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New elite would only teach top sets

Public schools chair makes defiantly un-PC call for staff who would only work with able pupils. Graeme Paton reports

A new army of super teachers should be created to teach only the brightest children, the country's top private-school head said.

Dr Martin Stephen, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses'

Conference, which represents 241 leading fee-paying schools, said highly-trained "academic teachers" should be given special contracts and be allowed to focus solely on top-set groups.

He admitted the move would be seen as "grossly politically incorrect" but insisted gifted pupils needed as much individual attention as those with special needs.

Dr Stephen, high master of the pound;17,500-a-year St Paul's school for boys in London, told the HMC's annual conference in St Andrews this week:

"We all recognise the need for and have the highest professional regard for our special needs teachers, many of whom focus on the lowest-achieving pupils.

"Yet are not the most gifted also in their way a special need? It is simple common sense to recognise that teaching the potential undergraduates in our schools is simply an honourable specialisation.

"You need to reassure some teachers that if they join the profession they will not be asked to teach groups for whom they have no understanding."

But his comments were condemned by union leaders.

Chris Keates, acting general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "It's one of the most foolish and elitist statements I have heard for a long time."

Dr Stephen called for the expansion of grammar schools - but made the novel proposal that that all children should get the chance to attend them from 14, regardless of ability. "After that first year the child has to satisfy the academic criteria to move in to the second year," he said.

"If they fail to meet the matriculation standard? No one culls them, throws them out, puts them on the scrap heap. They can repeat the first year, any year in the grammar school, for as long as they wish."

Dr Stephen said the long-term responsibility for secondary education should be taken away from politicians and given to an independent policy commission, made up of teachers, parents, universities and employers.

Meanwhile, Michael Beloff QC, president of Trinity college, Oxford, attacked the Government for creating targets designed to increase the number of state-school undergraduates, claiming it would ruin some universities.

Last week, Oxford was among 17 institutions criticised for admitting too many independent school pupils.

Universities could be penalised if they failed to meet new quota targets.

Mr Beloff said: "Diversity as an aim makes no more sense for Oxford than it does for Arsenal: no one suggests that Arsene Wenger should pick white footballers simply because they are white."

His comments were backed by a new study, commissioned jointly by the HMC and the Girls' Schools Association, showing the type of school undergraduates went to had no bearing on degree results.

The study, by Professor Alan Smithers, from the University of Buckingham, showed gender and ethnicity had a stronger bearing on university success.

The study also found that universities rejecting candidates from independent schools to boost state school intakes could face legal action under human rights laws.

Professor Smithers' study also acknowledged that state-school pupils make more progress at university in relation to their A-level grades than their public-school peers.

* The most exclusive club in education is to break with 135 years of tradition, by appointing its first female figurehead.

Priscilla Chadwick, principal of the pound;12,000-a-year Berkhamsted Collegiate school, in Hertfordshire, becomes chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in January.

Dr Chadwick, former head of Bishop Ramsey comprehensive, was also a dean of South Bank University, London, before joining Berkhamsted.

LEADER 22; News Quiz 31

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