HC Deb 17 April 1996 vol 275 cc650-66

11 am

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am pleased to have secured this debate and that you should be chairing it, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I know of your personal interest in the welfare of service families. This is an opportunity to discuss several important matters—in particular, service children's education. I have raised some of the matters which I intend to raise today in previous Navy debates. I have done so because they are important to Devonport, where many service families live.

Previous defence debates have properly centred on issues of hardware, equipment, security and jobs. Unfortunately, at the end of our last Navy debate, because so many matters of such great importance were raised and due to the exigencies of time, the Minister had to gloss over his response to my remarks about the welfare of service families. Today is an excellent opportunity for him to give a fuller response. I know that, with his usual good humour and his expert knowledge, he will be very much welcomed in the debate today.

The care of service families and, in particular, their children is essential to front-line efficiency and effectiveness. It is essential for service parents, in order to have peace of mind, to know that their children are in good hands. Service families are in a special position. Not only do service men and women risk their life in the service of their country but they often sacrifice personal freedoms that are enjoyed by civilians. Service families may be required to move frequently and their family life and children's education may be disrupted.

Some children go with their parents on postings abroad. The Service Children's Education Authority runs excellent comprehensive schools in mainland Europe which are attended by service children. I am told that the standard of those schools compares with that of the very best schools in Britain. I warmly congratulate the authority on its work in operating the schools and I congratulate the teachers and the other people who run them.

However, some families choose to have their children stay in Britain and take advantage of the boarding school education that is available here. I am aware that the Bett report will review that entitlement and, in particular, whether families located in one place and unlikely to move ought to continue to receive the allowance. I believe that that review should proceed in the fullness of time.

The Ministry of Defence provides the boarding school allowance to meet the fees of children who attend boarding schools in Britain. Service parents have to pay at least 10 per cent. of the cost of sending their child to the boarding school. The scheme is overseen by the Service Children's Education Authority, which gives advice to parents on boarding education and produces the admissible schools list. Last year, there were 815 schools on that list, of which 663 had pupils from the BSA scheme.

In 1994–95, a total of 11,363 service children benefited from the scheme, at a considerable cost to the taxpayer. The cost for that year was £107 million. That is almost twice the funding that one would expect to be provided for day places in local education authority schools. The cost of a day place in an independent school is £3,500 to £4,000 per annum. An LEA school receives between £2,000 and £2,500 a year. The boarding part of the fee usually doubles the cost of the child's education. So the lowest cost for a child to receive boarding education under the scheme is probably about £7,500 per year.

In today's debate I wish to concentrate minds on the operation of the boarding school allowance, especially on the role of the Service Children's Education Authority. I shall show that deregulation is causing potential risk to the learning and general welfare of children. I support the BSA scheme. The debate is not about whether the scheme should exist; it is needed to provide continuity of education for service children when their parents are expected to move around the country or the world. However, the scheme in its present form tends to favour the higher ranks. Anyone can see that 10 per cent. of the fee is a greater proportion of a sergeant's pay than of a major's pay.

More could be made of the local education authority boarding schools. The Service Children's Education Authority recognises that they are as good as or, in some cases, better than other schools. In its advice to parents, it says of the LEA boarding schools: these schools are often able to provide better facilities and a wider curriculum than many independent schools.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The hon. Gentleman says that the scheme favours higher ranks. If he looks at it differently, he will note that it favours people who tend to be over 40 who have children of school age. Most of the more junior ranks will leave the services earlier. The hon. Gentleman will discover that most people serve approximately five or seven years in the armed forces and leave before they are even 30. A full career for a non-commissioned officer takes him to the age of 40 and officers go on further than that. That is a pertinent reason why the scheme favours higher ranks.

Mr. Jamieson

I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument. I do not want to go into the matter for too long, but if one takes two people in exactly the same circumstances serving for the same period, the person of a junior rank is at a disadvantage under the scheme compared with the person of a senior rank on higher pay. Obviously, the pay of a sergeant who may have children in school is less than a major's pay and 10 per cent. of the fee is a considerably greater proportion of his pay. That is the point that I am making, but I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says: people who serve longer in the services will benefit more from the scheme.

Many local education authority boarding schools are better than and all of them are cheaper than the independent schools. I wish to know from the Minister why they are not included on the admissible schools list. Why do parents have to send for a separate list of the LEA boarding schools? Why are they not put on the list so that parents can see them? Why are some schools on the list in the first place? Why are they not excluded? The Service Children's Education Authority gave the following advice to parents in relation to all-age integrated independent schools: Nevertheless, there are some, and especially some of the least expensive, that may be said to fall short of really satisfactory provision. Parents must take care and seek good advice.

The advice continues: You will be particularly wise to take advice when considering schools in this area of the market.

