HC Deb 19 July 1994 vol 247 cc262-80 8.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I beg to move, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 7th July, be approved. As the House will know from debates in previous years, the draft regulations have a specific, straightforward purpose. They simply update the principal regulations, the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989. Essentially, they implement the annual uprating of the parental contribution tables, and thus set out the amounts parents must pay towards their child's assisted place at a participating independent school in the coming year. If approved, the amended regulations will come into force on 26 August 1994.

I shall confine my remarks to the effect of this annual uprating. First, regulation 2 increases the allowance made for each dependent child, other than the assisted place holder, against parents' total relevant income when calculating their contribution to school fees. The allowance is raised from £1,125 to £1,140, in line with inflation, and will maintain the help for families with more than one child.

Regulation 3 sets out the income bands used for assessing parents' contributions to fees. Like the dependant's allowance, the bands have been uprated in line with the 1.4 per cent. movement in the retail prices index to October last year.

The income threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is correspondingly raised from £9,225 to £9,352 a year. There are corresponding increases in the thresholds for the higher income bands. The effect is that parents whose relevant income has risen in line with inflation will continue to contribute the same proportion of that income and, indeed, the same amount in real terms.

I commend the regulations to the House.

8.49 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I thank the Minister for managing to give us that speech, despite the great efforts that he was having to make with his breathing. Obviously, it would not be appropriate to go into that subject now.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) in his seat. A Liberal Democrat press release issued this evening seems to show that the hon. Member for Bath is, for departmental purposes, a non-person. He is described in the press release as a declared presidential candidate.

But there is a total blank as regards the education brief of the Liberal Democrats. There is mention of a home affairs team leader, community and urban affairs, foreign affairs and defence, Europe, Treasury, environment, health and welfare, but nothing about education. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Bath is at least present in person, even if his brief has disappeared off the end of the Liberal Democrat press release.

I shall return to the substantive issue of the assisted places scheme. Tonight's debate gives the Labour party the opportunity once again to make it clear that we believe that the scheme is an ineffective use of taxpayers' money in the education world. While we would not want to disturb the education of any child currently holding an assisted place, we would phase out the scheme and use the money for better purposes.

At present, it appears that few people know about the existence of the assisted places scheme. An opinion poll that took a sample of more than 2,000 people last autumn showed that only about 40 per cent. knew of the scheme's existence, and even fewer knew exactly how to go about finding out about it.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for bearing with me during my breathless introduction. Is he going to argue that uprating should not be made? He will be aware that the measure is purely and simply to uprate the existing provision, and has nothing to do with the principle. Is he about to argue that he is against the uprating even though the order cannot do away with the regulations and the scheme itself, as he has said he would like to do?

Mr. Griffiths

In his introduction, the Minister mentioned the modest increases this year. We believe that, given the levels of inflation and the unsatisfactory nature of the scheme, it would be as well to leave the scheme as it is, rather than do anything more with it. We will phase out the scheme when given the opportunity.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Many poor children benefit from the scheme. There are many children in my constituency whose families have a low income and who have benefited from and enjoyed the scheme. Some children are well on their way through the scheme and are making good progress in life. Will the Labour party take away that opportunity from poor children? It would be a very spiteful thing to do.

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman should realise how few people benefit, in his terms, from the assisted places scheme. There are more than 3 million—almost 3.25 million—pupils in secondary education in this country at present, of which fewer than 30,000 participate in the assisted places scheme. We are talking about less than 1 per cent. of the secondary school population. More than half the parents of those pupils who participate in the scheme went to private schools. The only survey that I know that has been done about the social background of children on the assisted places scheme showed that only 7 per cent. came from families with a manual background.

A large number of families participating in the scheme have below-average incomes—I am not disputing that. But the fact that more than half the pupils who have assisted places have families with professional and managerial backgrounds is more a comment on the very poor rewards given to such people under a Conservative Government. The sum of more than £90 million spent on the assisted places scheme could be better used on improving the educational opportunities of poor children.

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Gentleman is generous to give way for the second time. I shall not be boring and constantly intervene, but I should remind the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

That will make a change.

Mr. Greenway

I shall certainly remind that boring hon. Gentleman, who is making absurd remarks from a sedentary position and who knows nothing about education —other hon. Members should pay no attention to him—that education is about principles. If we forget that, and argue in awful pragmatic terms, we make no progress in education, and forget children.

Has the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) forgotten the example of Parmiters grammar school in east London—a two-stream grammar school which took 60 children a year? The Labour Government of the day said that the school was wrecking the surrounding 18 comprehensive schools by creaming off 60 children a year, so they closed Parmiters school, which moved to Hertfordshire.

The 60 children a year were distributed among the 18 comprehensives and sank without trace. The opportunity that those children lost has never been regained. If the Labour party is to talk about principles, it should mean what it says.

