Labour sings praises of choral education

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A Labour government would continue to subsidise places in Britain's fee- paying choir schools despite its pledge to phase out the assisted places scheme.

John Baxter, chairman of the Choir Schools' Association, last night told its annual conference that Labour had promised to look at ways of supporting choristers.

Mr Baxter said that a series of meetings with Labour had been encouraging. David Blunkett, the party's spokesman on education, had said: "We regard choral talent as a special need and we are looking for the means to meet this using specialist facilities which are not readily available in the state sector."

At present, the Government spends pounds 110,000 a year to help around 50 day and boarding pupils who would not otherwise be able to afford the fees in 33 out of the 39 choir schools.

The scheme is very similar to the assisted places scheme which helps bright pupils with fees at other private schools.

Labour has said that it will abolish the scheme but is examining plans to fund children with special needs in fee-paying schools where no suitable facilities are available in state schools.

However, Labour sources emphasised yesterday that, while it is prepared to support choristers, it is not committed to funding private school places for other talented children. The party is looking at ways in which local authorities might fund more places in fee-paying schools. A few choristers already receive local authority funding.

Mr Baxter said: "It has long been our desire to guarantee a chorister a place at a choir school regardless of parental means and background.

"Our own research shows that we have some way to go to ensure that cathedral choir stalls are filled by boys and girls from the whole social spectrum."

He added: "We would welcome Labour support in achieving this ambition, but we should examine our own activities too."

An association survey last summer showed that around 90 per cent of choristers come from the top two socio-economic groups. Choir schools, which are attached to cathedrals, churches and college chapels, educate 800 choristers as well as more than 14,000 other boys and girls.

All receive some help towards fees and some pay nothing. On average parents pay less than half fees.

A growing number of members offer places to girls. The conference will discuss how choir schools can recruit more pupils from state primary schools and from ethnic minority groups.