The Service Children's Education Authority is putting a health warning on some of the schools that it has on its list. I ask the Minister: why are the schools on the list if the SCEA feels the obligation to give a health warning about their quality? Why are the boarding schools in the LEA system not on the list when the SCEA says that many of them provide a much better education at a lower cost? Today's debate is not about the principle of the scheme—which I support—but about its operation and the quality of advice to parents. Today's debate is not about the principle of private education—it is not an attack on private or independent schools.

I recognise that many independent schools are excellent and that the majority are at least satisfactory, if not good. One could argue that they should be giving a good education because, in most cases, they are funded at a much higher level than local education authority schools. However, I am concerned about those schools that are falling below the standard that they should achieve. Evelyn Waugh described independent schools with acerbic accuracy in "Decline and Fall" when he said: We class schools into four grades: Leading School, First-Rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly, School is pretty bad.

The SCEA should closely examine some of the schools that Evelyn Waugh would class as "school". What are the issues for the schools in the boarding school allowance scheme? First, what checks are made on academic standards in the schools? Secondly, is the taxpayer getting full value for money from the £107 million spent in the schools? Thirdly, is there a threat to the value and existence of the reports on boarding schools from social services departments? Finally, does the Service Children's Education Authority need to revise its role, its practices and its advice to parents?

I refer to academic achievement. For many decades, Her Majesty's inspectors of schools have had the role of inspecting the quality of schools. Since 1993, the Office for Standards in Education has taken over that role. Among other things, it looks at the quality of teaching, academic standards achieved and the value for money that the school gives. When Ofsted was set up, it was the intention that local education authority schools would be inspected every four years and that independent schools would be inspected every seven years.

I shall contrast what happens with an inspection in a local education authority school with an inspection in an independent school. If an LEA school has an inspection, there has to be a pre-meeting with the head, the governors and the parents. When the inspection is completed, a summary of the report has to be sent to all parents in the school. The parents are also informed where they can get hold of the full report on the school should they wish to see it, which is usually within the school and provided free of charge. The report is also made public. Therefore, it is available for the wider community to look at and, if necessary, for comment in the press. I have no objection to that procedure.

When deficiencies are found in the school, an action plan has to be drawn up, where appropriate, which is overseen by the LEA and the inspectors may have a role in coming back at some future time. In extreme cases, where a school is deemed to be failing or to be substantially substandard, an education association can be sent into the school and it can be made grant maintained or, in extreme circumstances, it can close. As hon. Members know, that has already happened to the Hackney Downs school in London.

I contrast that approach with that of the independent schools. There is a dwindling number of reports on the independent schools. In the past two weeks, I have received a letter from the chief executive of Ofsted. He said that in 1993–94, there were 19 inspections of independent schools; in 1994–95, there were 13; in 1995–96, there were just nine; and in 1996–97, up to three schools will be inspected in the independent sector—none, one, two or three schools may be inspected. I have concluded that Ofsted is going to cease inspecting independent schools.

I have seen some of the inspections that have been made on independent schools and they show the same wide spectrum of achievement that one sees in local education authority schools and in grant-maintained schools. Some of the reports on the schools are excellent, most are good or satisfactory, but some are poor. If they were LEA schools, they would be deemed to be failing schools. Such a school has no obligation to show the report to parents. On 17 February 1994, I received a letter from the then Under-Secretary of State for Schools who referred to Ofsted reports on independent schools as follows: Any such school which is the subject of a published report is supplied with copies of it which it can distribute as it sees fit.

He then said: The onus is on the school to distribute the report to interested parties or to advise them where the reports can be obtained. Many of the smaller independent schools, private schools, have no governors—there is just a proprietor and a head, and in some cases the proprietor is the head. I refer to meetings to discuss what is in the report and to what Ofsted said in its document "Inspecting Independent Schools": It is for the proprietor and/or governors to decide who else shall attend the meeting. The inspectors are not obligated to call parents or anyone else into the meetings to discuss the report, other than the proprietor—who can choose who he informs.

Last year, Finborough school in Suffolk had 123 pupils from the boarding school allowance scheme. The head of the school wrote to the parents in 1994 regarding an Ofsted inspection that he had had the previous year. He wrote to parents—one of whom is my constituent—as follows: We have not obtained copies of the Report for parents because",

and he then listed a number of reasons, one of which was: we were extremely unhappy about the way it was carried out and what we believe are serious statistical misrepresentations of the evidence of teaching standards. He rejected the report because it was critical of his school, of which he is the principal and proprietor, and from which—I dare say—he receives profits. If he had been a local education authority head teacher, he would have been committing an offence by not providing the report to parents.

The message is very simple: if an independent school has had an Ofsted report and it does not like it, it can commit the report to a dusty shelf or to the bin. I am pleased that, in the case of Finborough school and one other school, as a result of pressure from me and my writing to the Minister, the report was sent by the Service Children's Education Authority to service families of children at the schools who were receiving funds through the boarding school allowance scheme.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that head teachers in the local education authority sector write to parents rejecting the result of Ofsted inspections. That happened in my constituency recently. What he describes is not by any means restricted to independent schools.

