HC Deb 23 July 1984 vol 64 cc770-82 7.42 pm
Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Assisted Places) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1984 (S.I., 1984, No. 840), dated 15th June 1984, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd July, be annulled. The assisted places scheme is now entering its fourth year of operation. Therefore, it would be remiss of the House not to question and debate the amending regulations.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give a number of answers to questions. I understand that, for the convenience of the House, he will be replying at the end of the debate.

My first point relates to the cost of the scheme. I notice that the scheme will cost £3.1 million for 1984–85. I should like the Minister to explain why nearly £500,000 is to be made available by way of direct Government support for private schools, when his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr Ancram), is pressing local authorities strongly over the operation of the rate support grant and the guidelines in respect of education services are being more stringently drawn. The Government propose to claw back £90 million in rate support grant from Scottish local authorities by the end of the year. Strathclyde education authority, for example, will have to look at expenditure reductions of £20 million out of the clawback total of £38 million assigned to the region.

What is the reason for this extra £500,000 of direct Government support? It is not clear from the statutory instrument or the press release issued by the Scottish Office what expansion there is in the operation of the scheme. The press release talked of some further expansion. I shall be asking the Minister whether the increase can be attributed entirely to the increased costs of the existing operation or whether additional places are envisaged.

My second point relates to the relaxation of clothing and travel grants. I understand the reasons behind the introduction of this flexibility. I want to know, however, how the Minister justifies this more generous approach, when local authorities are under increasing pressure to meet the cost of school clothing for many young people attending school. The Minister will be aware that, since the removal of the exceptional needs payments in the 1980 DHSS regulations, most education authorities have been inundated with requests. Many head teachers find decisions over school clothing an unwanted and unpleasant responsibility.

I understand that Strathclyde region is having to spend about £3 million to ensure that young people are adequately clothed and have adequate footwear to attend school, as they must. That has been a duty on local authorities since the Education (Scotland) Act 1918. This has been an unwanted and unhappy side effect of the changes in the DHSS regulations. These payments, which the local authorities must make, are not rate support granted. I hope that the Minister will show the same generosity of spirit, if not purse, when it comes to considering the difficulties and invidious predicament of education authorities over clothing.

My third point relates to the more general issue of closures and declining rolls. I suspect that, but for the assisted places scheme, several independent schools might have difficulties with numbers and financial resources. I asked the Minister earlier about the number of extra places. Does he envisage about 200 or 250 extra places among the 42 schools participating in the scheme? The surprising feature about the assisted places scheme is that the majority of assisted pupils were already in the private sector. I believe that the Minister, in a parliamentary answer, has already shown that about 59 per cent. of assisted pupils were in the private sector.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

Does not that very fact lay the myth that has often come from Labour Members that the private school sector is used solely by the rich and privileged? Is not the position rather that many people of limited means choose the private sector because it offers a particular benefit for their children?

Mr. Craigen

I do not know about laying myths. I was about to make a point which, knowing the hon. Member's Adam Smith background, might appeal to him. The public purse is now paying for something for which it need not pay at a time when Ministers are denying education authorities, which are charged with statutory responsibilities, the necessary resources to fulfil those responsibilities.

Perhaps the Minister, in his reply, will say something about the distribution of places. It appeared to me, looking at the allocation of funds to the participating schools, that there was a somewhat uneven distribution throughout Scotland, and that some schools were benefiting considerably more than others. I have raised those matters simply in the context of the difficulties of viability, which we recognise in these times, because of declining pupil rolls.

With regard to the cost of fees, perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten the House beyond the information that is available either through the statutory instrument or from the Scottish Office press release to which I referred. How does the Scottish Education Department assess value for money among the respective participating schools? I asked the Library to check on some expenditure figures per pupil. It is intriguing that the assisted places are costing more than the maintained places. The Minister shakes his head, but perhaps he will give us the requisite figures. I find it a little disturbing that the available resources per pupil are to go down next year because of the reduced resources that the Government are to make available to education authorities. That will be in contrast to the increases that the Government anticipate in the operation of their assisted places scheme.

