§ The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)
Perhaps I might first say that my right hon. and learned Friend the 212 Secretary of State sends his apologies because illness prevents him from attending the House today.
Section 17 of the Education Act 1980 excludes boarding fees from the scope of the assisted places scheme, but the Headmasters' Conference has announced that some of its schools are planning to use their own bursary funds to assist with boarding fees for pupils holding assisted places. My right hon. and learned Friend has warmly welcomed this initiative.
§ Mr. Beith
We hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State will soon be better. However, has the Secretary of State not written to some of these schools indicating that there is a basis for a scheme involving the assisted places money plus these extra funds? Does not this represent a change in the scheme from what the hon. Gentleman himself has argued, as one mainly based on the old direct grant schools, and does it not mean that money will go to children who might have gone to these schools anyway, instead of being deployed in the State schools?
§ Dr. Boyson
I am sure that the hon. Member understands that one of the problems with the direct grant schools is the distribution of the assisted places scheme, as compared with the oldest direct grant schools, which are often centralised in certain areas of the country. My right hon. and learned Friend welcomed an opportunity of possibly providing boarding places from which the cost of boarding was covered by bursaries from the schools themselves—I believe that 80 schools, offering about 400 places, have mentioned this—but where the only sums paid by the State were the day school fees, which we shall look at carefully, because, obviously, with a limited sum of money, one cannot increase the number.
§ Mr. Adley
Has my hon. Friend noticed that at a time of economic difficulty many people continue to make enormous sacrifices in order to send their children to schools in the private education sector? Does he agree that what we should do is try to find ways in which the State sector can learn from the success of the private sector, rather than that Labour Members, as the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) is about to do, should continue their 213 wheedling campaign of envy against the private sector?
I think that one thing that the independent sector can teach the State schools is the ultimate response to parents and what they want. This is not a reflection upon the teachers in the State system or the parents. Independent schools will exist only as long as they give an automatic response to what parents wish.
§ Mr. Kinnock
Reverting to the question that was tabled, may I ask what is the hon. Gentleman's view of local authority finances being used to top up the assisted places scheme to provide places at boarding schools, in view of the figures provided to us by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy indicating that there are local authorities which are spending more on buying places in the private sector than on financing books in their own schools?
§ Dr. Boyson
My answer to the hon. Gentleman's second point is that I do not think that the two things are related. Obviously children who attend schools in the State sector will have to be paid for. In Wirral—one of the authorities mentioned—more is spent on toilet paper than on special education. That does not mean that those schools should not have toilet rolls. A comparison between the two is meaningless. If local authorities decide, within their rights, that the education of pupils can best be served by sending them on bursaries to schools at which the State pays the day fee, that will be allowed.