HC Deb 15 July 1996 vol 281 cc890-909

10.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Cheryl Gillan)

I beg to move,

That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1996, which were laid before this House on 20th June, be approved. As hon. Members know, in 1981, we introduced the assisted places scheme for the prime purpose of opening up educational opportunities for able children from less well-off families. The Government are committed to encouraging high standards in education, wherever they are to be found. In stark contrast, the Labour party would remove those opportunities from thousands of children. Its stated intention to abolish the assisted places scheme would make independent schools the preserve solely of the rich. Labour, in its well-known way, would push away the education ladder from those talented children. The Government believe in extending choice as widely as possible, but Labour believes in choice only for the few, such as many of its Front Benchers. Many Opposition Members have received the benefit of a private education, but Labour would deny those benefits to all but a privileged few.

Since 1981, almost 80,000 children in England and Wales have benefited from the scheme. There are now well over 30,000 pupils in the scheme, and four out of 10 pupils are fully assisted because their family income is below the threshold of £9,572 a year, and eight out of 10 are from families whose incomes are below the national average of £18,540 a year.

We want to widen access to assisted places for parents in every part of the country. That is why we are doubling the scheme, to give twice as many children the opportunity to benefit. At present, 5,900 entry places are available each year in 300 schools in England and Wales. From September, almost 10,000 places will be available in some 370 schools. All the schools in the scheme have been carefully selected on the basis of their records of academic achievement.

Recent independent research by the London school of economics confirms that assisted places pupils achieve better examination results than their counterparts of similar ability in maintained schools. That independent evidence shows that assisted places pupils were entered for significantly more A and AS-levels than their counterparts in the maintained sector. Assisted places pupils achieved higher total points scores than pupils in the maintained sector and their average points score per examination entry was higher than that for maintained sector pupils. Overall, the benefit of an assisted place is between 3.2 and 6.2 A-level points. Translated into grades, the advantage is between 1.5 and 3 A-level grades over all subjects taken.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Gillan

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. I am trying to go through my speech as fast as possible and I do not intend to allow any interventions.

As hon. Members know, this is the annual laying of the regulations on the assisted places scheme and, from debates in previous years, hon. Members will also know that the amendment regulations have a specific and straightforward purpose. They simply update the principal regulations, the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1995. Essentially, they implement the annual uprating of the parental contribution tables, setting out the amount that parents must pay towards a child's assisted place at a participating independent school in the coming year. If approved, the amended regulations will come into force on 25 August.

Regulation 3 of the draft regulations permits schools to offer an assisted place to a child from the beginning of his or her compulsory education, thus extending the ladder of opportunity for many more able children. We are making places available for the first time to children in the junior and preparatory departments of some of our best independent schools. For the sake of brevity and so as not to take up too much time, I commend the regulations to the House.

10.12 pm
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

The Minister omitted to mention that children do better in schools that are beneficiaries of the assisted places scheme not least because, unlike many of our schools, they have smaller classes and resources such as books and roofs that do not leak. If the Minister needs any evidence of that, she has only to look at this year's report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, which shows in painful detail what happens in state schools.

Each year we have this debate and each year the same arguments are put. This debate is perhaps the most significant since the assisted places scheme was introduced by the Education Act 1980. It was a device to underpin the newly independent former direct grant schools. Subsequently, there was a steady increase in the number of places, although they have remained reasonably constant since 1987–88. Take-up has also increased, although 13 per cent. of the places that are available still go begging. However, the increase in cost speaks eloquently. While the cost of the scheme has increased by 3,000 per cent. since its inception, the number of places has increased by only 600 per cent., which is a telling sign of educational inflation in the independent sector.

In his wisdom, our misguided Prime Minister has announced plans to double the number of places, notwithstanding the failure to take up the slack in the scheme from the start. His proposals dovetail with his other plans to establish secondary moderns in every town. To coin a phrase: de pluribus ad minores—[Interruption.] That is a fitting epitaph for this most divisive of Governments. By such means, he hopes to put his seal on the differences between the Labour and Conservative parties. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) shows his ignorance of Latin. A rough translation of the phrase is, "From the many to the few."

In short, the proposals are a party political manoeuvre rather than a serious attempt to deal with the educational divides in our country. They enable independent schools to choose from among our brightest youngsters, bringing money and talent within their walls. We should remember that the closure rate of independent schools was halved after the introduction of the assisted places scheme. Perhaps there were so many closures because so many parents realised—as the Secretary of State for Wales reportedly has, according to the weekend newspapers—that good comprehensive school education made private education a waste of money.

