Education: A little bit of charity goes a long way

Though the assisted places scheme has been abolished, Elaine Williams reports that many independent schools are refusing to let the ethos behind it die. Inventive, and painful, ways are being found of offering disadvantaged pupils a high-standard education

While the loss of assisted places is mourned by the independent sector, many schools are also taking the chance to redefine their role in society.

Some notable ex-direct grant, academic inner-city day schools have launched well-publicised appeals to match place for place at least, the funding provided under the former government scheme. In particular, the 25 members of the Girls Day School Trust, which includes Bath, Portsmouth and South Hampstead High Schools, have announced a pounds 70m scheme to rescue all 3,000 of their assisted places.

Michael Oakley, the Trust's bursar, said the appeal was directed to former pupils in particular: "We are philosophically committed to maintaining access to schools on merit as opposed to wealth, so we are phasing in a direct replacement and we have had a good response. We have been building up a fund for the last 10 years in preparation for the abolition of assisted places."

Manchester Grammar School is also targeting former pupils in its bid to raise pounds 10m for a fund that will create a new kind of "free access" independent schooling, covering the fees of every pupil from a deprived background who passes its entrance examination. In addition, wealthy parents and old boys will be asked to sponsor a pupil for a minimum of a year. Currently 250 boys out of 1,500 receive state subsidy because of their economic circumstances, but the school's own scheme aims to take the concept further.

This is much in the spirit of Christ's Hospital in Sussex, a co-educational, academic boarding school, established by Edward VI in 1552 to educate destitute children from the streets of London. Although 60 children at the school currently enjoy a government assisted place, almost all of the remaining 740 gain places on the back of financial assistance from the school. "We give out about pounds 6m worth of education every year," said Elizabeth Cairncross, the school's deputy head, "and we shall use our own resources to cover the loss of assisted places."

The school's "enormous" fund is continually topped up by former pupils. Their contribution is central to the school and its culture, said Mrs Cairncross: "At their leaving ceremony, pupils are charged never to forget the benefits they have received, and in time to come, according to their means, to ensure that others are able to receive the same benefits. Later, when they are established in work and their own children have grown up, many do contribute."

One of the principal ways in which former pupils give is through the "donation governors scheme" . This covers the cost of putting a child through the school for a year and is given over time or in one lump sum. Also, the governor, or sponsor, often becomes a personal mentor or friend to the child and his or her family. "It's a very personal scheme," said Mrs Cairncross, "and it works very well. Giving money so that other children can have the advantage you have had, is very much part of our culture and I think that other schools can build that into theirs."

Dick Davison, deputy director of the Independent Schools Information Service, said that many independent school heads were prepared to rise to the "challenge" and remained committed to helping low-income families. He felt there would indeed be a shift in the nature of appeals. He stated: "Schools have been able to raise impressive amounts of money for buildings, but I think there will be a shift in the direction of appeals towards the funding of places.

"Most governing bodies think their schools have something to offer bright children and wish those children who cannot afford independent education to continue to benefit."

Not all schools have large foundations or enjoy a strong civic presence and many are aware that the consequences of filling up their schools with fee -payers would be to broaden their intake and risk lowering their standards.

The King Edward VII and Queen Mary boys and girls schools in Lytham, Lancashire, which have just under half of their intake from assisted places, plan to merge by 1999, reducing two schools of 500 with a three-form entry to one school with a four-form entry. The schools argue that they would need a pounds 17m fund to replace their assisted places, which is "out of the question", and that merger is one way of maintaining their standards and ethos.

Newcastle under Lyme School, a 1,300-strong co-educational day establishment, is also planning to reduce in size over time. At present, 64 pupils every year, about one third , are admitted on assisted places. In future, the school intends to fund between 20-25 pupils every year from its own bursary scheme and shrink from a 180-strong entry to 120. Dr Ray Reynolds, the school's principal said: "We have been building up the bursary fund for some time. We do want pupils to come who can benefit. Up to 50 per cent of our children on APs are from families with an income of less than pounds 10,000. We haven't got endowments or resources hidden away so the only way to retain the nature of the school is to shrink in size."

Nottingham High School currently has 180 out of 830 boys on assisted places. In future, 70 boys will be funded from the school's own scholarships, raised from long-standing contributions from key local companies like Boots and Raleigh. Wisbeach Grammar in Cambridgeshire, which has over 50 per cent of pupils on assisted places (more than 300) - the highest number in the country - is seeking to restructure by opening up a junior department. It has also received a donation from the Weetabix Foundation to fund up to 25 places.

Rural boarding schools with assisted places, such as Denstone College in Staffordshire, are having to think more radically. Mr David Derbyshire, the headmaster, who has been in post for little more than a year, admits that he inherited a school with "too many assisted places" - one third out of 335 pupils. As a means of making up the eventual shortfall he has dramatically reduced fees by over pounds 2,500 taking them to as low as pounds 4,500 for day and pounds 8,950 for boarding. He stated: "Apart from APs there were all sorts of private deals going on. We wanted an honest fee structure that would make our provision available to many more people."

Mr Derbyshire is currently lobbying the Government for a scheme that would assist working parents to benefit from children boarding and the longer days that boarding schools provide. He said: "Our school day goes from 8.30am to 6.30pm - that includes sport, music, drama and 70 per cent of my staff live on campus. Parents can be sure that their children are safe and enjoying a totality of education until they finish work."

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