The abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme could force independent schools into partnership with the public sector. Elaine Williams reports
As independent schools digest the implications of life under a Labour government, there are some profoundly mixed feelings.
On one hand, they know that the Assisted Places Scheme is gone and that all they can do is wrangle over the detail of its phasing out. On the other, there is a note of optimism. Some hope that the one-nation consensual vision conjured up by Tony Blair may lead to bridges being built between the maintained and independent sectors over a number of educational thoroughfares.
These would cover co-operation on staff training, resources, special needs, curriculum development and flexibility in the curriculum, community support, building up centres of excellence and value-added league tables.
There had been a distinct shift of Labour attitudes to the old chestnuts of removing charitable status, imposing VAT on school fees, subjecting independent schools to state inspection and the national curriculum, during the 12 months before the election.
The Government, however, has confirmed its interest in encouraging "good partnerships" between independent and state schools.
The spectre of VAT on fees was one of the hares the Conservatives set running before the general election. David Blunkett, now Secretary of State, went on record to say this would not happen. Getting Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, to support his statement was a different matter. "He keeps leaving it off the list of things that would never have VAT put on them," said Dick Davison, deputy director of the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS).
No amount of lobbying, articles and letters to the press by independent schools managed to shift the Labour party from its resolution to phase out assisted places. It was a key component in the party's election manifesto as a means of funding the reduction of infant class sizes, and featured prominently in this week's Queen's Speech.
The Government's introduction of a swift, short education Bill before the summer recess is designed to prevent any derailment of its plan to cut class sizes to below 30 for five- to seven-year-olds.
Although Labour intends to honour its commitment not to remove the subsidy from pupils' awarded assisted places for this September, Mr Blunkett is determined to stop private schools taking pre-emptive action over the winter to offer another tranche of places for the start of the 1998-99 academic year.
Some heads are already questioning the legality of removing the subsidy from prep school pupils once they enter secondary school.
Chris Parker, headteacher of Nottingham High School and chair of the Head Masters' Conference assisted places committee, believes that in law this could amount to a denial of reasonable expectation.
He said: "Put yourself in the position of a parent at my school where virtually every boy in our prep school goes on to the senior school. To truncate the subsidy at 11 may be illegal and we may challenge that."
He also challenges a prevailing view that schools have built up contingency plans and will be able to make up for the subsidy themselves. Highly academic schools in cities such as Nottingham, Bradford and Leeds would probably have no difficulty filling places from fee-payers, but they have argued consistently that this would make the schools financially elitist.
Mr Parker said: "We could probably self-finance 10 places rather than 30 a year, but most schools will not even be able to do that. I regret the fact that the Government seeks to build bridges with a mallet."
The two independent schools of the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham, between them have 450 pupils on assisted places. "They are very much part of what the schools are about," said Hugh Wright, headteacher of King Edward's School.
He believes, however, that the 400-year-old foundation would do "everything within its powers" to replace the assisted places subsidy.
A MORI poll commissioned by ISIS earlier this year showed that nearly half of assisted place pupils (46 per cent) come from working-class backgrounds. Furthermore, two out of five households receiving assistance had incomes of below Pounds 9,874. But the poll also showed that the proportion of professional and managerial families receiving financial support through the scheme had increased by 8 per cent since 1991.
ISIS believes executive unemployment and business crashes during the recession partly accounted for this increase. But it is also true that a well-off household could still receive assistance if more than one child in the family had an assisted place, particularly if the children were at high-fee schools.
Critics of the scheme have said that it most benefited the middle classes and drew pupils, albeit from low-income or single-parent families, "from within the independent school frame of reference".
It is argued that the scheme has benefited the "artificially" poor. Joan Freeman, a visiting professor at Middlesex University, has pointed out that up to two-thirds of school students taking up places for the first time at 16 are already fee-paying pupils in the school for which they won the assisted place.
Labour, however, is very keen to distance itself from such arguments. Conor Ryan, one of two special advisers in the Department for Education and Employment, says that the Government wants to phase out assisted places in order to "target" its resources towards reducing class sizes. "We are not putting forward other arguments," he said.
He also confirms the Government's interest in encouraging "good partnerships" between independent schools and state schools.
David Blunkett favours co-operation under a longstanding tradition whereby independent schools offer services that cannot be provided in the maintained sector.
Mr Blunkett has already indicated that boarding and special needs provision could come within this framework. The King Edward VI Foundation earned his praise last year for its strategic and financial support of Tim Brighouse's Children's University and the University of the Third Age, which offer training, Saturday morning and evening classes for Birmingham's children.
