The government could pay for bright children to study GCSEs at independent schools in a bid to end "educational apartheid", according to private school headteachers. A revival of government supported places for academic pupils would allow private schools to best serve their communities, said the Forum of Independent Day Schools.
The call by the group of more than 60 day schools, including many former direct-grant schools, comes as the Charity Commission told independent schools that they would need to prove their public benefit to retain tax breaks worth pound;100 million a year.
Private schools could lose their charitable status if they are found to be operating as "exclusive clubs" for the rich, the Commission said. Schools could offer more bursaries, work in partnership with the state sector and offer their facilities.
However, in a letter to The TES, the Forum of Independent Day Schools said: "Why not offer an academic stream at the start of GCSE for non-fee paying children supported by the state at the same rate it costs to educate a child in a state schools in that area? That would be real mutual co-operation."
The Charity Commission told the independent sector, which increased its fees by almost 40 per cent between 2001 and 2006, to find creative ways to include children who cannot afford places.
Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, said: "Registered charities enjoy considerable benefits in terms of their reputation and the tax advantages that go with their status. In return, they should publicly account for what they do to benefit society, including people in poverty." The general guidance includes minor changes but the thrust of holding schools to account remains. Specific guidelines for schools to follow will be released later in the year.
Marion Gibbs, headmistress at James Allen's Girls' School, a private school in Dulwich, south London, said: "We are singing from the same hymn sheet. It is not just about opening up our facilities but about children and teachers working together." The Commission said schools would be among the first charities to be assessed.
In extreme examples, schools failing to meet the test could be closed down. But the Commission said it expected most schools to pass.
A number of independent schools are raising money to increase bursaries. As revealed in The TES last week, some schools may have to cut benefits to teachers or increase class sizes in order to make savings.
Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College at Crowthorne, Berkshire, said this week that private schools had deepened class divisions and accused Labour and the Conservatives of perpetuating the "apartheid" between state and private schools.
Letters, page 26.