A radical plan to help poor pupils attend some of Britain's best independent schools is stalling because of resistance from senior Conservatives within the Cabinet, the founder of the Sutton Trust educational charity claims today.
Millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl said he has had "good conversations" with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg since he announced that 80 private schools, including Westminster, Manchester Grammar School and King Edward's School, Birmingham, had signed up to his scheme to make entrance exams open to all. Under his proposal, the Government would pay the fees of pupils bright enough to pass the tests who could not otherwise afford to attend.
In his presentation last month to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents 250 of the country's top independent school, Sir Peter argued that it would cost less to subsidise the places of hard-up pupils under his "open access" proposal than it would to provide them all with a state education.
Yet, he said, the Conservatives "blow hot and cold" on the scheme, suggesting that very senior members of the Cabinet are less than enthusiastic. Asked if he had Education Secretary Michael Gove's support, Sir Peter said: "I think it is difficult in the Conservative party right now. I think there is a problem above Michael Gove's level. The Cabinet is very blue chip."
Sir Peter's comments came as he prepares to put his ideas into practice at a second, as yet unnamed, private school, 10 years after his first experiment at Liverpool's Belvedere School. Open-access entrance exams at Belvedere led to 30 per cent of places going to girls from poorer homes on full scholarships, funded by the Sutton Trust – until the school decided to join the state sector as an academy.
Sir Peter is in discussions with another school about repeating the exercise on a small scale, while he said that the number of schools signed up in support of a broader, Government-backed open-access initiative was approaching 90. But politicians from both the Conservative and Labour parties, he said, have "flip-flopped".
"I suppose what we're doing is working on including commitments to it in 2015 election manifestos," he said.
"The Conservatives blow hot and cold about it... they're worried it will link them with privilege and selection," he said. "Labour is hung up on selection, and these schools are selective. The trouble is the selection is not open to 93 per cent of the country at the moment because of the ability to pay." Sir Peter is convinced that his plan represents good value for the taxpayer, as well as a great educational opportunity for at least some pupils from poorer homes. For £180m, about 30,000 extra pupils could be given access to private schools, he said.
The Department for Education said: "Our priority is to transform the state education system so that all children are able to access a good quality education, regardless of their background. Through the expansion of the academies programme and the introduction of free schools, we are increasing the number of good school places – many of them in disadvantaged areas."
Open season: Scholarship success stories
‘Kids of my background aspire to great things’
It was one of Sarah Doyle's primary school teachers who spotted an advert for the new "open access" arrangements at Belvedere High School for Girls and encouraged her parents to let their daughter, one of the brightest pupils in the class, sit the exam. Sarah did just that and, after attending the school with the help of a Sutton Trust bursary, became the first person in her immediate family to go to university.
She remembers the early days at Belvedere when "open access" pupils were scarce: "I think they [the prep school girls] thought we were going to be louder than they were," she said. But gradually, the distinction between the two faded. "I've got friends amongst the former prep schools girls and those on the open access scheme."
After a BA in education from Liverpool John Moores University, she is now a teacher and head of PE. "I think children from my background really aspire to great things and we had teachers who really worked hard for us," she said.
‘I wouldn’t have got to uni without this opportunity’
Nneka Cummins never dreamt she could get into Belvedere, even though it was just down the street from where she lived.
"My mum came upon the open access scheme just by chance," she said. "It was on the BBC news one morning.
She joined the school in its third year of the new "open access" scheme and was entitled to full scholarship support because of her parents' income. Now 19, she is in the first year of studying for a law degree at Durham University.
"I don't think I'd have ended up where I am today if it hadn't been for the opportunity," she said.
"What the teachers gave us was above and beyond the call of duty. As someone who couldn't have paid for extra private tuition if I'd needed it, I got the extra teaching I needed."
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