The figures that I obtained from Strathclyde regional council show a cost of roughly £1,300 per secondary pupil, but the cost per pupil in the special schools for those with some handicap or disability is £5,000. It is time for the Minister to consider the special schools, where there is no rate support grant. In these difficult days for education authorities, special schools can become very vulnerable. I hope that there will be some recognition of the difficulties facing education authorities in that regard.

It would be helpful to have the Minister's figures to show whether the increase of £500,000 in the cost of the assisted places scheme arises largely or solely because of increases in the retail price index. Can he quantify the cost of expanding the scheme, as was hinted in the Scottish Office press release? I should like the Minister to comment on some of the intricacies concerning the fees charged by the schools.

Given the Government's original propaganda about the assisted places scheme—and the high optimism of the Minister's predecessor—the assisted places scheme is a costly flop. The number of young people in the scheme is very small in comparison with the overall responsibilities facing education authorities in Scotland. I find it surprising that three in every five assisted pupils were already in the private sector and are now afforded that same facility through the public purse.

Mr. Michael Hirst (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I suggest that the reason why a number of pupils continue to be a charge on the scheme is that their parental circumstances have changed adversely. If they were not able to continue in private education under the assisted places scheme, they would become a charge on the state system. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Craigen

One always recognises difficult family circumstances, where a death or some sad incident occurs. I do not think that that makes up for the difference in the numbers that we are talking about.

The Government are proposing almost a 20 per cent. increase in the cost of the scheme at a time when they are trying to reduce—indeed, are reducing—the amount of expenditure on the maintained sector of education. In reply to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst), it seems to me that the main impetus here is not so much to assist those whose parents are on lower incomes, which I could readily understand, as to sustain some of the independent schools.

The Minister has some explaining to do tonight over the proposed changes in the amending regulations. I hope to hear from him before the conclusion of the debate.

7.58 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I did not expect to be called quite so soon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that the Minister might have had some support from his own side. None the less, I add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) as one who regrets the terms of the regulations not only for what they contain in some detail but because they are part and parcel of a more general scheme which, in my view, bolsters privilege and is rather alien to the traditions of Scottish education.

With regard to the increase of income levels for full remission of fees, it has often been argued that the basis of the scheme is to increase freedom of choice. If in fact it does so, one would suggest that it is limited to a privileged few. The scheme still imports a degree of selectivity, inasmuch as people have to pass a test. One also suspects that the additional choice that is available is limited geographically. The hon. Member for Maryhill made some reference to that.

It would be interesting if the Minister were to tell us, within broad geographic areas — it would be more interesting if it could be broken down according to parliamentary constituencies — where the recipients of benefit under the scheme come from. I suspect that few, if any, of them come from my constituency or from other Highland and Island constituencies. A high proportion of the sums that were made available for 1983 were spent in Edinburgh. One imagines that many of the recipients who benefited from the scheme also came from the Edinburgh area.

As the hon. Member for Maryhill has pointed out, the figures show that 59 per cent. of pupils who received benefits under the scheme previously attended fee-paying schools — 1,048 from a total of 1,781. The figures demonstrate that the scheme has not been greatly extended to state-educated pupils, but subsidises three out of five of the pupils who have already benefited from it. The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) suggested that that was partly due to the fact that the system had assisted parents whose financial circumstances had changed. I suspect that parents who undertook the financial responsibility to send their children to fee-paying schools may have fallen on harder times. Headmasters pointed out the assisted places scheme, and parents took advantage of it.

This is a superannuated form of supplementary benefit. The Government should come clean and tell us. I cannot accept the statement of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden that a considerable burden would have been placed on the maintained sector if children had come from the private sector. The schools where five pupils have obtained places under the scheme, the school facilities and the fabric of the building must still be maintained, and the teachers need to be paid. The additional cost of those children to the maintained sector is low.

