Clare Dean reports on renewed controversy over the assisted places scheme, which critics say is undermining the state system. The Labour party intensified its attack on public schools this week with a demand that ministers should divulge the scale of Government subsidy to individual institutions.
Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South, Strathclyde, called for a list of the top 50 schools receiving cash under the assisted places scheme.
Evidence already collated by him shows that four independent schools received more than a million pounds each in 1992-93 - Dulwich College in London was given Pounds 1,291,000, Wisbech Grammar Pounds 1,148,000, St Edward's College in Liverpool Pounds 1,104,000 and Emanuel School in London Pounds 1,046, 000. The MP now wants to judge the extent to which the Pounds 105 million scheme is acting as a lifeline for independent schools.
Labour is opposed to the means-tested scheme, which was introduced by the Conservatives in 1981 to allow parents with limited incomes to send bright children to selected independent schools.
It has vowed to scrap the scheme, but this could alienate the middle class which Labour leader Tony Blair is attempting to woo and upset some of the party's traditional voters. A MORI poll, commissioned by the Independent Schools Information Service last year, revealed that three out of five Labour supporters backed assisted places.
The schools themselves claim that if the scheme were abolished they would become more socially elitist. John Waszek, head of St Edward's College, Liverpool, which has 395 assisted-place pupils said: "This school has a high proportion of children from very modest backgrounds and those who argue the scheme is for genteel families who have fallen on hard times couldn't be further from the truth."
St Edward's receives an average of Pounds 2,795 from the Government for each assisted place. Seventy per cent of the assisted pupils at the co-ed choir school have all their fees paid and a third are from families on income support.
Chris Parker, head of Batley grammar in West Yorkshire where 250 of the 586 pupils are on assisted places, said: "It would be a tragedy if Labour abolished the scheme for reasons of pure dogma."
Mr Parker said the average assisted-place holder at his school could afford less than 23 per cent of the fees while 43 per cent could not pay anything. More than 96 per were in social groups C1, C2, D or E while nearly 29 per cent came from single-parent families. And Judith Franklin, head of Colston's Girls, Bristol, warned that opportunities for girls to attend single-sex schools would be reduced if assisted places were abolished.
The scheme, introduced by the former education secretary Mark Carlisle in the 1980 Education Act to create a greater social mix in independent schools, has been accused of not reaching working-class pupils. It has also been attacked as a hidden subsidy for the private sector which undermined parents' confidence in maintained schools by reinforcing the idea that the independents were superior.
Under the scheme parents' incomes are measured on a sliding scale and children's fees paid accordingly. Parents earning less than Pounds 8,000 have fees paid in full.
Research by John Fitz, Tony Edwards and Geoff Whitty, published in 1986 and currently being followed up, found that only 9 per cent of fathers and 4 per cent of mothers could be classified as working-class.
Bernard Trafford, head of Wolverhampton Grammar where 40 per cent of pupils are on assisted places, said: "There are some people who take advantage but the vast majority are not fiddling the system, nor is it the distressed middle classes." And Tristram Parry-Jones, head of Emanuel where 38 per cent of pupils have assisted places, said: "We have people ranging from the very well off to those on income support which gives us a good balance of real life."
Emanuel in south London is looking to go co-ed next year to help cushion it against a possible loss of assisted-places funding while St Mary's College, Crosby, where 32 per cent of pupils have assisted places, has squirrelled away Pounds 3 million.
Meanwhile Graham Able, head of the independent Hampton School in London, is working on a plan to replace the scheme with a credit system which would give every school the same allowance per pupil. Parents who chose an independent school would still have to pay fees. However, he has a long way to go before convincing Labour that the Pounds 105 million spent subsidising places would not be better invested in state schools.
Additional research by Frances Rafferty