Michael Gove: 'My first priority is to improve state schools'

What can the private sector expect from a possible Conservative government?
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In the old days, it was an open-and-shut case. The Conservatives were on the side of the independent sector whereas Labour wanted to close it down. This time, however, the independent schools still have one or two questions to which they would like answers from the Conservatives before election day.

The private sector knows that it will get exam reform as a Conservative government will recognise the IGCSE, the traditional exam for 16-year-olds based on old O-level lines, and a range of other qualifications such as the Cambridge Pre-U, a traditional version of A-levels because of its emphasis on end-of-year examinations.

Independent schools have been heartened by comments from the Conservatives' schools spokesman, Michael Gove, who in an interview with The Independent before Christmas said that his party would initiate immediate talks with the Charity Commission over the way it has been interpreting new legislation over charitable status. This is one area of education policy where relations have soured with the Labour Government or, more particularly, with the Charity Commission's interpretation of it.

The new law requires charities to justify their charitable status, and the Charity Commission has interpreted this as meaning earmarking enough money out of their budgets to give bursaries to less well-off families.

Relations between the commission and independent schools reached such a low point that even a reassurance from the commission chairman, Dame Suzi Leather, that schools are unlikely to be inspected in the immediate future and – even if they are – will have five years to put matters right, failed to mollify independent school heads.

Things got so bad that John Tranmer, chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (two of whose members had been told they didn't satisfy the requirements for charitable status) and the head teacher of Froebelian School in Leeds, when asked what present he would like from an incoming Conservative government, said: "A new challenge for Suzi Leather."

Gove has said that the Conservatives want the commission to extend its criteria for assessing charitable status to cover a wider range of activities – such as sharing sports facilities or the imaginative scheme introduced by St Paul's School whereby talented maths students from neighbouring state schools are given master-classes.

So far, so good, as far as the Conservatives are concerned, but there is a slight shiver in the independent sector about Tory plans to set up a new network of Swedish-style "free" schools – run independently but financed by the state, which would rival the existing state sector. Under it, the Conservatives envisage parents' and teachers' groups, faith groups, trusts and charities coming up with plans to set up their own schools. In particular, the Tories want to see new, smaller versions of Labour's flagship academies scheme set up in the most deprived areas of the inner cities. Some existing private schools might be interested in opting for the state shilling to become part of the scheme – they would have to be free and non-selective to qualify, Conservative sources have suggested.

However, Andrew Grant, the chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, representing 250 of the top former boys-only schools such as Eton and Harrow, doubts whether many private schools would be prepared to ditch selection to take advantage of the scheme.

"Successful independent schools would be deeply reluctant to forgo their right to select, especially as there are 164 schools remaining in the state sector that do select at 11," says Grant, who is the headmaster of St Albans School in Hertfordshire.

He would like an incoming Conservative government to view the independent sector as "part of the solution, not part of the problem". He believes, however, that it may take some time before the Conservatives come up with a voucher system – whereby funding follows pupils – that could be used towards fees at private schools.

"Maybe in the second term of a Conservative government," he says. "They may be reluctant to make too much of a rapprochement with the private sector." In other words, the high concentration of ex-pupils from top private schools in a possible future Conervative cabinet might make them reluctant to be seen to be favouring the sector.

Other senior sources in the private sector also doubt the attraction of the Conservatives' independent free schools' scheme, believing that, although such a proposal could be successful in a small country such as Sweden, it might not resonate with parents in the same way in Britain. That is because their needs are already met in the independent sector.

Gove has no target for the number of schools he wants to create – it would depend on demand, he says. The scheme will, however, be given a top priority in a Conservative government.

"I hope this will lever up performance in existing schools [as they will face competition]," he says. "In fact, if no new schools were created but all schools improved as a result of the potential to open them, I would be delighted."

That is unlikely to happen, as 200 parents and 100 teachers have expressed an interest in setting up their own schools already.

Tranmer points out that, in the Conservatives' draft manifesto, so far there is no mention of the existing independent sector. This is in sharp contrast to New Labour, which spent much time backing partnerships between the state and private sectors and wooing top private schools to become academies.

Gove is adamant about his priorities. "My first priority is to improve state schools. If more people left the independent sector for the state sector because our reforms had improved state schools, I would be happy with that."

That is not the kind of message to warm the hearts of independent school heads. In other words, Gove may judge his success or failure by whether the number of pupils at traditional independent schools declines.