Can state schools learn from their independent counterparts where the grass is greener and classes are smaller?
Everyone knows prep schools have small classes and well-equipped sports halls. The teachers have plenty of non-contact time. Naturally their pupils excel in national tests (which they don't even have to sit). State primary teachers cannot hope for these luxuries in the present climate; most agree that small classes would raise standards more than any other factor.
So David Hanson is a brave man to suggest that there are still lessons the state sector could usefully learn from independent schools. But he is in a position to know. Before joining the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools as its education director a year ago, he was curriculum and assessment adviser in Wiltshire and was once president of the Association of Assessment Inspectors and Advisers.
Prep school parents "don't want entry by selection, but they want brilliant results," he says. And this is probably true of all sectors.
Mr Hanson believes in specialist teaching for top juniors. He knows that most primaries can't afford to employ subject teachers, but says they could move toward a faculty approach. Each teacher could specialise in a family of subjects - humanities and the arts, or science and technology, for instance - and junior teachers could swap for specialist lessons. "All you need is about three people," he says. Schools should assess their strengths and strive to fill the gaps, through hiring or in-service training.
"It is unreasonable to ask one person to know everything at key stage 2 to lower grade GCSE level," Mr Hanson says.
Beyond this, his advice centres on the need for more self-confidence. "Rather than justifying and defending, prep schools explain what they're doing". They have a strong corporate image and must be "client centred" or the parents will take their money elsewhere. There is also "more fun in prep schools". While they pay due regard to the national curriculum, they do it voluntarily. Having a choice makes a difference, he says. "State teachers are so battle- weary".
The cure? "Getting back to what they really believe in".