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Fee rises bolster educational apartheid

The latest group to discover the perils of e-mail are the independent school bursars, whose exchanges about the size of next year's fees have led to a government inquiry. Since public schools have traditionally rivalled Whitehall for secrecy, the glimpse into their privileged world has been revealing. But I am puzzled that one sub-plot in the drama has gone largely unremarked. While reaching an e-mail consensus on fee levels, the bursars of the more famous establishments were also collaborating on the value of scholarships offered to prospective pupils.

The aim was to stave off the threat of government plans to withdraw charitable status from independent schools that fail to prove their worth to the community. When they looked at their scholarship funds, they uncovered some uncomfortable facts. Most of the money they are spending on scholarships - worth around 50 per cent of the fees - is not means-tested and is going to people who can perfectly well afford to pay. At Eton, nine out of 10 families receiving scholarship money are rich enough to foot the bill themselves.

Amazingly, while four schools decided to reduce but not abolish these subsidies to the affluent, two, Westminster and Winchester, were afraid of losing their best pupils and did not.

For years, we have been told that private schools are open to all because they offer so many scholarships and bursaries - one in five pupils gets one or the other, says the Independent Schools Council. Some bursaries do go to poorer families but these are usually for only part of the fees. With fees for the best-known boarding schools now approaching pound;20,000 a year and day-school fees averaging between pound;6,000 and pound;7,000, the schools remain out of the reach of the common-or-garden council estate dweller. The Government's abolition of the assisted places scheme six years ago, has also reduced opportunities: the schools have raised money for some bursaries for poor pupils but some assisted places holders have been replaced by full fee-payers.

The "fee-fixing" episode has underlined the spiralling expense and exclusivity of private education. To put two children through boarding school for five years costs more than pound;200,000, to say nothing of the fees for a good prep school to provide coaching for the Common Entrance exam, which is not on the timetable in state schools. Fees have risen by more than inflation for 19 of the past 20 years.

So the Government's promise six years ago to end the "educational apartheid" which divides private from state schools is looking decidedly threadbare. Then, a fresh-faced former junior schools minister, Stephen Byers, proposed a new, cosy partnership with taxpayers' money for private schools who forged links with state schools. Despite a bit of cricket-coaching and a few masterclasses, Mr Byers' view now seems hopelessly dim.

The Government could take the advice of its strategy unit and compel schools to justify their charitable status every few years by detailing how they set their fees, their scholarships and bursaries and their links with the community. An adminstration which has no qualms about tightening the benefits criteria for lone parents and the sick will surely insist that Eton's scholarships should be means-tested.

Or it could simply sit tight and concentrate all its efforts and money on making state schools better. If fees continue to rise, middle-class parents will struggle to find the money, particularly if London house prices stall.

They may turn increasingly to the state sector as more private schools become ghettos for the super-rich.

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