Mr. Griffiths

I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was Lady Thatcher who closed more grammar schools than any other Secretary of State for Education in history. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman ever allowed such things to happen. What influence did he have at the time all this was happening?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I have let the hon. Gentleman respond, just as I allowed the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) to intervene, but this debate is about the uprating of the assisted places scheme. As we have now let off some steam, from now on we must get back to what the order is about.

Mr. Griffiths

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The order is about increasing the money available for the assisted places scheme, as you rightly say. The Opposition believe that that is not the most effective way of using the money in the education budget; it should be used to give all the children who need help the right start in education.

In 1992–93, the latest date for which we have definitive Department figures, £92.8 million was spent on the scheme. Confirming the increases in the course of his breathless introduction, the Minister did not tell us what the overall cost would be—but I guess that it will amount to many millions of pounds.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I believe I am right in saying that the uprating will not cost anything, because the parents will pay more. The hon. Gentleman is therefore tilting at windmills. He has agreed that the scheme costs £90 million; I understand that the uprating will be borne by the parents.

Mr. Griffiths

No, the uprating means that more money will also be paid out. The figures for the Department for Education are to be found on page 3 of the 1994–95 to 1996–97 Government expenditure plans. The estimated outturn for 1993–94 is £95 million, rising the following year to £102 million, then to £106 million and on to £110 million in 1996–97. Thus, more money is indeed to be spent on the scheme.

The money is being spent in schools where the fees range from, on 1992–93 figures, £2,790 to £9,210. Fifty schools are receiving more than £500,000 apiece each year. About 70 schools rely on this income to cover the education of about 20 per cent. of their pupils.

It is interesting to note that, although the Government are spending all this money, there would appear to be either some mismanagement in the scheme or an underestimate of expenditure on it—or perhaps the schools in question are charging fees that go well beyond inflation. In April this year, we were told that 28,764 pupils participated in the scheme—0.89 per cent. of all secondary school pupils. Yet the departmental report published a month earlier pointed out that the maximum number of places available under the scheme was 33,593. That means that roughly 5,000 available places were not taken up, partly because the funding was apparently exhausted.

Incidentally, these places cost an average £3,236 each. In Wales, that figure is even higher: 691 pupils receive an average of £3,556, from a total of almost £2.5 million. If one compares those figures with the average weighting for school pupils aged between 11 and 16, one will see that it is just £1,554 in state schools. The standard spending assessment, used to calculate education expenditure, is £2,741—considerably less than the amounts made available through the assisted places scheme.

The point about our objection to the continuing increase and the uprating of all aspects of the assisted places scheme is that money is being spent in a way that does not fairly give opportunities to everybody.

Both Her Majesty's inspectorate, when it was monitoring standards in schools, and the Audit Commission, looked exhaustively at the results of the schools that participate in the scheme, as compared with those in the state sector, and found no significant difference. The Minister has come to tell us today that all that uprating is taking place, yet the money is being spent on schools that are no better than those in the state sector, and are costing the taxpayer much more.

Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside)

If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is proposing to oppose an uplift. Does he accept that he is imposing significant hardship on those already participating in the assisted places scheme, and that that is inconsistent with his view—that he wishes to phase it out rather than stop it instantly, because he does not wish to cause hardship to those people? Is there not a distinct inconsistency in his argument?

Mr. Griffiths

No. If the rate of inflation were much higher, there could be arguments about that, but we are talking about what, in essence, is a modest change overall to the scheme. I accept, therefore, that we are not going to cause any significant hardship to the people involved in taking the privilege granted to them by the Government. In the main, it does not go to children from families with a manual background, which was the declared purpose of the scheme when it was first established.

If the Government want to spend money in a more effective fashion, the Department for Education should consult the Home Office and divert enough money into section 11 funding, where it would be of significant use in helping children who have difficulties with the English language to have a good start in life and the education they require.

Mr. Forth

I want to help the hon. Gentleman and the House by putting something into context. The hon. Gentleman used the quaint term "manual occupations" a number of times. Given his background and conditions, I can understand that he might be rather hung up on that, but I offer the House something that is more relevant to the broader view.

Some 60 per cent. of assisted places scheme parents have relevant incomes of less than £13,500 per annum. Some 40 per cent. of parents have incomes below the current threshold of £9,225 per annum, and their children qualify for free assisted places. Therefore, if we can get away from the obsession with manual occupations and just look at income levels, the scheme, I submit, is very successful in helping those with low incomes to get access to an area of education that would otherwise be denied to them.

Mr. Griffiths

I must point out to the Minister that I have already referred to that information—perhaps while he was searching for it. I pointed out that, although only 7 per cent. of the children participating were from families of a manual background, more than 50 per cent. were from families with professional and managerial backgrounds, and more than half the parents had had a private education themselves. Perhaps it was a reflection of the Government's mismanagement of the economy, but they still did not have particularly high wages.

The argument is not about the less than 1 per cent. of secondary schoolchildren who could benefit from the scheme but about whether the money could be better used to help the children of low-income parents. That could be done, but this is not the appropriate debate to deal with that in detail. However, it is about time that the Public Accounts Committee looked to see whether there is any value for money in the scheme and whether the money could be better spent in other areas to help the children of low-income families.

