No easy way to fix the fault line in our system

I feel deeply ambivalent about private education. Whenever I am in an independent school, which is quite often, I am invariably impressed by the commitment to high quality all-round education, the confident relaxed air, and the excellent facilities. The examination results are streets ahead of their state school counterparts.

Yet, I cannot help thinking with George Walden that it is wrong to have two quite separate systems of education, one for the rich and powerful, and the other for the rest of us. Sharply polarised education leads inevitably to a divided society. If we wanted to move towards a first-class education system for everyone, not just those who can afford it, what could we do?

Neither of the main political parties seems to have a coherent policy. For all his talk of one nation and a classless society, John Major's main contribution towards unifying education has been to expand the Assisted Places Scheme which was brought in as something of a stop gap in 1979 to enable bright young people from lower-income backgrounds to go to independent schools. In fact, a recent MORI poll commissioned by the Independent Schools Information Service shows that much of the support, and an increasing proportion, has been going to the higher socio-economic groups.

But neither is Labour's record good. Paradoxically, it has done more to strengthen the independent sector than the Conservatives. First, the abolition of most grammar schools tempted more parents with the money to go independent. Even more bizarrely, by forcing direct-grant schools to choose in 1975 between becoming fully independent or going comprehensive, it added, at a stroke, 120 of the top schools to the sector. New Labour seems just as ambivalent as I am. It began by talking tough. At various times it has suggested withdrawing charitable status and removing the VAT exemption, which would have caused serious damage. But under Tony Blair, himself educated at a public school, it has rowed back to content itself with phasing out Assisted Places, which will sharpen the divide.

In so far as there is a Labour policy towards bringing education together, it seems to be that by improving state schools to the point where parents no longer feel they need to pay for private education the independent sector will gradually wither away. It is true that significant reforms have been carried out in the state system under the Conservatives, with financial delegation, a national curriculum, tests and inspections. And it could be that if the schools were funded properly and allowed to get on with it there would be some convergence.

But at present the gap is huge. In 1995, double the proportion of pupils in independent schools obtained five GCSEs at grades A-C - 85.9 against 42. 9 per cent. At A-level the average points score per candidate was 22.1 compared with 15.7. It costs, however, anything between 60 and 300 per cent more per secondary pupil.

We should not forget that our state education system came into being about 120 years ago not as a root-and-branch reform but as a bolt-on to the already powerful and well-established private schools, and it retains that bolt-on quality. Short of the revolutionary ideal of doing away with independent education altogether, and it is ludicrous to think of sending in the police to arrest anyone organising education for payment, it is going to be an uphill struggle to achieve any kind of parity.

George Walden's favoured solution is to try to re-invent the direct-grant schools by allowing independent schools to opt in to a half-way house between the private and state. In return for opening their doors to all showing the necessary ability and aptitude, regardless of income or social status, they would receive public money channelled partly through Assisted Places.

A number of the former direct-grant schools including Manchester Grammar and King Edward VI School for Boys, Birmingham, have expressed an interest. Walden argues that a voluntary democratisation of this kind would have considerable impact. By becoming even better than they are now, through drawing on the most talented, they could create a domino effect which would result eventually in privileged people no longer being able to gain access to the best schools through wealth, influence and social position alone.

So far neither party has offered Walden much support. When he asked a parliamentary question of the Prime Minister he was so wilfully misunderstood that it amounted to a snub. A letter to Tony Blair received more sympathetic treatment. However, since the proposal depends both on increased selection and Assisted Places, and it implies greater selection in the state system, it is difficult to see even new Labour taking it up.

Independent schools have gone from strength to strength in recent years. From 7.9 per cent of 11 to 19-year-olds in schools in England in 1978, they now take 9.4 per cent. They have shown remarkable resilience in the face of a succession of economic recessions and social changes. Although there may be short-term pain for some schools, most are likely to be able to brush aside the loss of Assisted Places, and on present Conservative and Labour policies will probably go on much as before, continuing to be on one side of a societal fault-line.

George Walden's proposal has hardly set the education world alight. The centres of excellence idea suggested by Dr Martin Stephen, Manchester Grammar's High Master, perhaps has more mileage. Bringing independendent and state schools closer together is an education reform waiting to happen.

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University.

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