Independent day schools were urged today to support a scheme that would open them up to highly able children of all backgrounds, based on merit rather than ability to pay.
Sutton Trust chair Sir Peter Lampl urged headteachers attending the HMC conference in Belfast to join more than 80 other independent day schools in backing an Open Access scheme that would make private day school places available to able children on a sliding fees scale.
The Sutton Trust piloted Open Access at The Belvedere School in Liverpool from 2000-2007, in partnership with the Girls’ Day School Trust, and saw academic results improve while the school attracted a genuine social mix. Three in ten girls were given free places, because their family incomes were low, and four in ten more received help with fees.
The Trust is now urging the Government and Opposition to back such a scheme nationally, which – because some parents would pay full or partial fees – would have a lower per capita cost than the average state secondary school.
In his speech, Sir Peter said:
“More than 80 leading independent day schools would back such a state-funded scheme, which would benefit more than 30,000 able students, whose parents could not afford full fees.
“A national Open Access scheme would open independent day schools to all on a means-tested basis. Open Access membership would be voluntary, but only schools of sufficient academic quality would be admitted. The only pressure would come from schools’ desire to educate able children from all backgrounds, and their need to compete with a new, dynamic sector drawing on a wider talent pool.
“Schools would retain their independence. I recognise that if you did not continue to control your admissions, syllabus and teacher recruitment, few of you would volunteer for change. As state funds would be involved, there would be additional monitoring, but this should be relatively light touch. The Government accepts this now for outstanding state schools.
“Admittance would be competitive, but the system of selection would be far more sophisticated than the old eleven-plus.
“Fees for successful applicants would be charged on a sliding scale, with the richest paying full fees, and the poorest paying nothing, as at Belvedere. Assessment would take account of parents’ assets, as well as income, making it stricter and more efficient that Assisted Places.
“The state funding required would depend on the catchment area, but we estimate that around two-thirds of the cohort would receive some help with or full remission of fees, adding up to half of current fee income.
“This fees shortfall would come from the state but would be less per capita than a state school place. Once a full scheme was up and running, it would have a net estimated cost to the state of £180m a year. And it would transform social mobility for highly able young people from low and middle income backgrounds.”
Addressing political concerns about selection and state subsidies for fee-paying schools, Sir Peter said: “It would require selective admissions, which the main parties oppose. However, the Coalition and Labour both agree that we should not abolish the remaining state grammar schools, even though just 2% of places are provided to pupils on free school meals.
“Indeed, the number of grammar school places expanded under Labour and is expanding under the Conservatives. We are not proposing to extend increase selection. Open Access would simply democratise existing selection.
“The second objection is that all the places are not free. Of course, if the state wished to pay the full fees for all pupils, I wouldn’t object. But in these straitened times, I think that unlikely. So it makes sense to have a mix of funding that is based on ability to pay.
“So I hope that the parties think again, and support Open Access in their manifestos for the 2015 election. Of course, after 15 years talking to the politicians, I’m a realist. I know that politicians respond to public pressure. I’m delighted that over 80 independent day schools have already signed up to Open Access.
“You lead schools with a great tradition and a remarkable record of academic excellence. You all have charitable foundations, many of which were started to educate those from less well-off backgrounds.
“If we are to harness all the talents of all our young people, you must be enabled to do much more to reach them. As part of a wider programme to transform education, Open Access would transform social mobility at the top. If you agree, I hope you will join us in making its case in the corridors of power.
“The best way you can do that is by joining the over 80 schools who have backed Open Access by signing up yourself. And together we can unleash the talents of tens of thousands of young people and enable them to make the fullest contribution to our economy and society.”
NOTE TO EDITORS