UK private schools warm to Tory ‘open access’ scheme

In an article in the Financial Times, 01/07/13, Helen Warrell updates on a proposal under which the government would divert the average £6,000 spent on a pupil in the state system to a child from a lower income family entering an independent school. 

A proposal that would see the taxpayer fund more than 40,000 poor children to attend private schools is gaining ground, as 90 independent schools say they would sign up if the scheme becomes policy after the next election.

St Paul’s – a £19,000 a-year boys school that counts chancellor George Osborne among its former pupils – is the highest-profile school so far to join the list of “open access” institutions. Championed by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, the plan has won growing support from the Conservative backbenches and campaigners are hopeful it could make its way into the party’s 2015 manifesto.

Under the programme, the government would divert the average £6,000 spent on a pupil in the state system to a child from a lower income family entering an independent school. Since the estimated £180m a year public grant would not cover the full cost of the private school places, richer parents paying fees would provide cross-subsidy.

“I think it’s an excellent idea; it is the most significant idea I have heard to enable independent schools to become more democratic,” Mark Bailey, high master at St Paul’s, told the Financial Times. Describing the southwest London school as an “über-grammar, rather than a grand British public school”, Prof Bailey also believes a “needs-blind” admissions system would bring St Paul’s closer to the tenets of its 16th century founder, theologian John Colet.

“His founding vision was to create a school for children of all nations and backgrounds indifferently, in his phrase, and therefore it is at the core of the school’s [purpose],” Prof Bailey said. Far from angering those who pay full fees, the high master says that some parents, particularly those from the US, regularly donate bursary funds and are engaged in attempting to diversify the school’s intake.

A similar assisted places scheme, brought in under Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, ran for almost two decades before it was abolished by Tony Blair. While the Sutton Trust plan has been given short shrift by Labour politicians, who are opposed to academic selection in schools, it has the backing of Tories such as Graham Brady, the MP who chairs the party’s 1922 backbench committee.

“Open access is a very good proposal. It would open places in some of the best schools in the country to children from all backgrounds and increase opportunities for many people whose families are not in a position to pay for education,” Mr Brady said.

He added that the places could help bridge the gap for parents who find their finances squeezed by austerity. “With many families feeling the pressure in difficult economic times, if the quality of local state schools isn’t good enough, it simply isn’t an option to go private,” he said.

Click here to read the article © Financial Times