HC Deb 13 July 1993 vol 228 cc935-54 10.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I beg to move,

That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1993, which were laid before this House on 29th June, be approved.

As hon. Members will know from debates in previous years, these draft amendment regulations are quite specific in their purpose. They are simple amendments to the principal regulations, which are the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989. As such, I shall restrict my comments to these amendments only and will briefly explain their purpose to the House.

The amending regulations provide for the uprating of the parental contribution tables, which we have done on an annual basis since the inception of the scheme, and set out how much parents must pay towards their child's assisted place. There is also a small number of other technical amendments. I am sure that the House will find that the amendments I shall describe are quite straightforward.

Regulation 1 of the draft regulations deals with citation, commencement, application and interpretation. The regulations are to come into force on 27 August 1993.

Regulation 2 of the draft regulations increases the allowance made when calculating parents' total relevant income for each dependent child other than the assisted place holder. The amount is raised from £1,105 to £1,125—that is, by the same percentage which applies to the uprating of the parental contribution scales, to which I shall return in a moment. This allowance is helpful to parents with larger families, and uprating it will ensure that their position is not worsened.

Regulation 3 deals purely with technical amendments. They are necessary in order to keep the definition of "total parental income" for the purposes of the scheme in line with tax legislation. They also update the wording of the regulations to reflect current terminology—hence the need now to refer in the regulations to the new Child Support Agency.

I come now to the main purpose of setting these regulations before the House today. Regulation 4 sets out the income bands used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. These bands have been uprated to take account of the movement in the retail prices index to April of this year—that is, by 1.9 per cent. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £9,056 to £9,225, with corresponding increases in the thresholds for higher percentage contributions from income. The effect of this amendment is that parents will not be asked to increase contributions above the rate of inflation. They will continue to contribute roughly the same proportion of their income as they did last year.

I believe that the House will find this to be an equitable measure, taking into account the fact that parents in the scheme earn considerably less than the national average income. Assistance under the scheme follows the principle that the lower the income, the greater the Government assistance should be. The threshold for full remission of fees, to which I have just referred, is set deliberately low so that the least well-off families benefit most. The scale then rises by a fairly steep curve so that better-off families get reduced, and eventually no, assistance. I believe this to be right and in keeping with the aims of the scheme—to open doors of opportunity to those who would otherwise never be able to contemplate paying fees.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

How many children in Great Britain are now benefiting from the assisted places scheme?

Mr. Forth

Approximately 27,000. I can give the hon. Gentleman a more precise figure later, if he wants one.

The provisions and amendments that I have just described are necessary technicalities to ensure the continued smooth running of the assisted places scheme, which is proving to be increasingly popular with parents, as is evidenced by the unprecedented rate of take-up in schools. Nevertheless, the Government continue to take steps to ensure that the scheme provides for a realistic contribution from both the taxpayer and the parents and, by restricting the level of fees that can be applied by schools to assisted pupils, a continuation of the part played by individual schools as partners with the Government in this very successful scheme.

I commend the regulations to the House.

10.23 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

These amending regulations provide us with an opportunity to look again at this running sore on the body educational. There is no doubt that this scheme remains wrong in principle. It is quite simply a subsidy to the private sector, as is recognised by many people.

This year, there are 21 private schools receiving more than £750,000 each, and seven receiving more than £1 million each. There are 63 schools with more than 20 per cent. of their pupils on the assisted places scheme: 13 have 30 per cent. of their pupils on the scheme, and in two schools the proportion is more than 40 per cent. The position was made quite clear as long ago as 1986, when the headmaster of King Edward's school, 200 of whose pupil—if my memory serves me well—are on the scheme, said: It will not, therefore, surprise the reader if I defend the assisted places scheme. I believe that it is a good scheme. But I must be honest: it is a good scheme partly because it helps independent schools … While a very small minority of schools on the scheme—the Winchesters and Sedburghs—may indeed have no need of state support, the majority will have benefited considerably. So the headmaster of an independent school sees this as a specific subsidy to his school.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, contrary to what he has just said, this represents a saving to the state sector? The vast majority of children who take up the scheme would otherwise be educated in the state sector. The amount that the Government have to pay is smaller than the sum that would be involved if those children were being educated in state schools.

Mr. Griffiths

That is not true. Some years ago, even the Independent Schools Information Service drew attention to the fact that a place in an independent school cost over £200 more than one in a state school. Later information put the figure at £400. It is indeed a costly scheme, and a subsidy to the private sector. It is also a blatant attempt to cream off very able children from the maintained sector.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned King Edward's school. I presume that he means the one in Birmingham, which appeared on a list produced by one of his hon. Friends. The real point about schools such as King Edward's and Haberdashers' Aske's in my constituency is that they could fill the places with pupils whose parents were prepared to pay the fees. Certainly, Haberdashers' Aske's, King Edward's in Birmingham and, I suspect, many others on the scheme could fill the places many times over in that way but, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, they seek to open doors of opportunity for children whose parents are not able to afford the fees. That is what the scheme is doing, and the hon. Gentleman has no evidence to the contrary.

