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Power behind private money

THE Conservative response to the replacement for the Assisted Places Scheme suggested this week by the independent schools is predictable enough (page 9). But the reaction of meritocratic Blairites, committed to closer co-operation between state and independent sectors, to "third way" blurring of public and private distinctions and greater diversity, may not be so certain.

True, the recent Green Paper raised the improve-or-else spectre of an expanded independent sector threatening social cohesion, equality and the willingness of taxpayers to continue funding public education.

But raising standards in comprehensives may not be enough to keep aspiring parents on board, particularly if competition drives fees down. Private schooling is growing fastest for the primary age group where basic standards in maintained schools have improved. Increasing affluence means more can afford it and find the extra-curricular attractions and longer school day better fits their lifestyle. It also guarantees a nicer class of friends.

Social exclusivity also lies behind the popularityof many church schools, whose expansion Labour is backing. Independent schools apparently want to broaden their intakes. But how much? Assisted places were widely accused of assisting distressed gentlefolk and those with unscrupulous accountants. The new Independent Schools Council scheme is open to all abilities. So just how will it identify the new deserving poor?

David Blunkett supports the tradition of independents providing services where maintained schools cannot, such as special needs and boarding. But whether that tradition is to include good academic teaching for the gifted poor in schools unable to attract specialist staff will be a matter for the next Education Secretary. Or will it?

It was Gordon Brown who led Labour's attack on elitism in the Laura Spence affair. Scots such as Mr Brown retain a strong commitment to equal opportunity through common schooling. It is the Chancellor who would have to sanction any shifts of public money to private schooling - and who may decide whether to sustain the exclusivity of the English public school system.

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