Education: Schools - All aboard ... fee-paying schools reach out to state sector

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The Independent Online
Independent schools are walking a tightrope. With the Tories out of office, they have to please a government that does not think they are doing enough to share facilities with state schools, while trying to ensure that they don't alienate the fee-paying parents who choose them over state schools. Maureen O'Connor reports.

"I really felt quite angry when I heard the schools minister talking about how much the public schools have to offer the state sector," says Eric Dawson, head of Sir William Romsey comprehensive school in Gloucestershire. He is an enthusiast for his own co-operative scheme involving state and independent schools. But he is adamant that co-operation can only work if there is mutual respect.

"What we do is pool resources and that way we are all able to provide additional stimulus for students and broaden their experience. It is a relationship between equals, not one school condescending to another."

Mr Dawson's reservations about the Government's initiative to foster links between independent and state schools are not the mere twitchiness of a poor relation. Dr Martin Stephen, high master of fee-paying Manchester Grammar School, and another enthusiast for co-operation between the sectors, makes much the same point. And he is speaking from an institution that could easily be regarded as the giver rather than the receiver in any arrangement between a highly academic and successful selective school and local comprehensives.

Manchester Grammar School has four co-operative schemes under consideration. These include making minority A-level subjects such as classics and Russian available to other schools, on a business basis; organising a "buddy" scheme which provides sixth-form mentors to inner-city schools; making Oxbridge tuition available to pupils from "damaged" educational backgrounds; and exploring with the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle the possibility of running university-level modules for exceptionally able students of both sectors at sixth-form level.

But Dr Stephen also believes that to work, such experiments have to be mutually beneficial for the schools involved. In the cases he is exploring, he says, there will be a benefit for MGS as well as its partners. Either academic subjects will be strengthened, particularly at A-level, or his own students will widen their own experience in the local community.

But it was clear from the survey published by the Independent Schools Council last week that much of the cross-sector activity already going on does not fully meet Mr Dawson's and Dr Stephen's definition of mutuality. Nor do many of the schemes in existence for opening up sports or music and drama facilities to local communities, beneficial as they are, meet the Government's objective of enhancing academic performance. As schools' minister Stephen Byers put it himself, whilst there are many independent schools involved in community-based activities, educational links are at an early stage of development.

But the pace has been quickened by the offer of pounds 500,000 financial support for up to 75 demonstration projects which focus on teaching and learning. Half the money will come from the DfE and half from the Sutton Trust, an educational trust set up by the philanthropist Pater Lampl. In addition an advisory group chaired by Chris Parker, head of Nottingham High School, is looking at how local partnerships operate and how good practice can be expanded.

And money undoubtedly helps this sort of project. In Birmingham, perhaps the city where co-operation has gone furthest, a great advantage has been the King Edward's Foundation, which has the ability to pump in resources without the danger of state schools feeling patronised. Hugh Wright, chief master of fee paying King Edward's School for boys in Edgbaston, welcomes the use of Foundation money for joint projects such as the Children's University and the University of the First Age, which aim to help high- flyers in primary and secondary schools.

"The Foundation can put up "neutral" money to help us explore areas of mutual interest with the state sector," Mr Wright says. Talks are already going on about A-level physics revision classes, seminars and individual tuition for Oxbridge candidates using teachers from both sectors, and out-of-school activities.

Ian Beer, the former head of Harrow, who chairs the Independent Schools Council, says that the difficulties of co-operation should not be under- estimated. There are particular problems, he suggests, in trying to link independent boarding schools with state day schools because of their differently organised timetables. Even if schools can develop the personal relationships between staff upon which so much will depend, the logistics of co-operation may not be easy.

Even so he sees a lot of mileage beyond the obvious advantages of joint A-level and Oxbridge classes. Field trips, homework facilities, GCSE revision, joint academic societies able to attract high-powered speakers because they serve pupils from more than one school: all these are ideas he thinks pairs or groups of schools could explore. And it is often the state schools which have expertise in areas like GNVQs, the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme and technical subjects, which can benefit private school pupils.

"There is a huge social as well as academic spin-off. The divisions in this country between urban and rural schools, rich and poor, make mixing in itself a moral good," Mr Beer says.

Is that a view shared by parents in the independent sector? Some of them may believe that "going private" guarantees a desirable social exclusivity as well as a better chance of academic excellence.

Heads who have ventured into these sensitive waters say that they have not met objections. At the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, which is involved in three pilot co-operative schemes with state schools, the headteacher, James Miller, says he had nothing but support from his school's parents.

"With the abolition of the assisted places scheme we have run the risk of becoming more socially exclusive, but I don't think anyone wants that. Parents are not looking for advantage or privilege. There is a real commitment to the region and people want all children to have the best quality education."

Even in the boarding sector, Ian Beer never found parents "making funny noises" about contacts with state schools. "Of course private school parents want the highest standards for their own children, but they also want them to be able to mix with the 93 per cent of the population who don't go to independent schools," he says. He believes that the impetus for co-operation is so strong and the ideas coming through so imaginative that co-operation can hardly fail to prosper.