Mr. Jamieson

Head teachers or governors can write to parents disagreeing with reports; it is their right to do so. I do not say that the head teacher did not have the right to put his view, but it is not right that the head teacher of an independent school can block parents from seeing a report or even knowing of its existence, as in this case. At an LEA school, the head teachers and governors are obliged by law to give all parents a summary of the report and make sure that the full report is available in the school. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, on reflection, would agree that, if that is right for LEA schools, it must be right for independent schools, and especially for those schools that receive substantial sums of taxpayers' money—£107 million altogether—through the scheme.

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman described a head teacher who wrote to parents to tell them that there had been an Ofsted report. It is possible for parents to write to Ofsted, as I did in my constituency, to get a copy. They were made aware that there had been an Ofsted inspection and could have got the report themselves.

Mr. Jamieson

I do not want to get too engaged by this, but a local education school has an obligation under the law to provide a summary, and to provide the full report in the school, to the parents. Many parents, including my constituent, did not know of the existence of the report or inspection until I pointed out that the inspection had taken place. Eventually, under pressure, the Service Children's Education Authority sent my constituent a copy of the report. When he read it—and, by then, it was nearly a year out of date—he wished that he had taken his children out of the school earlier than he had. We need the same rules for both sorts of school. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that.

Ofsted is no longer able to safeguard academic standards, because no inspections will take place. It performs a short registration inspection every five years but says that three inspections at most will take place next year. On that basis, we have moved from one inspection every seven years to one every 700 years as there are now 2,294 independent schools. We need full inspections of independent schools, especially of those that benefit from substantial sums of taxpayers' money and reports, as with local education authority schools, should be sent to interested parents.

My second concern involves boarding and pastoral arrangements. That is especially important because children in boarding schools are, by definition, detached from their parents. Often, service children's parents are not even in the same country but are a long way away. We need police checks on the people employed in the schools and we must ensure that the conditions of the Children Act 1989 are properly discharged.

In the late 1980s, there was much justified concern about several schools. I shall briefly refer to some of those concerns. In May 1989, there was the case of Crookham Court school near Newbury. The then Member of Parliament demanded an inquiry but was told by the then Department of Education and Science that it was "powerless to act". The school was described as "dirty and depressing". It had safety hazards and unsatisfactory teaching standards, but there was much worse to come. The head teacher and a member of staff were convicted of serious sexual offences against boys at the school. Those boys were mainly from service families. The significance of that case is that the school was closed not by action taken by the Ministry of Defence but because of publicity given to the school by Esther Rantzen in her "That's Life" programme. It was closed not because of action taken by inspectors, Government Departments or the MOD but because the media took the matter up.

That was not an isolated instance. There was the case in 1982 of St. George's school at Great Finborough in Suffolk. The BBC's "Checkpoint" programme said: This remarkable establishment specialises in educating the children of servicemen, and by all accounts makes Dickens's Dotheboys Hall look like a holiday camp.

A former games master at the school was one of a number of ex-staff who told Checkpoint about repression, brutality and more … Ninety-five per cent of the 250-odd boarding pupils are children of servicemen". Very much worse was revealed by "Checkpoint" about serious abuse of children. Those facts were revealed not by the DES or the MOD but by the media. That school did not close; it carried on trading and I believe that it is still open under very different management and a different name.

My last example is the 1990 Her Majesty's inspectorate report on the Hilsea school in Basingstoke. The report was disastrous in every respect. It uncovered poor teaching, unsafe buildings and hopelessly out-of-date teaching methods and said that 92 per cent. of the children were from armed forces families. That school did not close in 1990; it carried on despite the report. It closed in 1992 only because of declining pupil numbers, yet it was supported almost solely by the taxpayer right to the very end. Had it been an LEA school, it would have been deemed to be failing and would probably have been closed.

For balance, there are some excellent schools. I have chosen an independent school that was established and run by the MOD—the Duke of York Royal Military school, Dover. The inspectors reported on it in February 1991 and said: This is a good school with high standards of work and behaviour, excellent care, sound teaching, generous resources, spacious premises and generally good accommodation. It is clear that the school achieves the aims as set out in its prospectus.

Oh that all the schools were as good as that one.

Partly as a response to concern about the inadequacy of certain schools, section 87 of the Children Act 1989 created a duty for the social services departments of local authorities to inspect the boarding and pastoral arrangements of such schools. I have seen some of those reports. They are very thorough and exacting. They check hygiene, dormitories and whether there are unnatural punishments or abuse. However, I well recall considering in the small hours of one morning a clause of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill which gave independent schools the right to choose their own inspectors and, if they wished, to dispense with local authority social services departments, which would probably know schools and their past records well. Most independent schools are continuing with local authority social service department reports, but is this not yet another opportunity for a bad school to opt out of inspection that may be critical?

