State pupils set to gain from private sector

Ministers hope for collaboration between LEAs and independents

Bright state school pupils may be offered places at independent schools under plans for increased collaboration to be announced by the Government next month.

The private sector has said it is keen to look at ways it can provide facilities and expertise for pupils in state schools, and wants to discuss how state funding can be made available for this.

Martin Stephen, high master of the independent Manchester Grammar School, has been in private discussions with ministers over a number of specific proposals. He believes the private sector can provide a valuable resource for the nation's education. "If there is a quality product and the price is right, you should be able to buy into it," he said.

Independent school music and ballet schemes already provide places for talented children and the forum will be looking at ways to expand the scope of activities.

Stephen Byers, school standards minister, will announce the Government's intentions to build bridges between the sectors at the Girls' Schools Association conference at the end of November, when he will name the members of a new forum to develop partnerships.

In its response to the Government's White Paper, Excellence in Schools, the Independent Schools Joint Council welcomes the language of partnership and co-operation. The sector has been hit by the Government's abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme, which provided state money for means-tested places in private schools, but concedes that that argument has now been lost.

"However, the ISJC hopes the Government will be prepared to discuss ways in which the public funding of places in the independent sector could be extended," said the submission. It suggests that the ballet and music schemes and special needs provision already offered by private schools could be extended to "parts of the mainstream academic curriculum", at no more cost to LEAs than the equivalent provision in a state school.

Independent schools say they can offer shortage subjects for sixth-formers, such as Russian and the classics. But they also believe they can provide places for academic high-flyers from state schools.

Two independent schools took part in the Government's summer literacy schools this year, the Girls' Schools Association said its members could play a part in education action zones and there is widespread support for becoming part of the National Grid for Learning and sharing information and communications technology.

John Morris, general secretary of the Incorporation of Preparatory Schools, said private schools were often better equipped with computers and design technology and could offer partnerships with nearby state schools. But he warned: "Parents of children in independent schools who pay twice for their education - in taxes and in fees - will obviously expect that their children should also benefit from the partnership. They will ask what is in it for them."

Previous attempts at collaboration between private and state education have failed because of the attitude of local authorities, according to the Independent Joint Schools Council: "Regrettably, some partnerships to which independent schools wholeheartedly committed themselves have in the past failed to make progress because local education authorities did not bring the same enthusiasm to bear upon them."

One council official was sceptical about closer links: "If both sectors get beyond the prejudice that exists, there may be a few areas of collaboration . . . But if it amounts to state schools receiving a few crumbs from the rich man's table, then so-called partnership plans will not work."

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