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For more than a decade there has been a debate about what state education can learn from independent schools.

The Labour Government encouraged schools set up formal partnerships, for example to share facilities, and Lord Adonis encouraged private schools to share their DNA with the state system via academy sponsorship. More recently Education Secretary Michael Gove joined the debate with a new plan for the education system. He said he hoped that in future people visiting schools would find that "standards are so high all round, you shouldn't be able to tell whether it's in the state sector or a fee paying independent".

Last week the Association of Colleges (AoC) published a short paper suggesting another area where the state system could learn from independent schools – that of funding levels.

I'm not talking about closing the vast financial chasm between the state and private sector, though that would be nice. It's now eight years since Gordon Brown said he'd like to raise funding levels in the state system and a lot has happened since then. We've had the financial crash, a prolonged recession, public spending cuts and a growing division in our society between the income and wealth possessed by different groups of people.

In the years since Gordon Brown's promise, independent school fees have risen from below £9,000 to more than £14,000 a year. Funding in secondary education has risen from £5,000 to nearer £6,000. It would be lovely to tackle this gap but I'm realistic enough to know it would take a little time!

So what could be done? Again, the answer is funding levels.

One noticeable thing about successive Independent School Census surveys on fees is the higher fee that they charge at sixth form level. In 2014 the sixth form fee is 7% higher than that charged for the under-16s in private schools. Independent schools recognise the need to fund sixth form education at a higher level than that for 11 to 15-year-olds and the additional costs associated with this level of education.

The ways that they use these funds will no doubt vary: smaller groups for particular subjects; specialist teachers; additional activities to enrich the curriculum; help with university applications, or support for work experience. It's not hard to see why sixth form education might cost more than secondary level and it would be odd if people missed this point. Unfortunately – though this is not widely known – the Department for Education does.

Over the last few years the gap between pre-16 and post-16 funding in the English state system has been widening. But it's been widening in the opposite direction to that experienced in the private sector. Government funding levels for 15-year-olds are at least 20% higher than for those aged 16 and there is no clear explanation for this.

Despite the additional costs faced at sixth form level, schools and colleges manage with a great deal less and this has an impact on provision. The state sector can't afford the extras provided in the independent sector and has to focus on what is absolutely necessary. AoC's analysis draws attention to one of the consequences, that of the widening gap in access to selective universities with independent school sixth formers more likely to progress.

Money isn't everything, but if there's enough of it, it does make a difference.

Julian Gravatt, Assistant Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC)


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