Assisted places in public schools improved social mobility. They should be reintroduced

They were abolished in 1997, mainly on the grounds that they enfeebled comprehensives by skimming off the talent
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So much for better co-operation between private and state education. According to the head of Ofsted, the majority of independent establishments are just going through the motions in supporting local comprehensives. Only a tiny minority sponsor an academy, say, or loan teaching staff, the rest offer only “crumbs from their tables”, Sir Michael Wilshaw said this week. But public schools not only rejected the accusation, at least one headteacher reported that local state schools’ political objections to private education had seen proffered assistance rejected. The gulf between the two camps is, it seems, wider than ever.

Into this long-running row drops a study from the Sutton Trust suggesting that the Assisted Place Scheme – under which the Government helped pay for bright children from poorer backgrounds to be privately educated – produced lasting benefits for its participants. Not only are almost all the surveyed students (now in their 40s) in well-paid professional positions; they aver that their schooling helped them gain strong personal qualities and social  networks as well as an academic boost.

Assisted places were abolished in 1997, mainly on the grounds that they enfeebled comprehensives by skimming off the talent. The point is a reasonable one. But such compelling evidence of the positive impact on individual lives argues strongly for a reintroduction of the scheme. For all the political difficulties raised by paid-for education, the fact remains that these institutions offer some of the best schooling available today. Wishing that were not so is not a real-world answer. Nor is sacrificing the possibility of helping some children to the principle of equality. Any plan which makes top-quality education more widely available should be pursued.

It is notable, though, that many of those who were on assisted places reported feeling socially out of place at their private schools, and no small number left as a result. The chairman of the Sutton Trust, concludes that the Assisted Place Scheme was too restricted – limited as it was to just a few places per institution. In its place, Sir Peter Lampl recommends “open access”, a model under which participating schools would award all places on merit alone, with the state picking up the tab on a sliding scale according to parents’ means.

The concept has much to recommend it. But it is easy to see why the Government would baulk at the prospect of so open-ended a commitment. Furthermore, only a few such schools would be feasible – good news if you happen to live nearby, but of little use to everyone else. And any new assistance scheme must be designed to benefit the largest number of youngsters across the widest geographical area.

It is here that Ofsted’s concerns at independent schools’ detachment comes in. More effort to engage with local state schools is not only desirable in terms of sharing facilities and best practice. It might also help bridge the cultural gap. A two-tier education system is not  perfect. But it is what we have. The  question is how to make the most of it – and daggers-drawn is not the answer.