PRIVATE schools must stop giving scholarships to bright rich children, the new chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference has said.
Graham Able, the new head of the organisation representing leading private schools, has pledged to spend his year in office working to cut the amount of scholarship money given to pupils from wealthy families.
Figures from the Independent Schools' Council show that in 2000-2001 around pound;107 million was given in bursaries by its member schools and about pound;103m in scholarships.
Mr Able, head of the high-profile Dulwich College, the alma mater of PG Wodehouse, told The TES the money would be better spent funding places for children from poor backgrounds.
He said his south London school, which charges pound;18,450 for boarders and pound;9,330 for day pupils, was trying to build a bursary fund large enough to allow it to operate on a "needs-blind" basis.
In 2001, Dulwich, where 93 per cent of pupils are day boys, gave out pound;1,051,212 in scholarships, bursaries and other awards.
Mr Able wants to slash non-means-tested scholarships given for academic performance or talents such as musical ability. At the moment schools agree to limit these to half of fees. This means that pupils can win scholarships of up to 50 per cent of fees through competitive examinations, which do not take account of their parents' financial situation.
But Mr Able wants to see that 50 per cent level reduced over time to free up more money for means-tested support. "Every school would have more funds available to give financial help for those who need it to come to our schools," he said.
He accepted that his goal could take years to achieve, but added: "I hope in the next 10 to 15 years, we will move to a situation where awards on merit alone were of a more token nature. The considerable majority of finance available would go to need rather than purely to merit."
Martin Stephen, the high master of Manchester Grammar School who will succeed Mr Able as HMC chairman in 2004, said: "I support Graham completely." Dr Stephen aims to run Manchester Grammar has a bursary appeal, which has raised pound;8 million in four years. "At the moment, around 35 boys in every year are having their fees paid," he said.
Mr Able added: "If you are changing anything you will always meet some opposition, but I hope that there will be more support than opposition for this."
Some private heads' associations backed Mr Able's statement. Sheila Cooper, general secretary of the Girls' Schools Association, said: "Over time, I think the 50 per cent limit will undoubtedly be reduced."
But she said girls' schools often did not have the same level of endowments with which to fund bursaries as boys' foundations.
But Dick Davison, from the Independent Schools Council, warned that although there was a feeling that the time was right to debate the issue, there would be "a range of views".
And he added: "This is, and will remain, a voluntary agreement. Governing bodies and heads must be free to make up their mind about what is appropriate for their school."