The next part of the order relates to travel grants. More public money will be channelled into private education. Again, I suspect that the incentives will lead to the brighter and more affluent pupils being creamed off from poor communities, and bussed to fee-paying schools in better areas. That will further depress the low morale in state-maintained schools.

Increases in clothing grants will be of greater benefit to pupils in the private than in the maintained sectors. I understand, from the pupil's viewpoint, why the scheme is being changed to allow an annual, increased grant, but it will come hard to a pupil who is unable to wear school uniform or whose uniform is not in good shape. Children make cruel remarks about pupils who stand out. The principle underlying the regulations seems to be that there should be one law for the affluent and privileged, and another for those who must make do with state provision. We are told time and again that the scheme will promote freedom of choice, but we doubt that.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why he is in favour of the state providing more resources for the less able and handicapped pupils, but seems to be so embittered about, and so against, extra resources being made available for especially gifted and bright children?

Mr. Wallace

I have not said anything about specially gifted or bright children. I was making the point that provision has been made for only 1,700 pupils. They do not necessarily fall into the category of the specially gifted and bright. Special provision has been made for them far in excess of that for children in much greater need who attend local authority-maintained schools.

Another provision of the regulations is notification of fee increases to the Secretary of State. I do not object to the fact that the notice has been reduced from two months to one. Will the Minister tell us, under this section, how many applications have been made to the Secretary of State for fee increases, and whether they pertain at the beginning of or only midway through a session? Much of the income of fee-paying schools is obtained from fees, so it would be interesting to know how much fees have increased since the scheme came into operation compared to funding for the maintained sector.

Some of us doubt very much that the scheme will improve freedom of choice. The Government's underlying assumption is that the schools which participate in the scheme are somewhat better than their counterparts in the maintained sector. It is staggering that the Government response to the difference between these sectors is to starve the maintained sector, which caters for more than 95 per cent. of Scottish pupils. Morale is low and teachers are introducing curriculum reforms with only a modest increase in resources. The Government are channelling £3.1 million into the private sector.

The Secretary of State for Scotland announced last week that local education authorities in many parts of Scotland will be forced to consider cuts in basic educational facilities. Some rural areas may suffer from the withdrawal of peripatetic teachers because of a shortage of funds, and will lose teachers of music, physical education and arts and crafts. One wonders what freedom of choice will be allowed to the pupils of rural schools. Surely the real question of choice concerns whether Scottish pupils will be allowed an education that will provide them with a wide range of career options and give them the opportunity to fulfil their potential. We question whether that will be possible in schools with leaking roofs, where books are old and outdated and cannot be replaced.

Equipment needed for education in the latter part of the 20th century cannot be afforded. The cumulative effect of these cuts in local authority expenditure is having a demoralising effect on the teaching profession. We believe that the regulations will provide not so much an increase in choice but rather for the extension of privilege. For that reason, we oppose the scheme.

8.7 pm

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

If your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were present now, he might have a feeling of déjà vu. I note from the record for 27 October 1982 that I was one of the few hon. Members who spoke on that occasion. Some of the arguments that we have heard, and no doubt some of the replies that we shall hear from the Minister tonight, will be familiar.

It is appropriate that I should follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), because, although he represents the alliance, I agree with him totally. I observe that the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), who represents the SNP, has left the Chamber. Once the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the right hon. Gentleman have worked out who is the spokesman for education in Scotland, perhaps they will come and tell us. I am sure that I would agree with every word said on the issue.

The Labour party, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) so eloquently said, as well as the alliance and the SNP, feels that the assisted places scheme, as I said in 1982 and as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said today, is totally alien to Scottish education. It has been imported from south of the border.

At the general election, 72 per cent. of the Scottish electorate rejected the Conservative party. Yet the Conservative Government have brought forward the regulations. I question the right of the Government to bring such regulations before the House. They have no authority to do so. They are not wanted by the people of Scotland and are totally alien to Scottish educational tradition.