However, the Government set out to delude parents further, and the scheme was their answer. Now we have a further development of that illusion. Schools that were formerly deemed to be ineligible will now be able to jump on to the gravy train, joining schools that receive up to half their fees in income from the assisted places scheme. No doubt that will be seen by Conservative Members as an expansion of choice and diversity, and the Under-Secretary of State said as much today. If that is so, why did the leaflet entitled "Assisted Places at Independent Schools: A Brief Guide for Parents" say: Schools choose the pupils themselves … Most schools will need your child to take an entrance exam and go to an interview. Schools make the choice, not parents—or certainly not working-class parents, according to Professor Tony Edwards of Newcastle university, who reckons that only 10 per cent. of assisted places scheme scholars are from a working-class background.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman admits that the scheme is becoming increasingly popular and that it will double in size. He says that, according to his policies, £240 million will be saved if his party abolishes the scheme. However, has he forgotten that it will cost £183 million to send those children to the state system, thereby saving only a net £57 million?

Mr. Kilfoyle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to point out that, this year, 86,000 children entered the education system without any extra funding and that, next year, another 60,000 will enter it. I should like to ask him or the Minister whether the Chancellor will make available the same type of funding to those 60,000 pupils that is provided to those on the assisted places scheme. The answer is that they will not receive the same funding, because the Government have a two-tier view of education. What is good enough for the private system is not good enough for the state system.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

The hon. Gentleman referred to the distinction between the state system and the independent sector, and earlier in his speech he used the word "divisive". Can he tell us whether, when the Labour party, or if the Labour party—[HON. MEMBERS: "When or if?"] Should the Labour party have the opportunity to abolish the assisted places scheme, can he tell us how it proposes to break down the barriers between the state and the independent sectors, as he clearly believes should be done?

Mr. Kilfoyle

We shall do it by giving half a million infants a far better education than they currently get. The answer is as simple as that.

Perhaps the Minister will tell the House what has been done to investigate the fraud allegations made in The Sunday Times on 12 November 1995. When the Minister trots out her statistics, will she confirm that fewer than 1 per cent. of applications are checked and whether, in fact, schools check applications for irregularities? Will she explain how possession of large amounts of capital is disregarded in the award of places, and how a de facto step-parent is considered in assessing a family's income? Does she agree with the claim made by David Jewell, of Haileybury school, that 20 per cent. of assisted places scheme applications are—to use his euphemism—"incorrect"?

The Sunday Times article cited the Freeman family. They had saved £30,000 for school fees, only to discover to their delight that, despite having their own building business, they qualified for an assisted place for their son. As Mrs. Freeman confided to the newspaper, on paper we are not high-income earners. Christopher Marley was pleased that he could invest his nest egg in his business after his son, Simon, received an assisted place. Mr. Marley said: the world is not a fair place. How true that is for children in overcrowded, under-resourced and dilapidated state school classrooms.

The Under-Secretary undoubtedly believes that the APS has merit. Perhaps she agrees with the headmaster of Ampleforth, which is new to the scheme and who apparently believes that it will reinforce his links with his north Yorkshire community. How wrong can one be? He will select 25 "bright boys"—to use his words—for the college, which I assure him will divide the community, and that is not something I associate with the Benedictines. Other schools will, like Ampleforth, seek to replace diminishing returns from private and service applicants with assisted places. Although the assisted places scheme does not match the huge fees of many independent schemes, it is better than empty places.

Fees paid under the APS are nevertheless generous, compared with the money allocated to state schools, for which the Government have steadily reduced funding. The Library estimates that the average cost of an assisted place in 1993–94 was £4,110, compared with £2,105 for 11 to 15-year-olds and £3,050 for over-16s in the maintained sector. Curiously, the Under-Secretary, in a written answer to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) on 23 November 1995, put the same figures at £3,700, £2,600 and £3,600 respectively. Inflation apart, I rely far more on the numeracy of the Library than on that of the hon. Lady. Perhaps the Minister will also explain how, in 1993–94, 33,139 places were available—of which 29,747 or 97 per cent. were taken up, yet the Budget estimate of £101.6 million was the same as the outturn. Was there an unforeseen leap in the cost of places taken up? How does the hon. Lady account for such remarkable figures?