Many independent schools belong to independent schools organisations and some internal reporting goes on between schools. Sometimes that leads to schools inspecting each other. Last year, CfBT produced a report called "Ofsted and Onward". CfBT is one of the leading private companies in the inspection field and has been much praised for its work. Mike Douse, one of its inspectors, talked of mutual inspection and said: To take one extreme and hopefully non-representative case, the Report on one non-government school … the only definite criticisms applying to the lack of facilities (including one major safety issue) and the need to 'strive for a more adventurous approach to work'.

That is what one school said about the other. He continued: But, in reality, this Independent institution is—if the term has meaning—a 'failing school'. Its fees are high and its pupils drawn from wealthy (albeit often broken) families, the sons and daughters of military officers, British expatriates, and successful businessmen.

This school must still be on the admissible schools list, yet he continues: Very many of its pupils fail to gain entry to the public schools of even their second—or third—choice; several teachers are incapable of keeping order, let alone organising and encouraging learning; bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour are rampant; and 'value for money' is a cheerless joke. If the SCEA can find out which school it is, it ought to review whether it should continue on the list, receiving substantial sums of taxpayers' money.

Can we also check on how the money is spent in independent schools and on the level of profit being made by the proprietor? I repeat that some are not charitable foundations. They have a sole proprietor and are run as a business and a limited company. For many of the independent schools on the boarding school allowance, a substantial part, if not most, of their funding comes from the taxpayer through the scheme. We might want to look through the company accounts to find out how money is being spent, but if a company's turnover is less than £2.8 million a year, there is no obligation to publish full accounts. The company can publish abbreviated accounts, which are totally unhelpful if one wants to find out how the money is spent.

In contrast, governors, head teachers, the local education authority and parents can all see the budgets of local education schools that are spending taxpayers' money and see how the money is spent. If a parent wants to see the budget and how money is being allocated, it can be done at any time through the head teacher or the governing body. Yet no one has the right or duty to check how taxpayers' money is being spent in independent schools.

Mr. Hawkins

Surely the hon. Gentleman must acknowledge that all the matters that he has discussed in connection with local education authorities, such as the rights of parents and of governors, are the results of our educational reforms of recent years—reforms that the Labour party opposed, tooth and nail, at every turn.

Mr. Jamieson

In that case, I would expect the hon. Gentleman to agree that those reforms ought also to extend to the independent schools that are receiving substantial sums of taxpayers' money. If he speaks later in the debate, I will be interested to hear him confirm that that is his view.

What is the role of the SCEA, which acts on behalf of the Ministry of Defence? It seems to do little more than administer the system and distribute the fund. It has no right of entry to independent schools and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces confirmed that in a written answer on 2 April, when he said: SCEA staff visit independent schools by invitation to assess pastoral care arrangements for service children; they have no statutory right of access. Visit reports are therefore written on the understanding that they remain for internal use only."—[Official Report, 2 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 103.] The SCEA does not have the right of access and parents do not have the right to see what reports are written.

To protect the academic and pastoral concerns of pupils action needs to be taken. The SCEA needs to be far more robust. If schools are to go on the admissible schools list and receive substantial amounts of public funds, the SCEA should draw up a contract for them and they should agree in it that its inspectors have the right to go into the school and look at the pastoral arrangements.

The SCEA must ensure that it sees a school's full audited accounts, so that it can find out how the money is being spent. If a school is not prepared to undergo such inspections, fair enough—it is a private company—but strike it off the list and deny it taxpayers' money. Also, the SCEA should make all information on an independent school available to parents and potential parents.

Schools that have a low academic performance or where there are other concerns should be taken off the admissible schools list. In a recent answer about the Quantock school in Somerset, the Minister said that his inspectors had visited the school and found it suitable to remain on the list. I must draw to his attention the fact that the Independent Schools Association Inc.—the trade organisation—has terminated the membership of that school. I am sure the SCEA and the Minister would want to look into that and find out why. It is extremely unusual for that to happen, and there must be good reasons.

Much more stringent checks must be made on the schools that go on the admissible schools list. Two years ago, the Minister with responsibility for schools told me in a letter: As far as participation in the Government's Assisted Places Scheme is concerned, all 295 schools have had to satisfy a very stringent criteria for admission and must be able to demonstrate the highest academic achievements. I want those criteria to be applied to schools on the admissible schools list. If they are right for assisted places schools, they must be right for the children of service families who attend independent schools.

The Minister should consider the matter carefully and advise the Department for Education and Employment that there is a need for full Ofsted inspections of all independent schools, particularly those in schemes in which they benefit from taxpayers' money and, most important, all those on the admissible schools list. That can be done readily and easily.

The Minister ought to instruct the SCEA to put those local education authority boarding schools on the admissible schools list, particularly when it admits that they are often much better than the independent schools that are on the list already.

