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Byers makes peace with independents

Fourteen years after Labour pledged to close independent schools, it has announced the end of "educational apartheid" and a new partnership with the private sector.

School standards minister Stephen Byers declared an end to "dogma and prejudice" as he promised Pounds 500,000 for pilot initiatives which will open up private schools' facilities and teaching to state pupils.

Jacqueline Lang, president of the Girls' Schools Association at whose annual conference Mr Byers made his announcement, called it an historic moment and said that Labour had met the independent sector "more than half way" in laying out the terms by which the two could work together.

But almost all the demands she set out in her presidential address in Bristol were agreed by Mr Byers in his speech moments later. Only the size of the pot set aside provoked less than total enthusiasm.

Mr Byers - the first Labour minister ever to address an independent schools conference - laid out his "golden rules" for co-operation: no dilution of the "high standards" in private schools (needed as beacons of excellence, Mrs Lang had said); and no compulsion.

He also told an audience still smarting from the end of the Assisted Places Scheme that the Government would honour existing awards - grants would rise in line with fees until pupils left school.

And he alleviated their other key fear - the ending of charitable status. It was "not part of the Government's agenda", he said.

Dick Davison of the Independent Schools Information Service said afterwards that the pledge that standards would not be diluted was a major point of principle that would reassure parents who were paying fees for those standards.

Mr Byers claimed Labour's manifesto commitment to abolish private education was one reason it was not elected in 1983 - while its emphasis on partnership helped win its massive majority this year.

Mrs Lang's one note of caution was that it would be hard to overcome the antipathy between the sectors that existed in some areas - although elsewhere many schemes were already working successfully.

Half the pilot cash comes from businessman Peter Lampl who this year funded a summer school at Oxford University for state sixth-formers. Mr Byers said other businesses were keen to contribute.

Schools will be invited to submit bids for joint schemes with winning tenders announced in March. Possibilities include using private schools to run Oxbridge coaching, teach specialist A-levels like Latin, or host summer literacy schools.

Mr Byers also announced an advisory panel of private and state heads and one local authority chief officer to look at successful schemes and suggest ways of make the partnership work in practice.

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