Leading article: Some lessons in how to bridge the class divide


Viewed from the perspective of overall performance, this year's A-level results were the best on record. The proportion of A grades rose, as did the national pass rate. There was a welcome increase, too, in those taking maths, physics and chemistry. All this is good news, with credit due all round.

When the distribution of grades is considered, however, a slightly different picture emerges. While setting new records, this year's results also confirmed the worrying trend highlighted in yesterday's Independent. In terms of the proportion of A grades awarded, independent and selective state schools have pulled further away from other schools. Despite all the ministerial pledges of opportunity for all, we are looking at a school system that is becoming increasingly - perhaps irrevocably - two tier.

Believing, as we do, that this is highly undesirable, we have to ask what can be done about it. The first requirement is for ministers to be honest about what is happening. For years they have been able to claim steady improvement nationally and school by school. But no figures compared the relative improvement of different types of school. These figures need to be published.

The second requirement is for more money to be allocated to state schools - but how much and in what way? The revelation about the widening performance gap was bound to prompt renewed calls for Gordon Brown to honour his promise to bring spending per pupil in state schools up to the current level in the independent sector. Although per-pupil spending has doubled since Labour came to power, there is still a big disparity, and it cannot realistically be made up overnight.

Money can help, and has helped, in improving school buildings. It can help in recruiting better-qualified teachers and providing smaller classes. It can also help provide facilities for extracurricular activities and compensate for foolishly sold-off playing fields. But throwing money at the problem will not be a solution by itself. The vast sums poured into the NHS have brought only limited benefits to patients. And the performance of city academies has not so far matched the private and public money lavished on them. The fact that state selective schools have improved their A-level performance at almost the same rate as independent schools suggests that more than money is needed.

That more should include broadening access to the independent sector. Britain's public schools are recognised as among the best educational establishments in the world. Their charitable status is a regrettable anomaly, but they should be made to earn it by greatly expanding bursaries and sharing their facilities, and even staff, with local schools. The revival of an assisted places scheme could be considered.

Also needed is a serious government analysis of what it is about independent schools - beyond money - that makes them so successful. Ethos and discipline come to mind, along with the encouragement they offer for sport and the arts. Most of all, though, it is their transparent commitment to bringing the best out of every child. Is it really impossible for these qualities to be identified and replicated in the state sector?

Many state schools do not have it easy. They may have pupils from poor backgrounds, with English as a second language, and minimal parental involvement. There are real issues, of principle and practice, to be grappled with surrounding selection, exclusion and special needs provision. The hardest to educate cannot be written off. Yet there is much agreement about what makes a good school. Individual stories from yesterday's A-level results show that pupils can defy the most unpromising odds - if the school is committed to their success.

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