Will the Minister explain the increasing proportion of places concentrated in schools that are already heavily dependent on the assisted places scheme? Does she agree that if the Prime Minister's fantasy became reality, many of those schools would need virtually to be wholly populated with APS pupils? What would that mean for the Prime Minister's other pie-in-the-sky plan for a grammar school in every town? There is not a cat's chance in hell of those cloud cuckoo land commitments being realised.

There is no overwhelming demand among our constituents for such concepts, which bear no relation to the educational needs of the vast majority of pupils. 'They are political gimmicks and show little understanding of educational priorities or of the national mood, which is why Labour is pledged to wind down the assisted places scheme. Cracks are showing even among the scheme's erstwhile supporters. Preparatory schools excluded from the APS's latest extension are calling foul play. Recipients who perceive the election of a Labour Government are looking for a new accommodation, given our implacable opposition to the scheme. Everyone in the world of education recognises our case for redirecting the APS's finances, to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 pupils or fewer.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

How much will that cost?

Mr. Kilfoyle

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will give him chapter, verse and line.

At January this year, 1.3 million primary school children were in classes of 31 or more pupils. Over the past five years, class sizes have increased by 40 per cent. in the maintained sector—another five years of Toryism would add half a million to the figure to which I referred earlier, which would be intolerable.

Mrs. Gillan

The Labour party has said that it will phase out the scheme over time. If that was done, the saving in the first year would be £5 million, which is equivalent to the cost of 200 primary teachers. How does the hon. Gentleman expect Labour to keep its pledge, because that is equivalent to one tenth of the pupils in the classes to which he refers?

Mr. Kilfoyle

I will answer the hon. Lady directly. The National Foundation for Educational Research has costed our proposals at £68 million for England. That is not a Government statistic plucked out of the air. It is based on real local education authority data and actual experimentation, as in Staffordshire. By the way, it is revealing that we have had to readjust last year's figure of £60 million to £68 million because class sizes have increased so much under the Tories.

We believe that, by phasing out the assisted places scheme, freeing up to £23 million a year, we shall meet out target for England over three years. That will show our concern for the many whose educational start has suffered and been made much more difficult by culpable Government neglect. The Government insist on displaying that neglect in the proposals, with Ministers incapable of reading the signs of the times. I remind the Minister of what Nye Bevan once said of another misguided soul: He is a man walking backwards with his face to the future. We are walking forwards, well fitted for the future. I ask the House to vote for the future of all our children and to reject the proposals.

10.25 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I represent a constituency with very deep deprivation among tens of thousands of people, profound poverty, minimal youth facilities, the second highest youth unemployment of any constituency in England and Wales and the highest youth unemployment of all English constituencies.

The schools in my constituency are often in dire difficulty, yet three schools are scooping up millions of pounds of taxpayers' money through the assisted places scheme. Located in my deprived and impoverished inner-city constituency are three independent schools substantially and lavishly funded through the scheme: Manchester grammar school, Manchester high school for girls and William Hulme's grammar school. During the past six years, the assisted places scheme has provided those three schools with £10.819 million. In the current year, the scheme is providing them with £2.128 million. That compares with the budget, this year, for the 39 local authority schools in the state sector in my constituency of £23,957,931.

There are 14,205 pupils in the state sector; the average amount available a head for their education is £1,685.58. The amount available for each of the 661 pupils who are beneficiaries of the assisted places scheme is £3,219.36—almost exactly double what is available to the vast mass of children in my constituency.

Hon. Members might say that 661 of my constituents are benefiting, but of course they are not. Of the 262 assisted places pupils at Manchester grammar school, 23 live in my constituency. Of the 179 assisted places pupils at Manchester high school for girls, 33 live in my constituency. Of the 220 assisted places pupils at William Hulme's grammar school, 29 live in my constituency. So, at those schools in the heart of the inner city, 85 of my constituents are benefiting from the assisted places scheme-85 compared with the 14,205 of my constituents who attend all the other 39 state schools, yet the parents of children at state schools are paying through their taxes for 85 of my constituents whose children have been selected to attend those three schools.

Let me make it clear that I have nothing against the three schools. I was invited to William Hulme's grammar school when Princess Anne opened a laboratory there, I was invited to Manchester high school for girls, and I was even invited to Manchester grammar school.

Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

No. I shall act in the same way as the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) is a great deal more courteous than I am, so he did not do as the Minister did. I shall behave as the Minister did.

Mr. Lord

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Madam Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear that he is not giving way.