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman has made a speech, responding to a point that I have not even made. My argument is that the assisted places cost the Government more money than places in maintained secondary schools and that it would be much better if the money were used to improve the facilities and increase the number of teachers in the state schools.

As I was saying before the hon. Gentleman's speech, the scheme is a blatant attempt to cream off very able children from the maintained sector. If the Government were truly concerned about the quality of education in the maintained sector, they would be doing everything possible to ensure that the policies were in place and the facilities and teachers available to make certain that all children could be educated to the best of their ability.

What is even worse, given the fact that there is a subsidy and an attempt to cream off the best pupils from the maintained schools, there is absolutely no evidence that the extra cost means better results. Her Majesty's inspectorate and the Audit Commission have examined the issues exhaustively and concluded that there is absolutely no evidence that pupils who go to such schools benefit in any way. In fact, when the scheme was introduced, John Rae, then headmaster of Westminster school, said: The Scheme was based on a false premise: that an independent school was automatically a better place to educate a bright child. Plainly, it is not, and the scheme is a waste of money. The scheme encourages educational snobbery which undermines maintained schools. It provides opportunities for a few at the expense of the many.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

It is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman knocks the education of poor children, because that is what he is doing. Is he aware that the assisted places scheme costs £95 million a year out of an education budget of £17 billion? If he thinks that children do not profit from the scheme he need only talk to poor parents in my constituency who will tell him the truth. Why should they not have the same opportunity as others?

Mr. Griffiths

It was the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) who said that the scheme covered about 1 per cent. of all pupils. If the hon. Gentleman is really concerned about the education of poor children, why does he not ensure that the facility is available to every child? The scheme is highly selective. It would be far better if the Government gave every state school an extra £400 per pupil. We would then see what more could be achieved by that simple expedient, without encouraging such a highly divisive system.

The idea of helping poor children has failed on the Government's own objectives. In the Daily Mail on 25 June 1981, the right hon. Member for Brent, North said that he wanted the scheme to cater for able children from the poorest homes. Lord Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, said that he saw the scheme as a way of producing a greater social mix in independent schools. With the scheme helping only 1 per cent. of pupils, that plainly is not happening.

Although it is true that two thirds of pupils on the scheme come from families with below average incomes, a third come from families with above average incomes. If the Government were intent on helping the poorest families, they would divert all the help to those on below average incomes. What gives the game away is that well over half the parents of even those on low incomes went to independent or selective schools. So we have a self-generating scheme: those who know about it and are in a position to take advantage of it do so.

If the schools are so good, why do the Government not provide the extra money for all children? The plain fact is that they do not. Why do they not spend the money to help able pupils in maintained schools? The money would be put to much better use there. Why do they not use the money to provide more nursery school places? There is a well-established and well-researched link between the provision of good nursery education and better performance in schools. That would be a far more effective use of public moneys.

What is worse is that we are now seeing that the scheme is badly managed. In 1992 the spending has to be capped to a maximum increase of 12 per cent. In the maintained sector, an increase of only 7 per cent. was allowed. In 1990–91 there was a £3 million overspend, even though 17 per cent. of the places remained unfilled. In 1991–92 the scheme was almost £11 million over budget. This year it is estimated that there will be a £78 million outturn in the Department's expenditure plans. Next year the plan is to spend £95 million. However, on table 10 on page 16 of the same document, the Government say that there will be only 286 extra places next year, but they are spending £17 million more. If that is computed on a per capita basis, it is nearly £60,000 extra per place. I invite the Minister to check the figures and explain to me how I have misread the tables.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is likely to be a steep increase in demand for places from Kent, where the Liberals, who have just taken control with the assistance of the Labour party, have decided to cut, in maintained schools, the teaching of history, geography and English in favour of what they call "enhanced centres of experience"?

Mr. Griffiths

I am afraid that, on the Department's figures, there will be only 286 more places next year, so if the hon. Gentleman is right there will be a lot of disappointed parents in Kent.

The whole scheme shows the Government's belief that they have failed. They are in effect admitting that they do not think that the maintained sector offers a good enough education for able children, so they want them to go to the independent sector. Funnily enough, it was the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) who described the assisted places scheme in February last year as a lifebelt for many a talented child. He added: Although I am a Conservative I do have reservations about subsidising the independent sector for all time. The point is that the money would be much better spent in the maintained sector.

Surplus places also come into the equation. Thirty-four of these schools have more than 200 pupils on the assisted places scheme, so children are being taken away from the maintained schools in some boroughs and counties. It would be far better if the Government devoted the resulting extra resources to the maintained sector. The Government want to uprate the scheme so as to keep going their preferential treatment of a small minority of parents. That is deplorable. It shows up the ideological divide between us: the Government are intent on giving privileges to the very few while we believe that the money should be spent on extending opportunities for excellence in education to everybody.