9.10 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I know from my long experience in education that diversity of provision is the fundamental principle by which our children are educated. That must mean schools of every kind—mixed, single-sex, voluntary, grant-maintained, grammar and independent. That is necessary because children are so different, and the measure takes account of those fundamental differences. A child must be suited to an institution. The only logical outcome of the response by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) to the proposals is uniformity of school provision.

Mr. Win Griffiths

The immediate removal of the scheme would have virtually no impact on the vast majority of private schools. Secondly, not all comprehensive schools are the same, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept that. There is a huge diversity in comprehensives.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that the debate should address the desirability or otherwise of amending the criteria for eligibility for the assisted places scheme. It is not a general debate on education policy. I shall be pretty strict about that.

Mr. Greenway

You are quite right, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The principle behind the measure is the preservation of a scheme that will be seriously impaired and will perhaps fall if the measure is not passed. If it falls, an important leg of the diverse provision that is required for our children will be removed. That is the basis of my argument and of my challenge to the hon. Member for Bridgend, who challenged me in an extraordinary way.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

So that the House may understand where the hon. Gentleman's argument is taking us, may I ask whether it is his premise that, if the assisted places scheme were to be scrapped, the independent schoolS sector would also disappear?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

My hon. Friend is not suggesting that.

Mr. Greenway

I thank my hon. Friend. She is right: of course I suggested no such thing. I spoke of the assisted places scheme being removed as a result of the challenge mounted by the Labour and Liberal parties, whose spokesmen have given their word that, if either party were elected to government—in my opinion, they never will be again—their policy would be to remove the assisted places scheme.

That would not mean the end of those schools, but poor children would no longer be able to go to them. Thai is the crucial matter, and it is the business that is before the House.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

The mix would go. There would be a much narrower range of children able to go to those schools.

Mr. Greenway

My hon. Friend is quite right. As I said in an intervention when the hon. Member for Bridgend so generously gave way to me, if we cease to argue principles in terms of education, even if a provision is made available only to a small number of children, we are not arguing education at all.

Let me draw a parallel with the regulations. A small number of children qualify under special needs legislation —I am not digressing, I simply draw a parallel—but if we removed that provision, what damage would be caused to those children?

Mr. Win Griffiths

indicated dissent.

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Member for Bridgend shakes his head, but fewer children require special needs provision than ultimately take advantage of education under the assisted places scheme. Definition is very important:.

Mr. Griffiths

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

I shall give way just once more.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman continues down this road, the Chair will not accept it.

Mr. Griffiths

I thank the hon. Gentleman for eventually giving way. May I point out that about 2 per cent. of children have statements, which is more than double the number in the assisted places scheme? If we went beyond statemented pupils, we would be talking about a far greater number, and there is no way in which the two should be equated.

Mr. Greenway

I am not going beyond statemented pupils; I am talking about a certain level of statemented pupils. My cut-off point was lower than the number of children on the assisted places scheme.

If we took the 2 per cent. of children in maintained schools who are or who ought to be statemented, we would still be arguing the principle, and if we took away the provision that is required to be made for them, we would damage their education enormously. The same would be true if we took away the special provision for gifted children and very poor children which the assisted places scheme represents.

In education, it is no good speaking simply in pragmatic terms or—I do not say this meanly or rudely—deteriorating to the level of argument that the hon. Gentleman has presented to the House this evening. It is thoroughly unworthy, but it is typical of how the Labour party is arguing about education at present. It is limiting on many levels, and that is why the Labour party is losing, and will continue to lose, the argument on education in Britain at every level.

Who in the end is damaged by the attitude to education of the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party but the poor of the nation? What does the hon. Gentleman stand up and say? He says, "I am here championing the children of blue collar workers.". He is doing the opposite and damaging the children of blue collar workers, and the tragedy is that he does not realise it. [AN HON. MEMBER: "He does realise it.] If he does, it is unforgivable, but if he does not, it is his loss and his own ignorance. I put that to him, and I ask him to wake up.

9.18 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to begin by making an apology. During Education questions last week, I inadvertently and incorrectly attributed to the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), a quotation which appears in column 817 of the Official Report. Although I rapidly discovered my error before it was pointed out to me by anybody else, and contacted the Minister's office to apologise, I wish to place on record my apology to the Minister and to withdraw my allegation that he had made such a statement.

I cannot, however, withdraw my opposition to the regulations before us, but I was grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for attempting to create a level playing field between myself and the Minister.

We all noticed how breathless the Minister was when he delivered his speech, but the hon. Gentleman's reference to a Liberal Democrat press release took my breath away, so the Minister and I are in somewhat similar circumstances this evening.