Mr. Kaufman

I assisted, and was thanked by, Manchester high school for girls when it was libelled by the Government's league tables and contemplated taking legal action against the Government.

Although those three schools are in my constituency, they are not part of my constituency. They have next to no relationship with the people living around them and they have little knowledge of the poverty that surrounds them. They have affluent premises and beautiful playing fields while Spurley Hey high school, for example, is yearning in vain to get its hands on a filled-in clay pit next to the school.

The assisted places scheme is subsidising the cost of those three schools with money that could pay for two extra teachers in each local authority school and could have done so for the past six years.

I have here a 14-page list of work that is necessary to restore the state schools in my constituency to a fit condition. It would cost £3,475,000 to carry out all the work that is required in the 39 schools in my constituency, yet this year they have been allocated only £263,000.

The list includes security and anti-vandalism work, and health and safety work. There have been requests for safety film to glazing and, believe it or not, work needs to be carried out—for which there is insufficient money—to prevent an outbreak of legionella in 13 schools. Outstanding major repair work is required in many. The money that has been spent on a small number of children who do not live in my constituency could have been used to provide decent accommodation for 14,000 children in my constituency.

The work—for which the Government have the money, but refuse to make it available—does not involve trimmings or fripperies; it includes roofing, the provision of play areas, safety services to a nursery climbing frame, security doors, fire prevention, security fencing, intruder alarms, fire alarms, dry rot repairs, waterproofing and asbestos removal. There is no money for floor renewal, the renewal of urinals and toilet cubicles, anti-vandal measures and playground resurfacing.

Children in certain schools in my constituency—such as Gorton Brook school, a special needs school, and Stanley Grove nursery school—have been at risk of their lives because of the lack of a few thousand pounds to resurface the playgrounds, but the Government are spending £2 million this year on handouts to privileged schools that are oases of affluence in a deprived constituency.

The other Saturday, we had a street party on the Anson estate—an area of great poverty—because of the need for a youth centre. There is an abandoned shop that we could use as a youth centre in an area of poverty, high unemployment and high crime, but we do not have the money to do that. A fraction of the money being voted tonight could solve the problems of that area.

In a parliamentary answer, the Government have told me that there will be 50 more assisted places at the three schools. On past form, seven of my constituents' children will qualify, and £160,000 will be spent on the extra places. With that £160,000, Manchester city council could pay for all the security and anti-vandalism work that is needed in all the state schools in my constituency. It could pay for all the health and safety work, and all the anti-legionella work in my constituency. Instead of seven of my constituents' children benefiting, thousands could.

I received a letter from Mrs. W. Bradbury on behalf of the governing body of Alma Park primary school in my constituency. She said: As both parents and Governors, we are appalled to realise that year by year the environment in which our children have to learn and develop academically, socially and morally is sinking into disrepute through lack of investment. Their main resources, teachers, NNEBs and special support workers are regularly being reduced, nation-wide in order to meet budgets. Teachers who are doing an excellent job are starved of resources and put under excessive pressure due to continuous changes in legislation. We feel we must express our concern and that of all Governors that through your approach"— meaning the Government— and attitude to educational funding many of the current generation of children will have no future. Class sizes will increase, resources will be reduced, the school meals services will reduce and our schools become areas of dereliction that give no one pride in themselves or their community. The children of my constituents are as talented, eager and bright as all other children who are benefiting from the system, and they have the right to their chance. The Government's priorities, as demonstrated by this scheme and by the regulations, are twisted and harmful. It is my duty to vote against the Government tonight and, in doing so, I shall have the support of my constituents.

10.37 pm
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. Having heard the interesting remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and having taught at Manchester grammar school for five years between 1960 and 1965, I would like to follow his remarks about education in Manchester. I understand the figures that he has given and his argument against the assisted places scheme.

Before I address those matters, let me remind the right hon. Member for Gorton that Manchester grammar school—in the days when I was teaching there—was a direct grant grammar school. It was, admittedly, highly selective at that time, and many hon. Members here may oppose that. It was so selective that some 2,000 young boys used to come to sit an examination, and only 200 used to get in. But socially it was totally non-selective. There was no question of fees at that time, and poor children came from all over the Manchester area. The right hon. Gentleman was right—children came from a wide area, but from all walks of life. The right hon. Gentleman will agree, because I was there and I know exactly what happened. The pupils came from as far away as Oldham, and even Southport, at that time.