Ministers also favour proposals from Dr Martin Stephen, the High Master of Manchester Grammar who met with Tony Blair before the election. He has suggested that sixth-formers wishing to take minority subjects that lack teaching expertise within the maintained sector should be educated at the school for no extra cost to the state.
He has also proposed a pilot scheme in conjunction with the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle and five universities whereby the first year of a four-year Masters science course would be taught in the schools. He also suggests that the school uses its expertise to prepare state Oxbridge candidates.
Should the Government require a quid pro quo for the retention of charitable status, such schemes might take on a legal characteristic. Independent school heads suspect that a pragmatic new Labour would not wish to enter the legal minefield of trying to abolish charitable status that would yield nothing but "backpocket change" to the Treasury.
It is estimated that schools gain Pounds 63 million through charitable status, but for every Pounds 1 they gain, they give away Pounds 1.99 in financial support to pupils, according to the HMC. However, the required nature of partnership and community projects would have to be clarified and placed within a national, legal framework.
ISIS announced this week that pupil numbers in independent schools rose by 1.7 per cent in 1996 - the biggest rise in the past 10 years and the second-biggest rise ever recorded.
Kevin McNeany, chief executive of the Nord Anglia Education Group, a Stockport-based public company that owns 16 independent schools, predicted that independent rolls would continue to rise under Labour despite its pledge to tackle standards.
He said: "This Government is promising yet more change but what parents want most is consistency and stability, and that is what they find in the independent sector."
'WE HAVE A LOT TO LEARN FROM EACH OTHER'
Staff at Sunderland High, the city's only 3-18 independent school, held a mock election as a piece of common room fun a few days before the real poll. They returned a huge Labour majority.
The headteacher, Charlotte Rendle-Short, backs Labour's pledge to reduce class sizes in state primary schools and sympathises with the logic of abolishing assisted places, although she regrets that the school will not be able to make up for the 15 places a year it currently receives.
She believes that a Labour Government on a one-nation ticket would have to accept that independent schools exist because people want them, but is very keen to form partnerships in raising standards in her local community.
Sunderland is not a natural constituency for independent education. Those parents who traditionally subscribe to it have tended to look across the Tyne to Newcastle.
"There's a feeling in this town that if you want to do anything you go to Newcastle," said Peter Hogan, the school's deputy head.
Nevertheless, the Church Schools Company, which owns the school, has invested millions in the past four years, amalgamating a girls' high and a boys' preparatory school and building a separate infant and junior school.
The school has grown from 480 pupils to 590 in three years, attracting parents who are mostly first-time buyers in the market.
I talked to the offspring of nurses, council employees, a fish-and-chip shop owner and a haulage contractor, none of whom had been to independent school themselves.
The pupils praised the support they had from teachers and pointed to the small class sizes and the advantages of being in a school where they were known by everyone.
Sunderland High achieves 85 to 95 per cent A-Cs at GCSE, compared with a local average of around 35 per cent. "We are very different from many independent day schools," said Charlotte Rendle-Short.
"We are only slightly selective, and you will find that most of our parents are non-graduates. Some of them didn't even have a proper secondary education. The system failed them."
Sunderland High, with its mixture of new build and grand Victorian annexes, is next to the university in a leafy quarter of the town. Yet if you follow the street along, it soon deteriorates into poor terraces and boarded-up houses. The school is neighbour to Hendon, an area of serious deprivation and planning blight that carries the poorest, lowest-income postcode in the country.
Ms Rendle-Short said: "The Church Schools Company has committed itself to the community of Sunderland. As with the university, we feel we can influence the way the community values education. At present, it is low on the list of priorities."
Like the university, which has opened learning shops in Gateshead's MetroCentre, Ms Rendle-Short believes the school could open its doors for homework classes and for adults to use its substantial information technology facilities, for which it received a grant from the Wolfson Foundation.
She also believes that schools locally could share experiences at classroom and management level.
She said: "There is excellent practice in both sectors, but there is very little sharing of that. I think we have a lot to learn from each other. "
She felt, however, that there needed to be some kind of national impetus. In a traditional Labour constituency such as Chris Mullen's, such overtures from the independent sector are not likely to be greeted with enthusiasm.
How the Assisted Places Scheme has grown
.....................1981.... 1985.. 1989.. 1993...1997 Number of schools ...220...... 226... 278... 295... 481* Number of places... 4,185..... 21, 412.. 27,008.. 29,291.. 38,000* Cost (millions) Pounds 3.021.. Pounds 29.569. . Pounds 50.943.. Pounds 92.314.. Pounds 140*
Letters, page 26