Block on backdoor assisted places

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The Independent Online
COUNCILS will be stopped from introducing "backdoor" assisted places schemes under Government changes to legislation before the Commons.

The national assisted places scheme, which subsidised bright pupils from low-income families in private schools, was abolished by the Government immediately after it came to power. The money saved will be used to reduce infant class sizes.

However, Conservative-controlled Surrey County Council announced recently that it intended to send 200 children from poor backgrounds to a private school.

Ministers have introduced amendments to the School Standards and Framework Bill to give the Secretary of State power to block attempts by local authorities to introduce their own version of the scheme.

Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister, has made it clear that the Government does not intend to interfere with long-standing arrangements and councils would not, for example, be prevented from buying places for special needs pupils in private schools. Lincolnshire County Council has bought places for pupils at fee-paying Stanford School for many years.

Details of the Surrey scheme and any others which were proposed would be studied and the Secretary of State for Education would decide whether they should be allowed.

Mr Byers told the House of Commons committee considering the Bill: "The Government opposes local education authorities buying places in independent schools, thereby taking children out of the maintained sector and offering them a different type of education.

"This is not partnership, but creates divisions in the school sector."

The Secretary of State would therefore have power to prescribe the circumstances in which local authorities could provide places in private schools. He hoped to use it rarely, if at all.

Dick Davison, of the Independent Schools Information Service, said: "The assisted places scheme is an issue on which new Labour is stubbornly old Labour.

"We are making such promising contact with them in other areas, it is a shame that their minds are closed over the idea of using public money to support low-income children in independent schools."

It was inconsistent, he added, for the Government to allow authorities to pay for places in music and ballet at private schools while barring them from academic facilities.

Dr Andrew Povey, chairman of Surrey's education committee, said: "We welcome the Government's positive attitude towards working in partnership with independent schools.

"We look forward to continuing dialogue and the subsequent development of a variety of schemes which will benefit Surrey children."