FIFTEEN years after a Labour manifesto promised to abolish independent schools, a Labour minister spoke to heads of Britain's leading public schools and announced a Pounds 1 million grant to promote links between the state and independent sectors.
Speaking at the annual gathering of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses Conference in Jersey - the first Labour minister to do so - Estelle Morris, school standards minister, said the new partnership would run for two years from next April. It builds on the Pounds 600,000 already announced for pilot projects that now involve 130 schools and 11,000 pupils.
Ms Morris confirmed that she had been holding talks with the millionaire philanthropist Peter Lampl, who contributed Pounds 250,000 to the Pounds 600,000 pilot fund. But she said the Government would not financially support his plan to open up the best independent schools to bright pupils from any background, paying their fees according to need. Mr Lampl is discussing a Pounds 40m scheme with three independent schools.
Independent schools might have special expertise they could share with state schools on the education of boys, Patrick Tobin, the conference chairman, said. "The interests of boys demand our imaginative and urgent professional attention," he said.
Member schools were meeting the challenge of "coaxing with care and conviction the very best out of our boys" and might share their expertise - to mutual advantage - with colleagues in the maintained sector.
He made it clear he was not thinking of boys in the most selective schools where everybody did well, but of "the boy of only average ability, likely to lack confidence (especially if he has an averagely competent elder sister) and slow to achieve the success which leads to other successes".
But Mr Tobin, principal of two single-sex schools in Edinburgh - Stewart's Melville College and Mary Erskine School - stopped short of proposing single-sex education as the panacea; although more than two-thirds of the pupils in member schools are boys, only 59 out of its 242 members are boys-only. Most are co-educational or educate girls at sixth-form level.
He also encouraged public schools to make the best of the "tentative fudge" of AS levels to introduce a broader, three-year sixth-form curriculum. "The new AS creates the opportunity for the elimination, or early passing, of the GCSEIby those who can easily do so, facilitating thereby a programme which could combined continued vigour with a more nutritious balance."
Patrick Tobin, People, page 22