Schools: Public schools, public spirit? Or is it self-interest?

Tony Blair wants to bridge the divide between private and state schools. Assisted places have been axed but what else might the Government want from the independent sector and what are the fee-paying schools willing to offer? Elaine Williams investigates.

Independent school heads are feeling distinctly jittery, following the debacle over assisted places.

It was a battle they were resigned to losing, particularly in the light of such a huge Labour majority. The Government had made it clear that once the nasty business was over, and the Bill abolishing the assisted places scheme was on the statute book, a new era of partnership could begin.

A consensual New Labour has moved away from the old ideas of withdrawing charitable status from independent schools, and imposing VAT on school fees. Heads of independent schools remain sceptical of any taxation promises made prior to an election, though a series of meetings between Ministers and independent heads and their representatives after the general election shows that the Government is seriously interested in building bridges.

But that's as clear as it gets. What the nature of the new partnership will be, and whether it will take on a legal characteristic - a quid pro quo for the schools retaining their charitable status - has still to be revealed. The waiting is causing some anxiety.

One set of clear proposals has come from Dr Martin Stephen, high master of Manchester Grammar School. He had a private meeting last month with Stephen Byers, Minister for School Standards, and again raised three proposals that he submitted when he met Tony Blair before the election. First, that sixth-formers wishing to take minority subjects that lacked teachers within the maintained sector should be educated at the school at no extra cost to the state. Second, a pilot scheme in conjunction with the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle and five universities should be introduced, to ensure that the first year of a four-year Masters science course is taught in the schools. Third, a scheme should be set up for the school to prepare Oxbridge candidates from state schools.

Manchester Grammar has launched a pounds 10m bursary appeal to replace the assisted places scheme, and is seeking to define a new role for itself. Dr Stephen says: "There is a lot of general talk about fruitful co-operation with government and the maintained sector, but I was concerned to put concrete proposals on the table."

Stephen Byers is showing particular interest in ways in which independent schools could help to raise standards, and Dr Stephen said his proposals were receiving "serious further consideration". The Minister is expected shortly to set up a body to look at schemes for partnership between the maintained and independent sectors.

Other academic schools, such as Dulwich College, and Wisbech Grammar School near Cambridge (which has over 300 pupils on assisted places, the highest percentage in the country), are interested in the idea of educating bright pupils at the expense of the state. Dulwich is already approaching local authority officials on this matter. However, other independent heads are worried that they may be asked to offer services to state schools that many of them would be unable to fulfil.

Vivian Anthony, general secretary of the Headmasters and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), representing the country's top public schools, which holds its annual conference next week, points out that some rural schools are struggling hard to fill places, particularly now that the assisted places scheme has been axed. These schools would not find it so easy to make their resources available to people outside the school.

"We recognise that we are part of a national education system," said Mr Anthony, "but the Government has to bear in mind that we are financed by the fees of parents who expect the fees to be used for the benefit of their children."

There are some, though, who believe the Government should go much further than just getting the independent sector to share its resources.

George Walden, a former education minister, who stood down as Conservative MP for Buckingham at the last election, has argued for the creation of a new "open sector" offering places on ability and aptitude, funded by central government, in which fees would be means tested. He believes there should be a more radical shake-up than the sharing of facilities. "This amounts to patrician condescension - throwing an apple over the wall of the estate for the poor beleagured masses."

The Charity Commission is about to embark on a review of its 180,000 charities, including independent schools. That may bring about some redefinition of charitable status.

In an article this week in Isis, the magazine of the Independent Schools Information Service, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, says that he hopes for a partnership "which will help end the educational apartheid that has grown up between different sectors in British education - in particular specialist independent schools offer facilities which are not available in the state sector".

Mr Blunkett has praised the schemes for local children supported by Dulwich College and by the King Edward VI Foundation, which has two famous academic public schools in Birmingham and has given strategic and financial support to the Children's University and the University of the Third Age, and offers Saturday morning and evening classes for the city's pupils.

Dulwich has opened its facilities and teaching staff to the Southwark Community Education Council, a charity that runs a Saturday school for children in year six from seven local primary schools in science, maths, drama and English. It has this week started a Saturday literacy scheme for children in years three and four. Dulwich College and King Edward's School, Birmingham were the only two independent schools to be involved in "Flying Start", the Government's summer literacy pilot scheme. The Secretary of State said he would like to see more of this kind of partnership. He would also like to see independent schools "offer the use of flexible boarding for children who need this kind of environment".

Many independent schools already share their sports facilities with local communities and maintained schools for a nominal sum, or free. Many run sports, language and arts courses. It remains to be seen whether this kind of provision will become a requirement.

Dick Davison, deputy director of ISIS, said: "At the moment we don't really know what the shape of the playing-field is going to be. The next step must be a more specific definition of what we are discussing.For example, do they expect boarding schools to fund places for maintained school pupils themselves? And are we talking about children on the edge of going to youth detention centres, or what?"

Given that the Government has continued the scheme to fund places for gifted children at private dance and music schools, Isis also believes it will be useful to negotiate this kind of provision in other areas. The Government, though will be vigilant to block anything that resembles the assisted places scheme.

Numbers in independent schools rose by 1.7 per cent in 1996 - the biggest rise in the past 10 years, and the second biggest ever recorded. The sector can therefore well afford to lose the assisted places, though some restructuring is expected; some mergers have already taken place. The Girls Public Day School Trust has launched a pounds 70m bursary appeal to make up for the loss.

Mr Anthony estimates that over the next 10 years independent schools will be able to fund one-third of the value of assisted places by bursaries.

share it out

According to a "Good Neighbours" audit by ISIS:

Over 70 per cent of independent schools share sporting facilities with community groups and over one third with maintained schools, with lettings at cost or less. Nearly 40 per cent of community lettings and two thirds of maintained school lettings are free.

One in 10 independent schools are involved in co- operative arrangements with maintained schools such as shared classes, shared use of teachers or teacher exchanges.

HMC is considering launching its own audit of special links and relationships between the two sectors in the light of Government statements.

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