Assisted places debate is first pre-election casualty

As the general election approaches, both major political parties have gone to war and it is a common-place that the first casualty of war is truth.

The debate over the Assisted Places Scheme is a case in point. New Labour would have us believe that the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme would rid the system of a corrupt practice exploited by the middle-classes and that the money saved would reduce class sizes in maintained primary schools at a stroke. A close analysis of the facts reveals a different picture;

* 42 per cent places awarded are free because the recipients' families have incomes below Pounds 9,800; * in 1996-97 more than 37,000 children from low-income families will benefit from the scheme; * in some parts of the country, the cost of an assisted place is actually less than the cost of a maintained school place; * savings generated by abolishing the scheme would produce one extra teacher for every 2,200 children in the five to seven-year-old range.

Moreover, a recent MORI poll (1996) revealed that 63 per cent of those questioned supported the scheme and, more significantly, 55 per cent of Labour voters were in favour of assisted places - more than half.

So much for the national picture. But how does this work at local or individual level? This month, at Clifton, we held our annual Assisted Places Examination, in which six children competed for each individual place we have to offer. The average income of those families who have been offered places at Clifton as a result of the examination was Pounds 9,239.66. Four of the families concerned are on income support, eight of the children offered places come from single-parent families. There is not the slightest hint of suggestion that these awards have been given to supplement the fee-paying capability of a so-called grasping middle-class in Bristol.

The awards have gone to children with real potential who, without the assistance afforded by this scheme, would run the risk of not having that potential realised, and I am sure that Clifton is not alone in the thoroughly proper and honest way in which it has administered the scheme.

The message from this headmaster to both New Labour and those who decry this initiative is clear - drop the dead dogma and credit the electorate with the intelligence to deserve the truth.

R J ACHESON Headmaster Clifton College Preparatory School Bristol (Chairman elect, Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools)

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