An American woman once said that top independent schools provided such polish that you had to be married to an Englishman for at least 10 years before you realised he was rather dim. Although public-school teachers would arch several eyebrows at such cliches, it is undeniable that most succeed in equipping their pupils with more than an excellent education. Polish, confidence, self-belief - whatever it's called, the Government thinks state pupils could do with some of it and wants the independent sector's help to spread it around, principally by sponsoring academies (pages 30-35).
What they have, sceptics retort, is money. It's easy to provide a well- rounded education if you charge pound;20,000 fees, luxuriate in class sizes so small they're almost seminars and select pupils. Delivering an excellent education to some of the damaged, dejected and undisciplined children state schools have to teach daily is simply beyond the independent sector's ken. They couldn't hack it. After all, plenty of maintained teachers flee to the less challenging terrain of public schools, but relatively few beat a path in the opposite direction.
Scepticism isn't confined to the maintained sector. Only a small number of independent schools have picked up the Government's gauntlet and sponsored an academy. Some resent the arm-twisting. Complying with central direction goes against the grain. Others prefer less grand forms of co-operation, or simply do not want to take the risk. Most independent schools don't have unlimited resources and all realise that if an academy venture goes wrong, their good name will suffer. To be crass, how do you persuade parents and governors to invest in an undertaking that may benefit the underprivileged but which doesn't obviously help existing pupils and which could be a costly public relations disaster?
Even if independent schools did manage to square the governors and tap into their noblesse oblige, most thoughtful heads realise that one cannot simply take an Eton or a Rugby, plonk it down in Hackney or Moss Side and expect it to work. It isn't just a question of importing fancy mottos, tailored uniforms and a house system. Some feel there is a level of expectation, a contract between school and pupils rooted in the sacrifices that most parents have to make to pay fees, which would be difficult to replicate. Others frankly admit that they do not have the pastoral expertise of their colleagues in the maintained sector and do not wish to patronise them with a model of education that is inappropriate. A few, indeed, would be appalled at the illiberality some highly disciplined state schools feel is necessary for pupils who lack structure at home.
On the face of it, the two sectors make an unlikely couple. But as any romantic can attest, obstacles can cement a great partnership as well as frustrate it. And it isn't just a question of overcoming difficulties. There are compelling reasons why the two should get together. Sponsored academies would not only enable independent schools to fulfil the social responsibility that comes with privilege, but they could also learn something from the maintained sector, particularly when it comes to staff development and community engagement. Nor should state schools be too sniffy. They could learn a lot about nurturing the soft skills for which independents are renowned. No school has a monopoly on educational wisdom and neither sector can afford to stop learning. It would be a tad ironic, given their function, if they did.