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27th January 1995 at 00:00
Since 1944, we have suffered, essentially, from increasingly divergent policies on education. In a Utopian situation, it is perfectly true that children should be individually taught according to their individual rates of emotional and academic development; this is achievable in schools that are small enough for the staff to know all of the children and preferably in schools where staff take children through from four to 18, along the lines practised in Danish schools and some of our smaller, mixed-ability independent schools.

Morally, there are two principles we should follow, as far as possible, if we are to create a first-class national system of education that embraces a state-financed system and an independent sector: equal opportunity, regardless of class, race or religion, and freedom of choice. This obviously means that state-assisted schools and independent institutions must exist on a co-operative basis.

The English are renowned for common sense and ability to compromise. There is no earthly reason, therefore, why the independent sector and those who believe in the supremacy of state education should not work out a fair and middle way forward on the basis of these two moral precepts.

In the present climate, it is particularly important for both sectors to make concessions. Many small independent schools are mixed-ability and charge relatively low fees, making places available to all sections of the community. They are the possible model for a future compromise. It would be outrageous and wrong, of course, to destroy the ancient and great schools of England; it is equally reprehensible, in changing times, to keep these schools academically and socially exclusive.

The present assisted places scheme, helpful though it is in making many of the independent schools less socially exclusive, is flawed, since it is highly meritocratic. If a proportion of mixed-ability grants is available in place of the present scheme, in relation to local needs, through joint discussion with the local authorities, this might lead to the compromise we are seeking on this issue: this would make the independent schools less middle-class orientated and not deny the local mixed-ability schools some of their cleverest scholars, who are essential for the creation and development of truly mixed-ability schools. Indeed, unless schools have reasonably similar intakes, raw league-table scores are invalid.

With regard to the importance of validity in judging educational issues, there is a case against schools that charge enormous fees having the full benefits of charitable status if they are pouring little or nothing back into the community on a charitable basis: there is no case whatsoever for the removal of charitable status from small schools that charge low fees yet still offer free places or bursaries.

A distinction, in all justice, must be clearly drawn. If the schools that charge high fees, moreover, open up their doors on a more flexible basis, academically and socially speaking, then their case for retaining charitable status is completely proved.

GERALD J SMITH.

Headmaster.

St Peter's Independent School.

Northampton.

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