Let struggling comps die, says Woodhead

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Why the hell should we help state schools? former chief inspector asks fellow private schools chiefs. Graeme Paton reports

Private schools should refuse to work with struggling comprehensives, which should be allowed to die if they are failing, according to Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector.

Professor Woodhead, now chairman of the Cognita group, one of the biggest owners of private schools in the UK, said standards at elite institutions were at risk if they set up partnerships with state schools.

Private school heads attacked his comments this week, as the Government increased pressure on private and state schools to co-operate.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has approached heads from leading private schools asking them to sponsor some of the 200 academies, independent state schools, that he hopes to establish in the next five years.

Sir Cyril Taylor, head of the Specialist Schools Trust and Government adviser, also said poorly behaved state pupils could benefit from an education at a boarding school.

Addressing the annual Brighton College education conference last week, Dr Anthony Seldon, head of the pound;13,200-a-year school, said: "Many more schools should be responding warmly to the Prime Minister's wish to see us involved in the 200 academies. We should respond enthusiastically to the Government's plans for problem pupils to become boarders in our schools."

But Professor Woodhead told the same conference: "Why the hell have we got to do that? Our moral responsibility is to the parents who pay our fees.

"The more time we spend on failing state schools, the less time we have got to devote to the education of our own children."

He said cross-sector partnerships were "propping up a failed system which should be left to fail", adding that teachers in private schools had little to learn by training in the state sector. "I don't believe the teacher in a very academic independent school is going to learn very much from teaching deeply disturbed children in a failing comprehensive," he said.

Professor Woodhead, whose Cognita group owns 25 private schools, said it would be better for schools to give up their charitable status, which gives them a tax break, equivalent to a 4 per cent increase in their annual budget.

But his views were attacked this week by the Independent Schools Council, which represents 80 per cent of pupils educated in the private sector.

"The last thing we want to do is to cut ourselves off from society at large," said Jonathan Shepherd, the general secretary. "That would be a bizarre outcome for a sector with a passionate belief in social values and social purpose.

"We are here to help, co-operate with and learn from the maintained sector, which has some outstanding schools and outstanding teachers. We have no time at all for the Woodhead agenda."

Last week The TES revealed how a series of private schools were helping comprehensives to gain specialist school status. Magdalen College school, Oxford, paid pound;8,000 towards a bid by nearby Oxford community school to become a specialist business and enterprise college.

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* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

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