Public funding of private schools – an idea worth considering, if only because it’s better than the current reality

by Stephen Tall on January 16, 2012

My chairman at the Education Endowment Foundation, Sir Peter Lampl, was in the headlines today for his call for the government to fund places for bright children from poor backgrounds at the best private schools.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said leading independent schools should be fully open to pupils whose parents cannot afford the fees. He advocated a revival of a grant scheme to subsidise fees at day schools which was abolished in the 1970s. … Sir Peter said that more than two-thirds of places at independent day schools were essentially state funded until 1976 when the direct grant scheme was abolished. He told BBC radio: “Now the only people who can go to these schools are people who can afford fees, which can be £12,000 a year for a day school. So what we are saying is that all the places are available based on merit.”

I have a lot of sympathy for the idea (and not just because Sir Peter’s my boss) as there is an unjust and absurd impasse in the education debate in the UK.

This country appears quite willing to tolerate entrenched privilege, with access to the best education currently based on income: either you can afford to send your child to the best private school your money can buy, or you can afford to live in the catchment area of the best state schools.

Yet any suggestion that public money should be used to open up schools to the brightest and best regardless of income is regarded as outrageous.

It’s easy to pick holes in the idea. I’ll admit to discomfort at the idea that a child’s potential is assessed at 11, as if there were a cut-off point by which any young person should objectively have developed. I’m also instinctively uneasy at creaming off the brightest and best from the state sector to try and ensure they don’t sink (as so many in reality do).

But those who think Sir Peter is wrong-headed should reflect seriously on what their alternative to the status quo is.

Sure, everyone on the liberal-left champions the comprehensive ideal that all local state schools should be great schools — but decades later we’re still waiting. And in the meantime thousands of pupils are losing out each and every year, while the intelligentisa which wrings its hands at the thought of selection by merit happily games the system to ensure their own kids don’t suffer.