STATE subsidies which help officers send their children to boarding schools should be scrapped, according to a controversial Army major, writes Nicolas Barnard.
Major Eric Joyce, who last year provoked uproar with a Fabian Society pamphlet condemning the Army as class-riven, says the pound;6,500-pound;7,700 annual boarding school allowance is propping up the snobbish public school officer culture. Writing in today's TES, he says costs could be halved by extending boarding provision at state schools.
While the Department for Education and Employment is expecting to save up to pound;125 million from the now-abolished Assisted Places Scheme, the Ministry of Defence continues to spend pound;87m a year on the boarding schools allowance.
But it has come under increasing fire in recent years as little more than a tax-free perk for officers and a public subsidy to private schools of varying quality.
Serving members must demonstrate a risk of being moved to a new posting to claim the allowance. But Major Joyce argues that since mobility is a condition of service almost anyone can claim it.
"The true reason the boarding school allowance exists is so posh people can send their kids to private schools," he said.
"It maintains the symbiosis between private education and being an officer. You would find it very difficult to recruit people from posh schools if they didn't think they could afford to get their own kids into Winchester."
Claimants must meet at least 10 per cent of the school fees themselves. Senior officers use the allowance as a down-payment on the much higher fees for top public schools. But some smaller schools rely on service families to survive and peg their fees at the allowance plus 10 per cent to exploit the lower ranks.
The quality of some schools has become a growing cause for concern. The MoD's Service Children's Education Agency runs an approved list for parents, but has not yet actively vetted schools. The Quantock School in Somerset finally closed last term after being removed from the list following a damning report by the Office for Standards in Education.
It and other schools were highlighted in a report in 1996 by David Jamieson, MP for Plymouth Devonport. Now a Labour whip, he said: "I would be very happy if the state's boarding provision were expanded so it could assist not just military but also Foreign Office families," he said. "At the moment there is very little competition to the private sector and what state provision we have is excellent."
An MoD spokesman defended the allowance as part of its "duty of care" to service families. Applicants must now prove they are likely to be moved within five years, while in future all 800 schools on the list - which includes all 44 state boarding schools - would be inspected.
The services "reflect the society they defend and recruit from a very broad base," he said.
Major Joyce, himself comprehensive-educated, has not been formally disciplined for his pamphlet, but is effectively suspended. He is a Labour party candidate in next year's Scottish elections.
Another Voice, page 10