HC Deb 26 April 1995 vol 258 cc811-8

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Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

My purpose in this debate is to bring to the Floor of the House a matter of great importance, yet one which both Government and Opposition spokesmen seem strangely reluctant to tackle. I refer to the willingness of a number of private schools to consider moving into the state sector of education.

The news that Manchester grammar school and other prestigious schools formerly in the state sector might be interested in returning to it was met with uncomfortable silence by spokesmen on both Front Benches. It will be a sad day for the Commons if new thinking on how to overcome the damaging gulf between private and state education, for which there would be wide support in the country, found no echo in the House.

The subject of independent versus state education is encrusted with myths. The central myth, subscribed to by all parties, is that it is possible to develop a high-quality system of state education in a country where the richest, most successful and most influential people have nothing to do with it. I refer, of course, to the 7 per cent. of parents who exercise their absolute right to send their children to private schools. I am not sure how far Front Benchers believe this myth in their hearts, and how far they find it necessary to subscribe to it out of custom and expediency.

In the world as it is developing, I see no future to speak of for this country unless it learns to live not off its past but quite literally off its wits. That means high levels of education for all. Yet, if the apex of an entire society shuns the state system like the plague, how will it ever be possible to attain high standards there? Other European countries have private sectors of education, but Britain is unique in one crucial respect: the best schools are in the independent sector, and they remain overwhelmingly the preserve of the socially privileged and the well-to-do.

That statement will cause irritation on both sides of the House. Some truths about Britain are so painful that mere mention of them arouses indignation on the left and on the right. The fact that, if people want good schooling for their children, they will be well advised to buy it is one such truth.

The left would object that there are good schools in the state sector. Provide them with sufficient resources, the argument goes, and they will give the private schools a run for their money. Obviously there are some good schools in the state sector, notably in well-to-do areas, yet to claim that the state system as a whole, properly financed, could challenge the private system on quality is self-delusion.

The reason lies in the misconceived philosophy of egalitarianism which, despite the Government's welcome attempts at reform, holds much of the state sector in its deadening grip. If our fundamental approach to education is flawed, we can have the best paid teachers in the world, wall-to-wall facilities and one-to-one teaching—and still produce mediocrity. Until the left faces up to that fact, its education policies will remain mired in dogma and social sentimentalism. My advice to the left is to go back to its pre-egalitarian roots, to the high ideals of the Workers Education Association in the 19th century, and to the thinking of Tawney, a stalwart opponent of levelling down.

We must get away from the old debate. I am not advocating a return to the grammar school/secondary modern system; I advocate a new system of differing schooling for children with differing gifts, in which the former direct grant schools would have their place in the education community. State education is in desperate need of peaks of excellence. If they existed, the private sector would get a run for its money indeed. If Labour is hag-ridden by the notion of selection by ability, how about access by aptitude? I am here to be helpful.

Conservatives have a more sensible education policy, but what is our position on private schooling? That it is an inalienable right I accept. Policies designed to damage it, whether by the imposition of VAT or by the discontinuation of charitable status, would be sterile exercises in class vengeance, that would do no one any good. But when Conservatives claim that private education is a matter of choice, they are producing the right's mirror image of the left's self-delusion about facilities and resources. Where is the choice for someone on £12,000 a year?

In our traditional debates on education, it is at this point that the assisted places scheme is brought up by our side. The truth is that many of the Opposition's objections to the APS are grounded in fact. It is enormously expensive. I know of no evidence to show that the money goes chiefly to those in need; and I could regale the House with shocking examples of taxpayers' money going to people in large houses who have fallen on a rough patch in their finances. There is evidence that some of the money goes to Lloyd's names. That is nice for the names, but is it really in the spirit of the assisted places scheme?

Even for the bright working-class child, is it such cause for self-congratulation that we award scholarships to children to rescue them from the state sector? I can see why the independent schools like the scheme. I can see how it can help this or that child as a sort of emergency exit. I can see why it warms our social consciences to hand out scholarships. In Dickensian times such a policy would have looked enlightened. But shoring up our apartheid system of schooling by subsidising private establishments seems a poor philosophy of education at the end of the 20th century. It carries with it a suggestion of defeatism, an implication that state schools can never hope to do well by poor, able pupils, so the latter had better get out. How much better to have the best available to all.

Voucher schemes are another form of evading the issue. The theoretical advantages are attractive, but in the Britain we know, the practical effects would be catastrophic. All that would happen is that the 7 per cent.—the escapees from the state sector—would swell to some 20 per cent., as those who could afford it topped up their vouchers and swam headlong for the other shore. The result would be that even more of the socially and financially advantaged would have even less of an interest in where the nation was going, in education terms, than before.