I have raised some important matters today, with which the Minister will want to deal with his usual care. The welfare of children and the quality of their education are of paramount importance. Independent schools operate in a wholly deregulated environment. There is virtually no reporting by Ofsted. The SCEA has no statutory obligation to inspect. There are no accounts for public scrutiny, the reports of social services departments are deregulated and schools can choose their own inspectors.

We need to give parents the ability to distinguish between the majority of good independent schools and the minority of poor schools. As history has instructed us, a deregulated environment is one in which the unscrupulous can thrive, mediocrity can flourish and—in the extreme—paedophiles can go undetected.

11.38 am
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It will not have escaped your notice that there are six hon. Members in the Chamber, four of whom have no choice in the matter—I am here only because a meeting was postponed for half an hour—and that five civil servants are present and being prevented from doing whatever they normally do in the Ministry of Defence on Wednesday mornings. That should be brought to the notice of the Select Committee on Procedure because I am afraid that it is not unique. I am in no way criticising the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), who has brought up an important and worthy matter. Can I have your assurance, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it will be brought to the attention of that Committee? I hate to contemplate what on earth the general public who see our proceedings will think about it.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

The number of people in the Chamber and the use of people's time are not matters for me. If the hon. Member feels strongly about it, he should discuss it directly with the Procedure Committee, but I remind him that there were lengthy debates before we embarked on this arrangement for Wednesday mornings.

11.39 am
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

I very much take the point made by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) about the number of hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate, but I do not think that that number reflects the debate's importance, which is very great, as the hon. Gentleman said. As we were told by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), the boarding school allowance costs more than —100 million a year, which averages out at about £9,000 per pupil involved in the scheme, and there are more than 11,000 pupils taking advantage of the allowance.

I think that it is important for the House to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport on having the initiative to raise this issue today. He has of course been persistent in his inquiries over many months. He has been hard working and diligent in these matters, and his speech revealed that invaluable sense of responsibility, which is enviable. His speech was tightly and very carefully argued, and it reflected his deep personal interest in these matters.

Hon. Members should recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport represents—as you do, Madam Deputy Speaker—a very large number of military personnel, and that he has an impeccable educational background, having been a teacher for many years and, indeed, a senior vice principal at a school in Plymouth. He has emphasised the fact that he has no general problems with the principle of the allowance; I echo that belief. We are not debating whether there should be a boarding school allowance—we are debating the quality of education with which the boarding school allowance is linked.

My hon. Friend has rightly drawn the House's attention to some major concerns and highlighted, I believe, some very disturbing facts that I know the Minister will deal with in his reply.

There is no doubt that the system of inspection of private schools requires careful scrutiny and attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport said in the final part of his speech that many independent schools are involved in the scheme that are of a very high character and in which a very good standard is achieved. But he has also said—the House should be troubled by this—that some schools involved in the scheme are, according to this week's article in The Times Educational Supplement, "dubious". When we bear in mind that £100 million of taxpayer's money has been used for the boarding school allowance, we must be very careful because the House is the guardian of the public purse.

Inspections of independent schools are generally too infrequent. Because of that lack of frequency, standards in those schools will inevitably be tested less frequently and will, therefore, be less reliable. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport told me that the Service Children's Education Authority has no right of entry to the schools on its admissible lists, and I think that that practice is wrong. I believe that the fact that Ofsted will now hold inspections only every five years is equally wrong. The combination of those two practices inevitably brings into doubt the quality of education provided by those schools to children of service personnel.

Schools that belong to the Headmasters' Conference are self-regulatory to a very large extent, of course, which we accept. But not all schools on the list belong to the Headmasters' Conference, and it was to those schools that my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport addressed his remarks.

The Minister will no doubt refer to the Bett report, although I believe that we will have a thorough debate on it later this year. That report mentions boarding school allowances and suggests that the payment rate mechanism is poor. The report states: We suggest that the new system would be simpler to administer, and less open to any criticism that the mechanism currently used encourages some parents to send their children to less than adequate schools.

The admissible schools' list unquestionably needs overhauling. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport said that the assisted places scheme—which is another matter, but it is interesting to compare the schemes—has a carefully created list for parents who want their children to take advantage of it. He also referred to state boarding schools. For the life of me, I cannot understand why state boarding schools which the Ministry of Defence believes offer high quality education should not be on the same list.

The Bett report refers to a need "for tighter quality control". Paragraph 18 of the report says: We feel strongly that there should be tighter 'quality control' as far as MOD money spent on boarding schools is concerned, not least so that Service children can be certain of receiving, as far as is possible, a good standard of education. The approved list of boarding schools maintained by the MOD does not constitute any reliable certification of quality since SCEA does not inspect independent schools, and schools are almost never removed from the list. The only requirement for inclusion on the list is of being registered with the Department for Education (DFE). On the other hand, we note that SCEA schools, like all schools in the maintained sector, are subject to the same four yearly inspection by OFSTED. We believe that for a school to be included on the MOD approved list it should be subject either to this OFSTED inspection regime or to an alternative, equivalent inspection regime recognised as such by the MOD and the DFE. There should also be a clear procedure for removal from the approved list in the event of unsatisfactory reports from the Inspectors.