I use various examples again and again. This is the best one. If the people of Scotland had had the Scottish assembly for which they voted, we would not be discussing the matter. We would not be discussing the assisted places scheme or giving more money to the private sector at the same time as imposing cuts on the local authority sector. It would be quite the reverse. We would be discussing the phasing out of private schools and the development of local authority schools as community schools, providing a good positive education for what the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) described as the specially gifted and bright children. Thank goodness, most of them are wise enough not to be the sons and daughters of Tories. Most of them have been well educated in the local authority system in Scotland. It has produced the lads o' pairts who have gone on to university. The Minister is one of them. I do not know why he is so ashamed of his own education that he has to put forward this paraphernalia for giving people a so-called advantage.

We know that we are talking not about better education for specially gifted and bright people, but about snobbery and providing an education under which some of the children, particularly of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, do not have to mix with the ordinary kids towards whom their parents have so much antipathy.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I venture to suggest that Labour Members should get their act together. At the beginning of his speech the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) told us that three fifths of those on the scheme were from low-income families and were already at private schools. Now the hon. Gentleman is telling us that most of the children come from the Edinburgh bourgeoisie. There seems to be an inconsistency.

Mr. Foulkes

Not at all. I know the Edinburgh bourgeoisie only too well. I know the vehemence of those people. When I was chairman of the Lothian region education committee, and there was an attempt to integrate George Heriot's school into the local authority system, I experienced the wrath of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, who stuck stickers on my car and shouted abuse at me. Therefore, I know them only too well. Those people are seeking that privilege and that snobbery. I have experience from the inside. As chairman of the education committee in Lothian region, it was my duty to serve on the board of Fettes college, the Merchant company and George Heriot's school. Therefore, I know what goes on and the spirit that motivates those people. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is the spirit that I have outlined.

This is what really sticks in our craw. We are putting in over £3 million to build up the private sector, which is alien to the Scottish educational tradition; but at the same time I estimate that of the £90 million that the Secretary of State announced he was cutting back, taking the region's share and the fact that education is such a big part of the region' expenditure, about £30 million is being cut from the local authority sector. Is that not crazy? We are pumping money into a sector that is already privileged. We are subsidising not just those on the assisted places scheme, but, by boosting the number of pupils at those schools, those who are paying full fees, because we are making sure that those fees do not rise as much as they might if the kids from the assisted places scheme were not there.

As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, supplies of books are being cut back in the local authority schools. There are more composite classes because the Minister is using a straight line graph. It is not exactly a straight line, but as near as it can be. He is cutting the number of teachers and other facilities as the number of pupils goes down, and we end up with composite classes in the primary schools as well as in some of the other schools that have primary departments. Bussing is also taking place as the action plan comes into effect. It will happen in Ayrshire, where the kids will be bussed from one school to the other.

The hon. Member for Stirling did not understand this. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, if the kids in the local authority schools got the same clothing grants as kids in the private schools, we might not be too worried. However, we know the difficulty that kids in local authority schools have. Those on supplementary benefit have problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Mr. Hamilton) told me that those kids have great difficulty getting clothing grants, whereas those who go to private schools receive £100, in certain circumstances, without the questions that are asked of those in ordinary local authority schools.

Mr. James Hamilton (Motherwell, North)

I should like to put the record straight. In Strathclyde region, parents must be on supplementary benefit or family income supplement before they are allowed the £30 clothing allowance. In my constituency, there are five composite classes in one of the primary schools.

Mr. Foulkes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has given valuable support to two of my paints.

It is galling for those of us who send our kids to local authority schools, who believe in them and want to do our best for them, to see the Government, who are prepared to cut everything else, including local authority schools, pouring money into private education. It is criminal in this day and age. It is doubly annoying not just for the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, but for my hon. Friends the Members for Maryhill and for Motherwell, North and myself, who represent constituencies outside the main areas that benefit from the scheme, because, as I know only too well, certain areas benefit, including parts of Glasgow, but the principal beneficiary is Edinburgh. We know that by far the greatest majority of private places in private schools is in Edinburgh. That means that the ordinary ratepayer in Bothwell, Motherwell, Bellshill, Orkney and Shetland, Cumnock and Auchinleck is subsidising the education of the privileged bourgeoisie, principally in Edinburgh. It is just not on. As my hon. Friends the Members for Maryhill, Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) have said on several occasions, we shall get rid of the system. One of the first acts of the next Labour Government will be to get rid of the assisted places scheme.

