Diane Spencer reports from the Headmasters' Conference
Delegates at the Headmasters' Conference meeting in Dublin this week were hoping that the Prime Minister would today answer their chairman's appeal to expand the number of state-funded places in independent schools.
Chris Parker, head of Nottingham Grammar School and a member of the HMC working party on assisted places, said this week that John Major had given assurances of his strong support for expanding the Assisted Places Scheme.
There has been speculation that the Government is to expand the scheme by between 10,000 and 15,000 places. It currently pays for 32,000 academically gifted children from low-income families to attend private schools.
Should Mr Major make a commitment to expand the scheme, it will sharpen the policy difference with Labour, which last week reaffirmed its commitment to abolish the scheme and use some of the money - Pounds 104 million a year - to reduce infant class sizes.
The scheme, established in 1979 after the previous Labour government abolished direct-grant schools, funds 20,000 places in 150 schools in HMC membership.
Hugh Wright, its new chairman and chief master of King Edward's School in Birmingham, told delegates that the scheme was "useful and socially beneficial . . . the cost to the Treasury of each individual boy or girl's education is little more than if they were in the maintained sector".
Mr Parker, who has 180 assisted places out of 830, claimed savings from scrapping the scheme would only amount to Pounds 40 million per year. He also warned it could have a drastic effect on some independent schools which received up to Pounds 1 million subsidy a year. More than half the pupils at Wisbech Grammar in Cambridgeshire are supported by the scheme. Manchester Grammar and Haberdashers' Aske's in Elstree, both academically successful former direct- grant schools, have just under a fifth of their pupils on assisted places. Both Mr Parker and Mr Wright dismissed suggestions that appeals for an expansion were designed to save schools from the threat of closure. Mr Parker said his governors were already making plans to run a reduced scheme, if necessary. Mr Wright said schools with a high academic standard were always successful. "Our motivation is to encourage as wide a variety of children into our schools as we can."
In a press conference, he claimed that the shadow education secretary, David Blunkett, favoured a partnership with the independent sector, even hinting that a Labour government might encourage LEAs to buy places at independent schools. This was firmly denied by Mr Blunkett's office, however.
* Drugs testing should be introduced as part of an overall school policy to combat drug abuse, says an HMC working group.
Its report ruled out random test-ing as "profoundly damaging to the basis of trust essential for any healthy school community, with significant moral and legal implications". The working group suggested that the tests could be done by commercial firms, using urine samples or hair.
It adds: "Drug testing is not without its own problems of principle and practice, and individual schools will make their own decisions about the propriety and practicality of introducing a drug testing policy."