Editorial - Forget the class warfare and the guilt

29th January 2010 at 00:00
Troubled relationship between state and independent sectors rests on false assumptions

For the headmaster of Harrow to pontificate on the appropriate subjects to teach poor children is as sensitive as Marie Antoinette upbraiding Mr Kipling for his limited range of cakes (page 3; letters 40-41). Barnaby Lenon made a perfectly reasonable point - state school students should not be short-changed with qualifications that equip them for little. But is it wise for a headteacher who does not have to dish out many free school meals to make it? Those schools where the gangs don't wear boaters and where the probation officer visits more frequently than the parents would surely appreciate Mr Lenon's spend per pupil as well as his advice.

Clearly, discretion at Harrow comes a poor second to valour. But Mr Lenon's foray raises some interesting questions. What relationship should the independent sector have with the maintained and can it be conducted without guilt or resentment and from places other than the pulpit or the trench?

Unfortunately, the well-intentioned comments from the headmaster of Eton (page 3) imply that the health of the private sector depends entirely on the weakness of state schools. That over-simplifies the situation and sets up an automatic and false confrontation. Whatever parents' motivations when they decide to opt out of the state system, it is unarguable that they have the right within the law to educate their children as they see fit. Their choice may or may not be a reflection of their opinion of the local school; it may or may not meet with general approval. But to deny parents a choice they are willing to pay for over and above what they pay in taxes would be North Korean.

As far as the local school is concerned, the reason for that choice is - or should be - irrelevant. Unlike state grammar or other taxpayer-funded selective institutions, independent schools do not compete for government money or in many places for pupils from distinct catchment areas. They are not the competition. In which case, state schools should shelve any lingering resentment and work with independent schools where co-operation is offered. If the Charity Commission were a little less up-tight and a little more imaginative, that co-operation could and should blossom.

For their part, public schools should stop feeling guilty and stop apologising for what they are. They may not have ended up as King Henry VI intended, but then he was hardly a role model. That does not mean they should forget the oblige that goes with the noblesse. Privilege entails responsibilities, but those responsibilities should be based on a sense of duty and self interest rather than guilt.

It is easy for misunderstanding and disdain to flow in both directions. They do nobody any good. State schools, after all, have much to teach independent ones. They are far more representative of the society all pupils will one day work in and they are, generally, far less prescriptive. The path to happiness and success, Mr Lenon may be surprised to learn, does not necessarily start with a route march through the pages of Caesar's Gallic Wars.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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