Opinion: Places at the Ritz for the favoured few

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AFTER seven years, I still find myself having to make the instant decision whether to say proudly, 'They're at Westminster and St Paul's Girls' ' or shuffle my feet and mutter apologetically, 'They've got assisted places at Westminster and St Paul's' My husband is more robust: 'Our friends don't apologise for using private cars instead of public transport, why should we feel guilty?'

But I do, I do. It is tea at the Ritz for the favoured few. Assisted places are not going to Social Class Five children. The places are going to the 'false poor' - children of professional homes where income has been lowered by death or divorce, or the children of farmers or the clergy. These children would not otherwise be at inner-city sin-bins but at good comprehensive schools.

Assisted places are not cheap, either to the state or to the parents.

Despite the widely held view that an assisted place is a free place, many parents' contributions to the school fees run to several thousand pounds a year. If your income increases, so does your contribution, and the bill is further swelled by the inevitable extras. You may be delighted that both children are learning to play an instrument, but that's a stunning extra pounds 600 a year.

Why then are parents still prepared to put their 11-year-olds into an alien environment? In their most vulnerable and impressionable years, the children with whom they must make friends will take for granted a lifestyle that is totally foreign to their own. 'They were comparing which countries they have their other houses in today at lunch,' reported my 12-year-old daughter.

It's an advantage if the school has a uniform. 'You don't stick out,' says my son. 'After all, you're all dressed the same and after a bit you start to talk like them, too.'

Why are the places still taken up when most of these children would otherwise be at excellent, free, over-subscribed local comprehensives? When choosing a school at 10 or 11, few of us know how our children's talents are likely to develop. No one is likely to be influenced by the availability of A-level Greek. Unfortunately, the gross inequalities of provision between the state and private sectors are glaringly obvious at school open days. It is difficult for both parents and children not to be influenced by an Olympic size indoor swimming pool, an up-to- date computer for everyone, language laboratories, art rooms like Aladdin's Cave, comfortable, well- stocked libraries and beautiful buildings.

You know that the absence of graffiti and a well-maintained and decorated school is as much a reflection of the school's budget as the behaviour of the pupils; but it's a seductive environment.

For many parents it is the wealth of extracurricular provision that is the deciding factor in applying for an assisted place. With so many children changing school at 16, the calibre of the sixth form, surprisingly, is less important. The GCSE results from a good comprehensive compare favourably with the private sector. The wider experiences acquired between 11 and 16 are less equal.

A child with an assisted place often acquires skills and experiences that richer children at the local comprehensive have provided by their parents.

Families eligible for the scheme are not going to be able to give their children foreign holidays, skiing, riding or sailing lessons.

However, through their schools, in and out of term time, our children have tried: abseiling, acting, badminton, bookbinding, calligraphy, camping, canoeing, carpentry, cycling in France, diving, fencing, mountain walking, orienteering, parascending, riding, rock climbing, sailing and singing in Mozart's Requiem, Haydn's Creation and Gay's Beggar's Opera.

These experiences are in addition to lunch hours spent swimming, painting, computing or just curled up in the library. They have acquired lifetime skills and enthusiasms. Eight years ago we could never have guessed that our son's weekly optional bookbinding lesson would turn into a passion and a talent that pays better than baby-sitting. Their schools' examination results may be impressive but, far more important, the children are being educated in the widest sense.

It isn't fair and it isn't right that all children don't have such a rich education. I'm still apologetic; but I'm also grateful.

Verity Underwood is a pseudonym.