10.36 pm
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for recalling some words that I uttered some time last year. Since the speech that he has just made was rather similar to speeches he has made before on these occasions, he will forgive me if I deliver a speech similar to the one I made last time.

Although I continue to approve of the assisted places scheme, we ought to keep an open mind and enter, perhaps, into a more sophisticated debate than is possible when phrases such as "running sore", "creaming off" and the like are used.

A figure that has struck me is to be found in a press release from the Department for Education dated 5 July. While we are spending £76 million on this wholly worthwhile scheme, we have put £50 million into our "successful technology schools initiative", of which I also approve.

The Minister says that the assisted places scheme provides parental choice, raises standards and extends opportunities. That is all true, but I would like a system that would not involve our subsidising the private schools. I would like a system like that in certain continental countries, where these things can be achieved in the places where the children actually live. That is my point about the Government's welcome technology schools initiative.

Ideally, we would not face the stark choice between comprehensivisation—86 per cent. of secondary schools are comprehensive—and the lifebelt of the assisted places scheme. That is a stark and artificial situation, and we have got ourselves into it through our mistaken educational philosophies over several decades, not including the last one.

We have to do what Wandsworth has done and fight our way out of that. We have to have "parental choice", "raising standards", "extending opportunities" in the locality, and that can be done only by providing a variety of different schools in one locality, with selection not by ability—let us put to one side the old-fashioned class debate—but by the method that they have in more sophisticated continental countries, by what the child shows that he has aptitude for.

There must be movement between schools—the system should not be set rock hard, because some children develop later than others. If the Government can find the money to expand not so much the assisted places scheme as the technology schools initiative, it is possible to foresee a time when, in many deprived, semi-deprived or just normal areas, there is a genuine choice for children, of all backgrounds, with different aptitudes. Children from deprived backgrounds may have an aptitude for academic, intellectual work. Some may have an aptitude for engineering. As we all know, that does not mean 19th-century engineering—it is a demanding business.

We can envisage different schools for those different children. There might also be a comprehensive school, and why not? There should be no dogmatism, no bar on having different types of school. If one is not a dogmatist, one cannot object in principle to having a comprehensive school. Why cannot there be three types of school?

I could go on for some time, but I would bore everyone if I did. However, I want to add one point about private schools. They have always worried me—not in themselves, because, despite what the hon. Member for Bridgend said, their methods are far more educationally sound than those in many of the state schools—but because I dislike the social polarisation involved in the existence of private schools, which one sees in no other country to the same degree. It is a profoundly disturbing phenomenon. It continues, as the hon. Gentleman intimated, from generation to generation, which makes it even more profoundly disturbing.

One of the little thoughts that I should like to leave in the mind of my hon. Friend the Minister—

Mr. Rowe

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Walden

May I just finish this little thought before it slips my mind?

I am serious about the thought of buying out some private schools. We should never forget that there are some private schools that used to be direct grant schools—the equivalent of what we now call grant-maintained schools. They were forced by the activities of Labour Members or their predecessors into the private sector and are now closed to ordinary children.

I would like to see those schools, with all their traditions of excellence, come back into the state sector and be open to every child on a competitive basis, to go there without paying fees. Such a scheme would be the ultimate extension of the assisted places scheme, because everyone would have the chance to go to such schools.

Eton may not do that, but I have visited some former direct grant schools that would not be unattracted by the notion of selecting, free, from the brightest children, rather than having to take them from certain privileged and moneyed social classes, with a sprinkling of scholarships, as they do at present.

Mr. Rowe

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the pressures for the continuation of private schools is the extraordinary difficulty which many maintained schools appear to have in retaining single sex education? Many parents want single sex education, and, in the case of girls, there is clear evidence that single sex education yields better results.

Mr. Walden

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I do not want to consider sex, although I know that that is a problem. One of the difficulties in our way of thinking in this country—I mean no offence to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)—is the tendency to go off at a tangent.

What I am trying to address, perhaps unsuccessfully, as it is very late at night, is a very central issue. I want diversification for everyone on the ground, locally, rather than the stark and artificial choice between being forced, nine times out of 10, to go to a comprehensive school, and being bailed out by the state in a wholly artificial and very expensive way to the tune of £76 million to give a child a chance in an almost certainly better and more demanding educational environment.

I believe that the whole process is artificial, and therefore fundamentally suspect. However, for the moment I can think of nothing better. Let us get on with the technology schools initiative. Where the money is to come from is a separate debate, although I have my ideas about that as well.

10.46 pm
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

It is an absolute disgrace that, at a time when most state schools are struggling to find enough resources to pay for teachers, equipment, books and for essential repairs and when there is a lack of nursery places, the Government continue to fund private education from public funds. They not only continue to subsidise private schools: they intend to increase that subsidy tonight.

When the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) was an Education Minister, he said that the scheme was intended for able children from the poorest homes. Why he thought able children from the poorest homes would want to go to public schools beats me—[HON. MEMBERS: "They do."] No, they do not. If Conservative Members listen to me, they will see that they do not.

