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Prep schools see rosy future ahead

Independent heads told to expect an influx as state schools retreat to teaching the basics. Biddy Passmore reports.

Prep schools could well see an unprecedented growth in numbers over the next decade as state primaries retreat back to basics, independent heads were told last week.

Parents would seek out schools providing a broader education rather than those which provided "elementary training", said David Hanson, director of education of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools. The subjects that would lose out as a result of making the national curriculum optional in primary schools - the arts, the humanities, sport - might well provide the skills essential to living in the 21st century.

He was speaking at a conference hosted by Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Brighton College and John Major's biographer, on the future of independent education under a Labour government. His optimistic contribution was typical of the day's mood: most of the 130 prep and public school heads who had assembled in Brighton felt the future was rather rosy. (Rosier, suggested Dr Seldon mischievously, than it would have been if the Tories had won the last election and increased the competition from state schools.) Old Labour's threat to abolish independent schools altogether was lifted some time ago, as part of the transformation into New Labour. The threat to abolish the Assisted Places Scheme is being carried out, but in a gradual way that is giving many independent schools the chance to set up their own schemes. And the threat to the schools' charitable status (and soaring fees) seems to have retreated.

Now, education ministers talk only of partnership between the two sectors. An advisory group on partnerships between state and independent schools has been set up under the chairmanship of Chris Parker, head of Nottingham High School.

Every state and independent school is currently being invited to bid for funds from a Pounds 500,000 partnership fund intended to pump-prime local projects. But, as Michael Phipps, the senior Government official for independent schools, reassured the conference, partnership will not be imposed on independent schools.

* Independent schools should not become exam factories, said James Sabben-Clare, headmaster of Winchester College. He said that the key role of independent schools might be to maintain the breadth of education that was one of their strongest traditions and made a plea to other heads not to allow their schools to become "wholly exam-driven".

"Pupils at secondary level really do not need rafts and rafts of GCSEs, " he said. "And it is wrong to think that fewer periods per A-level will mean poorer results and a plunge down the league tables." He urged them to have the courage to allocate time to non-examinedsubjects.

He said independent schools should be "better and different" to justify their fees. "Just performing well at A-level is not the best we can do for pupils in terms of gaining access to the best universities and jobs. What makes pupils better is what we do in addition to exams," he said.

But some members of his audience felt this advice was hard to follow in schools that did not have Winchester's established reputation for academic excellence: those "working in a marketplace dominated by ... exam results", in the words of Michael Parker, head of Abingdon School.

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