Assisted places may be gone but their replacement is no less controversial for a Labour government. Cherry Canovan reports
HE Government's abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme - which subsidised pupils at private schools - in 1997 led many to believe Labour's traditional hostility to fee-paying would persist. A review of public schools' charitable status was seen in much the same light.
But legislation requiring them to prove their public worth to justify their status is now mired within the Home Office. The schools are preparing to show that demand for them still flourishes with the publication of their annual census next week. And while assisted places have gone, Labour is yet more enthusiastic about the happy, Big Tent idea replacing them - partnerships.
More money is being made available for the Building Bridges scheme, where independent and state schools work together on educational projects. The scheme has been running since 1998, with more than pound;4 million so far invested (see graph above right); however, ministers think it is so successful that they are increasing its budget to pound;2m a year by 20056. More than 180 projects have been funded in five years, and at current spending rates another 200 or so should receive money over the next three.
It appears to be working. Schools that have been involved seem universally delighted. But philosophically, the gap between the private and public sectors is as wide as ever - and neither is happy about the Government's approach.
Despite the extra money, many private schools feel they are not being treated as "partners" but are expected to give, give, give. They complain that a demand for resources is often presented as partnership - the "Maybe we could use your playing fields for this?" approach - and that the ethos of partnership is limited by government, with teachers in the private sector excluded from many initiatives.
Pauline Davies, head of Wycombe Abbey school and president of the Girls'
Schools Association, says: "We are rather concerned at the disparity in the way teachers are treated.
"For example, our teachers are excluded from the laptop scheme and the professional development in information and communication technology scheme. And teachers who are going into the state sector, particularly in shortage subjects, would have bursaries or help with their student loans."
At the other end of the spectrum is the National Union of Teachers. John Bangs, its head of education, says that while he has no problem with the idea of school communities working together, he objects to the increasing amounts of cash being pumped into the private sector.
"Giving them more money seems a bit odd when the state sector isn't over-endowed with cash," he says.
Of course, partnership money does not flow directly into the coffers of the private schools. A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills explains that "the money has been spent for the benefit of all pupils and parents involved in the partnership". Funding is generally for costs such as transport and staff cover.
But Mr Bangs also objects to the spirit in which the scheme could be perceived - that the maintained sector can learn from its fee-paying counterpart. "There is an argument for sharing expertise, and it is two-way, not one-way," he says.
He suggests that the argument that public schools can raise aspirations in the maintained sector is not borne out by the latest exam results, which show some state schools performing better than their private counterparts.
There is, some say, a hint of paternalism in some schemes. The DfES Building Bridges website gives case studies, including projects such as independent senior schools running maths classes for bright pupils from local primaries. It is not unheard of for a "partnership" to include, for example, the private school's orchestra giving a concert at the state partner.
But paternalism is a charge fiercely denied by the organisers. Pat Langham, head of independent Wakefield girls' high school, is a member of the DfES partnership forum. She says the partnerships are "absolutely, definitely not" about the poor man picking up the crumbs from the rich man's table.
"If there is any hint of that it will never, ever work," she says.
Mrs Langham argues that both parties benefit, with pupils enjoying the experience of working together and barriers being broken down between schools. "It does have the most amazing long-term effects on working relationships with colleagues," she says, noting that her own relationships with the local education authority and maintained schools are now better than ever before. Those with reservations about the scheme's worth or who are cynical about its motives have not been involved in a project, she suggests.
Now the Government is taking the partnership ethos further by allowing independent schools to apply for "leading edge" status - and the pound;60,000 it attracts.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke, announcing the scheme in February, said they could participate "where they meet the criteria and are willing and able to work with schools in the maintained sector".
Leading- edge schools would "demonstrate that they were high performers with a recognised specialism, working at the cutting edge of teaching and learning and with a track record of working with other schools to raise standards".
The conditions outlined by Mr Clarke pose some questions, including whether many private schools can be said to have a true specialism; as Mrs Davies says, schools such as hers pride themselves on providing a broad, balanced curriculum. Any specialism comes at the margins, for example extra-curricular activities.
However, Mrs Langham says many independent schools may be able to demonstrate a specialism in terms of expertise. "I would say that we are a specialist modern languages school, because we are exceptionally good at doing it. But we are exceptionally good at doing a number of subjects. It would depend on what your definition of specialist was."
The Independent Schools Council welcomed the announcement, saying it would help address members' concerns that the Government was "unwilling to augment its financial commitment to partnership".
But again, Mr Bangs is critical. He points out that being defined as "leading edge" could boost a private school's status, with a knock-on effect on fees and popularity with parents. The scheme, he says, is giving to those that already have.
So it appears that the Government, far from making an enemy of private schools, is increasing efforts to usher them into the New Labour consensus.
But the independent schools themselves are demanding parity in more and more areas - and many in the maintained sector are left fuming. The consensus may be as far away as ever.
CASE STUDIES: THREE TYPES OF TOGETHERNESS
Loughborough partners: Loughborough grammar school (ind), Rendell primary school, Mountfields Lodge primary school, and all other Loughborough primary development group schools.
Maths and ICT programme including masterclasses run by Loughborough grammar for more able pupils from all the town's primary schools. Funding has also allowed the partnership to buy digital cameras and "control" software for use in the classroom, allowing input to school websites by pupils.
North-west partners: Ashton on Mersey school, Sale, Witherslack Hall school, Cumbria (ind).
Ashton on Mersey is a state secondary modern, with beacon and sports college status, while Witherslack Hall is a residential independent school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Ashton staff have had behaviour management training at Witherslack, while joint outdoor pursuits and football have increased social inclusion for Witherslack pupils. They have also benefited from the introduction of GCSE physical education, and a full range of sports, after staff training by Ashton.
Yorkshire partners: Ampleforth College (ind), Cardinal Heenan high school, Leeds.
A music scheme aimed at promoting pupil participation and enjoyment, improved performance and raised standards. A programme of workshops and performances included a joint performance on Radio 4 by Cardinal Heenan's sopranos and altos and Ampleforth's tenors and basses. Other activities have included a visit to Cardinal Heenan by Ampleforth's orchestra, as well as joint composition sessions.