Dr Anthony Seldon: 'Enough of this educational apartheid'

On the eve of a landmark ruling on the role of public schools in British life, the headmaster of Wellington College delivers a devastating attack on our two-tier education system

By the end of the 20th century, the independent sector had emerged pre-eminent in the British education system but the only vision the independent sector has today remains entrenched in the 20th century – dedicated to excellence and carrying on as we are in splendid isolation, detached from the mainstream national education system, thereby perpetuating the apartheid which has so dogged education and national life in Britain since the Second World War.

It is not right for any longer for our schools to cream off the best pupils, the best teachers, the best facilities, the best results and the best university places. If you throw in the 166 remaining grammar schools, which are predominantly middle class and private schools in all but name, the stranglehold is almost total.

Independent schools defend themselves by pointing to the numbers of bursaries they offer to those of lesser means, and many children from non-privileged backgrounds are indeed given a leg-up. But they also pluck children out of their social milieu as well as taking them away from their state schools, depriving those schools of their best academics, musicians, sportsmen and women and future stars. Bursaries can be, at very best, only a small part of the way forward.

We need a new vision for the independent sector in the 21st century and currently no one, and certainly neither government nor the sector itself, is providing it. Disastrously, governments of both right and left let both sectors drift apart over the past 60 years. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have been prepared to do anything about it and, indeed, their policies encouraged the apartheid. The ending of the direct-grant system was one of many fatal errors.

A new vision, however, is at hand. With the academy and trust school programmes, independent schools are at last being offered the opportunity to enter into a new relationship and we must all seize this vision for this century. Forget charity commissioners and whatever they may or may not demand. Independent schools, many of which were founded with high-minded moral or religious ideals, should jump at the opportunity of starting an academy or taking part in a trust as a way of rededicating themselves in the 21st century.

Indeed, I believe every single independent school should either be founding an academy or taking part in a trust or federation. To fail to do so is to deprive pupils, teachers and schools at large of opportunities for giving and sharing.

It is no longer tenable in 2008 to retain 20th-century apartheid thinking. We need leaders in our sector with the imagination to seize this opportunity.

Independent schools are the most successful in the world and we have something very significant to offer the rest of the British education system. We must aspire to bring all schools up to the level of the independent sector and allow them to operate with the freedom of independent schools. At the same time, we have much to learn from the state sector, too.

Never again must both sectors be allowed to continue operating separately. Any move to facilitate co-operative working is to be encouraged.

Governments of both left and right must also remember that independent schools are full of children from backgrounds where parents make huge sacrifices to pay the fees while also paying for state education via their taxes.

Many independent schools operate with tight margins. A just and enduring vision of the sector for the 21st century must take full cognisance of this fact.

This is the text of a speech to a headteachers' conference at Wellington College

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