Education: To assist or not to ...?

The two main parties are sharply divided about the Assisted Places Scheme. Judith Judd explains why, while two headteachers put the case for and against
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The Independent Online
THE FACTS

Pupils: 10,000 a year

Schools: 355

Cost: pounds 117m

Age: 16

How much? Full fees for those on incomes of less than pounds 9,874 per annum

As the gap narrows between the views of the two main political parties on education, at least one policy offers voters a clear choice. The Assisted Places Scheme, which subsidises around 10,000 bright pupils at fee-paying schools each year, would be abolished by Labour as part of their plan to cut the sizes of infant classes. The Conservatives, by contrast, agreed 18 months ago almost to double the numbers in the pounds 117m scheme and to include pupils under the age of 11 for the first time.

The scheme's supporters argue that it allows bright pupils from poor backgrounds to attend good schools which would otherwise be beyond their means, and that they get better results there than they would at the local comprehensive. A recent MORI survey commissioned by independent schools showed that the percentage of pupils from unskilled and skilled manual workers' families was up to 46 per cent, from 38 per cent six years ago.

Its opponents say that it creams off bright pupils from the state schools and reinforces the idea that fee-paying schools are of a higher standard. Some, including a few private school heads, say that the scheme is exploited by middle-class divorced people with big houses and assets, good accountants and low incomes. The MORI survey shows that while 17 per cent go to the top social group, the majority of assisted places still go to middle-class families, if lower-middle-class families are included. This is not surprising, given that eligibility for an assisted place is based on income rather than class. Some independent school heads have suggested that the criteria for places should be related more closely to the candidates' backgrounds, but they have so far failed to come up with a workable system.

At present, help is given on a sliding scale, with parents whose annual incomes are lower than pounds 9,874 receiving full fees, and some parents who earn as much as pounds 33,000 receiving a small amount. Of the parents who benefit, 92 per cent have annual incomes of less than pounds 25,000. Assisted places cost more than places in state secondary schools: about pounds 3,700 a year compared with pounds 2,900, if capital costs are excluded. But the gap narrows in the sixth form. Overall, the scheme costs 30 times as much as it did 16 years ago when it first started, yet there are only six times as many pupils now as there were then.

The fee-paying schools are fighting hard to keep assisted places. But why? One reason is their strong belief that it is wrong to deny pupils from poor backgrounds the chance of a private school education. But there are others. For a few schools, their prosperity and possibly their survival are at stake: the rate of closure of private schools has more than halved since the introduction of the scheme.

The dependence of the 355 schools in the scheme varies widely. Some have only a handful of assisted places. Others offer them to around half their pupils. Well-known schools with a high proportion of assisted places would no doubt survive.

Dulwich College in south London, for example, receives more than pounds 1m each year through assisted places, but would be in no danger of closing down if the scheme was abolished.

But weaker schools would almost certainly have to lower their admissions criteria, and some of their places would need to be filled with less able pupils.

Despite the amount given in bursaries by the schools themselves - more than the total spent on assisted places - all the schools in the scheme would become more socially exclusive. They would therefore become harder to defend.

The real danger for fee-paying schools is that the private sector as a whole will lose public goodwill as more of their pupils are recruited on the basis of wealth rather than ability. They are reluctant to lose a scheme which offers a public recognition of their social conscience

The rich play with loaded dice

The UK cannot even start to call itself a meritocracy until it abolishes its independent schools. The logic of this statement is based upon the thesis that in a meritocracy, the most able are promoted to positions of leadership after a fair and rigorous examination of their abilities. A sound education system should provide the keystone for such an examination, but the existence of independent schools preludes any possibility of fairness.

Parents who send their offspring to independent schools know that they are playing the game with loaded dice. Their money is buying educational advantages for their children: small classes, allowing teachers to give more individual attention; well-equipped classrooms in well-maintained buildings; a preponderance of supportive parents; immersion in a rarefied academic atmosphere, away from the turbulence that the children of poverty can bring. Such conditions push the life chances of the children on to a level way above that of their state school peers. It is the equivalent of an athlete using steroids to enhance performance, and the result is a continuous string of academic Ben Johnsons reaping all the gold medals. Hence the statistic that more than half of Oxbridge places go to the schools that educate only 7 per cent of the school population.

The Government has shamefully given credibility to this handicap race by its support for the Assisted Places Scheme. By creaming off the most able students from the state sector, it is publicising the fact that it has no intention of seriously trying to raise standards in state schools. This action diverts public money to private schools and enhances their examination results, while depressing those of schools in the state sector. All of this provides more distorted and spurious figures to promote the cause of the independents.

The scheme openly suggests to the public that state schools are, and always will be, second best, and that anyone with any sense will take their children away from them. It is an arrogant thumbing of the nose at those of us who believe that the state education system does work, and can be improved for the good of all.

Tony Blair is right to sound the death knell of the scheme, should he come to power. He does not need to justify how the money saved will be spent elsewhere in the system. The move will be a much-needed boost in the fight for educational equality in Britainn

Tony Mooney is headteacher of a comprehensive school in south London.

Drop the dead dogma

As the general election approaches, both major political parties have gone to war, and it is a commonplace that the first casualty of war is truth.

The debate over the assisted places scheme is a case in point. New Labour would have us believe that the abolition of the scheme would rid the system of a corrupt practice exploited by the middle classes and that the money saved would reduce class sizes in maintained primary schools at a stroke. A close analysis of the facts reveals a different picture:

42 per cent of places awarded are free, because recipients' families have incomes below pounds 9,800;

in 1996/7 more than 37,000 children from low-income families benefited from the scheme;

in some parts of the country, the cost of assisted places is less than the cost of a maintained school place;

savings generated by abolishing the scheme would produce one extra teacher for every 2,200 children in the five-to-seven age range.

Moreover, a MORI poll in 1996 revealed that 63 per cent of those questioned supported the scheme and, more significantly, 55 per cent of Labour voters were in favour of assisted places.

So much for the national picture. But how does this work at local or individual level?

This month, at Clifton, we held our annual assisted places examination which produced six children competing for each individual place we have to offer. The average income of those families who have been offered places at Clifton as a result of the examination was pounds 9,239.66. Four of the families concerned are on income support; eight of the children offered places come from single-parent families. There is not the slightest hint that these awards have been given to supplement the fee-paying capability of a so-called grasping middle class in Bristol. The awards have gone to children with real potential who, without this assistance, would run the risk of not having that potential realised. I am sure that Clifton is not alone in the thoroughly proper and honest way in which it has administered the scheme.

The message from this headmaster to both New Labour and those who decry this initiative is clear - drop the dead dogma and credit the electorate with the intelligence to deserve the truth Dr Bob Acheson is headmaster of Clifton College Preparatory School and chairman elect of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools.

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