Be sensible about better standards

26th December 1997 at 00:00
An interesting question recently arises for state-independent school relations north of the border. Will Scotland follow yet another volte-face recently indicated by the Prime Minister - greater cross-sectoral co-operation with independent schools instead of aggressive noises about stripping charitable status? Or are we Scots condemned to stravaig endlessly in the dreary scrublands of atavistic and anti-elitist thinking?

English Labour continues not only to carry forward the policies of the previous government, but surprisingly to build enthusiastically on them. Two current examples of this trend: David Blunkett's intention to expand the Conservative policy of specialist schools; and his junior Stephen Byers's wish to "bury old prejudices" with the announcement of Pounds 500,000 funding to develop and promote state-public school partnerships.

Do we scent a gesture? A sop to sense following the sad abolition of assisted places. Or the thin edge of a new Government policy which recognises it is not logical to fly the flag of high standards while at the same time harrying or marginalising those very institutions which demonstrate both high standards and considerable reserves of expertise?

The ideologically motivated scrapping of the assisted places scheme, incidentally one of the few sops to the left which didn't actually cost, was a dispiriting day for poorer parents, just as was the attack on the grant-maintained schools of an earlier generation. Pretending to parents that abolishing assisted places could be anything more than a drop in the ocean of class-size reduction (one more teacher for every eight schools) was shameless electoral hypocrisy. Next year it will be plain that the Government has actually reversed opportunity for the lass or lad o'pairts currently at the kind of Scottish school whose legacy to its pupils continues to be low expectations.

In Scotland, where 30,000 children are in the independent sector, survey after survey has shown that Labour voters would dearly love their children to have opportunity and choice. Labour voters were indeed highly represented among families whose children took assisted places. Independent schools are here to stay in Scotland, too: the legislation governing charitable status is not a devolved matter. They have traditionally put a high value on social mix, and the number one priority is currently the search to raise compensatory scholarships and bursaries, though these sadly will represent but a cupful in the previous pond.

The two sides have much to offer each other, and in order to recognise these bridges are needed. Co-operation is likely to take a less visible and perhaps highly local form in Scotland. The Education Minister is unlikely to make a national statement on partnership, and highly unlikely to produce upfront cash. At the same time there will, I suggest, be quiet attempts to moderate attitudes at council and school levels, and some small project funding.

For example, the Scottish Office-funded partnership project that brought together 10 pupils from George Watson's and 10 from Castlebrae to organise a successful anti-drugs conference is a case in point, and deserves to be studied. These young people may later meet in universities, colleges or the workplace: what about a bit of social inclusion in schooldays?

There is a need for independent schools to be seen by Scottish councils as part of the pattern of overall educational resource available in their area. Edinburgh, for example, is becoming a highly cosmopolitan city, attractive to incomers. Its council could demonstrate a degree of vision and set a Scottish lead in showing pride in partnership for all its schools, while celebrating their diversity.

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