Licensed to cull

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The schools exam league tables have clearly had an effect upon the many senior independent schools that are the first to disclaim them.

This effect is increasingly being called "The Cull", and in more normal usage refers to the elimination of excess wildlife in order to restore the natural balance, or these days, more sinisterly to rid us of infected livestock. The problem is we are not referring to animals, but our 16- year-old children about to continue with their sixth-form careers in the schools in which they began at 11.

Schools are increasingly adopting policies about admission to the sixth form from the fifth form. Nothing wrong with this, they would say, they have always done it, and anyway, they are "independent" and can do what they like.

The quarrel that many parents and pupils (and, let it be said some teachers too) now have is that such decisions are less likely to be guided these days by the best interests of the pupil, and more by the best interests of the school. Questions like "we know that this boy is capable of getting his A-levels, but do we really want his likely two Cs and a D to pull down our points on the league tables?"

At this point headmasters of all schools reading this will shake their heads and say that they would never dream of operating such a policy. Yet, the recent debacle at Cheltenham College, where the headmaster was given 48 hours to resign because, as parents later learned, the school had slipped from 147 to 203 in last year's tables, belies the point. The honest truth is that this is happening, often and everywhere, and it is usually dressed up as attempts to "raise standards".

Children and parents are becoming wise to this, and they feel many things. First, a sense of failure, which can be real and damaging for any teenager. Second, a sense of loss and disruption, with loss of friendships (vital at this age) and forced changes to a new school. Finally of course, a great sense of having been let down by a school that appeared to promise so much at the beginning. To many, especially beyond the independent sector, it looks as though the schools have got themselves into a moral muddle. Don't they share the view that they have an obligation to educate each child accepted by them at the outset to the best of his or her ability?

Why is the management of independent schools so keen to fall into this trap? After all, as any good teacher will say, the high-fliers are very capable of looking after themselves, and the real challenge and excitement is to be had from teaching the average student where a real difference can be made. It is hard to think that professionals with integrity and commitment would be willing to discard the simply average (ie, most of us) unless they are feeling pressure from elsewhere.

The recent problems at Cheltenham College, and several other schools, provide part of the answer: it was the governors at Cheltenham who took the view that standards needed to be raised. Not the parents, who overwhelmingly backed the headmaster, or the professionals, who had delivered a service that was widely praised in a 1994 HMC inspection, including the observation that "all abilities are catered for so that each pupil achieves his or her own best standard". Perhaps that was the point.

Peter Wilkes at Cheltenham took a professional and, it could be argued, ethical decision to include a wider range of ability, and with it a difference in status or ethos or both. In so doing, he crossed the unspoken line of "acceptability" to some of his governors. Heads at other schools continue to pursue this policy, but with increasing nervousness.

The pity of all this is that in the meantime, the parents who are the users of the service, have no opportunity to make their own views known to the governors. Independent school governing bodies remain closed to parents, there is no representation, no dialogue and no understanding by governors that such contact might be desirable. Consequently, most governors are quite unaware that parents, many of whom grew up in the Sixties, are enthusiastic about a wider social and intellectual mix, with lots of "value-added" extras that enhance their children's education.

Parents these days know that, in the real world of the Nineties, a civilised society is one that should be using its educational provision, including the independent sector that they have chosen, without having to fall back on sectional, elitist attitudes of 50 years ago. This can all be achieved without having to compromise upon the standards of excellence for which the public schools are, rightly, highly regarded.

While governors have climbed on the bandwagon of a market-focused business approach, they have failed to take in some important lessons in economics. The fee cost factor makes demand less elastic. The most effective marketing strategy in this circumstance is to widen your appeal to as many as possible.

Governors would do well to remember, if they insist upon following the business ethic above all other, that successful businesses ignore at their peril the market in to which most consumers fall. Unless, that is, one is using the yardstick of success that was relevant a century, or even 50 years ago: a public school education to an elite, "officer-type" ruling class, which expects to make decisions for and on behalf of others, who then carry them out. Surely, they cannot mean this. Or can they? Since membership of many governing boards is self-selecting, and drawn fairly exclusively from retired academia, the church, law and the military, such views are not uncommon.

In the face of mounting criticism of the way that governors in independent schools have behaved over recent years, we must give some answer to the questions raised here. No, it is not acceptable to treat parents with arrogant contempt. Yes, it is reasonable for parents to have a right to a view, and for it to be heard. It is desirable for governing boards to make themselves much more open and accessible to parents, who have a stake in the schools' success. Parents are entitled to know who the governors are, and, crucially, how they are appointed. No, it is unacceptable for governors to follow procedures for the removal of heads by using 19th- century employment practices. Finally, lest it be forgotten by governors what it is they are appointed to do, no, we do not wish governors to pursue policies that are best described as a cull, because it is unethical, demoralising, and savage. Ultimately, it is socially divisive, because it attacks the bonds of loyalty and friendship that children make. All our children will one day be contributing to societyn

The writer is the parent of children attending independent schools.