We must also tackle some other anomalies and benefits that the private schools receive. Let Conservative Members not forget this. By registering as charities, private schools get rates and tax relief. A year or two ago —I am not sure whether this is still the case—private schools even got cheap butter from the butter mountain because they were charities. The local authority schools did not have that benefit.

The regulations are an impertinence. The Government have no authority, mandate or right to introduce them in Scotland. Conservative Members have no authority to speak on behalf of the people of Scotland. The increase in resources is impertinent, because local authority schools are suffering cuts, because the scheme gives privilege and priority to the east of Scotland at the expense of the west, and because the private schools are already well off compared with local authority schools. The scheme is an impertinence, and we look forward to eliminating it from the statute book at the first possible opportunity.

8.20 pm
Mr. Michael Hirst (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I wish briefly to support the regulations. I am surprised that they should be a matter of contention, not least for the Liberals who pay lip service to freedom of choice in education when it suits their electoral convenience.

In the past 10 years, Scotland has lost some outstanding educational establishments as the direct grant schools were butchered on the altar of Labour hostility to private education. Many of those were schools which the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes)——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to lead into a debate on the structure of education in Scotland. That would be entirely out order. I hope that he will confine his comments to the regulations before the House.

Mr. Hirst

I have no such intention, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

When the selective schools in Scotland were butchered by the Labour party, we gave a commitment to introduce the assisted places scheme to provide freedom of choice for people who wished to use private education for their children but whose incomes prevented them from so doing. It is a worthwhile scheme and it is used by a number of my constituents. In my first year as a Member of Parliament I have seen how valuable the scheme has been to people whose circumstances have changed through no fault of their own and whose children, but for the scheme, would have had to change schools abruptly at an important stage of their educational life. Those children would otherwise have become a charge not on the assisted places scheme but on the state scheme.

Mr. Wallace


Mr. Hirst

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) said that the preponderance of assistance under the scheme went to schools in the central belt. If that is so, abolition of the scheme would force many people in a comparatively small——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are not debating the abolition or establishment of the scheme. We are debating alterations to it. The House has already decided on the existence of the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will try to get back to the regulations.

Mr. Hirst

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that it was important to put the record straight and to dismiss some of the fallacies expressed by the Opposition.

Mr. Wallace

The hon. Gentleman referred to the benefit of the scheme when parents whose children attended fee-paying schools fell upon hard times——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) is committing the very offence for which I have just chided the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst).

Mr. Hirst

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am left with the clear impression that you do not intend to allow the debate to stray from the narrow regulations before us.

I support the increase in funding for the scheme. The increase in parental contribution is extremely modest, and far less than has been suggested by the Opposition. Travel and clothing grants are also important. The wearing of uniform is generally compulsory. If the parents' income has fallen to such an extent as to justify inclusion in the scheme it is surely right that a grant should be available so that their children can be properly involved in the schools' activities. Anything else would be most unfair. I welcome the improvement in that respect.

Mr. James Hamilton

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the same amount of money should be given to the state schools as is being given to the private sector through the assisted places scheme?

Mr. Hirst

That is arithmetically ridiculous logic. The amount spent on the assisted places scheme is tiny compared with the Scottish Office education budget. The hon. Gentleman will also find that there is no great difference in the cost of educating a child in the state sector and through the assisted places scheme.

Finally, I welcome the fact that redundancy payments will no longer be counted against a parent whose child would otherwise qualify for a place on the scheme. It seems especially unfair that a parent who becomes redundant should be penalised in that way, and I am glad that the Government have corrected that.