This is my third opportunity to contribute to debates on these regulations. Both last year and the year before I made it absolutely clear that I did not believe it helpful to view the independent sector as the perpetrator of all that is wrong in our still, sadly, class-ridden society. However, I do not accept that the taxpayers' money that the Government are spending on the independent sector is money well spent. It cannot be right to spend money to ensure that pupils benefit from the supposedly superior education in independent schools when there is no real evidence that that is providing value for money. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) would be especially concerned about that.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that an impressive 90 per cent. of assisted places scheme pupils go on to university or other forms of higher education and that a high success rate—98 per cent.—is achieved at A-level? Does not that represent value for money, bearing in mind the fact that the cost for each pupil is £3,405, whereas the cost for a pupil in Tower Hamlets is £4,177? Surely it represents excellent value for money.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because his comments lead me to the next point that I had intended to make.

In our previous two debates, I raised with the Minister my concern about value for money and I asked him to provide evidence that that was being achieved. On both occasions, he provided the very evidence that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) has cited as evidence of value for money. However, as all hon. Members know, with the assisted places scheme comes a selection procedure that ensures that the pupils who benefit from the scheme are those who, in any case, are the most likely to achieve the sort of results referred to by the hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Member for Bridgend pointed out, there is no evidence from Her Majesty's inspectorate or from Ofsted that the scheme provides value for money in terms of increased educational benefits for those pupils who participate in it.

It cannot be right for money—we will return to the question of specific amounts when the Minister replies—to be used primarily to prop up a number of independent schools that find themselves in increasing difficulties. I am sure that a number of hon. Members will have seen last weekend's article in The Sunday Times. It pointed out that a number of independent schools were pegging their fees because they were finding significant difficulty in attracting pupils. They are holding down the fee levels in an attempt to reverse the drift away by parents struggling to pay their bills.

As evidence of that possible connection, it is worth noting that one of the schools mentioned in the article is Dulwich college. That school happened to receive the largest amount of money—£1.3 million—from the assisted places scheme last year. As the hon. Member for Bridgend said, a number of other independent schools also receive a significant proportion of their income from the scheme. For example, at Wisbech grammar school more than 50 per cent. of its pupils are covered by the scheme and at four other schools more than 40 per cent. are covered.

There is some concern about the way the money is being spent and about accountability. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), who has left the Chamber, said that she believed that the regulations do not involve any additional money being spent on the scheme. When the Minister replies, perhaps he will confirm how much money is intended to be spent on the scheme in the forthcoming financial year. Indeed, the Minister told us earlier—from a sedentary position—that he was more than happy to confirm that it would be many millions of pounds. How many millions are we talking about? In 1991–92, the scheme was overspent by £10 million.

Answers given by the Minister to parliamentary questions over the past two or three months are very revealing. They demonstrate that the annual cost of the assisted places scheme has doubled over the past six years, to reach the amount—nearly £93 million—referred to earlier by the hon. Member for Bridgend. During that time, the number of pupils benefiting from the scheme has risen by only 6 per cent. I do not think that even the hon. Member for Ealing, North would consider that to be evidence of value for money. Moreover, the cost to the public purse of each assisted place has risen by 40 per cent. in the past five years.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Foster

Does the Minister wish to correct my figures?

Mr. Forth

No. I was merely wondering whether the hon. Gentleman had to hand the comparable figures for the maintained sector. I would not mind betting that, if he examined the number of pupils in that sector and the real cost of educating them, he would find a similar escalation. Although he has made an interesting observation, I do not think that the figures that he has cited are grossly out of line with the maintained sector as a whole.

Mr. Foster

That, too, is an interesting point. I shall make the comparison after the debate. The Minister should bear in mind, however, the fact that, if the rate of increase continues—and if he is correct in his prediction that, by 1995, 35,000 assisted places will be available—the total cost to the Exchequer in that financial year will be some £140 million. That will be many millions of pounds indeed, which some would argue could be better spent on other aspects of education.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments. In the light of what he has said so far, would he care to tell us whether his party's policy would be to close down the assisted places scheme?

Mr. Foster

My party has made it clear that we do not feel able to support the scheme as it is currently organised, and that we would remove it. Like the hon. Member for Bridgend, we have also said that we would remove it in such a way that pupils currently benefiting would not be disadvantaged.

I suspect that the difference between my party and that of the hon. Member for Bridgend is this. My party has no antipathy to the independent schools sector, and has made clear its wish to explore ways in which a far better relationship could be built between it and the state sector. We have mentioned a number of ways in which that is already being done. There are a number of ways in which staff in independent and state schools work, train and develop together, and such action could replace the assisted places scheme.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster

No, I must finish. Other hon. Members wish to speak.

Because of our concern about the lack of evidence of value for money, and about the escalating cost of the scheme—there is no evidence that it is providing real benefit, and it does not help the wider community—we shall not be able to support the regulations.

9.29 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I shall be brief. The debate so far has been shot through with inconsistencies. For example, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said that his party would not destroy the scheme in a way that would upset the children currently benefiting from it so, clearly, he believes that it does benefit children, or he would not have used those words. Members of Labour's Front Bench have made it perfectly clear that by opposing the regulations they want to send a clear signal that they intend to destroy first, the assisted places scheme and, secondly, I have no doubt, the independent sector as a whole.

