New assisted places scheme

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Biddy Passmore reports on the Independent Schools Council's latest proposals to bring state funds back into the private sector.

PLANS for a new breed of "cut-price" independent schools could pave the way for a new scheme to provide state funding for private schools.

CfBT, a not-for-profit education services company, has taken over a private prep school in Kent and is charging fees, pound;850 a term, below the full local authority cost of a primary place. Chief executive Neil McIntosh said such schools, like charter schools in the US, could be funded by the state and help to increase the diversity in the public education service, called for in the Government's recent Green Paper.

However, just four years after the Government abolished the Assisted Places Scheme, it could be difficult for ministers to back any scheme that was seen as a replacement.

This week, a different scheme of state support for pupils from low-income families at fee-paying schools was proposed by independent schools. It would cost the Government no more per head than a state school place and could be open to children of all abilities.

Funding at this level would cover barely half the full fee at most independent day schools, says the Independent Schools Council in a consultative paper. The rest would have to be met by the schools themselves, mostly by raising fees for paying parents.

The Department for Education and Employment's reaction to the ISC scheme was cool, but its recent Green Paper admitted that much of the pressure to transform public education comes from the flight of prosperous parents to the private sector.

While a state-funded scheme to widen access to independent school might alienate Old Labour voters, it would be popular with the wider electorate. A survey, conducted by MORI last September for the Independent Schools Council, found that 62 per cent of the public, and 61 per cent of Labour supporters, approved of the use of public funds to help poor children attend independent schools.

The council's proposal, entitled OASIS (Open Access to Schools in the Independent Sector) is designed to meet criticisms of the old Assisted Places Scheme. It would offer places in the full range of independent schools, including junior and small schools - not just academically selective senior schools; funding would be pegged at the level of state spending per pupil; and safeguards would be built in to avoid financial abuse by parents with clever accountants.

The OASIS scheme is similar to plans that will be unveiled shortly by the Conservatives.

ISC chairman Ian Beer said the council wanted to initiate public debate and was "not looking for instant decisions by political parties." But the timing of its consultation document, coming just before the start of a general election campaign, will put pressure on Labour.

Further proposals to end the divide between the public and private sectors will be published next month by the Social Market Foundation. A paper by Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Brighton College, will propose means-tested charges for all parents in state schools.

"There is no argument for parents not to pay, when the whole sector is short of money," Dr Seldon told The TES. The Green Paper contained "many excellent ideas" but it was "pie in the sky" to think the funds would be available to implement them.

Leader, 20

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