Shifting grounds of a sector divide

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Are the tectonic plates beneath our divided school system shifting? Is the news that up to 30 independent schools are thinking about joining the state sector the start of a major realignment? Or is this just another English earthquake in which a few chimney pots get rattled and nothing much happens?

It is 30 years since a previous Labour government tried to end selection in state secondaries, prompting 136 direct-grant schools to flee to the independent sector. Many were high-performing grammars with a tradition for serving their communities.

The defection of the direct grants in many ways impoverished public-sector education, "denying opportunity to many poor children and increasing the number of fee-paying parents", as the then journalist Andrew Adonis wrote in a book published in 1997. As schools minister, Lord Adonis has become a powerful advocate for bringing the state and independent sectors closer together. The academies programme is very much his baby and looks set to play a part in persuading former direct grants to return to the public fold. This has to be good news a tangible reward for the higher investment and improving standards in state education over the past decade.

One tricky matter arising from this is selection. A new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that selecting pupils by ability at a young age can make it harder for many of them to succeed in life (see page 3). Even in-school methods such as streaming can, if introduced prematurely, lead to social selection that gives pupils from privileged backgrounds lasting advantages. In allowing independent schools to opt in, ministers should reject 11-plus-style selection and closely regulate admissions criteria where schools are oversubscribed.

The prize for overcoming the historic divide between the state and independent sectors would be huge, opening up the prospect of a more equal society. Such an ambition will move closer to reality if Gordon Brown achieves his long-term objective of matching state-school spending per pupil with that currently enjoyed in independent schools.

After a decade of rising investment, some independent schools are feeling the pinch. But not all are struggling. The great public schools are more prosperous than ever. Bridging that gap will be much harder.

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