Opinion: The price of independents

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No independent school should examine the teeth of any gift horse. Of course, all participants are grateful for the assisted places scheme: for example, it gives this school 95 pupils who otherwise would not be here. We could replace them with full fee-payers, but do not want to - we want them. But with spring comes the admissions season, and the frustrations of the system nag again.

Assisted places are designed to create a social mix in independent schools and offer space in specialist, high-flying schools to gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I sympathise with both aims. They are in accord with the objectives of the North London Collegiate School and many others. But those aims are not always met. In some places, the scheme is failing to reach the ethnic minority and disadvantaged pupils that it is designed to help.

The reasons are not far to seek. To qualify for a full free place under the assisted places scheme, the family income has to be less than £9,352 a year. In London that means in reality that neither parent is in employment or that there is a single parent (usually mother) in a part-time job. It sometimes means a divorced mother who has been left with a low income as part of a "clean break" settlement. The result is that many people in low-paid occupations do not qualify, although they could not contemplate paying fees. The scheme works on a sliding scale, and when the family income reaches £26,000 the parents are liable for the full fee.

All kinds of occupations fall outside the scheme, such as teachers, who earn too much for help and too little to pay fees and their rent.

The other reason the scheme is failing to reach its target is because it is quite a tough proposition for an 11-year-old to enter what seems an alien world. London is not a classless society, and it is as hard as ever to leave friends and enter a world involving lots of homework, Latin and two modern languages, where everyone else seems to go abroad for holidays. Happily, some make this step, and I have great admiration for them, but it would be easier if there were more children from less privileged backgrounds.

This school, like many others, was a direct grant school until 1976. In those days 40 per cent of pupils had free scholarship places. Everyone who came through that system claims that it offered a genuine social mix, that the daughters of the rich and poor sat beside each other in class in a way that they do not currently do in the locality comprehensive. The assisted places scheme is not able to reach enough people, certainly in London, for that situation to be reproduced. There are areas in the country where it is working in that way: some Lancashire schools have up to 40 per cent assisted places and are able to keep the traditions of the direct grant status, but where there are only a few assisted places in a school it is much more difficult.

It is clear at the moment that parents are giving themselves over to the admissions procedures almost full-time during February and entering their daughters for different grant-maintained or sought-after LEA schools as well as independent schools. Selection is returning to the state system. In wanting a selected secondary school for their daughters, these parents are not seeking snobbish exclusiveness. They are seeking stability and academic drive. The promise of "choice" is taken seriously and they want their daughters to be taught as much science, as many languages, as much technology, history and geography as can be done in a day.

Many independent schools would like again to be part of the choice that all parents could make. We would like to have scholarship places again as we did under the direct grant, when girls who qualified for grammar school places could also try for a scholarship place at a direct grant school so that we could welcome a wide social mix. The calculus one learns at school fades, but the ethos stays. Schools have to stand for the high moral ground or they are nothing, and that means actively promoting love of one's neighbour and ensuring that everyone has a variety of neighbours. We are grateful for the assisted places scheme and our own bursaries for helping us to do that, but it is a struggle. Out of the present turmoil, we would like a settled environment that makes us more accessible.

The writer is head of North London Collegiate School, a fee-paying academic girls' school.