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Tory MP sees private sector as the obstacle

Britain will not have a first-class education system until it opens the private schools to bright pupils from all backgrounds, a Tory MP and former education minister writes this week.

In a powerfully argued polemic, We Should Know Better, (TES2 page 7) George Walden, MP for Buckingham, challenges politicians of both Left and Right to recognise that little progress can be made with the education system while the most influential 7 per cent of its citizens take refuge in an academically superior private sector.

This educational apartheid, he says, "severs our educational culture at the neck".

He rejects the conventional solutions put forward by left and right: abolition of the private sector, vouchers, expanding the Assisted Places Scheme, letting state schools "catch up". These are either unrealistic, the result of dubious doctrines, or tinged with bad faith, he says.

Instead, he proposes a voluntary - and therefore gradual - opening up of the private day sector to pupils from all backgrounds. Schools opting to enter a new Open Sector of Independent Schools would admit pupils purely on the basis of aptitude and ability, regardless of ability to pay.

Finance would come from three sources: some parents, who would pay fees if a means test showed they could, money from the Assisted Places Scheme, which would be abolished, and the Exchequer.

Eton and Winchester would be unlikely to join the scheme. Boarding schools, which form only one sixth of the private sector, could join only if money was made available from private sources to cover the extra costs, writes Mr Walden.

Essentially, his scheme would be a way of bringing back into partnership with the state the 120 former direct-grant schools that went private rather than become comprehensive. These schools, accounting for nearly 100,000 of the 250,000 private secondary places, would act as a beacon for the remaining independent schools, he says. Over time they could start an evolution towards a single, mixed educational culture, "with access to schools of all types open to all on a basis of aptitude and ability".

The head of one of the brightest beacons, Manchester Grammar School, has publicly expressed an interest in Mr Walden's scheme and most of the heads he canvassed last year were in favour of a change of status to bring them closer to the maintained sector.

But Mr Walden has elicited little interest from the Prime Minister and recognises Tony Blair's political difficulties with backing a return to selection. Reform might have to await "the fracturing and reconfiguration of our political parties", he concedes.

While private schools are "opened up", Mr Walden has ambitious - and expensive - plans for the state sector. He would introduce full-time nursery education for all from the age of three, selection into different types of school at the age of 14 along German lines, a 10 per cent pay rise for teachers (in exchange for promises to return to tried and trusted teaching methods) and a broadening of A-levels.

The total cost of such measures would be about Pounds 5 billion pounds a year, says Mr Walden. But he warns that the cost of inactivity is also high.

"If nothing is done, and the global economy turns out to be as threatening to our long-term interests as it looks," he writes, "...what is already a second-rate country, educationally speaking, will sink to the status of a third-rate power."

We Should Know Better, Solving the Education Crisis, by George Walden, Fourth Estate Pounds 9.99.

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