Fourteen years after Labour's election manifesto pledged to abolish private schools, the Government has told them that their future is safe. The more recent threat that they might lose their charitable status unless they could justify it is also receding.
Instead, there is to be a new government advisory group which will devise ways in which state and private schools can co-operate, and pounds 250,000 for partnership-pilot projects.
A further pounds 250,000 will be provided by Peter Lampl, a millionaire businessman who earlier this year funded a summer school for state-school pupils to encourage them to apply to Oxford University. Mr Lampl told The Independent last night that he wanted to encourage able children from non-privileged backgrounds to benefit from the excellent facilities available at many independent schools. Britain was allowing a lot of talent to "go to waste because many bright young people are not being given the opportunities to realise their full potential", he said.
The money will be used to help state school pupils study in private schools, for example in minority subjects such as Latin, for Oxbridge entrance or even short periods of boarding. Summer schools to help slow readers are another possibility.
Compared with the assisted-places scheme, which used taxpayers' money to fund places for pupils from poor backgrounds in independent schools and which was abolished by the Government this summer, the money involved is tiny.
But Mr Byers, the first Labour minister to address an independent schools conference, insisted that it was symbolic of a completely new approach. He told the Girls' Schools Association of leading private-school heads in Bristol: "The time has come for old prejudices to be buried. I want you to know that the Government is looking forward to working in partnership with you to raise standards."
He even acknowledged that Labour's threat to abolish independent schools might have been one of the reasons why it was defeated so badly in 1983. He said: "The Government has made it clear that we wish to build bridges wherever we can across education divides. The education apartheid created by the public/private divide diminishes the whole education system."
On the subject of charitable status, which saves independent schools millions of pounds each year, he said: "Let me make it clear. It is not part of our agenda to encourage the Independent Charity Commission to withdraw charitable status."
Ministers would not compel private schools to make any changes, Mr Byers said, and their standards would not be compromised.
Mr Byers denied that the new projects were a reinvention of the assisted- places scheme. The crucial difference, he argued, was that pupils would remain on the roll of their state school. State schools would have to agree that their pupils should study for part of the time at an independent school.
The heads applauded him warmly. Jackie Lang, the association's new president, said: "It is a historic day. Mr Byers has done more then bury the hatchet. A great axe has been buried."
But she said that there were still obstacles to overcome: some Labour local authorities and state school heads are expected to resist attempts to cream off their brightest pupils for even part of the time.
How THE PARTY LINE HAS CHANGED
THEN: Labour Manifesto, 1983: "Private schools are a major obstacle to a free and fair education system, able to serve the needs of the whole community. We will ... integrate private schools within the local authority sector where necessary."
NOW: Schools standards minister Stephen Byers yesterday: "The time has come for old prejudices to be buried. I want you to know that the Government is looking forward to working in partnership with you to raise standards."Reuse content