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Chalk Talk: Can private school heads save children from the 'ghettos'?


To St Andrews for the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (and the golf). The theme of the conference for the heads of 250 of the country's leading independent schools was "Excellence Not Privilege". Apparently, privilege was misspelt in one earlier draft – which would have rather ruined the message.

Actually, the theme should have been "apartheid" – the word kept cropping up during the week. First, it was used by David Levin, the outgoing chairman of HMC and head of City of London of Boys' School, as he sought to paint a picture of what it's like to grow up in many of today's London schools which, he said, were "sleepwalking towards Johannesburg". Levin is one of the most passionate advocates of independent schools doing their bit to help more disadvantaged young people and would probably have been mortified by some of the reaction to his comments. One of the schools he named, Stepney Green, where 97 per cent of pupils are Bangladeshi, is ranked as "outstanding" by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, The reference to London schools becoming "ghettos" did not go down well with its Tower Hamlets bosses.

The "apartheid" theme was also taken up by David Cameron at the Conservative party conference, where he was talking about the divide between state and private schools.

There was no shortage of guest speakers coming up with ideas as to how you should break down that apartheid – if it exists.

Lord Winston suggested universities and private schools should allow state schools to use their science labs, in the wake of a report that said that 35 per cent of secondary schools did not have one.

Toby Young, the author and broadcaster who has founded one of the Government's flagship free schools in west London, argued that independent secondary schools should set up and sponsor their own primary feeder free schools. Although a questioner at a private seminar he addressed did ask why her parents should pay for education three times over: through taxes, fees and supporting schooling for somebody else's kids. Toby Young is optimistic. Maybe it is because I spent most of last week in the company of thrifty Scots, but I would wait to see the colour of their money.