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Fee-charging schools could steer diplomas

As students reap the rewards of hard work in Sats, GCSEs and A- levels, stand by for the usual recriminations: mismarking, slipping standards, political meddling. The burdensome tangle of qualifications for students aged 14-19 is now widely seen as unfit for purpose. In September, more crenellations will be added.

Four years ago, Tony Blair squandered the chance for reform and simplification when Michael Tomlinson marshalled the relevant stakeholders - independent and state schools, employers, universities - behind his report. He warned against what we now have: piecemeal change.

But it is not too late for a new prime minister to persuade his friends at The Daily Mail that it is now essential to develop a diploma scheme that works for all, to restore credibility to our qualifications system.

That is the risk. Fee-charging schools are heading pell-mell for the international baccalaureate (IB) andor the new Cambridge Pre-U along with A-levels, while showing lukewarm enthusiasm for the Government's new 14-19 diplomas. The IB and the Cambridge Pre-U are diploma schemes. The Pre-U, designed by independent schools and Russell Group universities working outside the control of government, is tailor-made for schools whose unique selling point is securing advantage for students in the race for places at those universities, which are the gateway to social status and lucrative careers.

While state schools are strong-armed into collaborating with new diplomas, independents are developing their own royal road to privilege. But there is an opportunity. Under the terms of the 2006 Charities Act, the Charity Commission is considering guidance to fee-charging charities on fulfilling the act's requirement to demonstrate "public benefit".

The Education Review Group has put in a second submission to the commission on how fee-charging schools might do this. The group suggests that "fee-charging schools could assist the state sector by . being involved in the new 14-19 diplomas".

Their submission does not elaborate, and what follows is a personal suggestion, not part of any policy formulated by them: the leading fee- charging schools, with their political clout, could provide a real public service of benefit to all students, universities and employers. They could ask the Government to relinquish control of diplomas and let schools, private and state, working with exam boards, develop the all-through system Tomlinson recommended.

The education provided by fee-charging schools is often excellent: at up to pound;25,000 a year it has to be. Their teachers are highly qualified, and some are uncomfortable with the social consequences of what they do. And they have independence.

The framework is in Tomlinson. The Pre-U, now accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has fleshed out the top end. What is needed now is to articulate this with diplomas suited to average students with wide interests, an area where the state sector has the expertise.

It may seem against the interest of fee-charging schools to join the state sector in meeting students' needs better. Their business depends on parents' perception that their children will have better chances than they would get in the state system. But not all fee-charging schools can attract students for whom A levels, let alone the IB or Pre-U, are appropriate. They too need a wider offer. And, if it is against the commercial interest of the grandest, how better to show "public benefit"? Providing competitive advantage to the wealthy is hardly "charity".

Auriol Stevens, Former deputy editor of `The TES' and former editor of `Times Higher Education'.

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