The independent schools' contribution to able children, however, cannot be judged on A-level results alone. There is clear evidence that pupils of average and low-average ability are more successful in the independent than in the maintained sector. This is hardly surprising when one considers the advantages enjoyed by most independent schools. In the past three years the gap between the GCSE results of the two sectors has grown overall, but most noticeably between the bottom 15 per cent.
Many of us who run schools that are only partially selective, or even non-selective, know that, judged by national norms, our pupils regularly over-achieve, not only in GCSE but also at seven, 11 and 13. The combination of better examination results, confidence and social skills makes them more employable than most of their state school equivalents, and many go on to further or higher education. Their achievements contrast with those of similar pupils coming out of our state schools, who (unlike the brightest group) are no match for, say, their German or Japanese counterparts.
It could be argued that the "value added" factor in the independent sector is more evident among children of ordinary ability than among their very bright peers, yet the sector fails to give due credit to their achievements, or to take them as seriously as it should.
Even independent schools that have pupils of average ability or below, and who provide the best examples of "value added", are tempted by outside pressures to publish the results of the most able at the expense of the remainder.
Thus they perpetuate the general perception that partially and non-selective schools are merely pale echoes of selective schools, doing the same job but less successfully. A much healthier perception would be that excellence in education is possible for all children, but that what constitutes excellence for one child is inappropriate for another. The Government's restructuring of opportunities for 14- to 19-year-olds takes account of this, but among younger children only the independent sector is free to deviate from the National Curriculum, to experiment with new curriculum ideas and so to respond to the needs of individual children.
Finally, there are the children who, perhaps more than any others, need to be offered excellence in education: those of very low ability or with specific learning difficulties. It is questionable whether the fashion of placing them in all-ability state schools has been to their advantage since their academic achievements are on the whole dismal and the social advantages of the policy are dubious.
These are the children who would have most to gain from what the independent schools can offer: small teaching groups, expert and committed staff, good resources, a controlled and supportive environment.
At present, however, only a tiny minority of the schools are dedicated to catering for them and most of these are boarding schools.
I believe that the independent sector, which seems to do so well whatever it undertakes, should be encouraging the development of imaginative, innovative education for the less able, whether in new day schools or as part of existing ones. The sector would then become recognised for excellence in education for all children, whatever their abilities.
Paddy Holmes is headmistress of Ditcham Park, a Hampshire independent school.
The blossoming of Edward
Edward Stainton, 17, (left) has been at Bredon School in Gloucestershire since he was eight. The school is co-educational and takes boarding and day pupils aged three to 19.
Edward's father, Julian, says: "We sent him to a traditional prep school as a boarder where he came bottom in everything. He is not stupid; he has a difficulty in learning, and was becoming clinically depressed. I looked all over the place and was eventually referred to Bredon. It's the best thing I've ever done.
"The minute you walk in you feel how friendly it is. I went to a traditional public school and one's memories of that are not always joyous. Edward was incredibly withdrawn and shy, very vulnerable. And this school has turned my son into an astonishingly self-confident, able, responsible young man." Edward is now head-boy and captain of the rugby team.
"The staff look for something in the child that he or she is good at, and they pursue it relentlessly," Mr Stainton says. "It's all about building confidence."
10 GCSEs despite dyslexia
Iain Lewis, 17, has been at Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire for about two-and-a-half years. He moved there after his previous independent school closed and after spending a disastrous week at a local comprehensive.
Iain's mother, Doreen, says: "Iain has slight dyslexia so we wanted a more rounded school. At Kingham he has really enjoyed the sport and outdoor activities, which are emphasised in the same way as the academic side. I believe if they play hard, they work hard." He does rugby, football, cricket, swimming, and cycling.
Iain has 10 GCSEs in a mixture of grades: his highest is an A and his lowest a D. He is now doing a General National Vocational Qualification in Business and Finance Advanced, an A-level in Economics and possibly AS Maths.
"The school has given him a lot of confidence," Mrs Lewis says. "It really encourages them and makes them into rounded, confident people."
Of his week at a comprehensive Iain says: "The classes were big, and when the teachers set you work it didn't bother them if you didn't do it. There was less for them to mark."Reuse content