I believe that that final point is crucial.

In general, the Labour party is very much of the view that the schools on which the Ministry of Defence spends £100 million should be much more carefully and tightly inspected. In general, Labour also agrees with the recent personnel policy guidelines, which states: We aim to ensure … that allowances enable service personnel to undertake the duties required of them without incurring unreasonable personal costs, taking into account conditions prevailing in civilian life.

The House will also be aware that the numbers of boarders in this country has declined in the past 10 or 20 years by 10,000 or 20,000 and that, although 25 per cent. of our Army is still in Germany, the number of armed service personnel who can look forward to a more stable family existence is likely to increase. The consequence of those two trends means that, for parents in the MOD, the need for boarding schools is likely to be a less significant factor. It was also interesting that a survey undertaken by those involved with the Bett report showed that only one half of parents in the armed services with children at boarding schools would have chosen boarding schools as their first choice. That statistic also demonstrates the likely change in society in the next few years.

The Bett report proposes changes not only to school inspection and quality control but to the payment system and to eligibility. The report says that there are too many exemption clauses, allowing the boarding school allowance to be used when it is unnecessary and costly. I think that there is a very strong case for examining those exemption clauses and for doing away with many of them because, in certain circumstances, the boarding school allowance is unnecessary and, therefore, a waste of taxpayers' money. We believe that, as the Bett report says, the rules should be tightened so that only those families that are genuinely mobile are eligible for the scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport also spoke about the need for advice, which I think is crucial. I really wonder whether the advice to parents that is given verbally is good enough. I think that that advice should be given at unit level so far as is practicable and not simply by circulars being sent to parents who are considering taking advantage of the scheme.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I was in the Defence Select Committee. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the Labour party will retain this allowance or whether—because of what he has already said in this debate—the Labour party's intention is to phase it out slowly or to make it more restrictive?

Mr. Murphy

As the hon. Gentleman said, he was not present when I began my speech. I made it clear that we do not disagree with the principle of the boarding school allowance and that it will continue under a Labour Government. We are saying that the recommendations of the Bett report, which has yet to be debated in the House but which, in this connection, seems to be highly sensible, are such that the Labour party could approve them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport has rendered considerable service to parents in the Army, Navy and Air Force by bringing this important matter to the attention not only of the House but of the country. I am sure that the Minister of State will be able to deal with the various points raised in this interesting debate.

11.50 am
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) on securing this Adjournment debate on what is clearly an extremely important issue. He made a measured and balanced speech until perhaps the final sentence when he said that deregulation led to mediocrity and, as I understood it, to what my late lamented friend Geoffrey Dickens used to call "phaedopiles". My experience is to look at deregulation the other way around. Clearly, there will be casualties in deregulation as in any aspect of life, whether in the public or private sector, but deregulation has, by and large, led to a great expansion of enterprise, competition and excellence. The hon. Gentleman unbalanced what had been an admirable speech by a rather foolish conclusion.

The House should be aware that the hon. Gentleman's interest in defence—he represents an area with such a distinguished history of loyal and dedicated service—is matched by the fact that, as a former teacher, he has a long-expressed interest in education standards in the independent sector and, correctly in my view—I applaud him for it—in the need to ensure that the Ministry of Defence gets the value for money that it should for the £107 million that it spends annually on the boarding school allowance. The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter on the Floor of the House a number of times and in written questions to me. He is therefore well qualified to raise the matter again this morning.

As Minister of State for the Armed Forces, responsible for the welfare and deployment of service men and women and for almost every other aspect of their lives, I share the hon. Gentleman's concern that this particular aspect of their lives should be satisfactory. I am therefore glad of the opportunity to respond to the points that he raised. "Allegations" is the wrong word—let us say that the hon. Gentleman raised a number of points about various schools. I shall be writing to him in detail about them as I do not have the necessary facts to answer them, especially his final point relating to a school which, I understand, has left the trade association. I shall have that investigated at once, and I am grateful to him for letting me know about it. I shall write to him about the specific matters that he raised with which I am unable to deal now.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of extremely interesting points, and I listened with great care to what he had to say. I found much of what he said persuasive and I understand his genuine concern, which we share in every aspect of defence business, to ensure not only that the Ministry of Defence achieves best value for taxpayers' money but, just as important, that service children receive the best possible education.

I pay tribute to the work of service schools, which are splendid. Indeed, in my discussions with officials this morning while being briefed for this debate, it was said that many of the schools are excellent. I know from my own experience of visiting units all over the world that service men and women greatly value the education that their children receive. I also pay tribute to all the teachers and administrators who do so much to provide such an admirable service for the children of our service men and women.

I assure the hon. Gentleman and others that my Department shares the hon. Gentleman's aims—indeed, it would be like condemning motherhood and apple pie not to do so. The hon. Gentleman raised some important issues that need further investigation. I shall be in touch with him about them and would like him to come to see me to talk about them.

