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AGENDA: Why is private school success deemed a sin? Independent schools were accused last week of "perpetuating the apartheid" of Britain's education system and national life - by a private school head. Here, John Claughton, chief master of Birmingham's top fee-paying King Edward's School, defends the sector.

Byline: John Claughton

The brand and model of British independent education is recognised and imitated all over the world.

Everyone has heard of Eton and Harrow, of tail-coats and boaters and boating songs. The independent schools of the old Empire and the Commonwealth are modelled on their British forefathers. Auckland Grammar School and Sydney Grammar School and Melbourne Grammar School and Diocesan College, Cape Town, imitate the schools that this country used to have.

The great schools of Pakistan and India and Sri Lanka have similar origins and, even today, some of the great schools of this country, Harrow and Dulwich and Shrewsbury, are taking their names and knowledge to set up schools in China and elsewhere in the Far East.

And not only is independent education being exported from here, it is bringing in record numbers of imports as overseas parents send their children here for what they believe to be the best education in the world.

After all, that is what the survey compiled by the Programme for International Student Assessment for the OECD says.

The world may know and love our independent education, but that doesn't mean to say that we feel the same way. Our own attitudes are not so simple or uniform or positive as those of the rest of the world.

We are dissatisfied with the state of our education, no matter how much money and spin and data are put into it, and independent education is seen as one of the causes of that failure.

The critics say that independent schools take the best pupils and the best teachers and the best facilities and thereby deprive everyone else. Middle-class parents withdraw their children from the state sector and that means it is not properly regarded or supported.

Independent schools then take the best places at universities for their pupils. Oxford and Cambridge, two of only three universities in the top 10 in the world outside the US, are even damned by association - they take too many undergraduates from independent schools.

Then, they say, the independent school pupils get the best jobs so that the whole system does nothing but reinforce the privileges and divisions of our society.

And, they say, what is worse, this closed shop is actually supported by the tax structure of this country: charitable status actually gives them a massive tax break to make it easier for the rich to pass on their privilege to the next generation.

Of course, there are arguments to support independent education. The supporters say that independent schools are the best schools in the world and that can't be bad for this country.

In what other areas of the body politic is such success a sin? Independent schools may only educate seven per cent of the child population, but they make a great contribution to society by teaching the hard subjects and producing scientists and linguists and doctors.

The supporters say that independent schools don't steal good teachers: they attract those who would not otherwise teach. They say that parents should be allowed to spend their money on what they want: on holidays, on health, on the education of their children. Indeed, in paying for their children's independent education, they are paying twice, once through their taxes and cone through their fees.

This division of opinion reflects the gulf that divides and has divided the two education sectors. However, there are efforts to build bridges across the divide from both sides of the ravine.

The Government has tried to encourage partnerships between state schools and independent schools, even though this year's investment of pounds 2 million and next year's promise of pounds 4 million doesn't amount to much in the total education budget of pounds 64 billion.

And now, Lord Adonis, the Schools Minister, is conceding his own respect for the independent sector by asking that independent schools inject their educational DNA, if not their money, into the academy programme.

And the independent sector has been doing its bit, too. Almost all of them - 697 out of 700 in a recent survey - is doing something with its community through partnership and the sharing of facilities with state schools.

Much of it is done without the involvement of the state: it's just easier to get on with it.

Some will support academies in a variety of ways.

However, the greatest contribution made by independent schools has been through the provision of fee assistance for the less well-off since the abolition of the Government's Assisted Place scheme by the Labour government in 1997.

The activities of King Edward's School can serve an example. After all, I do know the school and I need the publicity. In this academic year, the school, with total fee income of pounds 7 million, will spend just over pounds 800,000 on fee remission: next year it will be nearer pounds 900,000.

That means that 131 pupils out of 830 now get some kind of financial support: 72 of them, 8.7 per cent of the school population, come for free.

The money comes partly from the King Edward's Foundation and, increasingly, from former pupils, grateful for the education they received here.

And we will want to do more in this regard, pushing up fee remission to between 35 and 40 per cent of our pupils and developing partnerships and sharing with other local schools.

That is King Edward's and we are fortunate in having the resources to do so much. King Edward's High School for Girls, our sister school, makes a similar investment and has a similar commitment and there are hundreds of independent schools like King Edward's and KEHS, particularly the major schools of the great cities, that are doing the same.

We all want to do more and that isn't because of the sound of the hoofbeats of the four horsemen of the Charities Commission. I would argue and hope that, over time, there will be a closing of the gap between the state sector and the independent sector.

However, the sadness is that those of us who teach in the independent sector know that there is, in the past, a model that would do most to close the gap and bridge the divide.

Under the Direct Grant system that operated from 1945 until it was abolished in the mid-1970s by the Labour Government, the state paid for places in schools like King Edward's for able pupils.

That system provided the greatest opportunity and social mobility of any educational mechanism employed in the last century.

Lord Adonis likes the term "direct grant" because he has started to use it of the academy programme. And why are we sad? Well, we are sad because we think that there is no return to that land of lost content.

Why? Because that system involved a commitment to selection and selection is something that neither major party dare espouse. In the meantime, schools like King Edward's will do all that they can from their own resources to provide the opportunity that able children need.

We will not solve the problems of British education - but I don't think that we are making it worse.

CAPTION(S):

Independent schools may only educate seven per cent of the child population, writes John Claughton, but they make a great contribution to society by teaching the hard subjects and producing scientists and linguists and doctors. Picture, JEREMY PARDOE; Roll of honour: Chief master John Claughton points out a famous pupil from 1930 - John Enoch Powell
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 23, 2008
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