Labour accused of school fees retreat

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Independent schools yesterday accused the Government of breaking its pledges as the education Bill to abolish the assisted places scheme was published.

They said Labour had promised before the election that pupils in private preparatory schools who were due to transfer to senior school at 13 would have their places funded until they were 13. Details of the Bill showed that most would lose all financial help at the age of 11.

The Bill removes the duty of the Secretary of State for Education to operate the scheme which helps fund places in fee-paying schools for bright pupils from poor backgrounds. The money saved will be used to reduce class sizes. It ensures that there will be no new intake of pupils with assisted places this September but that pupils with existing places will continue to be funded.

Pupils under 11 will be paid for until they reach the end of their primary education unless they live in one of the few areas of the country where the date of transfer to state secondary schools is higher than 11. A memorandum to the Bill explains that classes for five- to seven-year-olds will be reduced to no more than 30 by the end of this Parliament.

Legislation to bring about the reduction will be part of a second education Bill to be introduced in the autumn. Stephen Byers, the School Standards minister, said: "Parents know how important smaller class sizes are in order to improve standards and provide a high-quality education.

"We shall phase out the assisted-places scheme which applied to just 38,000 schoolchildren in order to ensure that the 440,000 five-, six- and seven-year-olds presently in classes of over 30 will benefit from cuts in class sizes."

The scheme costs pounds 140m a year and its abolition will save pounds 100m by 2000. The Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS) produced a letter written seven weeks ago by Peter Kilfoyle, then Labour's schools spokesman, saying that support for pupils in schools which ran to 13 would continue until they were 13.

David Woodhead, director of ISIS, said: "The Government has wasted no time breaking a pre-election promise. The effect will be to disrupt the education of up to 2,000 children."

The schools said they were also asking for clarification about a clause which allows the secretary of state to make regulations about the level of fees for those pupils on existing assisted places. They are concerned that fees should continue to be uprated. They are considering a legal challenge to some aspects of the Bill.

A spokesman for ISIS said: "We are not seeking to be obstructive. We recognise that the Government has a mandate to do this but we want to ensure that individual schools and children are not penalised unfairly."

A spokesman for the Department for Education said the Government's key pledge was to reduce class sizes. Under the Bill, it would be open to the secretary of state to extend the qualifying period for an assisted place for individual pupils. Each case would be treated on its merits.