In 1997, Tony Blair promised to build a world-class education system. His dream was that state schooling would improve so much that the independent sector would wither on the vine. State schooling has indeed improved under Labour, and investment has been considerable. But however much the state improved and spent, the independent sector has invested and improved even more. Result? Pupil numbers in independent schools have steadily increased during the past eight years.
I think that there is a real problem with this divide. How can we have two separate education systems, when we are trying to build a harmonious nation and when all children have the right to the same quality of excellent education in and outside the classroom?
Some of the best state schools are certainly better than some independents, and the quality of teaching is often, as far as I can judge, as good or better in state schools. But the overwhelming fact is that independent schools, with their small class sizes, still massively dominate the tops of league tables, and the quality and range of extra-curricular activities on offer is far superior to that in most state schools. This cannot be right.
So what is to be done about the independentstate school problem? One idea is to let the status quo, of effectively little or no dialogue, continue.
Most favour this.
Andrew Boggis, the new chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses'
Conference, the most powerful of the independent school bodies, is no great fan of partnership. Neither are many staff in state schools. When there is so little time to prepare lessons properly, mark, and run extra-curricular activities, there is scant incentive to get out and engage in partnership activities with schools across the divide, especially when such activities can be awkward and very labour-intensive.
What else might be done? A more radical idea would be to abolish independent schools altogether. This would eliminate the problems of differential performance in one fell swoop. But it would also be arguably hugely illiberal to deny parents the choice of how they spend their money.
What right does a government have to deny parents the choice to spend their own money on their children's education? Even in communist China, some parents pay. The best solution was provided by Labour early in its first term. Money was made available for independent and state schools to collaborate on "partnership projects". This was an imaginative and valuable initiative. But it has at best just scratched the surface, and the money which has been spent in seven years is less than the annual revenue of a large independent school.
I would urge partnership activities to be dramatically extended.
Independent schools have much to learn from state schools, and I would venture that the opposite is also true. I would like to see teacher, pupil and governor exchanges. One sector is wary, the other is full of disdain.
Barriers must be broken down, and urgently. The opportunities for pupils and teachers to gain lie beyond the imagination of many. This dream must become a reality.
Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington college, where he is due to host a conference on StateIndependent School Links on March 15