Even if the right hon. Member for Brent, North was very sincere—I do not dispute that he was—he was wrong. The scheme is exploited by the middle class. Evidence and statistics clearly show that 60 per cent. of the children who benefit from the scheme have parents who are lawyers, civil servants, clergymen, teachers or other white collar workers. Only 10 per cent. of assisted places pupils come from working class parents and have fathers who are manual workers.

That is typical of the Government, and it epitomises their political philosophy. They subsidise the better-off at the expense of the less well-off. If parents want to send their children to public schools, that is their choice, but they should not do so at the expense of the vast majority of pupils in the state sector.

Let me give examples of the subsidies offered to parents wishing to send their children to Durham school, the well-known public school in my constituency. The annual fees for Durham school in 1991–92 were £5,638. A family earning £25,000 a year with one child on the assisted places scheme attending that school would have received a subsidy of £1,531. If the family had two children attending the school, it would have received a subsidy of £5,114 from the taxpayer. If a family earning £19,000 a year sent one child to the school, it would have received a subsidy of £3,500 a year. Should it have sent two children to that school, it would have received a subsidy of £8,000 a year from the public purse.

That is reprehensible. The state should not pay private schools large subsidies at a time when the state sector is strapped for resources. It should not pay subsidies to the private sector at any time, regardless of whether resources are scarce or not. The assisted places scheme is a deliberate attempt to subsidise the private sector and keep it viable.

Whether the scheme is being used by the middle class, the working class or, for that matter, any other class is irrelevant. The fact that that scheme is available in the first place is appalling. Money is being hived off from the state sector into private education at the expense of the state sector. That is what the scheme is all about.

It is a scandal that, this year, £95 million will be spent on the scheme. In 1995–96, that expenditure will increase to £106 million. In comparison, this year, the Government intend to spend just £131 million on the school building grant to the maintained sector, and plan to spend just £107 million on that grant in 1995–96. The Government plan to spend as much money on the private sector as they plan to spend on that building grant. That must be wrong and immoral.

I would not care, but the scheme does not even offer value for money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said, it costs £400 a year more to educate a child in a private school than in the state sector. That difference is based on the figures provided by the Independent Schools Information Service, ISIS, which can hardly be regarded as an independent-minded organisation by any stretch of the imagination.

There is no evidence that children on the scheme do better in private schools than they would have done had they been educated in state schools. The evidence suggests the contrary. In 1991, the Audit Commission produced a report, "Two Bs or not", on the A-level performances in schools and colleges. It suggested that no single type of institution appeared consistently more effective than any other in terms of obtaining A-level results. It found, significantly, that private schools did marginally less well than the sixth forms and tertiary colleges of the state sector. It reported that pupils got better results in the state sector.

As the scheme produces no better results from the pupils who participate in it, and given that the scheme was not initially intended to assist pupils of a certain background, who account for the majority of its participants, one can only conclude that it is a device used by the Government to meet the increase in the private school fees. It is a subsidy to the private sector from the state purse.

I will conclude by quoting, once again, the right hon. Member for Brent, North.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Steinberg

The hon. Gentleman should listen carefully to what that right hon. Gentleman said. He believed that the scheme had turned out to be a rescue for "distressed gentlefolk". He also suggested that it had taken the Tory party down a "side alley". I agree.

The Government have gone down a convenient side alley, because, through the scheme, they can subsidise private education. I suspect that that was always the intention.

10.54 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Unlike some hon. Members, I do not wish to flex ideological muscles against the independent sector. Some independent schools can make a valuable contribution to education.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) said that he was not ashamed to refer to the speech that he made last year, and I feel exactly the same way. Last year, I said that I did not want to attack independent schools, and that some of them could contribute to education. In responding to the debate, the Under-Secretary of State accused me of trying to have it both ways, so my argument may not have been clear enough.

Considerable evidence proves that mutual benefit accrues from the independent and state sectors working together in certain areas. For instance, we are well aware that most trade unions and many professional education associations have joint membership from both sectors. The National Association for the Teaching of English, the Association for Science Education and the Secondary Heads Association are just a few examples of organisations that are working to improve the quality of education for the nation's children. There are many examples of joint in-service activity and shared use of premises, and even some examples of joint teaching.

So co-operation to mutual advantage is possible, and Liberal Democrats are happy and willing to support it. However, we are not prepared to support measures that foster elitism in our society and prop up ailing independent schools to the disadvantage of pupils in the state sector. The assisted places scheme comes dangerously close on both counts.

Equally worrying is the fact that the assisted places scheme is not only badly managed but missing its target. Only 24 hours ago, the Government put VAT on domestic fuel to help pay off their £50 billion public sector debt, but today they do not seem concerned about wasting money on a scheme with little demonstrable benefit to taxpayers. Until recently, it was not even fully taken up. Furthermore, even the Minister will accept that the scheme was overspent by some £10 million.

