to C-grade GCSEs including maths and English plummeted to 37 per cent (from 48 per cent). The then head teacher, Andy Schofield, was replaced with one of Dr Seldon’s senior team members at Wellington College, Michael Milner, taking over day-to-day responsibilities, with Dr Seldon himself devoting more time to the academy as well…

At first, Dr Seldon had to deal with a campaign on YouTube to oust him from his job. “There were some pockets of a quite nasty response – a ‘get rid of Dr Seldon’ campaign on YouTube,” he said. “There was a negativity about me being very hard.

“I do say what I think needs to be done when a school needs to be turned round. I said, ‘This is acceptable, that is not acceptable, you will not do this and you will not do that.’ That didn’t go down well universally.”

However, five months later, the atmosphere has now changed. The links between the college and the academy are stronger. By September, they will have the same uniform and the same house system. Visits between the two schools are also more frequent…

As well as building closer links between the schools, the new leadership team also cracked down on bad behaviour and standards of school uniforms, insisting all pupils wore their uniforms smartly. Termly reports on pupils’ progress, showing where they had met expectations and where they had fallen short, were introduced instead of the annual report to parents.

Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, has visited the academy and declared that it “requires improvement”, the new category that has replaced “satisfactory” in the nspectors’ lexicon. It is a judgement that Dr Seldon believed the academy deserved at the time. The school, though, has arranged for a return inspection at the end of the year, when it expects to be given a “good” rating. “By 2016 [the next inspection], we will get a [grade] 1,” Dr Seldon declares. That would mean “outstanding”…

Dr Seldon estimates that there is a kind of “DNA overlap” between running a state and independent school of about 80 per cent. “There are a whole bundle of things, though, about the monitoring of performance and about behaviour and attendance, about special needs, about the quality of teaching and learning and performance management as well as appraisal of staff, that probably feature far less heavily in the life of an independent head…”

More at: Making the grade: Wellington Academy is one of the first academies to be sponsored by a leading independent school

What lessons do you think can be learned from the experiences of Wellington Academy so far? Does it suggest a way forwards for more independent/state partnerships or is it still too early to call? Please share in the comments or via Twitter…

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Categories: Academies.


  1. 4C3d

    Although this story shows a head now reflecting on his experience he has the opportunity to put things right, what about the students who may have had their life chances adversely effected by such a drop in examination results? Was it a case of “I know better” rather than lets learn from each other before we make such a jump. As Dr Seldon now declares their is an overlap but there are also differences. Perhaps it was arrogance that blinded him to this in the first place, I am sure if he was up for listening there were many who could have told him this fact in the first place. All that is water under the bridge now and I hope that the students have their life chances enhanced by the partnership. 

    Lessons to be learnt:

    Learn to ask the right questions and to listen before reaching conclusions and acting.
    Just because you know one system that works in one school does not mean it will be the right system to transplant into another. Schools need to grow their own success culture. There are to many examples of top down takeovers that have failed. 
    Understand and use the four learning needs and use them to build a success culture.
    Don’t adopt an “I know best attitude”, people who work for you are a much greater asset than those who attempt to undermine you.

  2. Janet2

    Just before the GCSE results came out, the Governors praised the school (and by implication its then head) for its A level results.  But when the GCSE results were known, the head was expected to fall on his sword.

    The “whole bundle of things” which you won’t find at Wellington College (special needs, the full ability range, some disaffected pupils etc) are what state schools deal with all the time.  Dr Seldon wasn’t just naive but patronising and overconfident when he sponsored Wellington Academy (even changed the name).

    And that interference has cost a popular head his job and possibly ruined his career.

  3. Mike Bell

    This illustrates the general state of education: the blind leading the sighted.  In most professions the expert practitioners rise up the profession and become the senior (surgeon, for instance).
    In education, the experts mostly stay in the classroom and are lectured to by a whole array of ‘experts’ – journalists, academics, educational gurus, ministers etc, who all think they know best.
    This example is just a symptom, illustrating the need to build the profession from the bottom-up.

  4. HamdonEducation

    CathyWood55 SchoolsImprove “Naive” is one description. “Coolly & cruelly dismissive of other people’s children” might be another?

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