Byers makes peace with independents

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Fourteen years after Labour pledged to close independent schools, it has + announced the end of "educational apartheid" and a new partnership with the + private sector. School standards minister Stephen Byers declared an end to + "dogma and prejudice" as he promised #163;500,000 for pilot initiatives which + will open up private schools' facilities and teaching to state pupils. + Jacqueline Lang, president of the Girls' Schools Association at whose annual + conference Mr Byers made his announcement, called it an historic moment and + said that Labour had met the independent sector "more than half way" in laying + out the terms by which the two could work together. But almost all the demands + she set out in her presidential address in Bristol were agreed by Mr Byers in + his speech moments later. Only the size of the pot set aside provoked less than+ total enthusiasm. Mr Byers - the first Labour minister ever to address an + independent schools conference - laid out his "golden rules" for co-operation: + no dilution of the "high standards" in private schools (needed as beacons of + excellence, Mrs Lang had said); and no compulsion. He also told an audience + still smarting from the end of the Assisted Places Scheme that the Government + would honour existing awards - grants would rise in line with fees until pupils+ left school. And he alleviated their other key fear - the ending of charitable+ status. It was "not part of the Government's agenda", he said. Dick Davison of+ the Independent Schools Information Service said afterwards that the pledge + that standards would not be diluted was a major point of principle that would + reassure parents who were paying fees for those standards. Mr Byers claimed + Labour's manifesto commitment to abolish private education was one reason it + was not elected in 1983 - while its emphasis on partnership helped win its + massive majority this year. Mrs Lang's one note of caution was that it would + be hard to overcome the antipathy between the sectors that existed in some + areas - although elsewhere many schemes were already working successfully. Half+ the pilot cash comes from businessman Peter Lampl who this year funded a + summer school at Oxford University for state sixth-formers. Mr Byers said other+ businesses were keen to contribute. Schools will be invited to submit bids for+ joint schemes with winning tenders announced in March. Possibilities include + using private schools to run Oxbridge coaching, teach specialist A-levels like + Latin, or host summer literacy schools. Mr Byers also announced an advisory + panel of private and state heads and one local authority chief officer to look + at successful schemes and suggest ways of make the partnership work in + practice. * Over-protective parents who cocoon their children from danger risk+ creating a generation of "soft" adults unable to deal with the challenges of + the real world, Mrs Lang warned in her presidential speech. Tragedies such as + Dunblane and press reports of child abuse had left them terrified of letting + their children out of their sight. Some pupils did not even have coats because + they were always ferried by car. But the dangers were greatly exaggerated, Mrs + Lang believed. "We have children who never catch a bus, never have to wait at a+ wet bus stop, never have to buy a ticket, never have the fun of sitting on top+ of a double decker in London. They're not learning to be independent," she + said. "My old Tyneside grandmother would call them 'nesh' - soft.''

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