Levelling out the playing field

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Independent schools are often blamed for reinforcing social class divisions, promoting the success of a privileged elite, writes Irena Barker
Independent schools are often blamed for reinforcing social class divisions, promoting the success of a privileged elite, writes Irena Barker. But independent schools are wide and varied, and many argue they do huge amounts to help bright talented children from poor backgrounds.

The new Charity Commission guidelines will bring scrutiny to those who do things such as sharing sports facilities with local state schools, or lending them teachers.

Christ's Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex, has done more than many independents to even out advantage. With its elegant buildings, striking Tudor-style uniforms and quirky traditions, it appears to have more than a whiff of the upper class. A-level results are outstanding - 78 per cent are at A and B grades - and most pupils go on to top universities.

What is surprising is that only 3 per cent of pupils pay full fees: 85 per cent come from families with an income of less than pound;25,000, 30 per cent qualify for free school meals and 14 per cent pay no fees at all.

The school was set up in 1552 for the poor orphan children of London, and is funded by an historic endowment and support from organisations such as the City of London and the London Livery Company. It receives no grants from the Government.

To select pupils, staff target state primary schools in London, Sussex and Surrey, looking for children with potential who could benefit from a boarding school education.

John Franklin, the headteacher, said: "As an example, you may have a 10-year-old who is very bright and musical, living in a council flat in Tower Hamlets. Say his older sibling has Asperger's syndrome and his parents' attention is focused away from him. He could benefit from living away from home."

The applicants' financial backgrounds are not scrutinised until they are selected on the basis of ability and need. The school then decides whether they will be required to pay all, some or no fees.

Six hundred people apply each year, but only 120 are selected.

"We are unique; there is no other independent school like us. Pupils are truly from a full range of backgrounds," said Mr Franklin. "Schools like Eton and Harrow have some pretty dramatic fundraising targets, and I think independent schools get blamed for a lot of things that should not be laid at their door. The majority of parents make huge sacrifices to pay for their children to go to school.

"But it is still a tragedy that there are so many children who don't receive a good education."

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