Independent schools must open their doors to give more bright working-class pupils a better deal, writes Peter Lampl
he exclusion of Ryan Bell from Downside last week is a personal setback with national implications. The Government is in the process of discussing with the Independent Schools Council the possibility of paying for more places at independent boarding schools for children with behavioural problems and other special needs.
As was very clear from the first in the recent series of Channel 4's Second Chance programmes, Ryan is highly intelligent, coming top of his class in Latin and biology as well as excelling on the rugby field. His experience therefore raises the issue of the extent to which the innate talent of many of our young people is currently being wasted.
This is the side of the story which concerns me most. There are thousands of youngsters as promising as Ryan who come nowhere near reaching their full potential. I set up the Sutton Trust in 1997 with the prime objective of giving these youngsters a better deal. Ryan was lucky. He has at least been given a chance. But given the glare of publicity it is hardly surprising that this Pygmalion-type attempt at transformation failed.
Ryan's future education career should be off-camera if it is to have a good chance of success.
Parachuting a teenager from the streets of south London into the rural, cloistered atmosphere of one of the country's leading Roman Catholic boarding schools was always a high-risk strategy involving a double way of life which would be far too much for most youngsters to cope with.
In more cases than not, transplanting inner-city children to boarding schools miles away from their homes will not meet with success, and with boarding school fees of up to pound;20,000 a year, it is not a scheme that should seriously be considered on a national scale.
The main priority must be to improve state provision, which is why almost all of the Sutton Trust's energies are directed towards the state sector, with grant-giving that stretches from early years to primary and secondary schools, to university summer schools and access to the professions.
As for the involvement of the independent sector, some look wistfully back to the Assisted Places Scheme and regret its passing. I don't. Under this scheme, on average the Government paid for 15 per cent of places - mainly at independent day schools for children aged 11 and upwards with academic abilities. But the fact that eligibility rested only on income and not assets meant that the scheme was widely abused, and as often as not provided a prop for genteel families which had fallen on hard times. It was a programme based on outdated charity attitudes which again parachuted at most a few less well-off pupils into richer middle-class schools.
The sensible answer is to open up the best of our independent day schools completely, giving bright children like Ryan the opportunity to benefit.
For three years all entrants to the Belvedere girls' school in Liverpool have been chosen by academic aptitude and ability, not social status or ability to pay. The results have exceeded our expectations.
The Belvedere school has a genuinely diverse social mix, with more than 70 per cent of children having all or part of their fees paid, while the academic standard has been improved. With such a diverse social mix, nobody knows which pupils come from which backgrounds. As a result, the scheme has a 100 per cent success rate with no pupil dropping out.
The Sutton Trust co-sponsors this open access scheme with the Girls' Day School Trust, which owns the school. The sponsors pay 55 to 60 per cent of the school's total fee income which last year worked out at pound;3,400 per place - that is slightly less than the cost to the taxpayer of an average secondary school place. Here is something that has worked in practice, makes economic sense, and has wide applicability. That is why we feel justified in asking the Government to extend the scheme, initially to a dozen or more inner-city independent day schools.
One of these could no doubt be situated in south London. This would be a much more suitable place for Ryan to continue his education, and for other talented youngsters like him to have the same opportunity.
Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust