Assisted places scheme helps few working class pupils – archive, 2 December 1985

Few children who get a place at an independent public school through the Government’s assisted places scheme come from truly working class backgrounds, a survey has revealed.

Many pupils on the scheme had relatives who had attended or worked at the school where they won a place, and others would have attended an independent school whether or not they had received help through the scheme, it said.

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Replies by heads indicated that they recognised the scheme pupils were largely drawn from the middle class. One said: “In a sense, this scheme caters for the artificially poor.” Another commented: “The scheme has been of genuine benefit to bright children whose fathers have died or whose parents have divorced. I lean over backwards to recruit boys from truly working-class families, but only very rarely indeed do we get good chaps from these backgrounds.”

The survey, in the journal Educational Studies, was conducted through questionnaires sent to 110 of the 234 schools which take part in the scheme. Eleven schools’ heads were interviewed, and group discussions were held with 199 scheme pupils in six schools.

The assisted places scheme was set up by the Government in 1981. Mr Mark Carlisle, then Education Secretary, said it was designed to restore “to bright children of less affluent parents … a high quality academic education … irrespective of the means of their parents.”

It has never been the stated aim of the Department of Education and Science that the scheme should reach out to the ‘working class’, but the Government has claimed that it helps children who would never otherwise have got the opportunity to go to a high quality independent school.

In January last year the schools minister, Mr Robert Dunn, was photographed with some children on the scheme, whose parents ranged from a Mersey bus driver to an unemployed accountant. He denied that the scheme gave a financial bonus to parents who would have sent their children to independent schools anyway.

He said: “The great majority would agree that the assisted places scheme has opened up opportunities which would never otherwise have been available.”

The study found that substantial numbers of children on the scheme came from one-parent families, or from homes which had a low income because of unemployment rather than because parents had low paid jobs.

Questionnaires were returned by 93 of the 110 schools contacted, which had 7,229 children on the scheme between them. Twenty per cent of these had a brother or sister at an independent school or had been to one, whether or not through the scheme.

About 9 per cent were sons and daughters of former pupils and about 3 per cent of staff of the school. About 32 per cent had at least one parent with a professional qualification and about 41 per cent were from single parent families. Among the pupils questioned, in the majority of cases this was because of divorce or separation. About 19 per cent were from homes where the main wage earner had recently been unemployed for a significant length of time.

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The DES said that of the 6,954 assisted places available in September 1984, 5,207 of them were taken up. Forty per cent received the full fees, which indicates a parental income of under £6,377 per year. The ceiling for eligibility is a parental home income of £15,000.

The study’s author suggests that if the intention was to enable substantial numbers of working class children to attend independent schools, it was largely an ineffective mechanism.

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