Divided we fail

18th December 1998 at 00:00
Can independent schools help in the battle to raise achievement?

Or would closer ties simply harm their state counterparts by creaming off the pupils most likely to succeed? Stephen Pollard and Bethan Marshall put the case for and against partnership, in the first of three special TES debates on school choice

HOW ABOUT this for the most stupid comment on education in quite a while:

"The class system has never recovered from Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944, and its condition is now terminal". So says Tony Blair's mentor, Eric Anderson, former Headmaster off Eton and Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford.

It's difficult to imagine anything further from the truth. One in five seven- year-olds in London state schools score zero in reading tests. The best state schools in deprived areas achieve GCSE scores which are just a third of those in more advantaged areas. And worse still, the quality divide between state and private schools is stronger than at any other time since 1945. Effectively today, money buys a good education, and the absence of it denies one. Whatever differences Bethan Marshall and myself may have - and they are substantial - about our approach to independent schools, we both start from the same point. The educational apartheid which infects Britain like no other country is deeply damaging.

But that, I'm afraid, is where we part company. When I see something that works, my approach is not to ask how best to destroy it, but to see how to inculcate its success elsewhere. And that is certainly true with regard to private schools.

Let's first dispose of the idea that private schools don't work; that somehow they trick stupid middle class parents into forking out large sums when they have already paid for a perfectly decent state education.

So that's why in every league table - in every construction of every league table, and in every conceivable objective analysis - they consistently outperform their state equivalents, is it? Sure, not all state schools are bad, and not all private ones good. But as George Walden puts it: "In our culture of evasion we cling to the exceptions for dear life, and treat them as not proving the rule, but as casting doubt on it. The statement that the grass is green could be equally well contested on the grounds that we have all seen yellow or brown patches."

Then there's the other red herring - that by focusing on a sector which educates "only" 7 per cent of pupils we ignore the "real issues" in education. Behind that "only 7 per cent" lies the fact that almost the entire upper professional and managerial class - however its members were themselves educated - have decamped from state to private schools. The 1991 census identified 740,000 school-aged children from such parents, who can be set alongside the 610,000 children at private schools. Not all of the first group are at private school, and not all of the latter are British. But it is clear that the overwhelming majority who can afford to leave the state system do so. Even more importantly, this is not one class replicating its advantages through its children: the most extensive survey of parents, conducted in 1993 by Mori, showed that a majority of private school parents had not been educated in the private sector.

Then there's the idea that private schools can only do it because they are so richly funded. The recent report by Dr John Marks, director of the Education Research Centre, should put the lie to that red herring. Using figures from the Audit Commission made available for the first time, Marks shows how much money is wasted. Islington, Lambeth and Southwark spend Pounds 3,000 a year per pupil and manage to get five good GCSE passes for a scandalous 22 per cent of their pupils. The average teaching cost per pupil in the independent sector, however, was Pounds 3,129 in the academic year 1996-97.

So what do we do about this? Proposals to restrict the use of charitable status and impose VAT on school fees miss the point. In a country where there are too few good schools; what sort of fool sets out to destroy those that work because they don't like the social class of the pupils?

What we should be doing is finding ways of bringing private and state sectors together. One of the most damaging pieces of educational reform this century was the abolition of Direct Grant Schools, which provided a bridge between the two sectors. The re-introduction of such a scheme should be back on the agenda.

But what we really need is something that preserves the spirit and independence of the private sector but opens it up to anyone, regardless of wealth. And that can only mean the voucher.

Stephen Pollard is a columnist at The Express and a co-author of A Class Act: the myth of Britain's classless society Next week: religious schools 14 Christmas Debate Independent schooling TESJdecember 18 1998 ANTI: marshall 'I wish to see able and academic children thrive in school, but I do not wish them to do it at the expense of everyone else' 'In a country where there are too few good schools, what fool sets out to destroy those that work because they don't like the pupils' social class?' Next week: religious schools pro: Pollard

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