Christopher Price: Tony Blair must not sneak in school fees

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The Independent Online

"Partnership" not too subtly connotes: "Why don't all schools be friends and lend each other things like playing fields, laboratories and wise advice? Or rent them at a very cheap rate?" Partnership, in addition, involves promoting love-ins between posh, expensive schools and their comprehensive neighbours.

As part of the same trend, the Government has reclassified academies as independent schools. But academies are not independent schools. They get the vast majority of their cash from the taxpayer - and their beneficent and generous founders get knighthoods and peerages. But the "independent" epithet pleases the parents and conveniently muddies the official school nomenclature and the awkward reality of a continuing English class chasm between private and state schools. It enables parents to boast: "Sandra's school is now independent, just like St Paul's and Manchester Grammar School." Stealth epithets are an effective policy tool, but they wear out fast, like "trust" as a euphemism for "management" in the NHS.

Interestingly, there are no pledges, as there are in the health service, about providing the service free at the point of delivery - a privilege accorded to all state schools not by Labour but by RAB Butler in 1944. Perhaps this is because the Labour whips are still bloodied by broken pledges on university fees. England had just over 20 years of freedom from university fees, and that was for a student cohort heavily weighted towards a jeunesse dorée. Less privileged part-time students always had to pay fees for their courses. So what about secondary education, which, by this September, will have been free for 60 years?

Is it possible that behind all the jargon there is a longer-term stealth objective - a quiet return to secondary school fees? The shadow of a stealth fee phenomenon is already visible in some of our grander state secondaries like the London Oratory, which levies hefty annual "voluntary" contributions to school funds.

Moreover, the independent schools that are helping comprehensives might introduce some sort of financial quid pro quo in the medium term. You can imagine what might happen: sometime in the 2010s or 2020s, just in sixth forms; at first only for the well-to-do; plenty of scholarships for most of the pupils...

At the moment these are straws in the wind. But the Prime Minister, it has to be remembered, believes passionately in human charity as a better vehicle for reform than legislation. Five years ago, he made a speech on charity - a subject the Lords are currently discussing in committee with special reference to the height of the "public benefit" hurdle our charitable public schools will have to jump to keep their charitable status.

Tony Blair's language in 1999 on the eve of the millennium was what the late Tony Crosland would have unkindly characterised as chiliastic. "From the Salvation Army to VSO, from Barnardo's to Water Aid, from the Workers' Educational Association to the University of the Third Age... No nation can lay claim to a richer philanthropic past than Britain... It is good to do good. Good for those charities and organisations and neighbourhoods in which the good is being done. But good for the do-gooder as well... The cynics never built anything. They stand on the sidelines. They imagine that all that motivates men and women and children is the desire to do good for themselves, to acquire more, be it power or wealth or material possessions."

Steeped in warm memories of Fettes College and Durham Cathedral School, he believes it all - and especially that the charitable rich can redeem the deserving poor. By analogy, he also thinks that independent schools can redeem a sinking (which it isn't) state school system - as they sought to do in the 19th century by founding "settlements" in London slums.

The PM gives the impression of believing that, under his charitable tutelage, class divisions will, like the Marxist state, fade away. I suppose possibly they might. But Butler's pledge of free state education was not a charitable move to see off the cynics; it was a reward to all the people of Britain at the end of a gruelling war. Slouching towards the fee-paying secondary schools of the 1930s would be a terrible legacy for Blair to leave behind him.

The writer is a former MP

education@independent.co.uk

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