State can fund private pathways at 14-plus

1st February 2008 at 00:00
Independent education is a hugely emotive issue. Opponents say that private schools perpetuate social inequality. So while buying good food, wholesome living conditions, wonderful holidays and piano, football and drama lessons is what all responsible parents do if they can, buying the best education is, apparently, wrong.

The independent sector includes a huge variety of schools. Some are boarding, steeped in a tradition that is highly valued internationally. Some, like my own, are embedded in city communities and educate local children who flourish in an academic environment. Others are comprehensive in terms of intellectual intake, some focus on special educational needs, some are music and ballet schools. What they have in common is a degree of independence from government, from the political football that has been state education for many years.

Only about 7 per cent of children in this country are privately educated. The vast majority attend state schools. So, if education's mission is to redress inequality, rather than simply to provide excellent education, the state sector must share the blame. Research reveals more segregation in the playground than the classroom.

Some independent schools have in fact aided social mobility with means-tested financial support. Under the old assisted places scheme, children whose parents could not afford fees gained places at private schools and achieved higher exam grades than similar children in the state sector, which in turn gave them access to "better" universities and better-paid jobs. The independent sector continues to provide such places from its own resources.

Beyond the actions of individual schools, the private sector provides a disproportionate number of young people with good A-level results in subjects highlighted by various groups as essential to the country's economic growth.

The Forum of Independent Day Schools, a group committed to open access, is interested in exploring admission at 14-plus for non-fee-paying students, supported by the state at the same rate it costs to educate a child in the state sector. The academic range and resources of independent schools could then be opened up to all - not creaming children off, but allowing young people to find the best educational pathway for them.

Independent schools are making and will continue to make a contribution to the nation's education provision. Widening access to the different types of education they offer should not be left to individual schools - it should be a national driver.

- www.fidsonline.co.uk

Sarah Evans, Headteacher of King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham.

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