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Monday, 6 March, 2000, 11:30 GMT
Tories plan assisted places alternatives
Independent school pupils walking in school grounds
Businesses could help pay pupils' school fees under proposals being considered by the Tories
The Shadow Education Secretary, Theresa May, has revealed that her party is developing new ways to help children from less affluent backgrounds attend independent schools.

The Conservatives are working on proposals for alternatives to the assisted places scheme, which was abolished by the Labour Government.

The scheme, introduced by Margaret Thatcher's first Conservative Government in 1981, provided places at independent schools for able children who could not afford the fees.

But the current government decided to phase it out and spend the savings on reducing class sizes in state infant schools.

Business scholarship

Ms May said that under proposals being developed, a pupil attending an independent school would receive the equivalent funding for a place in a state school.

The difference between that amount and the independent school's fees would be made up by an independent schools bursary, a business scholarship, or both.

A business scholarship could involve businesses "sponsoring" pupils by contributing towards their school fees.

Ms May said another option being considered was a scheme focusing on independent schools which catered for minority subjects or which were noted as centres of excellence.

Speaking to the Society of Headmasters and Headmistresses of Independent Schools in Chester, on Monday, she said the assisted places scheme had offered "educational opportunities on the basis of ability to many children from many backgrounds.

'Welcome news'

"We want to ensure that children can benefit from as wide a range of educational opportunities as possible, to bring increased choice and diversity to parents.

"This is the direction we are intending to go. As with our previous policy announcements, we will continue to listen to Britain in the coming weeks and months. We want to get the policy right.

"The Conservative Party has unveiled some radical policies for education already. We will unveil more over the coming months."

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) said in a statement that the news was "very welcome", and that it would be "happy to co-operate with any political party which is prepared to re-examine this vital issue".

"Since the abolition of the assisted places scheme, the ISC has continued to argue strongly that public money can and should be used to support children from low-income families and independent schools.

"It believes that means can be devised which will cost the state no more than the equivalent places at maintained schools."
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