Leader who wants to build bridges

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Divisions between state and fee-paying schools have been eroded. Ted Tapper on how the sectors may move closer. Tony Blair recently spoke of forging a consensus on education policy.

However, none of the points reported focused upon the relationship between the fee-paying and maintained school sectors. It is impossible to conceive of a consensual basis to education policy unless a future government can construct a relationship between the two sectors which has broad agreement. This has been one of the most politically divisive educational issues in the past 30 years. The current commitment of the Labour party to terminate the Assisted Places Scheme can scarcely be viewed as a step towards consensus building.

In the early 1980s the scheme was divisive and the same issue would rekindle political animosity as a Labour government moved to phase it out. However, if consensus is the goal, then that same Labour government will need to think constructively about how new links between the two sectors can be forged.

There have already been developments which make bridge-building much easier. Although fee-paying schools are still unrepresentative of the general population, they have become closer to the maintained sector. There are now more day pupils and there has been a shift towards co-education. While the leading public schools may still demonstrate social exclusivity, overall they broadly represent middle England. Many parents who attended maintained schools are now educating their children privately.

Many state schools have become closer to independent schools in management terms. The powers of governing bodies have been enhanced. They exercise control over their own budgets, and their long-term futures are dependent upon an ability to convince parents of their merits. While parental choice may be more myth than reality, maintained schools are now subject to market pressures.

Perhaps most significant is the emphasis across both sectors on improving standards. Undoubtedly this has been stimulated by examination league tables and, while one may quibble at the narrow terms in which good schooling is defined, the sense of a widely-shared common purpose is to be applauded.

The consequence of the trends has been a measure of interpenetration of the fee-paying and maintained sectors. Certain schools within the maintained sector - especially those which have become grant-maintained or which select on academic grounds - may have more in common with fee-paying schools than with other maintained schools. The question is whether the differences can be narrowed still further.

Until now the relationship has been built in theory around fee-paying schools complementing educational opportunities in the state sector. In practice, however, the private sector has essentially restricted itself to taking academically-talented pupils from the maintained schools and educating them at public expense. Certainly this is the basis of the Assisted Places Scheme and accounts for its political divisiveness. It cannot be said to have established a complementary relationship between the sectors, unless one believes that transfer to the private sector greatly enhances the academic opportunities of the selected pupils. I know of no evidence to demonstrate this point, and it can hardly be seen as a means of building co-operation.

The future relationship, therefore, cannot be built upon the naive notion that there are no conflicting interests at stake. So what is the way forward? The first problem to address is that of selection. It is no surprise that the convergence between the two sectors is greatest for those maintained schools which can exercise some control over pupil selection, either because they have a statutory right to do so or because parental demand puts them in this position. The question is whether a wider relationship between the two sectors can be constructed which works to the general benefit of schools and to their pupils.

Lord Skidelsky has resurrected the voucher idea. In his proposals the first step would be to lease the worst of the state schools in the inner-city areas to "private charitable educational trusts" and "trust private initiative driven by parental choice to raise national standards" (The Times, September 20, 1996). Parents would pay school fees out of an annual cheque for each school-aged child. Whereas Skidelsky wants to turn state schools into private schools, George Walden has suggested a reversal of the process: fee-paying schools are urged to join a new open sector which would select its pupils by ability and which would be financed from a mixture of private and public sources - an indirect way of saying that parents would pay means-tested fees topped up by the taxpayer (We Should Know Better, 1996). In essence Walden is calling for the recreation of the former system of direct-grant schools.

Neither of these proposals should be rejected out of hand. The state sector would undoubtedly be enriched by fee-paying schools with high academic standards, deciding to opt back into the system. However, there is no reason why other fee-paying schools, noted for different characteristics (for example, those with a particular religious emphasis), should not also be encouraged to opt into the state sector. In other words a two-way process of exchange - as Walden clearly recognises - should be encouraged.

Neither Skidelsky nor Walden has paid much attention to the national curriculum and the associated key stage testing. Skidelsky clearly disapproves of such developments, preferring to place his faith in the exercise of parental choice within a privatised system to raise standards. For Walden the way forward is to create an open sector committed to high academic standards - its positive influence will filter through the system. However, the emergence of a national curriculum, tested at key stages, could within itself prove a significant bridge between the two sectors as well as providing the assurance which allows the state to expand the privatisation of the maintained sector.

Given the greater movement of pupils between the maintained and private sectors, coupled with the fetish for league tables, there is every reason to believe that private sector schools will be required to follow where the state schools are compelled to lead. Indeed legislation requiring all schools to follow the national curriculum and submit themselves to key stage testing would provide a very powerful link between the two sectors. However, in the interest of building a consensual educational policy, a future government could consider a significant lessening of controls upon the state sector, even along the lines suggested by Skidelsky, as long as all schools were required to follow the national curriculum and to participate in key stage testing. These, rather than a formal financial reckoning, then become the mechanisms of control.

The state cannot be expected to make resources available without requiring accountability. Moreover, by manipulating the formula funding mechanisms which determine the allocation of resources there is no reason why the state could not actually reward schools for accepting all sorts of children who are currently failing within the present system. What needs to be stimulated is a significant transfer of problem kids, and even plain ordinary kids, to the private sector rather than the academically able. Moreover, by adding a value-added element into the testing procedures, schools can be further rewarded should they show signs of changing behaviour patterns andor raising educational standards where others have failed. While schools need to be subject to the pressures of parental choice, schooling is too important to leave entirely to the vagaries of the market-place. The goal is a diverse competitive model, in which selection is endemic, and all schools are between the state and the market-place.

Dr Edward Tapper is Reader in Politics, University of Sussex, and author of Fee-Paying Schools and Educational Change in Britain: Between the State and the Marketplace, Woburn Press, Spring 1997.

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