Is the 'armed neutrality' between private and state schools about to end? Michael Shaw and Stephen Lucas report
Independent schools are being paid to teach sixth-formers from comprehensives as part of a new government drive to bring private and state education closer together, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has revealed.
In the first official speech by a Labour education secretary to independent school heads, Mr Clarke said that he wanted to end the sometimes "armed neutrality" between the private and state sectors.
He told the conference at independent Brighton college that one of the most significant moves was the decision to allow local Learning and Skills Councils to fund places for 16 to 19-year-olds on courses at independent schools.
The policy change took place in November and funding has already been provided for a handful of pathfinder projects where state-school pupils have been studying at nearby independent schools.
Mr Clarke said that he wanted "more of this type of collaboration", as it would broaden the curriculum for some students and enable them to study subjects such as classics, often only available to pupils whose parents paid fees.
However, he denied that the Government's closer relationship with independent schools would end the distinction between state and private education.
"We should be working in partnership to reach the many, not the few, valuing difference, tradition and excellence," he said.
"I want to move on to a different level. Let's not just be in a state of neutrality - whether armed or unarmed - let's move on to a state of affairs where we can really positively work together."
Mr Clarke also recommended that independent headteachers should sponsor city academies and specialist schools, either with money or by sharing curriculum resources. He announced that the Government would be funding 46 new partnerships between independent and state schools at a cost of pound;1.4 million.
The Education Secretary's comments were applauded by Anthony Seldon, headteacher of Brighton college who said that the minister's speech marked "a final burying of the hatchet" between Labour and independent schools.
"We are walking towards the Labour Government as the Labour Government is walking towards us," he said.
Headteachers who attended the Brighton college conference were warned by many speakers that they risked losing their charitable status if they could not prove their benefit to the wider community.
Chris Lintott, a solicitor who specialises in charity tax law, said schools might shut because of their tax bills. It would not be enough to pay lip-service to providing a public benefit. They would need to show genuine commitment.
However, Peter de Voil, headteacher at the English college in Prague, said fee-paying parents were reluctant to accept partnerships with state schools.
"Parents say why should children come into schools where we are paying fees for free. It is something we have to brazen out."
Other key issues at the conference included the rising level of fees and concerns about popular universities' treatment of candidates from independent schools.
Fee-paying schools which have opened their doors to state pupils include Cheadle Hulme in Stockport which has been offering 16 to 19-year-olds opportunities to take AS and A-levels in Spanish, Latin, Greek, history or art.
More than 30,000 pupils move from state to independent schools each year.