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Paying is the only way to go

Means-testing parents for education fees would bring state schools back from the brink, says Anthony Seldon

There is no bigger priority for the next government than to address the quality of our nation's education. There is no bigger problem than the gap between state and independent education. Despite improvements in state education since 1997, particularly in the primary sector, the gulf between state and independent has never been wider.

The state sector languished for years until the 1990s. As fast as it has since improved, the independent sector has improved more quickly. In relative terms it has declined, and will continue to do so over the next few years unless urgent action is taken.

The Government's Green Paper on education contains many excellent ideas, but much of it will remain pie in the sky unless it starts to address the issues about why the state sector's performance has been so unsatisfactory.

The quality of political leadership in education has been poor since the Second World War. There have been too many changes in direction, too many ill-thought-out initiatives, too much interference and far too much paperwork.

Teachers often work extraordinarily hard and with great skill but their effectiveness is restricted by factors beyond their control. Heads have been given insufficient autonomy to run their own schools. But the biggest problem has been the lack of cash.

The Government plans to increase spending in its second term. But the figures it quotes are insignificant compared to the size of the task. Very roughly, the state spends pound;3,000 per pupil, per year in secondary schools.

The average expenditure in independent schools is well over pound;6,000 per year. This extra money buys more teachers and pays them better. It purchases more equipment, better facilities and more educational opportunities.

The broad education that children receive in independent schools should be the entitlement of every child in Britain.

Children in independent schools rarely find themselves in classes of more than 20, they are offered rich sporting, artistic and spiritual opportunities, they enjoy excellent facilities in which to learn and develop in a supportive and nurturing environment, with generous proportions of adult carers.

Such an education couldindeed be possible for all within 10 years if the Government was to follow the following steps which I propose in a new pamphlet.

Lack of funding is the greatest limiter on state education. Yet the cash can be produced - without politically unpopular increases in taxes - by means-testing all parents, phased in over a number of years and initially just applying to secondary schools. The principle of paying for education has already been breached at higher education, and can now be extended downwards.

In years to come it will seem incredible that this ready source of funding was not tapped earlier. Only those parents who can afford it will make contributions. Once many parents start to pay, the quality of involvement between home and school will be enhanced.

The extra money raised will be injected into state schools for both current and capital expenditure. Deprived schools, with the least social capital, will receive the most money. Parental contributions will also be less in such schools, and will be highest in popular schools in leafy suburbs. This mechanism will give an in-built adjustment mechanism, balancing popular and unpopular schools.

Within 10 years, I want to see per-capita spending on existing state schools at the same levels as for independent schools.

The pamphlet also argues for a maximum class size of 20, limitations on the overall size of primary and secondary schools, far richer opportunities for physical, aesthetic and spiritual education, and a greater willingness to learn from the independent sector.

The role for local government in education will virtually disappear and all schools will become autonomous and independent within a framework of standards.

The divide between current independent and state schools will blur. Most current independent school parents do not, in fact, want to pay for their children's education and will cease to do so once the existing state sector improves under these initiatives. It will also end the disgrace of affluent parents moving home and bending the system to secure places for their children in popular state schools.

Anthony Seldon's pamphlet 'Public and Private in Education : The Divide Must End' will be published by the Social Market Foundation in May. He is headmaster of Brighton College

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