Will New Labour go private?

12th May 2000 at 01:00
A second Labour administration is likely to fund places at fee-paying schools, independent heads were told last week. Biddy Passmore reports.

LABOUR WILL be buying places in private schools by the end of its second term in office, the head of an influential think tank predicted last week.

A second Labour administration would collapse the barrier between private and state sectors and start to treat the independent sector as just another source of educational services, said Phil Collins, new director of the centre right Social Market Foundation. This was more likely than simply continuing present partnership schemes between state and private schools, he said.

"Five to six years from now, it is feasible to imagine one third of schools being run by private companies," he told a conference of 250 independent school heads at Brighton College sponsored by the Independent Schools Council. (At present, one in seven pupils is in the private sector.)

Mr Collins conceded that this change would pose political difficulties as it depended on the failure of the current system, run by local education authorities - but he said there was no ideological opposition to it at Number 10.

The old animosity towards the independent sector had gone with the creation of New Labour, said Mr Collins, and the threat of a resurgent left-wing bent on abolition was "extremely unlikely".

He urged independent schools to do all they could to widen access, keep standards up and bring fees down. Why had the market in the UK not produced private schools with fees lower than the cost of state education, as it had in the United States? he asked.

The conference also heard Nick Tate, who is to take over as had of the private Winchester College in September, attack "spurious" positive discrimination by leading universities to boost the proportion of students from state schools.

"It is vital that we enhance access," he said, "but students need to get there on the basis of merit ... not on the basis of crude devices that give them extra points if they come from schools with poor A-level scores or simplistic IQ tests of potential." Dr Tate now heads the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Earlier Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University's Centre for Education and Employment Re-search, said the very success of independent schools had created its own problems. "It is reasonable to claim that independent schools are adding more value, both academic and personal, than state schools," Professor Smithers said. But, because of the pressure on universities to broaden their intake, independent schools were increasingly in the position of having to defend themselves for doing such a good job.

He too opposed taking a candidate's social group or postcode into account because it meant discriminating against high-performing pupils on the basis of their school. But the two main factors that would enable state schools to compete with independent schools, selection and higher spending, would be politically unpalatable.

Ruth Deech, principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, said there was no way Oxford and Cambridge would follow American universities along the path of positive discrimination. In her four years chairing Oxford's admissions forum, she had received as many vituperative letters from heads of comprehensives as heads of independent schools, she said.David Owen, 13

Platform, 19

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