We need to take into account the fact that the cost of the assisted places scheme is very small as a proportion of the total cost of education and that it is trivial compared to the amount of money that the independent sector saves the taxpayer by educating large numbers of children entirely at their parents' expense. In Kent, we believe that we need to do all that we can to preserve variety in education. Kent has fought a long and valiant battle to retain a variety of different kinds of education and schools. It is entirely proper that families of limited income should have made available to them the opportunity, if they so choose, to send their children to a school which they could otherwise not afford.

Mr. Dunn

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, although there may be differences or nuances between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in this debate, there is no difference between their offensive behaviour towards freedom of choice and parental choice in Kent?

Mr. Rowe

Sadly, I must confirm that that is so. Whatever the Liberal Democrats may say nationally, what they say in Kent is extremely hostile to that county's choice.

There are many reasons why parents choose to send their children to be educated in the independent sector. It is by no means common for them to believe mindlessly that an independent school is inevitably better than a state school. They might choose to send their children to an independent school because they like its Christian ethos or the fact that it places an emphasis on music, science or has some other distinctive element of its own. If they choose to send their children to such a school, and if there is a limited scheme available to make it possible even though their own means do not extend to it, that is part of the rich diversity of education. It allows for comparisons to be made.

I suggest that the one thing that the Minister should take away from the debate is the clear message that we should think not only about inputs but outputs. We should be sure not only that the children who attend independent schools benefit therefrom—my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) made it clear that a substantial number do —but that the schools which participate in the scheme are the best for the purpose. That cannot necessarily be judged on results alone; it may have to do with the culture at the school and whether it welcomes and sustains children from families of limited means.

I know from personal experience as a schoolmaster and as a pupil at an expensive school that it can be extremely worrying for children to be in a school where virtually every other child comes from a family with an income far greater than his family's. Unless a school takes that on board, welcomes a child and makes the differences in family income unobvious, it can be a damaging rather than a sustaining experience.

Having said that, I believe that the assisted places scheme is valuable. The extraordinarily modest uprating, which is a clear indication of the control which the Government have exercised over inflation, is worth while, and I commend the regulations to the House.

9.35 pm
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

I was pleased to be flattered by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) who called me a boy earlier in the debate. It was clearly my youthful good looks and my boyish disposition which made him make such a comment.

Before the House divides on the matter of increasing the amount which we spend on the assisted places scheme, I hope that both of the points that I shall make, if not one of them only, will be widely supported. First, almost £100 million was being spent on the assisted places scheme, sending 28,674 children to independent schools last year. That, by definition, must have created empty spaces in state schools. I put to the House the simple point that it is not only the cost of the assisted place that we shall have to bear, but the cost of the place left behind, empty in a local state school, that the taxpayer will have to underwrite. I hope that the Minister takes that on board.

Mr. Hawkins

How does that square with the Labour party's complaints about overcrowding in classrooms? Surely, if a child benefiting from an assisted place leaves a space behind, that has the benefit of creating a lower class size, of which the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench spokesmen repeatedly say that they are in favour.

Mr. Jamieson

That is rather a banal point. I am sony to have to explain to the hon. Gentleman that there is a difference between class size and empty places in schools. Many classes are of well over 30 children and some are of above 40, but other places in classrooms may be available. To save the time of the House, if the hon. Gentleman wants to see me some time later, I could explain it to him in a little more detail.

I hope that the other point that I wish to make receives wide support in the House. The Government have set store by the accountability of schools and that there should be proper accountability of public money—whether a relatively small amount of £100,000 or a substantial amount. Unlike the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) who spoke of small amounts of money, I do not consider £100 million of public money a small amount. I consider that to be a substantial amount of public money. The spending of such money should be properly accountable through the House because the money is directed through the Department of Education and through the Minister.

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Mr. Jamieson

I note that the Minister nods in approval to that.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments for and against the assisted places scheme, as that has been ably done by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). However, I should like to argue for accountability for the amounts of money being spent on the assisted places scheme. If parents choose to send their children to a private or independent school and pay the whole fee themselves, it is their responsibility to undertake to ensure that that money is well spent and that their children are receiving the type of education for which the parents are paying.

I shall not argue with that. It is right and correct. However, if the taxpayer is having to pay a substantial amount of the cost of that education, the taxpayer, or at least the guardians of the taxpayers' money, have a role to play in ensuring that the way in which that money is expended is accountable through the proper channels of the Government.

The Government have placed great stress on having a four-year cycle of Office for Standards in Education reports for schools, that those reports should be made public and that they should receive public discussion. I have no argument with that. Ofsted reports—Her Majesty's inspectors' reports, as they used to be—should be the subject of proper public debate and should certainly be available to parents. Indeed, they should be available to those who are underwriting and paying for those schools.

