Council to fund gifted pupils in private education

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A CONSERVATIVE education authority is planning to fund a number of pupils at independent schools despite the scrapping of the nation-wide assisted places scheme by the Government.

Surrey County Council's education committee has drawn up the scheme to help about 100 gifted pupils go to independent secondary schools from September.

A further 1,000 pupils would remain in state schools but attend master classes in particular subjects run by teachers from independent schools.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, called on David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, to legislate to block the plan. The move follows the Government scrapping the Assisted Places Scheme run by the Conservative administration which helped 38,000 pupils a year.

Money from the scheme is to pay for class sizes in primary schools to be kept under a maximum of 30 children.

On Thursday, the Government announced the areas where the first pounds 22m would be spent. It has also called on independent schools to share facilities with the state sector to increase opportunities for all pupils.

Under the Surrey scheme the council would pay independent schools the pounds 1,700 per head that it would normally spend on sending the pupils to state secondary school. The rest of the cost of educating them would be covered by a trust and parental contributions based on family income.

Families would be assessed by a means test and the scheme would only be available to parents with a joint income of under about pounds 30,000 a-year. The trust would be set up with an initial pounds 50,000 from the council, and contributions from parents and business.

Dr Andrew Povey, chairman of Surrey education committee, said he did not know why Mr McAvoy wanted "to remove choice" from parents.

"This is a very exciting scheme which will benefit many children. It is designed to follow on and improve on the assisted places scheme. We hope reciprocal links will also benefit teachers from both sectors," Dr Povey said.

He added: "I think parents will really go for this scheme, 20 per cent of children in Surrey go to independent schools. There would be a reaction in Surrey if the Government stopped the council."

Dr Povey said that subjects where master classes would be held could include those like Japanese that were not normally provided in state schools. He hoped that 14 independent schools would be able to initially participate in the scheme.

However, Mr McAvoy said the council was taking public money out of state schools, and called for a "loophole in the law" to be closed. "I am sure the majority of parents would want to see every penny raised through their rates spent in their local schools, not subsidising some children to attend private schools."

The union had discussed the issue with Mr Blunkett and Mr McAvoy called on him to legislate to "prevent this re-creation of the Assisted Places Scheme by other means".

Mr Blunkett would not be drawn on Mr McAvoy's call. The Government's priorities for local education authorities were raising standards and reducing class sizes, he said. It had no objection to individuals or companies raising funds to pay for pupils to attend independent schools.

"Any local authority diverting money from our main priorities of raising standards and cutting class sizes is doing so against the will of the Government. We will look at Surrey County Council's proposals and make a judgement when we have seen them," he said.