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'Pay' city independent schools to help

Senior pupils in urban areas should go private, says a former ILEA chief. Geraldine Hackett reports

Independent schools could be paid by the state to help raise standards in the major cities as part of a draft proposal from a former director of the Institute of Education in London.

Secondary schools would be restructured with the best performers - independents, grammars and the top comprehensives - taking pupils at 14. The rest would become 11-14 schools. The post-14 schools would be released from the requirements of the national curriculum.

These radical measures, aimed at stimulating debate on the role of the private sector, have been suggested by Sir Peter Newsam, who is also a former chief education officer in London.

The scheme would require the state to pay for 50,000 places in independent schools at an annual cost that might reach Pounds 200 million.

According to Sir Peter's analysis, the reality in the larger cities is that as many as two-thirds of school pupils taking two or more A-levels are already in either independent or grammars. Without major change in the structure of education, he argues, the worst-performing urban schools have no prospect of catching up with the best.

"There are areas where rich and poor live side by side, where the secondary schools children attend are sharply different in status, in what they achieve and in what future they offer to those attending them," he says.

The paper argues that the gap between selective schools and the rest is so great that the schools with poor results cannot catch up.

However, Sir Peter accepts that some existing secondary schools would have to come to terms with losing their exam courses. There would also have to be investment in training to ensure such schools were able to attract pupils displaced from independent schools that had become 14-plus institutions.

He says: "It would certainly not be easy, but the rewards for making the effort . . . make the attempt worthwhile."

The further problem is that the scheme could cost Pounds 100-Pounds 200m, depending on the extent to which former fee-payers shift into the state sector. (The last Government's scheme paying for bright children from low-income families cost around Pounds 100m.) There would be savings if the displaced fee-payers opted for other independent schools. But, Sir Peter would prefer a system that inspired their confidence.

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