There is no obligation for independent schools to have any form of inspection. The Minister will know that, as earlier this year he gave me an answer in which he told me that very few private independent schools had had any form of inspection. For the schools that have had inspections, there is no obligation to make the report public and there is no obligation to send it to parents, as there is in the case of a local education authority or maintained school.

Earlier this year, I brought to the Minister's attention the cases of private independent schools—very few—that had had Ofsted reports. Some of the reports were very good and some were mediocre. I came across some that were exceedingly poor. A constituent who had a child at one of the schools asked the school whether he could have a copy of the Ofsted report that had been made last May. He was told by the school that it was not sending out copies of the Ofsted report.

If that had been a state or local education authority school, the head teacher would be breaking the law if he declined to send out a report. Because this school was a private school which received most of its money from the taxpayer, not through the assisted places scheme, but through a different scheme—the service boarding school allowance—for which the same principle applies, the parent asked for the report and the request was denied. He was told that he could not see the report. My view is that the same rules should apply to private independent schools that benefit from money under the assisted places scheme as apply to state and maintained schools.

Before the Minister considers increasing the amount that will be spent under the scheme—I am not arguing tonight about the rights or wrongs of the scheme—given, as all hon. Members would agree, that substantial amounts of taxpayers' money are being spent on it, will he agree to the following? If a private or independent school receives money from the taxpayer, it should be subject to the same four-year cycle of Ofsted reports as maintained or local education authority schools. Such a report should then be made public so that parents can see it and so that the local public can have an open debate on it. If the Minister agreed to that, he would considerably assist some of the private independent schools and he would certainly help the whole sector. I look forward to his comments on the matter tonight.

9.42 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I must disappoint the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) and tell him that I cannot follow him in his doctrine of the empty place. I found his arguments on that point unpersuasive and almost identical to the arguments that Labour Members advanced in the past against open enrolment and in favour of imposing artificial admission limits on popular schools, thus limiting parental choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) drew our attention earlier in the debate to the immediate consequence of the House failing to approve the regulations. The consequence would be that parents on modest incomes would find themselves less able to afford the cost of their children's education at schools running the assisted places scheme. It is not difficult, either, to envisage the longer-term consequences of a future Government choosing to abolish the assisted places scheme.

We have, after all, a pretty exact historical precedent. During the 1970s, the blessed Mrs. Shirley Williams abolished the direct grant scheme, the ancestor of the scheme that we are debating today. In practical terms, that meant that, whereas people such as myself had been able to benefit from the educational opportunities offered by council scholarships and the direct grant, other generations of children were not able to benefit in the same way. The schools concerned went down the route of full independence and I believe that that is the route which the schools participating in the assisted places scheme would take were this scheme also to be withdrawn.

The abolition of the assisted places scheme would increase social segregation, not diminish it. I frankly found it astounding to hear yet again the canard from Opposition spokesmen that some independent schools are being propped up by the assisted places scheme. When the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) cited Dulwich college as an example of an ailing school, I began to understand why he had been airbrushed out of his party's press release.

The truth is that the head teachers of the schools taking part in the assisted places scheme are themselves committed to providing an education which rests both on academic excellence and on the enlargement of opportunity for the greatest number of pupils from all backgrounds, regardless of social pedigree, race or religion.

What dismays and genuinely saddens me about the debates that we have each year about the assisted places scheme is that Opposition Members betray what seem to me to be the proudest elements of their own history. There was once a time when the Labour movement was in favour of enlarging opportunities for good education for children from poor areas.

We now see Opposition Members who took advantage of the opportunities of scholarships to public schools, direct grant schools and grammar schools and who, having seized the opportunities for themselves, now want to kick away the ladders so that none of the plebs can climb up behind them. I believe that the scheme is in the interests of education and of equality of opportunity and social diversity in this country.

I shall be glad to support my hon. Friend the Minister this evening.

9.47 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths

We have had a very interesting debate about the uprating provided for under the order. I shall repeat one or two of the points which are relevant, particularly to the remarks of the previous speaker, but also to the difference in approach to the provision of education taken by Members on either side of the House.

On the whole, the Government seem to put forward exclusive schemes in which only a very small minority can participate. I would remind hon. Members once again that fewer than 1 per cent. of children participate in the assisted places scheme. Of that 1 per cent., fewer than 2,500 are from the sort of background to which the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) was pleased to refer in terms of Labour party history.

The Labour party wants to make sure that the opportunities which were previously available to only a few are available to all. After all, the proportion of people who passed the 11-plus depended on the local authority area in which they lived. The proportion might vary tremendously across the country. I was fortunate in being brought up in an area where about half the primary school pupils went on to grammar school. Frankly, the education provided in secondary moderns was nowhere near the same, and the amount of money spent on pupils in either sector was quite different as well.

We want to ensure that money spent on education enlarges the opportunities of 100 per cent. of children and not a mere I per cent. That is the difference between the two parties. From the Government, we have scheme after scheme to provide additional funding for small groups—1 per cent. here, 4 per cent. there and 2 per cent. somewhere else. All in all, the schemes encompass fewer than 10 per cent. of all pupils in secondary schools. We want to ensure that all children receive a good-quality education in their local school or, if parents' circumstances decree that they want to look at another school, that they should have that choice.