Although we are committed to devoting as much as possible to the business of the front line, we are of course mindful of our wider responsibilities. Although the provision of the boarding school allowance in these times of reduced defence budgets may seem odd to people who do not understand the principle, the scheme is soundly based. I acknowledge that what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said was not a criticism of the boarding school allowance per se but of the way in which it is handled.

The policy is soundly based. Not everyone realises how important such an allowance is to the otherwise turbulent side of family life for service men and women. It may be helpful, therefore, if I set out for the benefit of the House a little of the background to the issues raised today.

I am sure that we all agree that our highly trained and professional men and women are the armed forces' greatest asset and that it is essential that we look after their interests, not only to ensure that morale remains high, although that is critical, but because we are more likely to retain these admirable people in the forces if they feel that their needs and those of their families are properly met and fettled.

Service life places incomparable pressures on the family. Too few civilians—those who have never had any connection with the forces—understand that service men and women are not the same as civilians. Service personnel may be invited to make the ultimate sacrifice. They are not ordinary people, and I take this opportunity to pay my own very warm tribute to the families of all personnel in the armed forces. Without their support and tolerance, undoubtedly our armed forces would not function so effectively. The understanding and support that service wives give to their husbands, and vice versa, is crucial to the effectiveness of our forces. However, we cannot and will not take, and never have taken, that support for granted.

The welfare of one's family is one of the most important motivations in seeking any career. The services are clearly no exception—indeed, they are a shining example. Given the pressures that service families so often face, it is even more important to ensure that service personnel are confident that the welfare of their families is guaranteed. By doing that, we achieve value for money as we retain important people with specialised expertise in whom we have invested valuable training resources and who have such exceptional experience to give to the service of their Queen and country.

The provision of the boarding school allowance is one of the ways in which the needs of our service personnel are met. The allowance is available to service parents of all ranks to provide a stable education for their children in the face of the turbulence that is often a feature of service life. Service personnel who follow the flag and move their families wherever they are required to serve are eligible to receive it. Many of the service people most affected by turbulence are high achievers. Therefore, although the boarding school allowance is a cost to the Department, it is an extremely important tool in helping to persuade highly trained and vital service personnel to stay in the forces—something that we are very conscious of the need to do better across the board.

Because of your interest in defence, Madam Deputy Speaker, you are aware that service personnel and their families can be posted to various parts of the United Kingdom and overseas. Some of these postings are to isolated locations where adequate educational facilities are sometimes simply not available. Postings often occur at highly irregular intervals and sometimes at very short notice—such is the lot of service families. Depending on the service, postings last on average for two years. That could result in frequent and disruptive school change for children required to accompany their parents.

The availability of the boarding school allowance allows personnel of all ranks who suffer such turbulence the opportunity, if they so wish, to maintain their children in boarding schools. Children thus spend a substantial time at one school, which provides the continuity that is so important in education and which would otherwise be missing.

Boarding education is confined mainly to the independent sector, as only a small number of schools in the state sector offer boarding facilities. The provision of assistance with the fees enables service personnel to provide their children with the continuity offered by a boarding education. The boarding school allowance is not an education subsidy to allow service personnel access to a superior education—many state schools provide an education that is every bit as good as that provided by schools in the independent sector—but a contribution towards the average cost of a boarding education.

Mr. Jamieson

Does the Minister accept that local education authority boarding schools that are deemed to be excellent should be included on the admissible schools list, and that listed independent schools that are found to have shortcomings should be removed from it?

Mr. Soames

I do not agree with that proposition. The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of very important points this morning. I shall consider his comments and perhaps he and I can discuss them officially after I have raised them with the Department for Education and Employment.

Those who wish their children to attend the more expensive boarding schools will have to pay a substantial proportion of the fees. The maximum rate of boarding school allowance that may be claimed is set at 75 per cent. of the average fees of all those schools attended by at least 30 children of service personnel. The rate is currently £1,883 per term for children at junior schools and £2,248 per term for children at senior schools. Parents are required to contribute a minimum of 10 per cent. of the school fees, although a large number pay considerably more than that. The average level of school fees in the independent sector is £3,415 per term according to the independent schools information service. Service parents who send their children to an "average" school must therefore find £1,200 out of their own pockets for each child, each term.

As with parents everywhere, service parents are responsible for selecting an appropriate school to suit the needs of their children. In order to find the right school, some parents will seek to stabilise their families in an area of their choice and serve unaccompanied when required to do so. Some elect to move their children around with them, and most children cope successfully with several changes of school. I find that amazing and I am always impressed by how well such children manage.

However, frequent changes of school may be harmful to children's education. Some have little alternative but to attend boarding school. That group is relatively small: of a service population of some 231,000, only about 7,500—about 3.2 per cent.—claim boarding school allowance. As the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) pointed out, that number has reduced by more than 30 per cent. in the past five years as a result not only of draw-down in the armed forces but of control measures put in place to restrict the allowance to those who are genuinely affected by turbulence.