Given that such straitened financial resources are available in state sector schools, how can we justify spending £8,595 of state money on sending pupils to Charterhouse school, for example? That money could have been far better directed towards hard-pressed state schools. It cannot be right that the assisted places scheme is being used to prop up some independent schools suffering from falling rolls due to the recession.

Notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said in his lengthy intervention, the figures show that questions must be asked. Can it be right that a high percentage of pupils at a number of independent schools come through the assisted places scheme? For example, 39.9 per cent. of Batley grammar school's pupils, 37.3 per cent. of Denstone college's pupils, 38.5 per cent. of Hereford Cathedral school's pupils, 44.8 per cent. of St. Edward's college's pupils, and nearly 50 per cent. of Wisbech grammar school's pupils come through the scheme.

As the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said, in a single year some seven schools received more than £1 million and more than 50 schools received some £500,000 of taxpayers' money through the assisted places scheme. Perhaps even worse, that money is being spent with no apparent reference to standards, quality or value.

We all know that our state schools are required to teach the national curriculum—I suspect that many of them would prefer not to have to do so, given its nature. Those schools are required to be regularly inspected by Ofsted and are expected to conform to the requirements of standard assessment tests for their children. None of those requirements applies to the independent sector schools, to which state money is given to support the pupils.

The Under-Secretary of State used the argument that we should not invest money into schools that do not conform to those three criteria—the national curriculum, Ofsted inspections and SATs—during the passage of the Education Bill. At that time he used that argument to show why money should not be given to Steiner schools. We are presented with the strange anomaly whereby the Under-Secretary today supports state money being put into independent schools that do not conform to those requirements.

In a similar debate last year I challenged the Under-Secretary to provide evidence to the House of value for money for the scheme and added value. On both counts, he was silent, except to tell us that the independent schools produced good examination results. Even he was honest enough to go on to say that one would expect that, given the selection procedures that are adopted by those schools.

Last year, I referred to views expressed by the Library of the House, whose officials had studied all the various research conducted into the success of the assisted places scheme in meeting its intended target of providing assisted places to bright children from less well-off backgrounds. At that time, the Library concluded: Much of the research on the operation of the scheme has suggested that it has failed in its prime aim of giving good education to children from relatively poor backgrounds and is mainly subsidising middle class parents. That view was not challenged last year by the Minister. I hope that he will be prepared to do so now—or does he accept the view expressed by the Library?

We cannot support a scheme that is badly managed and misses its intended target. Therefore, we will vote against the provision tonight. In consultation with those in both sectors, the Liberal Democrats will continue to explore alternative approaches to co-operation between the sectors to mutual benefit.

11.3 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)

I welcome any scheme that seeks to nourish academically able children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the problem with the assisted places scheme is that it is such an impoverished and ideologically driven way of thinking about the subject that it fails to achieve that objective. In many respects, it is the original opt-out approach—it provides a subsidy to leave the system, rather than taking serious action to improve the system for the target group identified.

As we have heard from both sides of the House, the scheme fails even on its own terms. It is an expensive failure. We know that it currently costs nearly £76 million, and the cost is soon to rise again. It is overspent. It has take-up problems. Last year there were 5,671 vacant assisted places. Contrary to the claims that used to be made, the scheme now costs more per pupil than the maintained system. Various figures have been offered but the most recent ones given in parliamentary answers show that each assisted place now costs £3,100, compared with £2,195 in the maintained secondary sector. Therefore, one of the traditional claims for this scheme does not apply by a mile.

We were told that the scheme is failing to meet its claimed target. Much of the money is a subsidy to the lower middle class. Speaking as a member of the lower middle class, I am not entirely against that, although I cannot understand why my taxes should be used for that purpose. In 1989, a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council reported that: The scheme seems to have been yet another example of an educational reform targeted towards the working class but mainly benefiting children from middle-class backgrounds…Neither, in terms of the objectives that were originally defined for it or our own findings to date does there seem to be much scope or justification for extending it in its present form. If hon. Members are unhappy with that finding, they should look at the Independent Schools Information Service survey that was commissioned from MORI last year. That survey found that 41 per cent. of children taking up assisted places came from lower middle-class families with only 16 per cent. coming from families of semi-skilled or unskilled workers.

The right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) has been cited with acclamation many times in this debate. His most profound point about the scheme is that, even in its own terms, it is failing because there is no evidence that the children taking up places are from not only the poorest families but the poorest schools. For the scheme to make any sort of sense, it would take the most able children from the most failing schools. It would then be doing something significant. As the right hon. Gentleman argued—this is clearly true—the scheme is probably taking children with the most motivated parents, who ensure that they secure the best schools in the neighbourhood for their children. Therefore, the scheme is failing on a fundamental ground.

The scheme is transferring large sums of public money from the Exchequer to private schools. I shall not explore that matter, as other hon. Members have done so. Here we have a scheme with expanding and—in some senses—uncontrollable costs. It has problems with take-up and is substantially missing its intended targets.

