Undoing the old school ties

31st October 1997 at 00:00
A quarter of Edinburgh's secondary pupils attend private schools. Frank Gerstenberg (right), principal of George Watson's College, callsfor an open, equal partnership with the state sector.

At first sight the outcome of the general election may have been seen as a disaster for independent schools in Scotland. The assisted places scheme will be phased out, tuition fees at university were already on the agenda, and the Labour Party is, outwardly at least, committed to raising standards in the state sector.

But in keeping with the best management theory, the independent sector is already looking at these "problems" as "challenges", and finding, sometimes to its surprise, that far from being hostile, the state sector is turning out to be a willing partner. "Bridge-building" was often heard at the recent Headmasters' Conference, and most independent schools appear ready to embrace some form of partnership.

This has been happening in a variety of fields: teachers from both sectors meet often on in-service courses, and some exchange schools for short periods. Pupils meet on the games fields, though too rarely in the last 15 years.

Now there are signs of more deliberate partnerships on the drawing board. This year Edinburgh Common Purpose, an organisation devoted to bringing together people from all parts of Edinburgh society, is running a junior version, involving second year pupils from independent and state schools. Over half-term, representatives from 31 local schools (26 state, 5 independent) held their own highly successful "summit" meeting.

Such experiments can only break down barriers and dispel prejudices. But are these enough? Has the time not come when, instead of building the odd bridge, we should enter into genuine partnership? In Edinburgh a disproportionate number of children attend independent schools, yet the contact between the two is still small.

Over the next few years we have an opportunity to build bridges. Higher Still is going to be a challenge for every school since few are going to be able to provide courses across the spectrum. The larger independent schools have a tradition of running "uneconomic courses in subjects where there is low demand", and most of them provide a range of courses at CSYS and A-level which sometimes cannot be matched in the state sector because of a lack of resources.

A bridge has to be built from both sides of a river where prejudices might exist. Some independent sector parents might say that they do not pay large fees for state sector pupils to benefit, while on the other side there might still be a fear that the independent schools' motives might be less than altruistic.

It would be a great pity if such feelings, which I am convinced are held by a small minority, were to stand in the way of partnership which would benefit all the country's children. Most independent schools' parents have been subsidising assisted places scheme children at their schools for some years as a result of the Tories' fee capping policy, while many state school heads are pleased to use independent schools' facilities because they know their children will benefit.

So why not embark on an open equal partnership? For too long the old school tie has dominated the top echelons in the professions, business and politics (there are several products of the Scottish independent sector in the Labour cabinet). Greater contact and co-operation between pupils at all schools should be the start in this process. Leaders from both sectors should seize the opportunity to reach agreements which can benefit all our children.

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