James Turner explains how Open Access could open up leading independent schools on the basis of merit rather than money.

If the education slate was wiped clean what would we want? I’d like a system in which children of all abilities and backgrounds attended the same local school. A school with the resources and expertise to cater for all-comers – from the most academic to the most practically-minded.

But the slate isn’t clean. We live in a highly segregated school system which reflects a highly divided society.   The most affluent and influential tend to send their children to independent schools. We have grammar schools which contain very few children eligible for free school meals.  Then there are top-ranked comprehensives ‎ which by virtue of house prices or religious criteria are socially exclusive too. ‎

One reaction would be to take this as a call to arms: let’s abolish schools which are bastions of privilege and make way for a comprehensive utopia‎.  For the teacher in a state school with a mixed intake, struggling against the odds to do the best for their children, I can see why this is an attractive rallying cry.

But bluster aside, it is almost impossible to envisage any government doing this any time soon. And even if it did, there would be perverse consequences: good schools being shut, parents being denied choice in a liberal democracy – all with no guarantee the comprehensive ideal would follow.

An alternative reaction – and one which has underpinned the work of the Sutton Trust since it was founded in 1997 – is to work with the grain of the (albeit highly imperfect) system to improve the chances of those from low and middle income homes.  This may not result in the wholesale transformation that idealists want — but it can provide better opportunities to thousands of children.

I have written before about the merits of taking a pragmatic approach to opening up grammar schools to children from poorer backgrounds. And the Trust has long-argued for‎ the increased use of ballots and banding to widen admissions to socially exclusive comprehensives and academies.

Today’s report from the Social Market Foundation, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, is based on the same pragmatic principles. It strengthens the case for throwing open the doors of the country’s leading independent day schools.

We have long-known that students from these schools take a massive share of the opportunities available at top universities and beyond. A student in an independent school is 55 times more likely to attend Oxbridge than a student on free school meals, for example.   And the top professions are dominated by those who have been schooled in the independent sector, which educates just 7 in 100 young people.

Today’s report adds importance evidence to the debate.   Most notably it finds that children who attend private school will earn £194,000 more on average in their early careers than their state educated peers. Even when factors such as family background and early educational achievement are accounted for, the wage premium persists at almost £60,000. Although a range of factors play a part in determining this premium, the SMF analysis finds students from independent schools are more likely to get good A-levels, more likely to get degrees and to attend the most selective universities. It finds that on the best available evidence – value-added scores from GCSE to A-level – independent schools on average progress their children more during their school years than state schools.

If this is the case, the key question must be: who is getting access to this super highway of opportunity?   The unsurprising answer is, by and large, the most affl‎uent.   Notwithstanding the efforts of independent schools to offer more means-tested bursaries, the stark reality is that, with average fees of £12,600 a year, the vast majority of places in private schools are accessible only to those in the highest income groups.

The challenge to those of us concerned with social mobility, then, is how to address this fundamental inequity in a pragmatic‎ and cost effective way. Our solution – which today’s SMF report goes on to examine in detail – is a state-backed Open Access scheme to open up all places in high performing independent day schools to a wider range of families.

The proposition is simple: entry to the school is based on merit alone and, once selected, parents pay a sliding scale of fees according to means. The wealthiest pay full fees, ‎middle earners pay partial fees and the poorest pay nothing.

We trialled this app‎roach at the Belvedere School in Liverpool  and found that the school’s intake was transformed (with a third of pupils on completely free places), academic achievement was the highest on record, and the mix of fees and subsidies meant the scheme could be delivered for‎ just less than the average cost of a state school place.

Our call to government has been that they should step in as sponsors and expand the pilot – so that the 100 or so leading private day schools become within reach of bright pupils regardless of background.

The SMF report finds the basis for Open Access to be sound. Taking affordability of fees out of the equation would open up these schools in a significant way. ‎ By tweaking selection processes and conducting outreach activities into state primaries, the proportion of students from homes who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access top independent schools could be even higher.

And the scheme is affordable too: there are many variables, but the best modelling we can do suggests that a scheme for 62,000 pupils would cost the state around £215m per year. In other words, Open Access schools would not need any higher per capita funding than other state schools.

Of course, such a policy would be controversial.    For some, giving state money to the private education sector is uncomfortable. But with Academies and Free schools a permanent feature in the landscape, the divide between state and private is becoming increasingly blurred anyway.  If the education is good, does it matter who banks the cheque?

Others will oppose Open Access’s reliance on ‎academic selection at age 11. We would argue we are not extending selection, but simply democratising entry to schools which are already selective on the basis of wealth. Academic selection is flawed – but is better than selection on the basis of bank balance.

Critics will also, rightly, raise the issue of the impact of Open Access on existing state schools. But while we believe the policy would be transformative to the tens of thousands of low income young people who benefit directly, the overall impact of 100 Open Access schools on 3,500 state schools would be minimal.

And Open Access doesn’t preclude other interventions. It is absolutely the case that we should invest more in improving comprehensive state schools – including dedicated funding to help the brightest pupils to prosper. As it happens, this is exactly where the Sutton Trust spends the lion’s share of its money on university access summer schools and other academic and enrichment programmes.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the incredible resource of private schools. Life is full of contradictions and inconsistencies and education has a tendency to wrap itself in ideological arguments which, to a poor parent wanting a good school for their child, must often seem introspective and indulgent.

To say that our independent schools are good is not to say that our state schools are bad. To acknowledge the work that teachers do in independent schools, is not to decry the heroic efforts of staff working in some of the most challenging state schools.

What we simply need to do is to start breaking down these barriers bit by bit and‎ in a practical and achievable way.  Open Access is one example of what this means in practice.

So the choice, for the foreseeable future, seems clear: do we want independent schools to continue as they are, largely closed to those who can’t find the substantial fees; or do we want them to be open on merit, not money, so that a wider group of children can benefit?

 A version of this blog appears on the Guardian website today. Emran Mian blogs at the SMF website on Open Access here.

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