8.26 pm
Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

The strict guidelines within which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, wish the debate to continue make it difficult to answer some of the points made earlier. I believe that the regulations should be widely welcomed. Certainly the opposition expressed by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) did not square with some of the things that the alliance said about the scheme at the time of the general election. All who are concerned about resources for education should welcome the scheme because it distinguishes between the duty of the state to provide an education and its duty to ensure that children obtain an education of a suitable standard. If it is cheaper for the state to encourage people to use the private sector, that should be encouraged, which is exactly what the scheme does.

Mr. Craigen

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Forsyth

I will give way in a moment.

The attitude of the Opposition stems from their hatred of the very existence of a private sector in education. Indeed, they are committed to the destruction of the private sector and they oppose the scheme because it allows people to choose that sector. They do not want people to have that choice, because they see it as a means of establishing a different standard from that of the state system.

The scheme, however, has not been so successful as we should have liked and I urge the Government to consider ways of extending it. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, for instance, said that there was little opportunity for people in rural areas such as his to benefit from the scheme. Of course, we do not hear him complain when his area receives subsidies for activities which do not apply in the central belt. Nevertheless, we might consider using the extra resources to enable people in rural areas to keep small rural schools going on a fee-paying basis. There are all kinds of possibilities. The scheme offers choice. It offers children from poorer backgrounds an alternative to the state system, although it is a poorer alternative than the direct grant system destroyed by the Labour party.

Mr. Foulkes

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we are talking about Scotland, which never had a direct grant system but only a grant-aided system, which is rather different?

Mr. Forsyth

I take the point, although both systems were based on the principle of allowing children from poorer backgrounds the opportunity of a private education suited to their needs. The scheme offers a poorer alternative, but it is viable.

I hope that the Government will consider whether it is possible to extend the scheme to rural areas and to children who are not only gifted academically, but who have particular skills such as music, or who are handicapped in some way. That would enhance the scheme.

8.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)

In replying to the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), I speak as a product of Bell Baxter high school to a product of Haberdashers Aske's

Mr. Foulkes

And Keith grammar school.

Mr. Stewart

I note that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley moved from the local authority sector to the private sector. I do not know whether he received an assisted place. I am proud of my education, but we must have the freedom of choice. Both the public and private sectors of education have complementary roles in Scotland.

My hon. Friends the Members for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) and Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) have described the motivation of Opposition Members in tabling tonight's prayer. The assisted places scheme has been successful. It has given a wider parental choice in the private sector to parallel that in the local authority sector.

One of the key criticisms of the scheme, as amended by the regulations, is based upon élitism and privilege. The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley concentrated on that. He will recognise that the scheme covers a wide range of schools. It covers, for example, schools with a long tradition, such as that attended by the Shadow Secretary of State, Glasgow academy which also enjoyed the benefit of having the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) as a teacher. These schools have religious or philosophical specialties.

Mr. Craigen

I do not need to wear sackcloth and ashes. Will the Minister deal with the four main points that I made?

Mr. Stewart

I shall come to those matters. I am trying to answer some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.

The hon. Gentleman criticised privilege. The suggestion that the scheme subsidises pupils from well-off families is unfounded. The 1983–84 figures show that over 900 pupils, or 51 per cent. of all pupils participating in this scheme, receive full remission of fees because their parents have a relevant income of £5,622 per annum or less. A further 10 per cent. have family incomes between £5,623 and £6,500 per annum, and 12 per cent. between £6,501 and £7,500. Families with incomes on that scale can hardly be claimed to be a privileged and well-off elite.

Mr. Foulkes

The Minister, in his prepared text, is answering questions that were not asked. I said that people send their children to such schools for reasons of snobbery rather than education.

Mr. Stewart

That is rubbish. Parents send their children to particular schools because they think that that is good for their children's education.

Mr. Hirst

Does my hon. Friend agree that the assisted places scheme is morally more defensible than the hypocrisy of Lefties who use their purchasing power or incomes to buy houses in the catchment area of the more desirable schools which allow them——

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Stewart

I do not think that you wish me to follow that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However valid it is, it is not related to the regulations. Hon. Members should recognise that the majority of parents of independent school pupils pay rates and taxes like anyone else.

