Schools rush for assisted places

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The Independent Online

Education Editor

Private schools have rushed to apply for more assisted places in response to the Prime Minister's promise to boost the scheme. They have put in bids for about 7,000 state-funded places for bright pupils from this September.

The first 5,000 extra assisted places will be on offer to fulfil John Major's pledge to double the 30,000-place scheme over the next six years. He announced the plan at last year's Conservative Party conference to emphasise the difference between the Tories and the Labour Party over private education. Labour has said it will phase out the scheme, which costs more than pounds 100m a year, and use the money to decrease class sizes for the youngest primary school children.

A Department for Education and Employment spokesman said: "We are delighted. We have a large number of applications from independent schools. We shall be making an announcement shortly about which schools will be included."

Friday was the deadline for applications. Some private school heads had suggested that not enough schools would come forward for the scheme, which is means-tested, because the Government no longer allows for the full cost of independent school fees.

There were also fears that there would not be enough space in schools which at present offer assisted places.

Ministers decided that some assisted places should be offered to children from the age of five. At present, only those 11 and over are eligible. Some of the schools which have applied will be disappointed. All will be vetted to see whether their academic record meets government standards.

Critics say some independent schools would close were it not for the assisted places scheme. The closure rate of private schools halved after the scheme was introduced in 1980.