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Private schools set to woo brightest state pupils

Independents seek to offer places to the cleverest 14-year-olds as they respond to the Charities Bill

PRIVATE SCHOOLS could form federations with state schools and offer places to their brightest 14-year-olds, the chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference has said.

Nigel Richardson has urged the Government to be bold in its plans for school partnerships and consider using independent schools to select and develop the most academic pupils at GCSE. "If you breathe the word selection, you meet hostility, but we need an open debate selection for key stage 4," he said. "We know there is a lot of selection at 16 and universities select at 18. I would not want to go back to the 11-plus, but federations with the independent sector could play a part for 14-year-olds.

"We need to get a genuine debate going about appropriate modes of selection. The one-hit exam is something a lot of people have reservations about. We need a way that gives pupils a second chance when they are 15."

Mr Richardson and Pat Langham, president of the Girls' Schools Association, are both urging greater co-operation between independent and state schools.

Their organisations represent the leading private schools and have have been in discussions with the Department for Education and Skills about how to engage with trusts, specialist schools and academies.

Ms Langham said private schools had expertise in governance and management which could be useful to state schools gaining greater independence from local authorities.

The Government has encouraged closer links between sectors and welcomed independent schools as academy sponsors. But Ms Langham, headmistress at the pound;8,300-a-year Wakefield Girls' high, said partnership had to be a two-way process.

"It is not about the independent sector coming to the rescue of the beleaguered state school system," she said. "It is not about crumbs from a rich man's table or access to playing fields. To see it so simply is patronising and completely misguided. It is about working together and sharing whatever experience we have to benefit all children in our care."

Mr Richardson and Ms Langham said they would also be encouraging their members to do more to widen access for pupils from less advantaged backgrounds.

While both acknowledged that extending this to all pupils was a long-term goal, they said schools were committed to more means-tested bursaries.

Mr Richardson, headmaster at the pound;11,000-a-year Perse school in Cambridge, conceded that this was partly a response to the Charities Bill, which requires independent schools to prove their public benefit in order to maintain their charitable status.

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