Hon. Members talked about the financial implications of the scheme. The Government's financial contribution to independent schools is small compared with overall education provision in Scotland. The private sector accounts for about 3.5 per cent. of the total school population, yet total grants under the assisted places scheme in the current year will amount to less than 0.5 per cent. of total expenditure on school education.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) asked about relative costs. The assisted places scheme is restricted to secondary education and when the average assistance towards fees per pupil is compared with the average expenditure per pupil in secondary education in the public sector there is little difference between the figures. In 1982–83, the last year for which figures are available, expenditure per secondary pupil in the public sector was about £1,270. That is in line with the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave for Strathclyde. In the same year the average assistance towards tuition fees under the assisted places scheme was £1,100. That puts the criticisms in context.

The hon. Members for Maryhill, for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) asked about funding. They maintained that the regulations involve an increase in public expenditure on private education. That is not so. The scheme is funded from the progressive transfer over a five-year period, ending in 1986, of the maintenance grants previously paid to grant-aided secondary schools. No increase in direct financial support to the independent sector in real terms has taken place since the scheme was introduced. That is because the previous scheme of assistance is being phased out. There is a transfer between the two schemes.

The hon. Member for Maryhill asked me about provisions for school uniforms under the scheme. The essence of arrangements for all incidental expenses under the regulations is that pupils are not prevented from receiving the full benefits of an assisted place simply because they cannot afford to provide compulsory items such as a school blazer. The position in the education authority sector is different and so not comparable.

The basic supplementary benefit allowance contains an element for renewal of clothing from which parents should be able to provide clothing. However, when an education authority considers that a pupil is prevented by the inadequacy of his clothing from taking advantage of the education provided, it has a duty to make a clothing grant. The criteria used by authorities to establish a clothing need and the amount of grant are for its discretion. In addition to the large amount of central Government support paid though supplementary benefit and single payments by the DHSS in cases of exceptional need, authorities in Scotland made grants of about £2.5 million in 1982–83.

Mr. Craigen

Is the Minister concerned about the invidious pressure facing local authorities? Will he seriously consider rate support grant for authorities having to meet clothing requirements?

Mr. Stewart

Local authorities have discretion in this matter. Clothing grants paid out under the assisted places scheme amounted to only £30,000 in 1982–83.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the number of pupils who had previously attended fee-paying schools. In 1981–82, the first year of the scheme, 72 per cent. of the 776 pupils were from fee-paying schools. That proportion was expected to decrease as the scheme developed, and it has done so. In 1983–84, of more than 1,000 pupils, 59 per cent. were previously at fee-paying schools.

The hon. Member for Maryhill questioned the value for money for the Scottish Office. Her Majesty's inspectors of schools have knowledge of participating schools, based both on documentation and personal visits. The schools are subject to inspection in the same way as are all other schools.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the geographical distribution of recipients. Applications are confidential between the applicant and the participating school. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not involved in the award of places and, therefore, information is not available. The hon. Gentleman also asked about increases in fees. It is usual for fees to be increased annually, and my right hon. Friend considers the proposals as they arise. If it is proposed to increase fees more often, he takes account of any previous increases.

Hon. Members have criticised the regulations in the context of public expenditure. As I have already emphasised, they represent a tiny percentage of the total public expenditure in Scotland. We must view those criticisms against the background that the amount spent per secondary pupil in Scotland is higher in real terms than at any time previously, and against the background of a planned percentage increase of 5.5 per cent. in education expenditure to 1986–87 compared with the projected 5.5 per cent. fall in pupil numbers during the same period.

The basic criticisms about the assisted places scheme and the regulations are ideological. It is a widely accepted scheme and a sensible and cost-effective method of extending parental choice. The regulations are not controversial and, therefore, I ask the House to reject the Opposition's prayer.

Question put and negatived.