When sectors collide

8th July 2005 at 01:00
The Government is promoting co-operation between state and private schools but will this 'third way' work, asks David James

In Labour's brave new world we will all respect each other. Nobody will diss their neighbour, and chav and toff will sit down and exchange burgers and cucumber sandwiches beneath the beatific smile of our beloved leader, the Prime Minister.

Having ditched the hard left agenda of its wilderness years, the Government cannot countenance abolishing independent schools; similarly, it cannot privatise state schools (as many on the libertarian right advocate). And so it seeks a third way in which we all help each other. A lovely idea, but will it work?

If it is to work, then both sectors need to trust each other's motives rather more than they are doing at the moment. Painful though it may be for many involved in education, we could start this process by listening to Chris Woodhead.

You might recall that in his latest broadside he stated that private schools should have nothing to do with state schools. The former chief inspector was at his belligerent best on this issue when, in response to Dr Anthony Seldon, the headteacher of Brighton college, who said he would throw open his doors to any disadvantaged or disruptive pupil the Government wanted to give him, he fulminated: "Why the hell have we got to do that? Our moral responsibility is to the parents who pay our fees."

As chairman of Cognita, which owns 21 private schools, Professor Woodhead has a vested interest in this debate. Nevertheless, his words, which were condemned by most, ridiculed by many, and discussed rationally by almost nobody, should be listened to because they articulate the thoughts of many parents who pay school fees, as well as a lot of teachers who work in both sectors. Just because these sentiments were expressed by the teachers'

number one bete noire does not mean they should be dismissed out of hand.

They should not, however, stop schools working more closely together.

The fact is that there are many mutual benefits to be gained from both sectors working closely together. My school, Haileybury, has started to open up some of its facilities to the local comprehensive; teachers from various departments have already visited this partner school and more plans are being developed for next year. Similar voluntary schemes already exist between other schools.

It is a small step, and there is a long way to go, but there is a lot of support for the idea of sharing ideas and resources. But how far should that process go? It is not the case that all parents who send their children to public schools are fabulously wealthy: for some, fees hurt, and they have to sacrifice a great deal to keep up payments.

When will our parents begin to ask why, exactly, they are paying fees when the boy next door might in the future come here, play rugby on our fields, be taught music in our classrooms, pick up a bit of Latin, and try out the latest ICT programs, all for nothing? How would you feel if you were that parent struggling to make ends meet?

What both sectors are wading through is years of mutual envy, ignorance and mistrust. Professor Woodhead's robust arguments have to be proved wrong.

However, this can only happen with real commitment from both sectors. The challenge for all teachers is to make it clear to parents and pupils that greater co-operation between schools will raise standards, not bring them down. The challenge for the Government is to come up with something more substantial than a call for "greater dialogue". It must seek to find the money, the incentives, and, crucially, the time for teachers from both sectors to work together.

But it has to be realistic as well; it cannot expect independent schools to give away the product they are selling. Equally, they cannot expect state schools to become something they are not, and do not wish to be: namely, selective and exclusive.

Extreme positions, headline-grabbing though they are, are easy to hold, and "third ways" are notoriously difficult to defend, but this one is worth pursuing. Professor Woodhead is right in saying that there is a "moral responsibility" here, but he is wrong to limit it to fee-paying parents.

His anger sounds like the desperate cries of a man fighting against an inevitable tide of change (indeed, only last week Marlborough college announced that it was entering into partnership talks with a failing comprehensive, and more schools will inevitably follow).

As a teacher, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to the pupils as well, and they in turn will, I hope, feel a sense of responsibility to the society they will go on to shape. We must give them the opportunity to challenge the misunderstandings that have flourished in both sectors for too long. We must, in short, promote a greater degree of mutual respect.

Dr David James is head of English at Haileybury

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