Peter Lampl: Private schools must be opened up to the poor

So far neither party has expressed great enthusiasm to promote Open Access
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The Independent Online

The news on yesterday's front page of The Independent that independent and selective state schools are overwhelmingly responsible for this year's increase in numbers of A-grades at A-level results is no surprise.

One of the distinguishing features of the UK is that the gap in performance between independent and state schools is higher than in any other country in the Western world. Our independent schools represent some of the best schools in the world. More is the pity that they are accessed only by the small minority able to pay the fees required for entry.

Part of the reason for this educational divide is that independent schools attract many of the best teachers. Pupils at comprehensive schools are at a huge disadvantage. Teachers in independent schools are seven times more likely to have gone to Oxbridge, and five times more likely to hold a PhD. Crucially, they are also more likely to hold a degree in the subjects they are teaching, especially in shortage subjects such as the physical sciences, mathematics and modern languages.

Top independent schools and selective grammar schools make it their business to convert their students' excellent A-level grades into places at top universities. It is partly due to this highly socially selective education system that the UK's record for social mobility - particularly at the top end - is so dismal.

The cycle of disadvantage is self-perpetuating and as a result the country is losing out on a mass of talent. This is not just among those at comprehensive schools who do not shine when it comes to A-levels. Even when they do, they often fail to end up at one of our leading research universities.

In 2004 we published a study based on figures from the Higher Education Funding Council England which showed that 3,000 students each year from state schools and colleges get sufficiently good grades but for some reason or other do not apply for or get places at one of the dozen leading universities. From surveys we have funded we know that many of these well-qualified state pupils believe these types of university are not for them.

Programmes supported by the Sutton Trust, other charities and the Government, including university summer schools, have done much to raise aspirations among such pupils. But they need to be expanded.

What else can be done to reduce rising educational inequalities? The answer is to open up our top independent day schools to the 90 per cent of pupils whose parents can not afford the fees, and to encourage grammar schools to be much more pro-active in admitting talent from non-privileged areas.

Today's A-level results from the Belvedere School in Liverpool show one way out of the vicious circle which a courageous government could take. Since 2000 the Girls Day School Trust, which runs it, and the Sutton Trust have been paying for talented girls to go there aged 11 irrespective of family means under an Open Access scheme. Some 70 per cent of the girls at the school receive funding, with a third on free places.

This year the first cohort of girls sat A-level. Yesterday's results were among the best ever obtained by the school. Just under half of the girls (46 per cent) passed with grade As and a further 27 per cent with grade Bs. These results reinforce my conviction that the wider adoption of Open Access by the Government would be the most effective means of ending the divide between the state and private sectors.

We have asked Labour and Conservative politicians to consider extending this scheme to 100 or more top independent day schools. We have also shown that it can be done on a cost-effective basis. So far neither political party has expressed great enthusiasm to do this, although the Tories might consider extending it to a further dozen schools.

Grammar schools could similarly be much more proactive in attracting pupils from non-privileged backgrounds - 2 per cent of pupils at the remaining 164 grammar schools qualified for free school meals compared with a national average of 14 per cent.

At my old school, Pate's in Cheltenham, the Sutton Trust has for some years supported enrichment classes at the school for bright children from surrounding primary schools in poorer neighbourhoods. This has had the result of familiarising them with the school and the number of children from these schools gaining a place at Pate's, one of the top academic state schools in the country, has risen dramatically.

People will argue that the only way to lessen the divide between the state and private systems is to improve the state system. Of course we must continue to do this. But until we open up independent day schools and grammars schools, the divide will remain.

The writer is chairman of the Sutton Trust