Leading Article: Labour must learn to live with fiery prep schools

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The Independent Online
Just as Easter is the season for state schoolteachers and heads to gather in English coastal resorts, so late summer is traditionally the time for genteel gatherings of their equivalents from the private sector. The Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools kicked off yesterday. Its current chairman, Robert Acheson, primed his right foot and let fly. His speech is worth reading by all those intending to send a child to a prep school: the IAPS does not like parents who divorce, who are not devout Christians, who are not prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder against the tide of cultural degradation lapping at the very classroom window.

If ever the National Union of Teachers - hardly a shrinking violet when it comes to exaggeration and complaint - wanted a lesson in blood-curdling rhetoric, hyperbole and extravagant language, they should apply to Mr Acheson and his colleagues, who yesterday applauded a scattershot denunciation of the BBC, contemporary mores, individualism, rationalism and social change.

This kind of bluster does nobody much good, especially the implicit contrast between the serene, hard-working, God-fearing prep schools and the noisy, disrupted free schools attended by the majority of pre-13-year-olds. Yet there may have been method in Mr Acheson's attack. Into it he dropped a calculated reference to the occasion - deep in the mists of political time, but clearly still very real to the prep-schoolers - when a Labour education minister came to them breathing fire and brimstone and threatening all manner of egalitarian readjustment in their disfavour. The fact that that minister, Roy Hattersley, is still breathing fire and brimstone and threatening all manner of egalitarian readjustment, but is completely out of power, is not the point; how easily could David Blunkett turn into something similar? Hasn't he already shown his mettle by moving to abolish assisted places?

It must be hoped that this is not going to be the tenor of relations between the private sector of education and Tony Blair's government. Mr Acheson's highly-coloured views may be representative of the lesser brethren among the prep school heads, but it is unlikely he speaks for schools with a sophisticated (and non-Christian) catchment, and it is certain that he does not speak for the post-13 sector, whose heads meet in their annual conclave soon. Labour's educational plans are plans for the majority of the schools catering for the vast majority of children, ie not the private sector. It is not directly engaged - only indirectly, in the sense that Labour's doctrine of educational improvement knows no bounds. It would be a foolish and spendthrift parent who ignored the indifferent results recorded by some private schools. The better private schools are, it should be remembered, especially susceptible to tests of "added value": the real test of a Clifton, or a Manchester Grammar is not their GCSE score but what they do with the immensely impressive abilities and attainments of the children they take in. If Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, does not make this point when he talks to the prep schools this week, he will be missing a trick.

The Labour Party at large still contains large reservoirs of antagonism towards both the principle and the practice of private schooling - this much is undeniable. A straw poll of Mr Blair's Cabinet on its theoretical abolition would be revealing. But this is suppressed sentiment, and that is how it is likely to remain. After all, the concordat with the private sector of business and industry is one of the administration's planks; it would be mighty inconsistent if this somehow were to exclude education's private side. The Government's passionate ambition to re-skill and upgrade the educational attainments of all children surely forbids any moves to diminish educational opportunity, anywhere. The abolition of assisted places was justified, partly because it does release some money for the vital task of bidding up standards in state schools - but in terms of numbers of children, it is a sideshow. The question is what else, if anything, the Government does with the private sector of schooling: are the next few years to see hostilities, mutual indifference, or some sort of beneficial engagement?

Ministers may need to remind themselves of the important part played by private schools in curriculum development (notably in maths and science) and in bedding down the GCSE; they would not need to look far among the members of the Headmasters' Conference/Girls' Schools Association to find heads who share their enthusiasm for broadening the sixth-form syllabus, even at the expense of A-level itself. As for exchanges of staff and pupils, these may be a gimmick but anything, however small, however transitory, that lessens the social ignorance of children must be worthwhile. But such things are best arranged bilaterally between schools and local authorities. There is no need for a heavy-handed national scheme - just buckets of good will.

Is there a case for more substantive interest by Labour ministers in private schools? It will be tempting. The Charities Commission, off its own bat, is reviewing the principled basis of charitable status which will, not for the first time, throw up questions about the tax paid and income received by private educational foundations (including Oxbridge colleges). Labour may never grow to love private education, but it must learn to live with it, constantly repeating to itself that mantra coined (by Neil Kinnock) to the effect that its task is to make state schools so good that parents have no incentive to turn away from them.