Labour should subsidise local authority places for less wealthy pupils in independent schools, Hugh Wright, new chairman of the Headmasters' Conference, said at its annual meeting in Dublin.
Labour sources indicated last night that the party was considering councils buying independent school places for pupils with special needs and aptitude, but not chosen by academic selection.
Mr Wright urged the Government to expand the assisted places scheme, which helps bright pupils from poor homes to attend private schools, or to bring in some other scheme of government-backed scholarships. Independent school representatives are discussing an expansion of the 30,000-place scheme with Downing Street, which hopes the policy will emphasise the Conservatives' differences with Labour.
Labour has said it will abolish the scheme, which costs pounds 110m a year, and use the money to fund smaller class sizes. But Mr Wright said: "New Labour is looking at independent schools in a new way."
In a speech designed to woo politicians of all parties, Mr Wright, head of King Edward's School in Birmingham, told 240 conference members: "I say to politicians of all parties that you cannot afford to be without us. The independent sector has 7 per cent of all pupils, more at 16-plus where places are most costly, and if it were not there, the Department for Education and Employment's budget would have to increase by at least pounds 1bn."
He made it clear that public schools were prepared to open their facilities to the community as Labour has demanded. "Our facilities can be had cost- effectively and for some pupils in every locality a place bought in our schools by the local education authority would save duplication and often help specialist talent to be developed."
Mr Wright said more pupils should have access to independent schools, not necessarily through the assisted places scheme. He said it would not be as expensive as it sounded.
He argued that the cost to the Treasury of each pupil's education was little more than if they were in state schools, particularly in the sixth form.
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said the party was interested in Mr Wright's offer to open up private school facilities but he added: "While we would be happy to discuss any proposals which the Headmasters' Conference may have, we are not in favour of an alternative to the assisted places scheme."
Public school heads should continue to give pupils a strong moral lead, said Roy Chapman, head of Malvern College, despite the fact that some had fallen below those standards since his similar call at last year's conference. Peter Hobson, head of Charterhouse, resigned recently after meetings with an escort girl.
Mr Chapman said: "I don't believe teachers should claim to be unique in facing up to the pressure put on people in all walks of life."Reuse content