Welcome to school, boys

The top fee-paying school in Wales has opened its doors to boys in the sixth form - a further sign of the onward march of co-education. Biddy Passmore investigates
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The Independent Online

Howell's GDST school in Llandaff, the top-performing school in Wales, opened its new sixth-form college this September with 25 boys in the lower sixth. The change, says the head Jane Fitz, came in response to repeated pleas from parents that "we want our boys to do as well as our daughters". But the school will stay all-girls from 11 to 16, she emphasises.

One by one, the bastions of single-sex education are falling. The HMC, once the heartland of the boys' public school, has a female chairman (sic) for the first time in its history. Dr Priscilla Chadwick is head of the 1,000-pupil Berkhamsted Collegiate School, co-educational up to 11 and post-16, but single sex in-between.

To add to the confusion, there are now nearly as many girls boarding in former boys' public schools as in the all-female establishments of the Girls' Schools Association.

The inexorable growth of co-education is just one way in which the independent sector is changing, as schools forsake their old, cloistered ways for a style more in keeping with their surrounding community.

After eight years of Labour government, and against all expectations, independent schools are flourishing as never before. Their 504,000 pupils - now almost equally divided between girls and boys - account for 7 per cent of pupils in England. Pupil numbers have dropped a little, by 0.6 per cent, but the drop is smaller than the fall in pupil numbers nationally and recruitment to sixth forms is healthy. Plenty of parents are still content to part with fees now averaging nearly £3,000 a term for day pupils and more than £6,000 a term for boarding.

What are they buying? Small classes (fewer than 10 pupils per teacher); well qualified staff; more teaching time (an hour a day more on average, say prep schools); and facilities for science, sport and the arts that would often do credit to a small university.

And good results, of course. Whether at key stage 2 (where more than half of pupils reach level 5); at GCSE (57 per cent achieve grade A); or A-level (46 per cent grade A) - the results just go on improving. They are strong in "hard" subjects such as science and modern languages, which are in sharp decline in the state sector.

But surveys suggest that parents care less about results and league tables than they do about the pastoral care and breadth of education - curricular and extra-curricular - offered by independent schools. All-round excellence is their chief selling point.

And a growing number of independent school heads are becoming more disenchanted, not just with league tables, but also with the tests and exams on which they are based.

A growing number of high-flying schools are now opting for the international GCSE, especially in maths and science, claiming that it is a more rigorous preparation for A-level, even though the results do not appear in the league tables.

They include Winchester College, Manchester Grammar School and St Paul's School in south-west London, whose high master, Dr Martin Stephen, has just announced a switch to the international qualification in science.

In the sixth form, more and more schools are opting for the International Baccalaureate (IB) and interest has grown faster since ministers decided earlier this year to ditch plans to replace A-levels with a new diploma.

The most academically successful of these is King's College School Wimbledon, which has now decided to drop A-levels from 2007, having run the two exams in parallel since 2001.

"The IB is just more motivating," says the KCS head, Tony Evans. "It fosters intellectual curiosity in areas that students wouldn't naturally be drawn to, which is a fine preparation for university."

Despite the gulf in achievement between independent and most state schools, partnership between the two sectors has been the mantra since Labour came to power. With the help of government funding, schemes between schools - for instance, sharing maths teaching, or providing enrichment classes for primary children - have flourished.

The HMC chairman Dr Chadwick is herself a symbol of the links between the two sectors. Not only is she the first woman chairman in the history of the HMC: she is also the first to have been the head of a comprehensive school.

At the annual conference this week, she praised Labour's openmindedness about the independent sector. Ministers were gradually adopting good practice from the independent sector for state schools, she noted, in areas such as increased autonomy for heads, more choice for parents and the extended day.

This is all a far cry from the doom and gloom in the independent sector when Labour took office. There were fears that a review of charitable status would lead to the loss of precious tax advantages, making many schools unviable.

Now, the threat has largely evaporated. A forthcoming charity Bill will simply require independent schools to prove that they operate for "public benefit". The Charity Commissioners will be checking such matters as bursary levels and community involvement. But the aim will be to encourage "underperformers" to do more rather than to withdraw charitable status.

Many schools are already transforming their scholarship and bursary schemes with the aim of widening access, although the Office of Fair Trading has warned schools that concerted action to provide more subsidised places could fall foul of competition laws.

Reigate Grammar School, alma mater of the philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, (who has criticised independent schools for failing to help the needy) has announced a restructuring of financial assistance to pupils. From next year, academic scholarships to the school will be capped at £1,000 a year and the income released will be used to offer fee remission of up to 90 per cent to those pupils who need it. This new system, says the head David Thomas, "reflects the spirit in which the school was originally founded back in the 17th century".

Tonbridge, the 700-pupil day and boarding school in Kent, is taking a similar approach as part of a £25m development programme announced last week. It aims to reduce the value of its conventional scholarships to a maximum of 20 per cent of fees and to raise funds to pay for up to 20 new, means-tested "foundation scholarships".

Just as ambitious is Millfield school in Somerset, alma mater of the tennis player Tim Henman and the swimmer Duncan Goodhew. It is celebrating its 75th birthday by launching a scholarship appeal next month. The aim, says the foundation's director, Iain McMullan, is to increase the school's endowment to £100m over the next 25 years, enabling it to double the size of its scholarship and bursary programme.

"At the moment, we are turning away kids we know would just thrive here because we cannot afford to give them enough help with the fees [£22,000 for boarding]," he says. Although nearly half of the school's 1,800 pupils already receive some kind of scholarship or bursary, some of the awards are quite small.

McMullan has advised about two dozen schools on setting up permanent fund-raising programmes. "Charitable status is lurking in the background but it's not the major driver," he says. "Governing bodies see this as an opportunity to raise money to fulfil their ambitions."

More talented oddballs needed at Shrewsbury

Public schools have rid themselves of draughty dorms and fagging but house rivalry remains important. Now Shrewsbury School in Shropshire is, literally, cashing in on the competitive spirit between its 11 houses to raise funds to admit talented but impecunious boys.

The aim is that parents and old boys of each house should pledge enough support, through five-year donations, to pay for at least one scholarship a year for a new pupil. These "house foundation awards" are worth up to half the £22,500 annual fees but can be topped up if necessary.

Founded in 1552, Shrewsbury, unlike other ancient schools such as Eton and Winchester, has no large endowment for scholarships. They have to be funded through fee income or donations. The call to house loyalty has already raised enough to see the first 11 house foundation scholars through the 13 to 18 school; nine started at the school this autumn. The new awards are in addition to the 17 academic and four music scholarships already offered.

"We're shifting our awards more and more to need rather than brains," says deputy head Peter Fanning. Boys may be chosen if they have "a clear and established enthusiasm to achieve something special," rather than straightforward talent in sport or the arts, says Marek Kwiatowski, director of the foundation. The school that produced Michael Palin and Willie Rushton appreciates "quirkiness," he adds.

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