Diane Spencer reports on reaction to the Prime Minister's plan to double the number of assisted places while Elaine Williams, below, discovers how much the scheme matters to some Bradford boys for whom it is a chance of a better life
Bradford Grammar School presents an impressive stone and mullioned edifice to passing traffic, fronted by generous lawns and playing fields.
An icon of traditional, selective, competitive education, it accommodates more than 1,100 pupils, acting as a honeypot for some of the city's most academic boys. Many enter the hallowed portal because they pass the school's competitive entrance examination and because they can pay. However, Bradford grammar has always catered for the poor scholar.
A direct-grant school until their abolition in 1975, one third of the school's places were fully paid for by the local authority. Now one quarter of its boys are there by virtue of the Government's Assisted Places Scheme and 40 per cent of those are Asian.
Bradford grammar stands on the edge of Manningham, an Asian enclave and the scene of riots last summer. But for a significant sector of this tightly-knit Asian community "it stands for getting on in life," according to David Smith, the headteacher.
"It stands for 'your father is a bus driver, but you are going to be a doctor'." He added: "There is a huge demand for high educational standards in the Asian community and I am glad we can do our bit."
Assisted places were introduced in 1981, and the take-up nationally was slow. However, for the past three years all Bradford grammar's assisted places have been taken - increasingly by Asian children.
Eleven-year-old Saravanan Chettiar was bored at his primary school but with an older sister already at Bradford girls' grammar there was no possibility of him moving on without a fully-funded assisted place. He said: "My father was really low because his friends, all of them Asian, were sending their sons here and he didn't have the money. He was a bus driver, but he had a heart attack. Now he's unemployed and my mum's a dinner lady and so there was no chance."
Saravanan, who says his strong subjects are maths, Latin and geography, is "very pleased" to have the place. He said: "I just wasn't being pushed before. I think there are so many more opportunities here."
Kuldeep Singh Nazran, aged 15, was in private education from the beginning, but with a sister also at Bradford girls' his family (his father is a salesman) were struggling to pay the fees. Without an assisted place he would have been taken out of the grammar school. Kuldeep, who wants to study aeronautical engineering at Imperial College, London University, believes the competitive atmosphere of the school and the drive to academic excellence motivated him. "Many of the friends where I live have dropped out after GCSEs," he said, "if I were not here I would be heading the same way."
In its early days research suggested that the Assisted Places Scheme was not attracting the families it was intended for. The high-achieving sons and daughters of the labouring classes were losing out to the children of impoverished gentry and divorcees. Now, more than a third of pupils come from families of unemployed, and low-paid workers. Last year the average income of assisted-places families was Pounds 10,795.
Robert Paley, aged 17, lives with his mother on a Bradford council estate. Without an assisted place, Bradford grammar would have been out of bounds and elsewhere, he believes, he would not have achieved so much.
Now he enjoys his A-level studies in English, history and economics. He said: "There is a studious environment here. There is a lot of competition among the boys to do well. My friends at home treat school like some kind of prison, they're just not keyed up to going.
"I think assisted places should be expanded because there are thousands of kids out there who would flourish in a place like this."
Fifteen-year-old James Parkinson, whose father was made redundant and now works on a temporary contract in a velvet factory and whose mother is a secretary, believes that without the scheme Bradford grammar would become "very elitist".
Headteacher David Smith concurs: "This is a very democratic place, it's the culture of the school, and assisted places are part of that." However, the future of the scheme, it seems, now depends on the outcome of the next general election. Labour and the Conservatives have seized upon it as a means of proving that their policies are different.
John Major, in a rallying end-of-conference speech to the Tories in Blackpool last week, pledged to double the number of available places, while Labour is committed to abolishing the scheme in order to reallocate funds to hold down primary-school class-sizes.
However, David Smith argues that the Pounds 100 million tied up in assisted places, would not become instantly available once the scheme was abolished, and that savings would in reality be very small.
The annual fee for Bradford grammar is Pounds 3,900. This compares to Pounds 3,200, the average cost of a state-school place for ages 11-15. If children on assisted places were transferred back to the state system, then their unit cost, albeit slightly reduced, would go with them. He said: "The total savings to the Government from this school would be between Pounds 7,000 and Pounds 10,000 a year. I think the Government would save around Pounds 5 million a year overall but it would be the end of an era at Bradford grammar.
"The Labour party has to show what part it wants schools like this to play and if it wants us to be part of their educational provision, assisted places is one way of doing it."
However, Mr Smith was hopeful of further dialogue with the Labour party, a hope strengthened by Tony Blair's decision to send his son Euan to a grant-maintained school.
Under the Conservatives' proposals for a doubling of assisted places, Mr Smith believed Bradford grammar might expand to take on more assisted place pupils (there are five applicants for every place) while slightly reducing the number of fee payers.
However, Mohammed Ajeeb, a Bradford Labour councillor and former Lord Mayor of the city, believed that although the grammar school was important to certain sectors of the Asian community, there were between 10-12,000 Bradford Asian children who could not benefit by it and who were confined to poorly-resourced inner-city schools.
He said: "A future government should plough more resources into those schools, so a greater number of children can benefit."