When Norman St John-Stevas first dreamed up the Assisted Places Scheme (APS) some 20 years ago, the noble lord (he was created Lord St John of Fawsley in 1987) could not foresee the nightmares ahead. It was meant to give thousands of bright children from working-class homes the chance of a free education at some of the country's top independent schools. No one seemed capable of turning our state schools into havens for high flyers, and the APS was seen as one way of rescuing children who might otherwise fall by the wayside. Direct grant schools - APS's predecessors - had already been axed by Shirley Williams (now also in the Upper House) when she wore her Labour hat.
So what has happened since the present lot decided to phase out assisted places? Here's just one example. Two single-sex schools - King Edward VII School for Boys and Queen Mary's School (girls) - both in Lytham (just a sea breeze from Blackpool) and both former direct grant schools, are to merge this year. Half their 1,000 pupils are on assisted places, the last of them having entered in 1997. The schools will feel the pinch when APS ends, as only 10 per cent of parents could afford the full fee of pounds 4,400 a year. John Bennett, the chairman of governors, admitted there would have to be staff redundancies. "We're already six down (out of a total staff of 87) but will try to do it by natural wastage, post-freezing and the like. We're determined to keep the same pupil-teacher ratio when our numbers drop."
Negotiations are going ahead to make the transition as gentle as possible. But some pain cannot be avoided. There'll be only one head of department when departments merge. And I expect there'll be only one headteacher. Existing pupils will work their way through the school in single sex classes, but the Lower VI will go co-ed from September.
What a pity politics drags the carpet of opportunity from under the feet of bright children. Now if only our Tony had invented the APS instead of Norman.
Taste of summer
Now here's something that has really taken off. In 1991, some bright spark at the University of London gave birth to a project for young sixth formers to "taste" university life. Courses lasting anything from a day to a week were made available to youngsters at some of the university's colleges. No cheeky recruiting drive, this. What's more, it's all free. That, if I may say so, is the way to earn goodwill.
Each year, more and more colleges joined the scheme - and even universities outside London University eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. This year, courses are available at 23 institutions. Newcomers include Birkbeck College (with courses in politics, history and science), the Courtauld Institute of Art (history of art), and the Institute of Education (teaching as a career). Among the "outsiders" are the Universities of East London, North London and Westminster and, for the first time, Kingston University.
More adventurous youngsters may jump on Eurostar for a three-day course of French Studies at the British Institute in Paris (also part of London University) - but they'll have to find fare and accommodation. There is even a one-week course in medicine, ranging from becoming a medical student to molecular medicine and live surgery, all at St George's Hospital Medical School.
So what are you waiting for? Call Mrs Patricia Evans at Senate House, University of London (0171-862 8034) for a brochure and more information.
Shades of black
Is it simply a question of PC that "blacklist" is being dropped in academic circles?
The national council of the 40,000-strong Association of University Teachers (AUT) is to meet at Senate House, London University's superb art deco headquarters today, to discuss the "greylisting" of Queen Mary Westfield College. This falls short of "blacklisting" (now known as "total boycott"), as academics may still apply for jobs, but with caution. Reason for the action centres on the college's decision to make lots of non-research staff redundant, and to dump civil engineering following drastically declining applications.
The AUT is girding its loins for even stronger action to save its members' jobs. Ironically, the college is about to invest several million pounds in creating new posts over a number of other areas.
And, in case budding QMW civil engineers are worried, they'll be allowed to complete their degrees. But it's clearly a grey business.
Fewer and fewer people are opting for a career in teaching. One need only look at the profession's weekly journal, the Times Educational Supplement, which last week carried 25 pages of advertisements seeking heads and deputy heads for primary schools alone.
Schools are becoming ever more frantic in their search for staff. One advert from a junior school for an English Co-ordinator asked: "Are you looking for a new challenge at Easter 1999? What about joining our team of happy, carefree, party-going staff and meet some enthusiastic, interesting and responsive children at the same time?" Oh, so children are going to be involved at some stage of the party-going proceedings. Hmm.Reuse content