A private income

Independent schools are seeking cash for their own assisted places schemes, says Lucy Ward
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The Independent Online
Are you a company director, a wealthy parent or a successful former pupil of an English private school? If so, better look to your own or your organisation's bank balance, for independent schools up and down the land are after your cash.

The imminent phasing out of the pounds 140m assisted places scheme - one of the first policies being put into action by the Government - is the cause of the flurry of fund-raising. From September 1998, no new pupils will be able to take advantage of the 16-year-old scheme, which finances places at independent schools for bright children from low-income families.

The change leaves those schools currently educating pupils under the scheme with a dilemma. Should they abandon the idea of subsidised places altogether, at the cost of changed character and social mix, or should they accept the challenge of finding new sources of funding to ensure financial assistance remains?

Most schools in the scheme - some with a fifth or even a third of pupils on government bursaries - will seek ways to replace at least some of their assisted places, according to Dick Davison, deputy director of the Independent Schools Information Service.

"These schools will not want to exist as gilded ghettos," says Mr Davison. "Those in the scheme are in it not because it was a source of easy subsidy but because they have a philosophical commitment to offer education to people regardless of whether or not they can afford the fees."

Deciding to replicate the assisted places scheme on a school level is, however, the easy part. Much harder is the task of amassing sufficient funds not only to cover the fees of pupils entering in 1998 but ensuring the cash is available to keep them for the rest of their school careers.

In a few cases, institutions are wealthy enough simply to draw on their own resources to replace the cash the government is taking away to bring down class sizes in state primary schools. The two Monmouth schools run by the Haberdashers' Company waited less than three weeks after election day before unveiling a scheme to provide assisted places for more than 200 new pupils from September 1998, using income from their founder's original pounds 9,000 endowment.

While individual schools with such reserves to hand for bursaries are rare, others are banding together to increase their fund-raising weight. The Girls' Public Day School Trust, the largest provider of assisted places in the country, last week announced a pounds 70m plan to preserve all 3,000 such places at its 24 member secondary schools using existing reserves and an appeal.

Outside such grand schemes, schools are working on their own to raise funds. By far the most ambitious proposal is Manchester Grammar School's planned pounds 10m capital fund - expected to stand at pounds 5m by its official launch in January - to cover the fees of every child from a deprived background who passes its exam. Cash is rolling in from those with and without MGS links and a strong response is expected from local companies invited to sponsor a child through school.

The school's high master, Dr Martin Stephen, even tells of pensioners sending crumpled pounds 10 or pounds 20 notes to add to the fund. "We could not abandon bursaries," he says. "We would face a serious change in the social mix and that is anathema to us - we are not a finishing school for the sons of gentry."

For the urban independent schools without MGS's glamour and roll of wealthy old boys, sights will inevitably be set lower, though the commitment to assisted places remains. Stephen Davidson, who moved across the Pennines from MGS to head Bradford Grammar School, is consulting the Charity Commission on ways to free up trust fund money to help with fees, but regrets that the school could still end up "slightly more socially exclusive."

Godolphin and Latymer School in west London, where a quarter of girls are on assisted places, has already planned an appeal to try to double the size of its pounds 1m bursary fund.

Amid the rush for donations, some schools are exploring a different route. Inspired by strong government hints that partnerships between the independent and state sectors will be welcomed, the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle- upon-Tyne is talking to local state schools and universities to examine options for pooling resources. One possibility under discussion is an accelerated science scheme under which state pupils might benefit from the school's teaching and resources.

Such co-operation, if successful and given government backing, may yet prove more enduring than bursary schemes, which are subject to the fickle cheque-books of donors. "We have got to think more laterally," says James Miller, head of RGS. "There has been too much of an impulse towards competition between sectors. The more we can do to encourage partnership the wider use we can make of the educational assets we have"