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Fee-charging schools have no magic pills

I wish to appeal to new Labour ministers: stop telling fee-charging schools to "build bridges" with the state sector. Stop encouraging "partnerships", asking them to sponsor city academies, and proposing such schemes as Education Secretary Alan Johnson's latest wheeze involving parachuting private-school teachers into state schools for a few hours a week.

Private schools do not have a magic pill. They provide a largely academic education that guarantees exam passes, entry to posh universities and social exclusivity to those from privileged homes. They may perform this role efficiently, but it does not follow that they can perform this other role.

Governments have been trying to build bridges between the two sectors for more than 60 years. The most wide-ranging proposals were set out by the Public Schools Commission in 1968. It proposed "the exchange of a hundred masters a year". More adventurously, it wanted "suitable boarding schools"

to be part of "an integrated system" and give half their places to "assisted pupils" from "a wider range of ability". The report satisfied nobody.

The fee-charging schools' enemies deplored anything that might legitimise them. The schools themselves protested that they would be "less effective"

if academic entry requirements were diluted.

That is the nub of it. Fee-charging schools know that the state sector plays a different game. In the Independent the other day, a teacher with experience of both sectors explained that he fled state schools because the pupils were too thick and ill-mannered, and forgot to bring pens to lessons. State schools were intolerable because they were "obliged to accept such pupils". Where he thought they might go and who might teach them I do not know.

At least the Times columnist Anatole Kaletsky was precise. State schools would attract more parents and more able teachers, he argued, if the bottom pupils - "with very low intelligence, personality disorders or dysfunctional family backgrounds" - were selected for separate treatment, rather than the top ones. We should spend on these children the pound;40,000 annually that is spent on prisoners.

Since re-offending rates suggest the spending on prisoners is ineffective, I am unexcited by this proposal. But it recognises that state schools confront a different set of problems. This does not mean their teachers are superior to those in fee-charging schools any more than the reverse is true. Many state-school teachers might not like the hothouse academic environment of fee-charging schools or the high expectations of their parents.

No doubt the two sectors have much to learn from each other. But the bridges that ministers propose appear to be one-way. They merely create hostility between the two types of school. They convince parents that fee-charging schools are better, thus underwriting the schools' propaganda.

They reinforce the belief that schools' "excellence" is automatically transferable to an environment where pupils have not been rigorously selected. Ministers should instead get on with what they were elected to do: improve state comprehensives and raise their teachers' morale.

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