Let us make no bones about it: as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) pointed out, there has been a 40 per cent. increase in expenditure on the assisted places scheme in six years, with only a 6 per cent. increase in the number of pupils participating.

One cannot make similar comparisons from the latest Department for Education expenditure plan report. On the figures with which one can make a comparison, however, between 1988–89 and 1992–93 there was a 6 per cent. increase in participation in the assisted places scheme, but its costs increased by about 80 per cent. For voluntary schools in the same period, expenditure increased by 16 per cent and local education authority expenditure on secondary schools increased by 28 per cent. I admit that I have worked that out without a calculator and in rather a hurry. If I were given different figures—

Mr. Don Foster

I gave the calculations.

Mr. Griffiths

Yes, I must not forget the contribution of the hon. Member for Bath. We have clearly shown that expenditure on the assisted places scheme goes far beyond that on other sectors of state education.

Once again, we oppose the uprating as a point of principle. We should be giving opportunities not to the few, but to everyone.

9.52 pm
Mr. Forth

You would not want me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to be tempted into a debate on the broad principles of the assisted places scheme. This is neither the time nor the occasion to do so. However much I enjoyed my hon. Friends' contributions, especially that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who dwelt on the theme of diversity of education and reminded the House of the extent to which Conservative Members want to give increasing choice to parents—covering grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, technical colleges, grammar schools, voluntary-controlled schools and the independent sector—I am sure that you would not want me to dwell on any of that. Nor would you want me to point out that virtually all those schools are under direct threat from the Opposition parties. It would be wrong for me to take up the time of the House in that way.

Equally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would probably look askance if I dwelt excessively on the theme of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). He pointed out so ably the opportunities that the scheme gives the less privileged, partly as a direct contrast to the perceptions of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who was obsessed by manual workers. That seems a quaint way of looking at the subject, but it is his way and I respect him for that, of course.

I would not necessarily even want to dwell on the value-for-money argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) outlined. He pointed out, rather succinctly, that it costs much more to educate a pupil in Tower Hamlets than to educate a pupil through the assisted places scheme. None of that is directly relevant to the debate, and I am sure that my hon. Friends would not want me to waste their time by going through those points at length.

What is relevant to the debate is that we are talking about £100 million. Yes, it is a lot of money, but it has to be put in context, as it is £100 million out of a total of £17 billion spent on education. We are introducing a very modest increase, which is tied to the retail price index, as is right at this stage. It allows us to balance the real benefits brought to many pupils and parents, by giving them access to an area of education to which they would not otherwise have access. We have proposed a modest increase to allow that to continue, which will be of great value not only to parents and pupils, but to society because it will provide diversity in education, in which Conservative Members passionately believe.

It is right to say that we should consider outputs and not inputs. That is the theme for the Department for Education and the Secretary of State for Education, and in the maintained sector and beyond. We must ask ourselves how much young people benefit from the assisted places scheme and we are doing so.

Mr. Jamieson

Before the Minister concludes his speech, will he deal with the points that I made to him? If independent schools are so good, what have they to fear from having a four-year Ofsted report that will be made public to parents in particular?

Mr. Forth

At the risk of incurring your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall say that independent schools have nothing to fear from that. These are matters for Ofsted, an independent department of Government. I am sure that Ofsted will want to move in the direction that the hon. Gentleman suggests. It has nothing to fear and nor have we. In the first place, he should take the matter up directly with Ofsted. We can return to the issues as appropriate, but not in this debate.

Dr. Spink

Bearing in mind the fact that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) took advantage of the independent sector, does not my hon. Friend believe that it is singularly hypocritical of the Opposition to oppose the uprating? Such opposition could deny able children of poor families the opportunity to take advantage of the independent sector.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is right. I hope that before deciding how to vote on this matter hon. Members on both sides of the House will give serious thought to what would happen if we were to deny parents and pupils the modest uprating. They should think of the children who would be denied access to the excellence of the independent sector. That is what is at stake; that is the issue. I hope that hon. Members will whole-heartedly support the regulations.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 191, Noes 160.

