HC Deb 24 April 1996 vol 276 cc427-8
8. Mr. Jamieson

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment if she will make a statement about the inspection of independent schools. [25086]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire)

All independent schools in England are monitored by Ofsted to ensure satisfactory standards. Those with boarding provision are also inspected by local social services departments to safeguard pupils' welfare.

Mr. Jamieson

As the Government originally proposed to inspect independent schools once every seven years, can the Minister explain why the chief inspector of schools has written to me to say that up to three schools, out of 2,294, will be inspected next year? I make that an inspection once every 700 years. As £350 million of taxpayers' money is being spent in independent schools, how will the Minister ensure that the taxpayer is getting good value for money, and, more importantly, how will he ensure that children's education does not suffer in the poorer state-subsidised private schools?

Mr. Squire

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for pursuing that subject in general. Exactly a week ago he pursued it at greater length in a speech that I have read, and will return to, which was answered by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. The hon. Gentleman made several suggestions, and I shall think about them.

As for the issue that he has just raised, he and the House know that the inspection of independent schools, like many aspects of that sector, is separate from the way in which we treat maintained schools—essentially because we believe in minimal regulation, commensurate with proper protection of children at those schools. I welcome the interest that the hon. Gentleman and his party take in independent schools. Of course, I recognise that both his party and the Liberal Democrats would be leaderless without independent schools, so obviously those schools must perform a useful function.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will my hon. Friend confirm that one factor in the success of independent schools and their standards is that, if parents are dissatisfied, they can walk away and take their children to another school? Will he also confirm that the Government are totally committed to the vigorous independent school sector that has undoubtedly added to the strength of this country. Moreover, the children in those schools do not cost the country one penny for their education.

Mr. Squire

My hon. Friend, with her wide knowledge of education, is absolutely right. The independent sector in general is indeed a jewel in the crown of education in this country. In that sector parents have the choice of withdrawing their children and taking them elsewhere. There are a variety of different inspections that cover the independent sector, and as my hon. Friend knows, but as it is worth reminding the Opposition, our faith in that sector is strong enough for us to have announced the doubling of assisted places for children whose parents are not so well off.