What should a sensible Government do when faced with such a scheme? The Government are desperate to cut public spending—they are imposing VAT on domestic fuel and targeting the social security budget. Yet in those circumstances, and faced with a scheme with those characteristics, they spend more on it. Because they are spending more on this scheme, they are necessarily spending less on everything else. They are certainly spending less on other things in the education system of which we have no trouble assembling a list.

In conclusion, we should let this ill-conceived scheme wither on the vine. Anyone who examined the scheme would say that that is the most sensible thing to do. Indeed, all those who have examined the scheme sensibly say that that is the most sensible thing to do.

We should do something else—we should rescue the kernel of an idea that has got lost as the scheme has developed. We should do all that we can to nourish the academically able, especially those from academically and financially disadvantaged backgrounds. That is an educational task. I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) said. In other words, there is a completely different educational agenda from that which the scheme represents.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest and finding some common ground with him. He said that he would like to do more for the academic child from a deprived or difficult background. He has not explained how he would do that, an omission that I hope he will remedy before he concludes. Having many years ago been governor of the Queen Elizabeth grammar school in Atherstone in north Warwickshire, I assure him that that wonderful school, before it was forced to go comprehensive, did precisely what he is now putting to the House.

Dr. Wright

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. An obvious example is large classes. We have recently confirmed evidence that there is a direct correlation between reduced class sizes and increased academic performance. The figures show that under the Conservatives class sizes have increased substantially. If the Government's objective were increased academic achievement, they would have followed the strategy of reducing class sizes.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) gave an interesting example, but I prefer to close with an example of my own, which is about the numbers entering university. The figures are shocking, and I simply relay them to the House. In England and Wales, 30 per cent. of university entrants come from private fee-paying schools, despite the fact that only 7.5 per cent. of school-leavers come from such schools.

If the Government were serious about wishing to make higher education available to all who might benefit from it, especially those from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds, they would regard that figure as shocking and would devote greater energy to opening up the higher education system to children from such backgrounds.

Sadly, the Government have not done that, but are instead pursuing schemes such as the one before the House tonight. That is why we say that their proposal is completely irrelevant to what is required. By transferring public money in the way they propose, they are simply sustaining, propping up and further developing a system of schooling which, as the hon. Member for Buckingham said, has been one of the most damaging and divisive things to have happened to this country.

11.12 pm
Mr. Forth

Tempted though I am, I shall not indulge in a debate on the principle of the scheme because I should be called to order. As I said at the outset, this is a narrow debate on the regulations.

I had some difficulty understanding the arithmetic of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). My arithmetic suggests that if he took the total amount spent on this excellent scheme and spread it among all the pupils in the maintained sector, he might reach the total of about £13 per pupil. I am not sure what dramatic difference that would make to the quality and standard of education. I leave him to draw his own conclusion.

About 69 per cent. of pupils on the assisted places scheme come from the maintained schools sector, well exceeding the 60–40 rule that we set out for the scheme. That gives the lie to the facts that were claimed by Opposition Members, not least the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) who, in a rather pathetic parade of class-ridden prejudice of a kind that we have come to expect from him, completely ignored the facts.

For example, the hon. Gentleman ignored the fact that 56 per cent. of parents whose children go on the assisted places scheme earned less than £12,000 last year, and that 38 per cent.—about two out of every five—earn less than £9,000 per annum. How they represent the elite he claimed were taking advantage of the scheme is beyond me. I should have thought that such people might even have qualified for his soubriquet of the working class or manual working people of whom he approves. I suggest that he looks again at the statistics to see whether his class profile might be suggested to the House in a different form.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that the scheme may not deliver quality. The achievements of assisted pupils in terms of GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels are well above the national pass-grade result, and fully comparable with the achievements of the independent sector as a whole. All the evidence suggests that the achievements of pupils on the scheme compares very well with those of others—which contradicts what some Opposition Members have suggested.

Mr. Don Foster

Surely the Minister accepts that children selected according to ability are expected to do well in examinations. What he is telling us is no surprise; it is a repeat of what he said last year. Will he now tell us the evidence of added value from the scheme?

Mr. Forth

We are all repeating what we said last year. What mystifies me is why we have these debates annually, but if Opposition Members persist in coming to the House at this late hour and making the same speeches every year, I do not see why I should not do the same.

The fact is that all the evidence suggests that pupils whose parents put them forward for this excellent scheme fully vindicate not only the scheme and their parents' choice of education, but the schools that then enable them to achieve excellent results—results fully comparable with the results achieved by pupils in similar schools, and way beyond those of pupils generally and those educated in the maintained sector.

As for the accusations of elitism, I believe that they have been effectively disproved—not only by the income background that I described in response to the points made by the hon. Member for City of Durham, but by my points about the excellent level of achievement.

