Letter: Who benefits from the assisted places scheme?

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The Independent Online
Sir: The exchange between Polly Toynbee and David Woodhead of the Independent Schools Information Service on private schools takes us deep into our educational cul-de-sac. Mr Woodhead (Another View, 21 December) is right to castigate Labour for its opposition to selection - its grounds for withdrawing the assisted places scheme (APS) money. To date, that is all Labour policy on private schools consists of.

Yet I, too, am in favour of withdrawing the APS money, for more positive reasons. Britain, uniquely in Europe, has two educational cultures. The theory is that the APS narrows the gap, yet the more the independent sector is subsidised, the wider the gap and the greater the need to bridge it. So we have a circular, self-justifying (and in the Conservative case) self-gratifying process. Handing down scholarships makes us feel good. It makes Labour feel good to withdraw them.

This circularity is characteristic of the debate. The Government's attempts to improve state schools are a valiant but ultimately lost cause while pretty well the entire professional class has no stake in them. A partial answer would be to reserve the APS money for schools that move into the state sector, opening themselves to all by selective examination. A bolder move would be to extend the APS progressively until it engulfed, on a voluntary basis, the entire independent sector. Yes, clever children would get superior education - but so do students who get to Oxford or Cambridge.

Expensive? So is our educational gulf. Drastic situations require drastic remedies. The notion that we can go on as we are, the only country in the Western world where the chief political parties send their children to different schools is fantasy. So is my solution, so long as those parties remain locked in antique class positions. My optimism springs from the fact that one day "life itself", in the shape of a tidal wave of global competition, will force us from our trenches.

Yours faithfully,

George Walden

MP for Buckingham (Con)

House of Commons

London, SW1

21 December