The hon. Member for Devonport is concerned that some parents elect to send their children to schools that do not perform well academically or that have been criticised in other areas. The Ministry of Defence has no statutory authority to control the educational standards of schools attended by children whose parents are in receipt of boarding school allowance—that responsibility rests with the Department for Education and Employment. However, the Ministry of Defence is keen to ensure that parents receive good advice about their selection of schools.

The Service Children's Education Agency—a new agency established on 1 April this year—has assumed the responsibility previously exercised by the Service Children's Education Authority to provide general education advice to parents. In order to achieve that aim, it will continue to maintain close links with DFEE, OFSTED and other relevant professional bodies. It will also visit schools attended by a large number of children of service personnel, or when concerns are expressed about a school, in order to monitor the quality of accommodation and of pastoral care.

The Ministry of Defence maintains a list of schools for which parents may claim boarding school allowance. A copy of that list is kept in the Library. Prior to 1 April this year, the Service Children's Education Authority was responsible for checking that each school maintained adequate control over boarding facilities and met certain other basic criteria—including registration with the DFEE—before it was placed on the admissible schools list. That responsibility now rests with the Service Children's Education Agency.

Schools must be registered with the DFEE in accordance with the Education Act 1994 and must attain, and maintain, an acceptable standard of education as required by that Department. Before initial registration, a school is inspected by one of Her Majesty's inspectors and standards are monitored subsequently through "light touch" inspections carried out by the Office for Standards in Education, examining standards of achievement, teaching, learning and welfare. It is intended that those inspections be carried out every five years approximately, or more often when a school gives cause for concern. I shall discuss the hon. Gentleman's points on that subject with the Department for Education and Employment.

When standards are considered to be unsatisfactory in respect of unsuitable or inadequate accommodation, a failure to provide efficient and suitable education, or the existence of an unsuitable proprietor or teacher, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment issues a notice of complaint. That gives the school a specified period—usually six months—in which to improve in those areas where it was considered to be failing. If the school fails to comply within the notice period, it will be struck off the register and compelled to close, at which time it would no longer be eligible to remain on the Ministry of Defence list of admissible schools. When Ofsted reports are published about particular schools, the Service Children's Education Agency ensures that they are made available to parents with children at those schools. I noted the hon. Gentleman's point about reports and I shall consider that matter.

As to the question of the distribution of funds, the Service Children's Education Agency does not distribute funds to schools. Boarding school allowance is paid to service personnel to allow them to choose the most appropriate school for their children. The agency makes as much information as possible available to parents in order to help to inform their choice. We are constantly looking for ways of improving the quality of the information that we provide, and some of the hon. Gentleman's points are worthy of consideration in that regard.

The independent review—mentioned by the hon. Member for Torfaen—of the armed forces manpower, career and remuneration structures conducted recently by Sir Michael Bett was tasked with making recommendations to adapt those structures to the foreseeable needs of the next century. Its work on remuneration structures included an examination of all allowances paid to service personnel, paying particular attention to those factors of service life that created a need for them.

It concluded that, because of the unusually high level of mobility in the services—particularly in the Army—there is a continuing need to ensure that service personnel have the opportunity to provide their children with continuity of education through a boarding education. The provision of proper education for children is clearly a strong imperative for all parents, and the independent review concluded that it may not be possible for the services to retain personnel who feel unable to meet their aspirations in that regard.

Bett recognised that there is a continuing need for a form of boarding school allowance. The review made a number of recommendations to target the overall education allowance package better in order to ensure that only those with a genuine liability to move are entitled to benefit. The recommendations are being examined, together with all of the independent review's other recommendations, and I shall announce the results of the study later this year. Following a meeting this morning, I am pleased to report to the House that the work is going extremely well.

One factor that clearly influences the future cost of the boarding school allowance is the extent to which we are able to offer stability to service personnel and to their families. That will depend largely upon the operational demands that are placed on the individual services in the future.

The hon. Member for Devonport is right to raise those issues in circumstances where public funds are involved. As the hon. Member for Torfaen said, the hon. Gentleman has been extremely diligent in pursuing the matter in the past few years and I am grateful for his interest. As a former teacher, he will be well aware of the importance of maintaining and improving educational standards. The Government and the Ministry of Defence are committed to achieving the highest possible standards in education.

While the Ministry of Defence has no statutory power to regulate schools in the independent sector, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing his concerns to my attention on the Floor of the House. I shall pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and, having discussed them, I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, should he so desire, to explore the matters in greater detail.

The hon. Gentleman has raised important matters touching upon the welfare and morale of service men and women who are posted all over the world and I have no doubt that we shall have further discussions in future. I am grateful to him for raising the matter. We have had a thoroughly worthwhile and useful debate.