John Major's choice of the Assisted Places Scheme as the ground on which to bring Labour to battle seems odd to the point of obtuseness. It is not just that it sits oddly juxtaposed with his One-Nation classless-society rhetoric. Given his contradictory commitment to increasing parental choice by making all schools grant-maintained, we should be used to Major logic by now. But doubling assisted places seems a bizarre political gambit, even when viewed as the crude electoral bribe it is. For it surely promises, in the present circumstances, to enrage more aspiring families than it privileges.
True, it marks out the Conservatives as the party willing to give a leg-up to a few more of the deserving poor. In marketing terms, then, it provides a unique selling point. But the perversity of spending millions more on smaller classes for a few while, for the vast majority of children, class sizes grow too large as a direct result of Government policy, will not be lost on a public increasingly concerned about cuts in school spending. Can the Prime Minister and his advisers be so out of touch with the fears and hopes of ordinary parents?
What use is it if Mr Major champions the cause of parental "choice, choice, choice" if the only schools to choose between are all equally tatty, crowded and ill-provided-for? As he himself observed in his Blackpool speech, "real choice will come when every state school offers the highest standards".
Though it hardly matters in this world of gesture politics, in practice, doubling the numbers of pupils on assisted places may be difficult to achieve. For a start, there is no great backlog of unmet demand from parents or from schools that meet the scheme's age and academic criteria. In fact, some existing assisted places remain unfilled.
Gillian Shephard, and the Department for Education and Employment, to the extent that they have had any say in this policy at all, are apparently determined the scheme should remain a scholarship one; a selective scheme that provides the chance of a high quality academic education to those who are poor but evidently bright. That rules out extension of the scheme to parents motivated more by aspirations than their child's ability and the many independent schools which would gladly provide assisted places but do not meet the department's standards.
To make up the numbers, the scheme may be extended to younger pupils or free-standing prep schools, but that poses difficulties over selection at eight or nine and later progression to a senior independent school within the scheme. It also means that doubling the numbers of pupils would more than double the cost since if they start younger they will have to be supported for longer.
Extending the scheme to more primary-aged pupils also further emphasises the inequities involved. It is among younger children that smaller classes are thought to be most beneficial. And yet, the funding differentials in state-maintained schools continue to favour secondary-aged pupils, even though junior schools are now expected to teach the same broad national curriculum.
There are signs, too, of restiveness among those schools which already offer assisted places because, like state-funded schools, they have found that what the Government pays does not keep pace with the real cost of education. This clearly is a sensitive issue for schools in the fee-paying market, especially when they reach the stage where the payers are subsidising the assisted. With some justice, their customers are likely to feel that, having paid once for their own child's education through their taxes, and a second time through their school fees, it is expecting rather a lot to call on them to pay yet again to support the Government's assisted places policy.
It does also seem legitimate to ask - as is normal in this time of pre-election promises and point-scoring - where the Government is going to find the money to pay for another Pounds 100 million worth of assisted places. After all, the Labour party has calculated that it can keep classes below 30 for all five, six, and seven-year-olds by transferring the funding of the original scheme, a switch that should please more parents than it disappoints. Surely it is up to the Prime Minister now to explain which other bit of the education budget he plans to cut in the name of parental choice.