James Turner: Be radical... parents should start paying a 'talent levy'

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A long-awaited marker has been laid down for the independent sector. Three out of the five private schools assessed by the Charity Commission have passed the public benefit test to safeguard their cherished charitable status, having devoted more than 5p of every £1 of income to pupils from poorer homes. Those that failed offered little or nothing to support access for low-income families.

The focus on these five schools, which constitute a tiny fraction of a sector which itself accounts for just 7 per cent of pupils, may seem a long way from the mainstream education debate. But independent schools are a super-highway to the upper echelons of society – their pupils will earn 30 per cent more than state school-leavers and dominate top universities and professions. But only the privileged can afford the fees to gain entry. These test cases are important indications of how the Government expects the sector to share its educational riches with those outside the fast track.

Independent schools spend 6 per cent of their income from fees on financial assistance for pupils and one-third of all pupils receive some support. But half of the funding goes on non means-tested scholarships, often to pupils already in private preparatory schools whose parents can well afford to pay.

Even the remainder spent on bursaries is not always used to maximise access for those from disadvantaged homes. With day-school fees averaging £10,000 a year, a bursary worth a quarter of the total cost of a place hardly brings the schools within reach of families on low earnings.

So a starting point for all schools which are serious about access is to divert existing fee assistance to grants which cover all or most of their fees. Manchester Grammar, one of the Charity Commission's case studies, sets a laudably high benchmark, funding 120 full bursaries of £9,240 a year.

The second imperative is to add to the bursary pot – the more young people who can receive such a boost, the better. But parents' wallets, particularly in a recession, can only be squeezed so far. Many will take unkindly to having the costs of educating their child raised so that a free place can be provided to another student.

One way round this, used in US private schools, is by asking parents to pay a voluntary levy to fund bursary pupils in the same class as their child. Another is to build on the example of universities and to look for alumni donations.

But funding fees is only part of the solution. Many of our most selective independent schools complain that pupils in state primaries, who have not had access to a prep school education or personal tuition, do not measure up academically in entrance exams even if bursary places were available.

Forward-thinking independent schools should be looking to offer a wider package of support to pupils in disadvantaged primaries, levelling the playing field through booster classes and enrichment activities which would help to raise their performance in entrance tests.

The sector should also consider alternative ways of identifying potential beyond conventional exams. Manchester Grammar, for example, has introduced an assessment day to see how pupils respond to classroom teaching in the hope of finding bright sparks who might otherwise have been missed.

Ultimately, we need to be realistic about what the independent sector can achieve on its own. A real change in access to private schooling – which will benefit significant numbers of non-privileged children – would require a substantial injection of state funding into a national programme. That bold move seems no closer, despite today's publications.

The writer is the policy director of the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for disadvantaged children to have access to all forms of education