Blair backs private school plan for state sixth-formers

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State-school pupils would be able to transfer free of charge to the sixth forms of top private schools under proposals being considered by Tony Blair, the Labour leader.

The plans, put forward by Martin Stephen, high master of Manchester Grammar School, would mean that state-school students who wish to study A-level minority subjects such as Latin and those who are aiming at Oxbridge entrance would be able to compete for places in independent schools.

Mr Blair has held a two-hour meeting to discuss the plans outlined in a paper by Dr Stephen which has also been sent to the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

Any attempt to re-create the assisted-places scheme under which the taxpayer funds private school places for pupils would be resisted by many Labour Party members. The party has said it would abolish the scheme.

Dr Stephen, a long-standing advocate of returning the 120 former direct- grant schools to the state sector as centres of excellence, emphasised yesterday that the scheme would involve no extra cost to the taxpayer or to parents. The extra pounds 1,000-a-year cost of funding a sixth former in a private rather than a state school would come from charity, business or the European Union.

Dr Stephen is talking to Oxford colleges about ways of preparing state- school pupils for Oxbridge entrance through full- or part-time attendance at private schools. Manchester Grammar School and the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne are also talking to universities about using independent schools to run full-time degree-level courses for former state-school pupils, particularly in science.

Dr Stephen said: "We would not be seeking to steal pupils from other institutions. We would be seeking to satisfy a need that is not being satisfied. I do not expect these proposals to prove politically controversial."

Labour has made it clear that Dr Stephen's proposals will be explored only if it forms a government. There will be no manifesto commitment.

One-third of English local education authorities will face cuts in the cash available for schools from central government next year and the rest will not receive enough to keep pace with inflation, Labour said yesterday. Figures placed in the House of Commons library show that 41 of the 132 authorities will receive less cash this year.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said government plans allowed local education authorities to spend an extra pounds 633m but they had the responsibility to look for savings.

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