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Rob Wilson suggests that independent schools offer some free places to local children on free school meals

By Jonathan Isaby

Rob Wilson In Westminster Hall yesterday, Reading East MP Rob Wilson secured a debate on the issue of access to private schools.

He cited a number of statistics about the poor educational attainment of pupils from the poorest backgrounds, from GCSE results all the way up to the gaining of university places.

Before setting out the course of action he wanted to see private schools adopt, he was keen to stress what he was not saying:

"First, I am not making sweeping claims that independent schools are better than state-maintained schools. There are huge variations within the independent sector in terms of standards and pupil attainment. The bottom half of private schools accounted for just 7% of A* A-level grades in the independent sector last year. Moreover, the OECD has argued that on average the difference in attainment between state schools and private schools is largely accounted for by the socio-economic background of the students.

"Secondly, as I will explain later, I am not calling for a system-wide educational passport or public subsidy for private schools. Thirdly, I do not wish to re-enter the argument about selection or reintroducing grammar schools. None of the main parties has plans to expand selection in the education system in England, and neither do I. Fourthly and finally, what I shall propose in the next few minutes is not a panacea for improving educational attainment across the whole population of school children, but I stress that it will make an important contribution to social mobility and aspiration in England."

He then came on to the thrust of his proposal, which was as follows:

"If we are serious about boosting the life chances of more children from poor homes, and increasing social mobility so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a better chance of making it to the top, something must be done to break down the social apartheid in our schools. I would like the Minister to consider a proposal that could broaden the social base of some of our leading private schools and boost the life chances of many less affluent pupils now, rather than in however many years it takes to dramatically raise teaching quality and tackle issues of poor behaviour across the entire school system.

"Specifically, I would like a number of the leading private day schools to consider offering a number of free places to pupils in their surrounding area who are eligible for free school meals. The Government could support them by meeting some of the cost, but by no means all of it. It would be entirely up to the children and their families whether they applied for a place at participating schools. The pupils would have to demonstrate their aptitude and potential through a competitive admissions process. As the Sutton Trust has noted, tests these days are far more sophisticated than the old 11-plus. For example, many independent schools have developed tests around verbal reasoning, which test the child's aptitude rather than how well they have been tutored or taught at school. My proposal is not an exercise in social engineering, so all those who take the test-rich or poor-should have the same chance of success.

"My proposal is completely cost-neutral to the Government and therefore to the taxpayer. All that changes is that the per pupil funding and the pupil premium shift to another school. The remainder of the cost of the fees is met by the independent school itself or its supporters. Many such schools have alumni who are willing to step in. It is interesting to note that the Government will provide £150 million for a national scholarship scheme for disadvantaged young people attending our universities. Those resources are devoted to creating a more balanced intake for our elite universities, which, after all, are independent, selective, fee-charging educational institutions."

Read the full debate here.


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