Education: Recipe for exclusion

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A small group of Labour MPs, led by Frank Field, has pulled a shrivelled political chestnut from the embers of past failure. The Labour Party will, if elected, review charitable status for independent schools and drop the Assisted Places Scheme. This outmoded determination marks a stumbling step back from reality.

A recent Mori survey indicates that parents of more than half the pupils entering independent schools in the Nineties were themselves not privately educated, and almost one-third of parents of fee-paying pupils are manual or clerical workers. Rather than take these facts into account and seek to widen access to independent schools, Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, seems intent on narrowing the social base of their intake.

Under the policy, commissioners would examine educational charities to ascertain whether funds were used for the purposes originally intended by their statutes. Money would be redistributed or, more plainly, sequestered. Were charitable status removed, fees could rise by 25 per cent in some cases.

One is forced to ask what the benefits of such a policy would be. The negative effects are predictable.

The rationale seems, yet again, to attack what is manifestly successful and to be inspired by a conscious misconception that independent schools display social irresponsibility and uncontrolled opulence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Almost without exception, independent schools need fees to meet their wages bill (80 per cent of expenditure) and to support poorer families through bursaries. Schools which are charities must be run as non-profit-making organisations. Yet, over the years, schools have interpreted their charitable purposes more widely and generously than at the time of their foundation.

Links have been forged with local communities, to the benefit of the young, elderly and disabled; pitches and theatres are offered at cost or no charge whatsoever; music and leadership courses, teacher training, charitable enterprise and community service are undertaken extensively; three-quarters of independent schools' sports facilities are used by community groups and one-third by state schools.

While financial benefits to independent schools in 1991 totalled pounds 41m, the schools' assistance to pupils in need amounted to pounds 55m.

The removal of charitable status would have a uniformly negative effect on the independent schools' wishes to assist those in need. And allied to the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme, which has conferred invaluable benefits on pupils from financially modest backgrounds, this change would fly in the face of schools' resolve to admit as wide a social range as possible.

Indeed, such a combination of measures would frustrate the social and charitable purposes of the vast majority of independent schools today. In former direct grant schools such as my own, the destructive effect would be rapidly felt: fees would rise sharply; the large number of assisted-place pupils who have secured outstanding results would be removed; and because we have no endowments, we would, without the tax concessions used for this purpose, be unable to support through bursaries the many deserving pupils whose family circumstances prevent the access their parents seek. It would be an educational and social tragedy.

This would apply to independent schools in all regions, from those with a denominational emphasis to single-sex girls' schools in great demand, such as Godolphin and Latymer, where a sharp increase in fees and the demise of assisted places would reverse a distinguished tradition.

Those schools whose resources appear greater and which may be the focus of Labour's enduring resentment - they are still referred to in the proposals as 'public schools' - commonly direct their endowment income to bursaries and maintaining buildings.

If charitable status is removed, who will pay for the latter? How will bursaries and scholarships be financed? Is the undeniable value of a Winchester education to be refused to the 30 per cent of its pupils whose fees these awards help to pay?

Independent schools are not alone in providing highly educated and disciplined citizens. But in an age of shifting values, those who seek an independent education for their children believe those schools produce rounded individuals capable of making an important contribution to wider society.

Regrettably, schools that have traditionally sought to extend their benefits would become more exclusive. The very pupils for whom Labour should be proud to increase choice, and whom it claims to represent, would be disadvantaged. Its education commissioners would symbolise the perpetuation of division, just as its policy represents the purblind and rejected dogma of the past.

The writer is headteacher of Portsmouth Grammar School.