Division No. 299] [9.57 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Alton, David Fabricant, Michael
Amess, David Fenner, Dame Peggy
Arbuthnot, James Fishburn, Dudley
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Forman, Nigel
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Ashby, David Forth, Eric
Aspinwall, Jack Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Atkins, Robert Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) French, Douglas
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Fry, Sir Peter
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Gallie, Phil
Beggs, Roy Gardiner, Sir George
Bellingham, Henry Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Beresford, Sir Paul Gillan, Cheryl
Booth, Hartley Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Bowis, John Gorst, Sir John
Brandreth, Gyles Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Brazier, Julian Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Bright, Graham Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Browning, Mrs. Angela Hague, William
Burt, Alistair Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Butcher, John Hampson, Dr Keith
Butterfill, John Hanley, Jeremy
Carrington, Matthew Hargreaves, Andrew
Carttiss, Michael Harris, David
Cash, William Haselhurst, Alan
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hawkins, Nick
Clappison, James Hawksley, Warren
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Hayes, Jerry
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Heald, Oliver
Coe, Sebastian Hendry, Charles
Conway, Derek Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Horam, John
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Couchman, James Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Cran, James Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Hunter, Andrew
Davis, David (Boothferry) Jack, Michael
Day, Stephen Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Jenkin, Bernard
Devlin, Tim Jessel, Toby
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Dover, Den Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Duncan, Alan Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Duncan-Smith, Iain Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dunn, Bob Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Durant, Sir Anthony Kiifedder, Sir James
Dykes, Hugh King, Rt Hon Tom
Eggar, Tim Knapman, Roger
Elletson, Harold Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Knight, Dame Jill (Bifm E'st'n)
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Legg, Barry Shaw, David (Dover)
Leigh, Edward Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lidington, David Skeet, Sir Trevor
Lightbown, David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lord, Michael Spencer, Sir Derek
Luff, Peter Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lynne, Ms Liz Spink, Dr Robert
MacKay, Andrew Sproat, Iain
Maclean, David Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
McLoughlin, Patrick Steen, Anthony
Malone, Gerald Stephen, Michael
Mans, Keith Stern, Michael
Marlow, Tony Stewart, Allan
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Sweeney, Walter
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Sykes, John
Merchant, Piers Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Moate, Sir Roger Temple-Morris, Peter
Monro, Sir Hector Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Moss, Malcolm Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Nelson, Anthony Thurnham, Peter
Neubert, Sir Michael Tredinnick, David
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Twinn, Dr Ian
Nicholls, Patrick Walden, George
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Ward, John
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Oppenheim, Phillip Waterson, Nigel
Page, Richard Watts, John
Paice, James Wells, Bowen
Patnick, Irvine Whitney, Ray
Pawsey, James Whittingdale, John
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Widdecombe, Ann
Porter, David (Waveney) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Redwood, Rt Hon John Wilshire, David
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Wood, Timothy
Richards, Rod
Riddick, Graham Tellers for the Ayes:
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Mr. Sidney Chapman and Mr. Timothy Kirkhope.
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Adams, Mrs Irene Dafis, Cynog
Allen, Graham Dalyell, Tam
Ashton, Joe Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Barnes, Harry Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Battle, John Dewar, Donald
Bayley, Hugh Dixon, Don
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Dobson, Frank
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Dowd, Jim
Bell, Stuart Eagle, Ms Angela
Benton, Joe Eastham, Ken
Bermingham, Gerald Enright, Derek
Berry, Roger Etherington, Bill
Boyes, Roland Evans, John (St Helens N)
Byers, Stephen Flynn, Paul
Caborn, Richard Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Callaghan, Jim Foster, Don (Bath)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Foulkes, George
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Galloway, George
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Gapes, Mike
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Gerrard, Neil
Chidgey, David Godman, Dr Norman A.
Chisholm, Malcolm Golding, Mrs Llin
Clapham, Michael Gordon, Mildred
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Grocott, Bruce
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Gunnell, John
Corbett, Robin Hall, Mike
Corbyn, Jeremy Hanson, David
Corston, Ms Jean Hardy, Peter
Cousins, Jim Harman, Ms Harriet
Cummings, John Henderson, Doug
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Hoon, Geoffrey Mullin, Chris
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Hoyle, Doug O'Hara, Edward
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) O'Neill, Martin
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Hutton, John Pike, Peter L.
Ingram, Adam Pope, Greg
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Jamieson, David Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Prescott, John
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Purchase, Ken
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Quin, Ms Joyce
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Rendel, David
Jowell, Tessa Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Keen, Alan Roche, Mrs. Barbara
Khabra, Piara S. Rooker, Jeff
Kilfoyle, Peter Ruddock, Joan
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Simpson, Alan
Lewis, Terry Skinner, Dennis
Livingstone, Ken Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Llwyd, Elfyn Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Loyden, Eddie Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
McAllion, John Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
McAvoy, Thomas Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
McCartney, Ian Stevenson, George
Macdonald, Calum Strang, Dr. Gavin
McFall, John Sutcliffe, Gerry
McKelvey, William Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mackinlay, Andrew Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
McMaster, Gordon Timms, Stephen
McNamara, Kevin Turner, Dennis
McWilliam, John Tyler, Paul
Madden, Max Wallace, James
Maddock, Mrs Diana Walley, Joan
Mahon, Alice Warden, Gareth (Gower)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn) Wareing, Robert N
Maxton, John Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Michael, Alun Winnick, David
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Wise, Audrey
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute) Worthington, Tony
Milburn, Alan Wray, Jimmy
Miller, Andrew Wright, Dr Tony
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Morgan, Rhodri
Morley, Elliot Tellers for the Noes:
Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe) Mr. John Spelter and Mr. Eric Illsley.
Mowlam, Marjorie

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 7th July, be approved.