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Byers to block 'backdoor' assisted places

Councils are to be stopped from buying places for pupils in private schools, if the Education Secretary rules they are attempting to introduce an assisted places scheme "by the back door", writes Frances Rafferty.

Stephen Byers, standards minister, said new Clause 12 of the School Standards and Framework Bill, will prevent local education authorities bringing in their own variation of the assisted places scheme. He said it was not the intention to alter longstanding arrangements, and said it would not prevent councils, for example, buying special needs education from the private sector.

Nick St Aubyn, Conservative MP for Guildford, described the Government's announcement as bolt from the blue. He said when he had told MPs about a scheme in Surrey to send 200 children from poor backgrounds to one of the county's private schools, Estelle Morris, education minister, had appeared supportive .

Mr St Aubyn said dark forces were at work. He said it was undemocratic for local schemes to be decided by regulation.

Mr Byers said details of the Surrey scheme, and others would be studied. He said: "There seems to be an acceptance by Conservatives that you have to go to the independent sector to get a better education. It's a cop-out to buy your way out of problems you have at the moment."

He said it would be up to school governing bodies if they wanted to spend their budget on tuition, for example in A-level Japanese, provided by the private sector. He also admitted education action zones would not be covered by the ban.

David Woodhead, national director of the Independent Schools Information Service, said: "However new New Labour claims to be, it is still adhering to the old Labour agenda. It recognises that it may be desirable for local education authorities to seek places in the private sector for ballet, music or special needs, but not for academic ability."

The Local Government Association also opposed the legislation. David Whitbread, its education secretary, said he regretted the removal of local discretion. "If these schemes are to be decided by regulation this means the local response to local needs will be taken over. It is another example of Government centralisation," he said.

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