Should independent schools 'cream' the public purse?

It's called "creaming" by some; others refer to the providing of places in independent schools for highly academic youngsters as "assistance." By whatever term, this issue is once again disturbing parents, disrupting school discussions, and active in parliamentary debate. According to a June 29 report in The Times of London, independent schools, through the paying of fees with the public purse for both boys and girls, reap a harvest of about $:30 million ($72 million) from local education authorities and an additional $:40 million ($96 million) from the Defense Ministry for educating the children of servicemen and foreign officers.

Critics of the spending of public funds to place "clever" boys and girls in independent schools have compared the amount spent locally on school texts and supplies and have found that it is less than the amount given away.

This is a particularly telling argument, as it is the parents of the children in the local schools who must pay for supplies and books for their children, while money that might be spent to educate their children is given to those they refer to as "privileged."

Fees vary enormously among independent schools in Britain, but a boarding boy at Eton may pay as much as $7,000 a year. It is customary, of course, for high-achieving youngsters to be selected early in their school years and assisted to attend an independent school for the next five or even seven years. So a Michael or a Valerie might receive as much as $5,000 a year for seven years -- all from public funds earmarked for the education of the youngsters living within a certain county.

The present "assisted places" plan, suggested by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's party, calls for a sliding scale of assistance based on a family's financial status. Boys and girls attempting to enter an independent school in this manner not only must take special examinations but be interviewed. They compete for a relatively few coveted places with children who have attended independent preparatory schools as well as with other bright youngsters who have gone to local schools.

The Labour Party's subcommittee on education and science is sponsoring its own plan which, independent school supporters insist, would spell the end of such schools as Eton, which has been educating "bright" boys since 1440.

But the Labour subcommittee argues that the independent schools cream the top from the local schools, "inflicting severe damage" by so doing. They would not assist these schools, but have local education authorities take them over.

The House of Lords recently upheld a trust plan to provide bursaries (all costs) for seven years for 400 children in the Greater Manchester area. The "deserving" children have already spent two of the seven years in independent schools, at an estimated cost of more than $1 million.

One reason for the public debates, with charges and countercharges, is the notion that a "bright" or "clever" boy or girl would be better off in an independent school than in a state comprehensive school. And on this point, academics intertwines inexorably with social position and class privilege -- still very much at the fore here.

Yet, in the midst of this educational heat wave, Oxford announced in July that the majority of new entrants to its colleges will come not from the independent schools but from the state schools. This is a very small majority ( 1 percent), however, and some 80 percent of sixth-form students attend comprehensives and only 20 percent of that student population attend independent schools.

Hence, it is a wonder that Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) hasn't been filled mostly by students from the public sector all along. That is, unless one remembers that entrance to Oxbridge has traditionally been through the independent sector, and that it is in the Etons, Westminsters, Roedeans, and Queen's Colleges that the academic diet has been very carefully fed to those who "must" gain university entrance.

That "must" comes from family place, pressure, and prestige. It starts with governess training in a home nursery and includes a preparatory school, extensive educational travel abroad, and a place in one of the renowned public schools.

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