Deborah Orr: What lessons can we draw from the latest lecture by New Labour's favourite teacher?

Click to follow

Dr Anthony Seldon comes across as such a honey. There he is running his grand old public school, Wellington College, teaching his pupils how to be happy as well as how to decline Latin verbs, engaging with public life instead of keeping his head down, busying himself with helping to start up a new comprehensive for the less fortunate, and finding time to nag all of his colleagues in the private education sector to consider the possibility of modelling themselves on him.

Would one have to make Seldon up if he hadn't made himself up already? Not really. Ultra-goodie schoolmasters get made up all the time. James Hilton made one up for Goodbye Mr Chips. Alan Bennett made one up for The History Boys. There are plenty more. Whether at a private boarding school or at a grammar, the idea that selective education is given a special extra burnish by inspirational teachers who give a little extra, rather than vulgar stuff like finer infrastructure, more investment per child, and incidentals like selection itself, is deeply embedded in the romantic history of the English elite-school ethos.

It's bogus, of course. Everyone understands that an inspirational teacher is an inspirational teacher, whether in a formal or an informal structure, or one that is funded by the state or by parents. My comprehensive was absolutely littered with inspirational teachers, even though the vast majority of pupils still did manage to dig their heels in and affect not to notice.

Not that Dr Seldon is quite the ethereally vocational creature that he may appear. His recent speech rallying the independent sector to heed the call of the Schools Minister Andrew Adonis, and start supporting the setting up of secondary schools with academy status, can be seen simply as one aspect of his long-standing support for, and association with, New Labour and its policies.

His exhortations chime not only with Adonis's ambitions for private schools to involve themselves with academies, by sharing their "educational DNA", but also with the Charity Commission's as yet inchoate promises/threats that independent schools will have to prove their benefits to the wider community if the 50 per cent that claim charitable tax breaks wish to hang on to them.

Anyway, Dr Seldon's very public comments, exhorting independent schools to start patronising state schools, can be seen merely as a restoration of balance. Last year, in a similarly rousing fashion, Bernard Trafford, head of Wolverhampton Grammar School, insisted in a speech : "People just want to have a go with any weapon they can – the public benefit debate is the latest. The politics of envy is alive and well. And we can't win. We're damned if we don't do good works, and damned if we do because if we do, it is suggested, we're only doing it to keep the Charity Commission off our backs."

Dr Seldon, at least, is optimistic about the benefits he and his ilk might bring, and is willing to have a go and see what happens. Mr Trafford, on the other hand, displays absolutely no belief that a contribution from the private sector might do any good at all. His apparent view is that the independent sector is better simply because it is independent, and that sharing its educational DNA with the state sector is just unnatural, like monkeys breeding with tigers.

I don't think he is right. State schools can and should learn from the private sector, or at least try to, at least as an experiment. The private sector, I'm afraid, simply does educate people better, largely because its fees filter out many of the most disruptive problems of deprivation that state schools have to deal with, but also because it is more ambitious for its less able pupils that the state sector appears to be.

Even the arguments most fondly bandied by those who would argue otherwise attest to this. For example, surveys show that state-educated pupils tend to get better degrees once they get to university. Many say this shows that state pupils are taught to think creatively, while private pupils are taught only to regurgitate facts. Wherever they themselves were educated, they certainly didn't get the hang of analysing evidence. What this illustrates really is that a small proportion of very bright, self-motivated people make it to university from state schools, while a large proportion of moderately bright children in the independent sector are schooled well enough to see the virtue in collecting and retaining as much hard information as they can. It's not hard to see this is a perfectly desirable state of affairs, and that it would be excellent if it could be harnessed for the many.

Yet, even if one accedes to the idea that the involvement of private schools could actually make state schools better, it is not always that easy for private schools to practice what Adonis and Seldon are preaching. Take Pimlico School in Westminster, which was recently put on special measures by Westminster Council and earmarked for conversion to academy status.

Among possible sponsors who came forward were Westminster School – one of the country's most highly-rated academic establishments – and Haberdashers' Aske's – another of them, by jingo. One or two of the local parents who had previously looked askance at the idea of Pimlico losing its community status became rather more interested. It would be interesting to see how Westminster, or even Haberdashers', made out running the board of a slightly scary school like Pimlico, which has 1,343 pupils – most of them passively deselected in class terms by the preponderance of private schools in the area.

Alas, Westminster Council did not think the experiment so very beguiling and instead signed up with Future, a charitable trust that runs various enterprises, including a schools-based counselling service, entitled, encouragingly, the Place2Be. It does have links to a management business called Alpha Plus Group, which runs a number of private prep schools but only one secondary, Portland Place (with 330 pupils). It need hardly be added that this does not have anything like the outstanding reputations of either of the rejected schools.

It need hardly be further added that the taxpayers whose children use the school have not been adequately apprised of how the local council made its surprising decision. The journalist Melissa Benn reported in The Guardian that no minutes were taken at the meeting held to discuss which sponsor to choose. She also pointed out that, among local people involved in campaigning about the school's future, there have been many dark murmurings about how Westminster is a Conservative council and about how John Nash, the man who heads up Future, is a Tory donor who supported David Davis's leadership campaign.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that becoming an independent school sponsoring a state school is not as easy as Dr Seldon, or Lord Adonis, would like us all to think.