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The Assisted Places Scheme


“The assisted places scheme: its impact and its role in privatization and marketization”


Whitty, G., Power, S., and Edwards, T. (1998). Journal of Education Policy, 13(2), 237-250.

What’s it about?

The Assisted Places Scheme was introduced in the 1980 Education Act, an early piece of legislation in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

Its aim was to provide means-tested assistance to enable academically able children from poorer backgrounds to attend academically oriented private secondary schools.

It applied to England and Wales, while a different scheme applied to Scotland.

It was doubled in size and expanded to include primary-age children in 1995, during the John Major Conservative government.

Politically contested from the start, the scheme was abolished in 1997 when Tony Blair’s Labour government took office.

This piece of research studied how the scheme changed schools that took part, and how it affected neighbouring comprehensive state schools.

The scheme is of more than just historical interest: some of the modern-day proposals for reform are similar in certain ways to the Assisted Places Scheme.

When introduced, it was claimed that the scheme would increase the diversity of schooling available, and promote social mobility.

The rhetoric stressed the necessity of “rescuing” able working class children from state schools.

Previously, an evaluation of the scheme had shown that the pupils participating did well in exams, but that the pupils were mainly from a middle-class background.


The research involved extended interviews with headteachers of nine private schools that had taken part in the scheme, and the headteachers of neighbouring state schools.


The paper reports that selection of children for the scheme was based on income, rather than on family wealth.

This meant that many pupils who benefited from the scheme were from middle class backgrounds or playing the system, consistent with the earlier research.

  • The research found no evidence that the scheme saved the commercial future of private schools.
  • However, the scheme had enabled participating schools to raise their academic profile.
  • For some schools, the scheme had been a substitute for their own bursary scheme.
  • The heads of neighbouring state schools reported their beliefs that fewer academically able children were attending their schools, as a consequence of participation in the Assisted Place Scheme. But they accepted that the data was insufficient to prove that view

The findings imply that, were any similar scheme to be introduced in future, it should differ in two significant ways:

a) the means-testing should be more thorough, including the criterion of family wealth;

b) pupils’ participation in the scheme should be under state control and not based on academic criteria.

What are the limitations of this research?

This research was limited to a relatively small number of schools, and had to accept that the headteachers interviewed in both sectors would only have a partial view.

Compensating for the small numbers, the headteachers nevertheless contribute a depth of insight into the way the scheme worked in practice.

Explained by: Francis Green, Professor of Work and Education Economics at UCL Institute of Education.March 15, 2021


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