A passion for the big ideas

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Other public-school heads may disagree with Anthony Seldon, but his arguments for closer state-private links are increasingly hard to ignore. Biddy Passmore reports

AMONG the tall men with loud voices who head leading public schools, Anthony Seldon cuts an unusual figure. Slight, pale and dapper, he has a precise, donnish manner and a don's mischievous wit.

Dr Seldon has been head of the co-educational, day and boarding Brighton College since 1997. During that time, he has pulled the school out of a financial crisis, written and edited a series of political books (including the authorised biography of John Major - he is now working on Tony Blair) and published pamphlets on the future of the Tory party and the state-independent divide in education.

This week he organised the latest in a stimulating series of conferences on the education circuit, an activity he started when deputy head at his previous school, St Dunstan's in south-east London.

It attracted not only David Bell, the chief inspector, but also Corelli Barnett, the historian, and Ron McLone, chief of the OCR exam board. Last year, he secured rising ministerial star David Miliband.

The only mystery is when Dr Seldon sleeps. Colleagues confirm he does not turn to his writing until the evening hours. He may ring contacts or co-authors with a bright idea well into the night.

The view of him within the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference lies "somewhere between bewilderment and frank envy", according to one insider.

But some heads can be acid.

Many mock the suggestion that the gap between funding of state and private education could be bridged by charging middle-class parents to send their children to state schools (mooted by Dr Seldon in a pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation in 2001).

Nor do many independent heads welcome the proposal that they should be forced to work with local state schools or lose their charitable status.

(This in a pamphlet Dr Seldon wrote last year with Antony Edkins, head of Falmer high, a deprived state school with which the pound;11,000-a-year Brighton College is running a partnership scheme).

But, whatever the merits of his proposals, there is respect for Dr Seldon's energy and his passionate commitment to bridging the gulf between the two sectors of education.

The son of Arthur Seldon, free-market economist and former guiding light of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Dr Seldon's own political position lies "in the space where John Major and Tony Blair overlap," according to one analyst.

His wife Joanna, also Dr Seldon, teaches English at Brighton College, and their three children are pupils at the school.

"A rising star," says the Good Schools Guide. Could he be the man to step into the breach at Winchester College?

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