The brief but excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) was very much in tune with the thrust of the policies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, starting with the White Paper "Choice and Diversity", which was produced last year. Of course we believe that the technology schools are an exciting new development in education; I suggest that the emphasis on specialisation—that is probably the word that best sums up what my hon. Friend was talking about: drawing out young people's aptitudes, and providing them with diversity and choice in terms of different schools in their localities—must represent the way ahead. I trust that the Government are trying to encourage that approach, through our different policies in the Department and through some of the measures in the Education Bill, which will return to the House next week.

I believe that these narrow regulations build on a scheme that has been in place for some time.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I asked for clarification earlier on a point that strikes me as rather important. According to page 2 of the Department's report of its expenditure plans, the estimated outturn for the scheme in 1992–93 is £78 million. The 1993–94 plans involve expenditure of £95 million—an extra £17 million.

On page 16–where the Government show the figures for the number of places available—it is made clear that, for that extra £17 million, only 286 places will be available. That is equivalent to nearly £60,000 per place. What is the reason for the big increase in spending and the small increase in numbers?

Mr. Forth

I will give the hon. Gentleman an off-the-cuff reply and write to him in more detail subsequently.

I believe that the missing link is take-up. I must confess that, every year, we have been embarrassed by the fact that the scheme exceeds all our expectations. Year upon year, more people than even we anticipated take up their places in the scheme, and we then find that we have to provide yet more money, which we gladly do every year. But it is an annual embarrassment to which I am very happy to confess. That is probably the reason for the gap that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to understand.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I certainly would appreciate a full answer, because I am not entirely convinced by that. In table 10, giving the number of places available, it is pointed out that at the moment the new places being made available are almost all being taken up. Last year, 97.6 per cent. were taken up. So there is not much room for a greater take-up. I appreciate that higher up there are some big gaps, but surely that cannot be the answer.

Mr. Forth

I believe that this is the answer. What certainly is not the case is that we are providing places at £60,000 each. Even some of the more exotic schools mentioned by hon. Gentlemen do not quite reach that fee level. It is most unlikely, to say the least, that the Department is funding places to the tune of £60,000 per place.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman and give him a very full explanation of this, because it seems that we are unable at this stage to agree.

I hope that I have persuaded the House—

Mr. Steinberg

The Minister accused me of being class-prejudiced, and perhaps I am. When I look at the other side of the House, that makes me class-prejudiced. The statistics that I gave him had not been produced by me; they were produced by the ISIS MORI poll, which said that 60 per cent. of the children came from middle-class homes, including Lloyd's, the civil service, and so on. So is the Isis MORI poll class-prejudiced as well?

Mr. Forth

I cannot imagine why the hon. Gentleman should disapprove of teachers and civil servants; that is beyond me and is for him to explain on some other occasion. From the facts that I gave—these are the more relevant ones, I believe—over half the parents of children in assisted places scheme places have incomes of less than £12,000 per annum.

I will not follow the hon. Gentleman's obsession with what their occupations are. I am much more interested in the fact that the scheme is doing what it was set up to do—that is, helping those on low incomes to get their children into good schools.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

I would like to know the source of the Minister's information, quite simply.

Mr. Forth

The source of my information is the underpaid and overworked civil servants in my Department.

I hope that in this short debate I have been able to persuade the House that we should approve these excellent regulations, which update this excellent scheme, from which so many of our children benefit.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 229, Noes 177.