What is our aim? Do we want to end up like America, where the gulf between public and private widens by the year, where people with money convey their children to private schools in self-locking cars, then retreat behind the security gates protecting their homes to shield themselves from the social consequences of a sub-educated nation? Or do we want to aspire to the best continental models, where the good schools are state schools, open to all on the basis of talent, aptitude, hard work and intelligence?

In Britain, the best private schools have demanding teachers, small classes, adequate facilities and traditions of excellence, and have remained largely, although not entirely, immune from the experiments that have proved the curse of the state sector. Nothing should be done to damage them, but everything should be done to open them up to the country and to spread the habit of competition for excellence throughout the system. In modern Conservative thinking, it is called the internal market.

This cannot be done by coercion, and to describe what I propose as nationalisation is evidence of old thinking. If it is done, it must be done voluntarily. A few years ago, the idea of first-rate private schools opting into the state sector would have seemed a pious hope. What has happened recently has changed all that. It is not just Manchester grammar—alma mater, as it happens, of the new deputy Governor of the Bank of England, the illustrious Mr. Howard Davies, who said recently on the radio that his parents would not have been able to afford to send him there nowadays.

I have in my possession about 70 letters from the heads of the 120 former direct grant schools, written sometimes in a personal capacity, and indicating sympathy for my proposals. I expect more such letters. This is not a drop in the ocean. I am talking of the potential for 100,000 places.

Naturally, such schools are wary. They have had bad experiences at the hands of politicians in the past. They treasure their independence, and would consider a move only if they were allowed to enrol pupils by examination. Yet what strikes me most of all is that they are thinking in terms that have left the House of Commons unable to respond. Which of us is out of touch: the schools or the Commons?

What would be the reaction of the man in the street to the news that the most prestigious school in his area, closed to him for decades, was to be reopened to him free of charge? Undiluted approval. What is the Conservative response to the prospect? A strange reticence. It puzzles me why a party that has spent so much time denouncing the left for driving direct grant schools into the private sector evinces so little enthusiasm when those schools show signs of wanting to come back into the public sector.

Why is there such hesitation? Malicious critics may wonder whether our hearts are in state education or in the preservation of privilege. I understand the money problem. Reabsorbing such schools would be expensive, but the cost of our present system of educational apartheid, in terms of under-achievement and unemployability, is incalculable.

Moreover, as Manchester has shown, there is no reason why well-off parents who continue to qualify for entrance should not continue to pay a measure of fees. It would also be possible to redeploy some or all of the assisted places scheme money to help open such schools to able children—not as isolated acts of charity, but as of right.

Let us imagine for a moment that we showed enough imagination and resourcefulness to do that. Would Labour object on doctrinal grounds of opposition to selection? If it did, the Prime Minister could have a high old time at the Dispatch Box. He could ask whether Labour would prefer a continuation of selection by money. Would it prefer to keep some of the best schools in the country closed to many people who cannot afford them? Is Labour's to be a dog-in-the-manger policy? Is it prepared to tolerate high academic standards in the private sector, providing that they are not available to ordinary folk?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education meeting me to discuss the subject. Before she did so, I was invited to meet the Leader of the Opposition, to whom I am also grateful. My aim is to open up a more constructive inter-party debate, of the kind that is beginning to take shape on grant-maintained schools. Former direct grant schools are hardly likely to take the plunge and leave the independent sector if Labour, in power, were to force them back.

I am aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is somewhat preoccupied at the moment. The finances of our schools are a pressing priority, but, in the last resort, it is the ghost in the machine that determines educational standards. There are signs that the Opposition are edging up, slowly and crabwise, to the problem of quality. Whatever else he might be, the Leader of the Opposition does not give me the impression of being an unthinking educational dogmatist. Who knows where he might eventually go? It would be a sad day for the Conservatives if, like some exhausted marathon runner, we were seen to pass the baton of educational innovation to the left.

1.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire)

I shall begin by saying how much I welcome the opportunity to have a wide-ranging debate on education in the state and independent sectors generally, and on former direct grant schools in particular. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) implied in his closing remarks, it makes something of a change from what might be termed the subject of many recent education debates.

I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend. As well as being a former Education Minister, he has the skills to write a regular and good newspaper column, and it would be easy for me to be jealous or envious, such are his skills. The House is grateful for the time that he has already put into this subject, which has attracted a great deal of publicity. In the light of what he said, I shall make one or two comments, but I begin with one or two queries.

The first query relates to the way in which my hon, Friend described the 7 per cent. of people who choose to use private schools. I do not have any scientific breakdown of the numbers involved, but my clear impression is that a considerable number of parents who use private schools can by no means be described as the richest, most successful and most influential people. None the less, they choose to forgo holidays and new cars in order to avail themselves of private education for their children.

