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The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has made a direct appeal to UK business leaders to come forward to set up more academy trusts, amid claims the government is facing a shortage of sponsors to take over struggling schools.

In a speech to more than 150 leading figures from the world of business, Morgan urged them to “play their part” in what she called the schools revolution, encouraging them to either found or develop academy trusts to help drive up standards in schools.

Her plea came in the wake of government promises to crack down on “failing” local authority schools and speed up their conversion to academies. Critics have said there are not enough sponsors of sufficient quality to carry out the government’s plans.

Speaking at a House of Lords reception for industry experts, Morgan said: “There can be no more rewarding endeavour than applying a life’s experience and skills to transforming the life chances of children. Business leaders develop the knowhow to tackle some of our society’s toughest problems and have the drive and energy to overcome challenges – qualities that translate directly to driving up standards in schools.

“Whether by founding or developing academy trusts, joining governing bodies to provide oversight and encouragement or providing careers advice and mentoring, I am today calling for more business leaders to play their part and join the schools revolution.”

The government has said it may turn up to 1,000 schools in England into academies, including those rated inadequate by Ofsted, under the new education and adoption bill, which will “remove bureaucratic and legal loopholes” that slow up the process of conversion.

The gathering of business leaders is being seen as an attempt by government to drum up vital support for the extension of its academies programme.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the involvement of business leaders in schools but said academies and academy trusts were not the only solution to the problems facing the education system.

“Business leaders have a vast amount to offer schools and school leaders are already seeing that commitment with people volunteering to join governing bodies,” he said.

“Academies, however, are not the only type of school. They are not a panacea. Founding more academy trusts will not guarantee any improvement to the quality of the education provided in schools in itself. It’s not enough on its own.

“The government has set itself a massive challenge by committing to the rapid expansion of academies, which will only succeed if they can attract sponsors of the right calibre. We have already seen some examples of trusts that have got into difficulty.”

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said Morgan’s plea to business leaders was the next stage in the government’s programme to turn over England’s state schools to the corporate world.

“Business leaders are being invited to sit on the boards of academy trusts that run an increasing number of schools. This means that more schools funded by taxpayers will be run by unaccountable trustees who come not from an educational background but from the for-profit business world.

“This measure comes at the same time that the education and adoption bill is progressing through parliament. This bill will rob parents and school staff of any right to consultation where their school is targeted with a forced academy order.

“It has the potential to see thousands more schools forced into academy status on the grounds that they are ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’. Yet the poor performance of many sponsors means there are currently insufficient sponsors available to take over thousands more academies.”

A spokesperson for the National Association of Head Teachers said: “We’re pretty confident that there just aren’t enough sponsors of sufficient quality to fulfil the academisation process. It’s right for business to take a significant role in education. Most good employers already do engage with their local schools. Asking them to do their bit could irritate more people than it will inspire.”

Also present at the Lords reception were business leaders already involved in schools. Phil Jones, the president and chief executive of Northern Powergrid and newly appointed trustee of Pontefract Academy Trust, said: “Even though it’s early days for me it’s been great to see that there really is scope for people with a business background to make a meaningful contribution to the way that education is delivered in our communities.

“I can already see that the advent of the academy trusts has opened up a much more significant opportunity for people like me to give something back.

Ashley Reid, the head of wealth portfolio management at HSBC and non-executive director of Burnt Hill Academy Trust, said: “This is an opportunity to work with a dynamic and successful team in a sector undergoing exciting change. Hopefully I will be able to use my skills and experience to help them move through the next stage of their development and provide improved opportunities to an increasing number of children.”

UK education secretary appeals to businesses to set up more academies © Guardian News & Media Ltd

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