Rich parents lie to gain subsidised school places

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The Independent Online

Parents of children given state-subsidised places at independent schools claimed nearly £1m more of taxpayers' money than they were entitled to last year, a government audit has revealed.

Parents of children given state-subsidised places at independent schools claimed nearly £1m more of taxpayers' money than they were entitled to last year, a government audit has revealed.

The findings suggest that the state has paid at least £20m too much towards the private school fees of children from better off families since the assisted places scheme was introduced in 1980. A small number of parents "underestimated" their incomes by up to £15,000 and received about £3,300 more a year towards their child's fees than they deserved, the audit by the Department for Education and Employment found. Parents judged by auditors to have received excessive subsidies will have to repay the money.

Although there has been anecdotal evidence that middle-class parents with good accountants were able to abuse the system, this is the first time an official analysis has revealed the extent of misuse of the scheme.

Nationally, more than £910,000 of public money was spent last year subsidising the private education of children whose parents could afford to pay. The most serious errors were committed by fewer than 2 per cent of parents, the investigation concluded. The average cost of a place at an independent day school is now about £5,700 a year.

Critics have always claimed that the initiative, which was designed to help children from the poorest families take up places at Britain's best independent schools, was being used to subsidise the better-off.

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "There is a lot of worrying evidence that it was not the poor working classes who benefited from the scheme, it was the very smart middle classes who are brilliant at finding their way around the system and exploiting it to their own benefit. Their attitude has been to get the state to pay if they possibly could."

Dick Davison, joint director of the Independent Schools Information Service (Isis), admitted there had been some exploitation of the system. "I have no doubt that there has been some abuse," he said. "Wherever you have a system that tries to disburse public funds there will be people who try to exploit it. But I do not believe that this abuse was significant or widespread. There is no doubt that the vast majority of assisted places went to pupils whose parents were in genuine financial need."

The audit investigated 270 pupils at 158 schools out of the 23,255 children who are currently receiving assisted places. At the scheme's peak about 40,000 children received state help with their fees at an annual cost of £130m.

The Labour Government began phasing the scheme out in 1997 and has used the money saved to reduce infant class sizes in state schools. However, ministers pledged to support existing assisted pupils for their remaining time at their existing school so the scheme will continue to run until at least 2004.

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