Increase in assisted places designed to challenge Labour Unresolved flaws at the heart of Major's education pledge Major sets a trap for Labour over assisted places

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The Independent Online

Education Editor

John Major's aim in doubling the Assisted Places Scheme is political: he wants to emphasise the difference between his policy and that of the Labour Party, which has said it will abolish the scheme.

It is not clear, however, that there is an ever-expanding market for assisted places. At present, there are 34,100 places in 300 schools for bright children from low-income families but only 30,330 of them are taken up. The gaps are among older children.

After revelations about thousands of empty places in the late Eighties, schools redoubled their efforts to attract more pupils, the recession began and the places at entry age are now full. But it has been hard work.

Questions have been raised, too, about the families who benefit. A decade ago, research suggested the scheme catered mainly for the impoverished gentry and divorcees' children rather than the working class. But a Mori survey before the last general election found that 38 per cent of those on the scheme were skilled or unskilled manual workers' children.

Last year, the average income of assisted places families was pounds 10,795. Some heads, such as Joan Clanchy, of North London Collegiate school, remain convinced that the scheme fails to reach the most deprived children. Many of the latter, she argued in the Independent earlier this year, would, in any case, find life in an independent school uncomfortably unfamiliar.

Money is paid out on a sliding scale according to parental income. Those with a joint income of pounds 9,500 get the full cost of a place and those with a joint income of more than pounds 25,000 are unlikely to get anything.

Public school heads last week denied figures in a Financial Times survey showing that some families with incomes as high as pounds 45,000 were getting help: they said such a family would need to have a lot of children on assisted places.

One of the most controversial features of the pounds 104m-a-year scheme is that the amount paid for each place is determined by the fees schools choose to charge.

A recent parliamentary answer showed that the amount paid to the 50 schools that earn most assisted places money ranged from pounds 3,000 a year to pounds 7,140 (Malvern College, a boarding school). Dulwich College in south London, which tops the list for assisted places earnings, receives an annual total of pounds 1.3m.

It costs more to educate a child on an assisted place than in a state school. Research by Peter Downes, of the Secondary Heads Association, shows that the average cost of a state school place for an 11- to 15-year- old is about pounds 3,200 a year if allowance is made for capital costs for building that independent schools have to find themselves. By contrast, the average cost of an independent school place is pounds 3,750. For sixth-formers, the cost in both sectors is similar.

Independent schools are interested in the scheme for two reasons. Some would be in financial difficulties without it: the rate of closure of private schools more than halved after its introduction. And all believe it gives them a moral respectability which they might lose if the only criterion for entry was wealth.

The official response from the Independent Schools Information Service yesterday was enthusiastic. Privately, heads are dubious about whether they want thousands more assisted places.

Since 1980 the cost of the scheme has risen by 3,000 per cent, though the number of pupils involved has gone up by only 600 per cent. So, for the last four years, the amount schools receive has been capped to a sum well below the rise in fees. They are having to charge full fee-payers more to subsidise those on assisted places. Some schools would rather receive the full cost of their existing assisted places than take in more assisted place pupils.

Others are interested in a scheme that would attract a wider range of pupils, based less closely on income and more on need.