Independent excellenceat a state school price

5th September 1997 at 01:00
It is time for the Labour Government to work with - not against - private-sector schools, Martin Stephen writes

The new Government has largely ignored the independent sector, save for the sacrificial lamb of the Assisted Places Scheme. This is both a good and a bad thing. It is a good thing that the Labour party no longer feels that simply by abolishing Eton it will solve the educational problems of the United Kingdom. It is a bad thing, because the independent sector has what the new Government genuinely craves for in education - success.

A Conservative government with Kenneth Baker holding the reins looked at that success, and then transferred some of the least important things in it over to the maintained sector. A sensible government - and this Government has shown every sign of being sensible - might look further.

The new Government has two proposals from my school on the table before it , and one jointly from my school and The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle. All three proposals accept the fact that no Labour government can as yet overcome its objections to selection on the basis of academic ability at the age of 11.

The first is a prototype scheme whereby The Manchester Grammar School would make available its expertise in preparing pupils for entry to Oxford and Cambridge to a far wider section of the community than at present. Such schemes cost money. No independent school living in the real world can afford to offer free of charge what it is asking its parents to pay for. Access to this scheme would be means-tested.

Funding has been promised by a leading educational charity, and by two leading colleges at Cambridge and two leading colleges at Oxford. Thus those on this scheme would be paid for, just as the school's regular pupils are paid for; it is merely that the payment would not come from their parents. The scheme has been agreed by the providers, by the recipients and by the funders. All it needs is the support of the Government.

The second scheme proposes to make use of a triple fact. All sixth-form colleges select on the basis of ability for A-level courses. No institution with a sensible pastoral system can afford to do less. The cost of a place in a maintained sixth-form college is not less than Pounds 3,600 a year for a pupil on a three A-level course.

Many independent schools have long records of excellence in scarcity or minority subjects, subjects which often are proven to be uneconomic at maintained sixth-form colleges. In The Manchester Grammar School's case, we have nourished a Russian department for many years, with one of the best records of any school in Russian at A-level. Our Classics department is very strong, even by the standards of independent schools. We have other areas of proven excellence in subjects for which the popular demand is limited: further mathematics and politics are only two examples. These are scarcity or minority subjects.

The numbers involved would not overload our sixth form, nor rob the maintained sector of hundreds of star pupils. If the Government is prepared to send us suitable candidates in these subjects, we will charge them the Pounds 3, 600 it costs the State to educate them in the maintained sector, and make up the shortfall ourselves.

Surely it makes sense to send sixth-form pupils to a proven centre of excellence at no extra cost, for subjects which otherwise they might not be able to study?

The third proposal is based on two overriding national concerns - the increased cost of university education to both parents and to the universities, and the increasing shortage of top graduate scientists. In conjunction with The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, we are proposing a pilot scheme whereby four or five leading universities develop a four-year MSc course aimed unashamedly at high-flyers.

Five leading independent schools would thereafter agree to teach the first year of this course alongside their A-level teaching. The universities would validate and assess the course. The schools would in the main deliver it, from their many university-qualified and PhD teachers, but have access to some of the splendid kit that universities have and which schools merely ogle at, and occasional visits from university lecturers.

James Miller, the head of The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, is confident that funding for such a scheme could be obtained from charities, from Europe and from the end-user of so many science graduates - industry.

It is central to the scheme that access to it should be for all pupils, not merely those whose parents can afford independent school fees. The advantage to the universities is that they identify early on a potential range of high-grade scientists, and give them the cost of only three years full-time university education for their MSc. They also filter out, through a course which would unashamedly have its failures as well as its successes, those whose university career might otherwise be an anti-climax.

The advantage for the schools is that they offer at long last to their frequently over-qualified staff (and sometimes even bored-with-A-level-staff) the challenge of first-year university teaching. A huge benefit to schools is the chance that such a scheme would offer to recruit back into teaching many of the well-qualified scientists who have deserted it in recent years. Negotiations between the independent schools and the universities involved in the initiative are proceeding apace.

Here again, all that is needed is the go-ahead from the Government. Once that was in place, there is no reason why high-achieving sixth-form colleges and schools in the maintained sector could not join the initiative.

These are only three ideas for fruitful joint ventures between the Government and the independent sector. There must be many more out there waiting to be activated. All three have at their heart the welfare of pupils and the maximisation of opportunity, surely one of those rare things on which all people and all parties can unite. The independent sector continues to exist because it meets the needs of parents and of their children. Is it not time that the Government co-operated with that success?

Martin Stephen is High Master of the independent Manchester Grammar School

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