Tories to expand assisted places at private schools

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MINISTERS are to increase their private schools grant scheme by 10,000 to 15,000 places - amid claims that Labour's plans to fund smaller classes by scrapping the scheme do not add up.

The initiative will form part of a tough, right-of-centre agenda at this week's Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, including a commitment to bring incriminal sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants, and moves to protect victims of crime who use self-defence.

Ministers are this weekend finalising their plans for an increase of at least one third in the 30,000 children who are on the assisted places scheme, which presently costs pounds 110m a year. The children receive a means- tested state subsidy towards private school fees.

Last week Tony Blair, the Labour leader, promised to scrap the scheme and divert the money to ensure that no child between five and seven is educated in a class of more than 30.

But Tory ministers said yesterday that the sums did not add up and that scrapping assisted places would not save pounds 60m, as Labour had claimed. Robin Squire, junior schools minister, said: "It is simply untrue to claim there will be large savings because the majority of pupils will need to be absorbed into the state system at a cost to be found by the tax- payer".

However, Labour sources said yesterday that their pounds 60m figure was an estimate and that cash from other sources might have to be used before full savings from scrapping assisted places came through.

David Blunkett, Labour education spokesman, added that extra pupils did not cost large sums to accommodate in state schools. He pointed out that, when 110,000 extras pupils arrived in state schools this year, the Government said no extra spending was necessary because there was slack in the system. "They can't have it both ways," he said. Ministers were rattled by Labour's proposal, he added.

At the conference Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will go ahead with his scheme for sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants, despite a row with Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education.

Ministers are promising more government announcements than at any conference since 1986. Mr Howard may also announce an increase in the number of special constables and an increase in the prison building programme.

Further report, page 10