Division No. 332] [11.22 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Evennett, David
Aitken, Jonathan Faber, David
Alexander, Richard Fabricant, Michael
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Fenner, Dame Peggy
Amess, David Fishburn, Dudley
Ancram, Michael Forman, Nigel
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Ashby, David Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Aspinwall, Jack French, Douglas
Atkins, Robert Gallic Phil
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Gardiner, Sir George
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Gill, Christopher
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Gillan, Cheryl
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Baldry, Tony Gorst, John
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Bates, Michael Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Batiste, Spencer Grylls, Sir Michael
Beggs, Roy Hague, William
Bellingham, Henry Hamilton, Rt Hon Archie (Epsom)
Bendall, Vivian Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Blackburn, Dr John G. Hampson, Dr Keith
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Hargreaves, Andrew
Boswell, Tim Haselhurst, Alan
Bowden, Andrew Hawkins, Nick
Bowis, John Hawksley, Warren
Brandreth, Gyles Hayes, Jerry
Brazier, Julian Heald, Oliver
Bright, Graham Heathcoat-Amory, David
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Hendry, Charles
Browning, Mrs. Angela Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Budgen, Nicholas Horam, John
Burns, Simon Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Burt, Alistair Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Butler, Peter Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Carrington, Matthew Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Carttiss, Michael Jack, Michael
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Clappison, James Jenkin, Bernard
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif) Jessel, Toby
Clitton-Brown, Geoffrey Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Coe, Sebastian Key, Robert
Colvin, Michael Kilfedder, Sir James
Congdon, David King, Rt Hon Tom
Conway, Derek Kirkhope, Timothy
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Knapman, Roger
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Couchman, James Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Cran, James Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Legg, Barry
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Lidington, David
Day, Stephen Lightbown, David
Deva, Nirj Joseph Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Devlin, Tim Lord, Michael
Dicks, Terry Luff, Peter
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Dover, Den MacKay, Andrew
Duncan, Alan McLoughlin, Patrick
Duncan-Smith, Iain McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Durant, Sir Anthony Maitland, Lady Olga
Dykes, Hugh Malone, Gerald
Eggar, Tim Mans, Keith
Elletson, Harold Marlow, Tony
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Merchant, Piers Spink, Dr Robert
Mills, Iain Spring, Richard
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Sproat, Iain
Moate, Sir Roger Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Steen, Anthony
Moss, Malcolm Stephen, Michael
Neubert, Sir Michael Stern, Michael
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Stewart, Allan
Nicholls, Patrick Sweeney, Walter
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Sykes, John
Norris, Steve Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Oppenheim, Phillip Thomason, Roy
Ottaway, Richard Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Page, Richard Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Paice, James Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Patnick, Irvine Thurnham, Peter
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Townend, John (Bridlington)
Pawsey, James Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Tredinnick, David
Pickles, Eric Trend, Michael
Porter, David (Waveney) Twinn, Dr Ian
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Walden, George
Powell, William (Corby) Waller, Gary
Redwood, Rt Hon John Ward, John
Richards, Rod Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Riddick, Graham Waterson, Nigel
Rifkind, Rt Hon. Malcolm Watts, John
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Wells, Bowen
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Whitney, Ray
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Whittingdale, John
Ross, William (E Londonderry) Widdecombe, Ann
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Wilkinson, John
Sackville, Tom Willetts, David
Shaw, David (Dover) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f Id)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Wood, Timothy
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Yeo, Tim
Sims, Roger Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Speed, Sir Keith Tellers for the Ayes:
Spencer, Sir Derek Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. James Arbuthnot.
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Abbott, Ms Diane Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Adams, Mrs Irene Coffey, Ann
Ainger, Nick Connarty, Michael
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Armstrong, Hilary Corston, Ms Jean
Ashton, Joe Cox, Tom
Austin-Walker, John Cryer, Bob
Barnes, Harry Cunliffe, Lawrence
Battle, John Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Bayley, Hugh Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Darling, Alistair
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Davidson, Ian
Benton, Joe Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Berry, Dr. Roger Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Betts, Clive Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I)
Boyce, Jimmy Dewar, Donald
Bradley, Keith Dixon, Don
Bray, Dr Jeremy Dobson, Frank
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Donohoe, Brian H.
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Dowd, Jim
Byers, Stephen Dunnachie, Jimmy
Caborn, Richard Dun woody, Mrs Gwyneth
Callaghan, Jim Eagle, Ms Angela
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Eastham, Ken
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Enright, Derek
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Etherington, Bill
Cann, Jamie Evans, John (St Helens N)
Chisholm, Malcolm Fisher, Mark
Clapham, Michael Flynn, Paul
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Foster, Don (Bath)
Clelland, David Foulkes, George
Fyfe, Maria Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Galloway, George Mowlam, Marjorie
Gapes, Mike Mullin, Chris
George, Bruce Murphy, Paul
Gerrard, Neil O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)
Godman, Dr Norman A. O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Golding, Mrs Llin O'Hara, Edward
Gordon, Mildred Olner, William
Graham, Thomas O'Neill, Martin
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Patchett, Terry
Gunnell, John Pickthall, Colin
Hall, Mike Pike, Peter L
Hanson, David Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hardy, Peter Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)
Harman, Ms Harriet Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Heppell, John Prescott, John
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Primarolo, Dawn
Hinchliffe, David Purchase, Ken
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) Quin, Ms Joyce
Home Robertson John Raynsford, Nick
Hoon, Geoffrey Reid, Dr John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Rendel, David
Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd) Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Roche, Mrs Barbara
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Rooker, Jeff
Illsley, Eric Rooney, Terry
Ingram, Adam Rowlands, Ted
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Short, Clare
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Simpson, Alan
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Skinner, Dennis
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Smith, C (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Jowell, Tessa Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn) Spearing, Nigel
Kilfoyle, Peter Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn) Steinberg, Gerry
Leighton, Ron Stevenson, George
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Strang, Dr Gavin
Loyden, Eddie Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
McAllion, John Turner, Dennis
McAvoy, Thomas Tyler, Paul
McCartney, Ian Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Macdonald, Calum Wareing, Robert N
McKelvey, William Watson, Mike
McLeish, Henry Wicks, Malcolm
McMaster, Gordon Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Madden, Max Wilson, Brian
Mahon, Alice Winnick, David
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Wise, Audrey
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S) Worthington, Tony
Martlew, Eric Wray, Jimmy
Meale, Alan Wright, Dr Tony
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Milburn, Alan
Miller, Andrew Tellers for the Noes:
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Mr. John Spellar and Mr. Andrew Mackinlay.
Morgan, Rhodri
Morley, Elliot

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1993, which were laid before this House on 29th June, be approved.