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Make the well-off pay for grammar places

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire.

I greatly enjoy my encounters with fellow columnist Peter Wilby, even when we disagree. Last week, he wrote that contact between private and state schools is to be discouraged. A short while before, in The Guardian, he called me "potty" for suggesting parents in state schools should pay fees.

He is right on many things, but I believe he is wrong on these.

This week, 10 of my colleagues visited Ninestiles, a state school in Birmingham. It was eye-opening for all of us. In key ways, the school was ahead of us. We learnt much from its admirable focus on teaching and learning, use of ICT to target pupils, advanced skills teachers to raise teaching quality, and its ethos whereby all teachers believe in the core values of the school.

Next term, staff from Ninestiles will visit Wellington. They will be particularly interested in our house and pastoral systems, as well as our eight-aptitude model to develop the child's personality. What is the harm in such contacts? Is it patronising to the state school? Of course not.

Staff and pupils on both sides will gain.

In 2009, Wellington will open an academy in Wiltshire, having raised the Pounds 2 million necessary. My belief is that every independent school should either found an academy or take part in a federation with academies or trust schools. Independent schools should also join the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

I cannot see the point in continuing with the education apartheid between both systems. My ultimate aim would be for every school to become independent. Central and local government have a role with schools - no longer as the bosses and dictators, but as the facilitators and servants of schools. Only when government fully wakes up to the fact that heads can run their own schools will the state sector as a whole really take off.

To my second point: fees. I know it sounds absurd, hopelessly right wing (or is it left wing?) to say well-off parents should pay towards a state education, but the time has come. We should begin with grammar schools. As The TES reported last week, grammar schools now take a third of their pupils from private prep schools, denying those from non-privileged backgrounds.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have been cowardly and shallow in not tackling the grammar school issue. These are largely private schools in all but name, and have a higher average parental income than many independent schools. Means-testing parents for places at these schools is the obvious solution.

Under Tony Blair, the Government has generally done well with education.

But it could have gone further in encouraging state and independent schools to talk, and in extending down the principle of paying from higher education to secondaries, beginning with grammar schools.

Peter Wilby doesn't much like the Blair government, which is why it is odd that he has found himself in bed with it on this issue. Time for a re-think?

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