Of course, that figure includes those who avail themselves of the assisted places scheme without attracting the full rebate, but also a number who somehow find the full fees without remotely being capable of being regarded as that "apex of society" to which my hon. Friend referred.

I understand from ISIS—the Independent Schools Information Service—that an estimated 54 per cent. of parents with children at private schools did not themselves receive such an education. I think we can agree that that is scarcely proof that there is some permanent ruling caste or clique that enjoys that status. I have here the latest income breakdown figures for those who use the assisted places scheme. They reveal that some 92 per cent. are earning less than £20,000, which is not a great sum in today's climate.

We should not forget that schools such as Manchester grammar school and Dulwich college could easily fill all their places without recourse to the assisted places scheme, but their commitment to the scheme is important, because it enables them to give as wide a social mix as possible—something in which they have always believed and with which my hon. Friend identified strongly.

One point that came through clearly during my hon. Friend's speech was the excellence of former direct grant schools. They are not only popular with parents and pupils—if schools could ever be deemed to be popular with pupils—but appear to be especially popular with many shades of politicians. As the House will recognise, that is quite an achievement. However, such schools are deservedly popular. They have an exceptional academic record, but their contribution to the children in their care goes far beyond academic results. They also have an excellent record in meeting the needs of their pupils, guiding them towards their ambitions and instilling a sense of pride in their achievements. Many are in inner-city areas and no strangers to deprivation. They have provided ladders of opportunity for many able children. Moreover, they have done so for many years.

Until the Education Act 1944, secondary education was provided only for a minority. Schools were conducted by voluntary bodies or local authorities, which received appropriate grant from central Government, but fees could also be charged. In 1944, fees were abolished in secondary schools maintained by local authorities. Schools run by voluntary bodies and receiving grant from local authorities therefore became voluntary-aided or voluntary-controlled.

More than 230 schools receiving direct grant—or DG—at that time had the option to retain DG status on new terms, becoming voluntary-aided or voluntary-controlled, or becoming independent. The new terms of the Education Act 1944 stipulated that, in DG grammar schools, 25 per cent. of places should be free and filled by pupils educated for at least two years at a maintained or grant-aided primary school, a further 25 per cent. of places or more could be reserved by the local education authority, and fees for remaining day places should be remitted according to sliding income scales. Assistance with capital costs was also available.

When, in 1975, the then Labour Government made clear their intention to end all forms of selection in secondary schools, there were 167 DG grammar schools, catering for some 104,000 pupils. Legislation followed, and, under the Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations 1975, 42 DG grammar schools became maintained—in other words, they moved completely into the public sector—five closed, and 120 became registered independent schools.

When the assisted places scheme was established under the Government in 1981, it was expected that the former direct grant grammar schools that had become independent would wish to join the scheme. The scheme would enable them to remain true to their overriding ethos of maintaining as wide a social mix as possible. All but one of the 120 schools applied, and were subsequently admitted to the scheme. Although they represent only 40 per cent. of the schools in the scheme, they presently cater for about 65 per cent. of the pupils.

There are now 294 schools in England in the scheme, offering more than 34,000 assisted places altogether. It is reaching those we intended to help. Nearly 70 per cent. of the pupils have come from maintained primary schools; well over a third qualify for a totally free place; and, as I said earlier, 80 per cent. have family incomes below the national average. Assisted place pupils achieve pass rates that average more than 90 per cent. at GCSE and A-level—better than their peers in independent or maintained schools—and 90 per cent. go on into higher education. It is scarcely surprising, then, that there is a full take-up of available places on entry.

The scheme is an outstanding success. Standards in schools that participate in it are among the highest in the country. The Government want to see the benefits offered by good independent schools enjoyed more widely. The scheme is reaching those we intended to help, and gives a real and meaningful choice to those who would never otherwise be able to consider an independent education. It gives excellent results, and we intend that it should stay. We believe that it is vital to make independent education available for able pupils from less well-off families.

Our records show that the number of pupils at those schools has remained fairly constant over the 20 years since DG was abolished. Indeed, the 120 schools show a slight increase in numbers over the past four to five years, with more than 98,000 pupils now on their rolls.

I am sure that my hon. Friend believes, as I do, that former DG grammar schools should continue to be able to offer the excellent education they do, and be true to their original ethos of having as wide a social mix as possible. Where we perhaps differ is how that objective should be achieved.

We need to be aware of the scale of the costs involved should the former DG schools come into the maintained sector. I shall take as an example Manchester grammar school, to which my hon. Friend referred. The school has at present approximately 1,430 pupils on roll, and fees are about £4,000. Some 260 pupils at the school are assisted place pupils, and the average cost to the Department of those pupils in the academic year 1993–94 was about £3,100. The total sum paid to Manchester grammar school by way of fee remission for its assisted pupils last year was therefore about £820,000.

