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Partnerships will reduce schools chasm

The lack of dialogue and real relationship between the independent and state sectors is the biggest wasted opportunity currently in the British education system. The potential for learning and sharing is vast. Yet both sectors barely relate or talk to each other. Instead, they eye each other with wariness and even disdain. 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 invested, the independent sector has invested and improved more. Result? Numbers in independent schools have steadily increased over the last 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 still massively dominate the tops of league tables, and the quality and range of extra curricular activities on offer, and class sizes, is massively superior to what happens 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 HMC, the most powerful of the independent school bodies, is no great fan of partnership. Neither are many 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 a choice of how they should spend their money. What right has a government got 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 currently wary, the other is full of disdain. Barriers must be broken down and urgently.

The opportunities for children and teachers to gain lie beyond the imagination of many. This dream must become a reality.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington college, Berkshire, where he will be hosting a conference on StateIndependent School Links, on March 15

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