Labour's plan to abolish the assisted places scheme would not finance smaller class sizes as it claims, and would adversely affect families on low incomes, according to two reports published yesterday.
They provide ample ammunition for the independent sector's battle to save the scheme in the run-up to the general election. The salvo will force the Labour party to defend yet again its long-standing commitment to abolish assisted places, pledging that the Pounds 120 million or so saved would go to eliminating oversize classes in primary schools.
But a report, commissioned by the Independent Schools Joint Council from the Institute of Public Finance, says a Labour government would not save enough cash to reach this aim in the lifetime of a parliament. The money saved would be at least Pounds 250m short of what was required over the seven years needed to phase out the scheme.
The scheme, which has involved 80,000 children since it began in 1981, helps to pay for 34,000 children - at a cost of Pounds 125m this academic year. The Prime Minister, seeing it as a vote-winner, announced the expansion of the scheme in October 1995 to under-11s.
The average cost of a place last year was Pounds 3,700, approximately Pounds 800 more than the maintained secondary sector and Pounds 100 more than a state sixth-form place, according to ISIS calculations. The Government's expansion plans mean expenditure would rise to Pounds 161m by 1998-9.
The IPF report says that eliminating all classes of more than 30 for five- to seven-year-olds would cost about Pounds 65m a year, with an additional estimated Pounds 100m in capital costs - assuming that such a policy would be accompanied by changes in legislation that prevented a school from taking more than 30 in a class.
Savings from phasing out the scheme would amount to Pounds 49m a year, once the cost of educating pupils in state schools instead has been taken into account.
The second report, based on a MORI survey commissioned by the Independent Schools Information Service, showed a sharp rise in the number of pupils with unemployed parents or unskilled manual worker backgrounds: from 16 per cent five years ago to 28 per cent now.
Four out of 10 pupils have family incomes below Pounds 9,874 so they qualify for full fees, compared with a third of pupils in 1991.
The survey of nearly 4,000 assisted place pupils in 34 schools also showed that the proportion of ethnic minorities, mostly of Asian origin, had risen from 8 per cent in 1991 to 11 per cent this year. Most - 92 per cent - of parents earn less than Pounds 25,000 a year.
David Woodhead, director of ISIS, called for an extension of the scheme as its loss would mean less parental choice and a more unequal society. The IPF report showed just how much wishful thinking had gone into Labour's plans, he added.