There are many ways in which one could cost out a possible re-entry of Manchester grammar school to the maintained sector, but, for the purpose of illustration, let us assume that we were to fund all pupils on the same basis as they are at present funded by the APS—the scheme does, after all, contain an element of "topping up" of fees by parents, which is quite appropriate for what we are discussing today.

In all, the cost would be about £3.5 million to £4 million. That is, of course, based on the current level of funding at the school, but at first sight it would be unrealistic to assume that the funding for former DG grammar schools could be significantly higher than it is for other maintained schools, should they re-enter the maintained sector.

We have been debating whether the former DG grammar schools should or could re-enter that sector, but, of course, there is already in place a specific mechanism for independent schools to do so, and I make just passing reference to that.

In our most recent piece of legislation, we provided the opportunity for independent schools in general to become grant-maintained. Since 1944, independent schools have been able to look to the voluntary-aided route into the maintained sector. The extension of opportunities to provide for the GM route fills a gap. That route is open to all types of school, including those that select by ability.

Naturally, we need to know the extent to which additional places are needed in the area, but a key factor is also the contribution that such schools could make to enhancing the choice, diversity and quality of provision in the area—and therefore contribute to our policy aims of raising standards and increasing opportunity.

Mr. Walden

The tendency of my hon. Friend's argument worries me slightly, because it seems to be pointing in the direction of inaction. By arguing that it would cost money to bring in former DG schools, and then saying, as I believe he did, that he could not envisage a situation in which some schools in the state sector would be financed better than others, and going on to point out that of course there are grant-maintained schools, and that technically it is possible for a private school to come over now, he is, in real life, shutting the door to any significant movement across the frontier between state and private.

As I know from my inquiries of the Department, schools of the calibre of Manchester grammar or the other former DG schools are not coming across into the state sector and never will if they have to cut their costs to state costs and abandon their selective entry. I am afraid that my hon. Friend's argument is tending towards a policy of passivity on what I regard as the fundamental problem of the British educational system—our two-nation approach.

Mr. Squire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for further clarifying and underlining his view in that respect. I hope that I am not—and will not be, particularly when I finish my speech—open to the charge of passivity, which he alleges. There is still an extra dimension, to which I shall return in the remaining few minutes, which will make reference to the only other aspect that could meet my hon. Friend's desires.

My hon. Friend made reference to the attitude of the Opposition. I simply observe in passing that the Opposition claim to be meritocratic, but are opposed to selection on merit. They are opposed to the assisted places scheme, and have not withdrawn their commitment to phase it out. They also appear to have set their minds against charging parents for any curriculum activity. Those three points lead me to conclude—cautiously, I stress—that the former DG schools can in practice expect little solace from the Opposition when they discuss how their future may be secured.

Let me go to the heart of the matter in the remaining minutes at my disposal. The proposals by Manchester grammar school, which started this debate, indicate an entirely understandable desire to ensure and guarantee the funding of the former DG schools, and to maintain their social mix. But we should be clear why they are entering the debate at all. Clearly, they are responding to the energetic endeavours of my hon. Friend, but they are also entering the debate—as I know my hon. Friend would concede—because of the Opposition's hostility to the assisted places scheme. If it were not for the commitment of the Labour party to phase out that scheme, DG schools would not be forced to consider how they might be able offer places in their schools to the very children whom the scheme now funds.

When looking at the alternatives, it must be understood that the level of funding, with which my hon. Friend and I are in total agreement, from those schools' fees gives them a significantly higher level of funding than they could expect from state funding, whether they were grant-maintained or voluntary-aided. Increased public expenditure of that order would be difficult to justify, and the reality would certainly be increased costs. We are all agreed on the excellence of the schools that we are debating, but it is by no means unusual for their fees to be about £5,000 or £6,000.

Of course we must seriously consider the future of the schools, and I underline to my hon. Friend that we shall continue to listen to their concerns and the concerns that he has expressed today. But I am not convinced at the moment that we should necessarily turn the clock back some 50-odd years and contemplate charging for state-funded education for the compulsory years by some top-up mechanism for those parents who can afford it. I know that my hon. Friend recognises that that is the other way in which, without extra funding from the Government, the circle could be squared on the funding aspect.

The best answer that we have is a system which gives the choice of independent education for as many as possible regardless of income, and, in so doing, to target the finite resources that we have as effectively as possible. We already have such a solution, which I believe is an excellent solution, in the assisted places scheme, which is a meaningful plank in our overall Government policy of choice and diversity.

I willingly undertake today—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We must move on to the next topic.