Leading article: Faith and hope in charity

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Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist and founder of the Sutton Trust, is right to challenge the independent sector to consider whether it is "morally justified" in continuing to claim charitable status for its schools. The millions of pounds in taxes it saves as a result of having charitable status helps to give the independent sector the edge over state schools. That money helps to provide the funds needed to give pupils smaller classes and the teachers higher salaries. In addition, as Sir Peter pointed out to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference taking place in Dublin this week, the money the independent sector spends in scholarships and bursaries often goes to families who could afford private education because that scholarship money is not means-tested.

But there is a consensus emerging among the independent schools - spearheaded by Graham Able, this year's HMC chairman and headmaster of Dulwich College in south London - that means-testing is the way forward. His school is to abolish scholarships that give pupils a 50 per cent fee reduction from next year and spend the money saved on subsidising pupils from poorer homes. The sector is cottoning on to the Government's agenda of widening participation. And it may be realising that the way to keep the Government at bay over charitable status is to take more children from poorer homes, just as they used to do in previous centuries. And it might dent some of the recommendations in the Schwartz committee on university admissions if the private schools are seen to be becoming more egalitarian. Why should state school pupils be given a leg up if independent schools begin to take sizeable numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

A more liberal and liberating strategy for the future of education seemed to be emerging from this year's HMC conference. In his chairman's address, Able suggested reducing the pressure of exams by turning the GCSE into a 10-year progress report - with only maths and English assessed externally. This would open the way for a three-year sixth form. These ideas are well worth exploring by the inquiry into education for 14-to 19-year-olds set up under Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools' inspector. However, there is a danger here that formally bringing GCSE forward by a year could lead to pupils choosing their subject options and being divided into academic sheep and vocational goats at 13. That needs to be avoided.