Then, Manchester grammar school, as a direct grant state school, served the very pupils it cannot serve now because it is independent, and that is because a Labour Government abolished direct grant schools. The right hon. Member for Gorton is right; fees now have to be paid if a pupil from Manchester or anywhere else wants to attend Manchester grammar school. It is still a fine school, and a selective school, but it is now a fee-paying school, and that is why he made the speech that he made. It is a pity that he did not cast his mind back to the history of that great school, which I was lucky to serve for five years. It was certainly a privilege to be there. I think that he will agree that it is a fine school and one that we can be proud of.

I promised to be brief. All that I wanted to say about the regulations is that I have taught at schools other than Manchester grammar and have seen the benefits of the assisted places scheme. I will not deal with all the figures that have been bandied about. I am suspicious of bureaucracy and figures. I do not believe any of this nonsense, whether from the Government or from the Opposition, about £118 million—I have read the brief—or £263 million. It is all a load of hogwash.

The assisted places scheme is a success for the young people who are on it because the schools that they go to are good schools, with good teachers, who work hard outside school hours and it is a quality—[Interruption.] This is not a party point. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) is laughing, but he knows that it is not a party point.

The quality of the teaching in those schools has led to the results that we have read about in recent reports. It is all too sad that the Labour party has abandoned young people from poorer families for old-fashioned reasons, because it is anti the independent sector. The Labour party has pledged to abolish the assisted places scheme. I think that it has made a mistake—it has misjudged because it is removing known benefits to pupils from less well-off families for pie in the sky.

10.41 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

As I have made clear in the House on a number of occasions in speeches on this issue, the Liberal Democrat party has no antipathy to the independent school sector, which is a valuable educational resource and one that we want to be made available to a much wider community. Indeed, as I have also said on a number of occasions, we welcome many of the areas of co-operation that exist between the state and the independent sectors. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the buts?"' I will come to those in a minute, if hon. Members can contain themselves.

For example, we welcome the joint membership of trade unions and professional associations, the joint in-service activities that take place, the shared use of premises, and even, on some occasions, the shared teaching. All those are examples of mutual co-operation for mutual benefit.

Conservative Members will be pleased to know that we have gone further. Recently, we made it clear that we are not in favour of removing charitable status from independent schools. We would prefer to achieve a level playing field, by including local education authority schools in the charitable status. We have also rejected the introduction of value added tax on independent school fees, which was first proposed by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett).

But—Conservative Members have been waiting for this—as I have said several times, we are not convinced that the assisted places scheme offers the best basis for co-operation between the state and independent sectors. We do not believe that it is the best way to extend mutual co-operation for mutual benefit.

After all, whatever other arguments might be used in the Chamber, the scheme is hardly the basis for wide-scale co-operation when it deals with less than 1 per cent. of the relevant school-age population. How can a scheme that spends large sums of public money on so few people be the best way to forge effective partnerships between the state and independent sectors?

There can be little or no justification for using public funds to prop up independent schools that would otherwise be unable to attract sufficient students—and so survive—without the assisted places scheme. It is interesting to note how the fees of several independent schools involved in the scheme have risen by considerably more than the average rate of inflation. One wonders whether such rises result from the almost certain knowledge that they will be covered by funding from the scheme.

It is also worrying that so few independent schools involved in the assisted places scheme are inspected. Questions from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) have recently revealed that it is unlikely that more than three independent schools will be inspected by the Office for Standards in Education over the next 12 months. It must be of great concern that the Government do not require independent schools involved in the scheme, using state school funding money, to make available scores on key stage 3 standard assessment tasks. It is difficult to know whether we are getting value for money from that use of public funds.

There is little evidence that the assisted places scheme provides value for money, and we must ask whether the money involved could not be used to greater effect. We have some evidence that the scheme is missing its intended target. For example, research shows that 40 per cent. of parents with children on the scheme earn more than £13,000. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) pointed out, recent evidence shows that only about 10 per cent. of the parents of children on the scheme come from manual backgrounds.

Two years ago, research showed that about 50 per cent. of parents with children on the scheme had attended independent schools. I doubt whether much has changed in the intervening two years. I would welcome a contradiction from the Minister of the evidence of two years ago that few people from ethnic minority backgrounds had received places. For those reasons and others that have been mentioned by other hon. Members, I am not convinced that the scheme is the best use of what will always be limited education resources.

We have already heard from Conservative Members that the assisted places scheme is popular. It is hardly surprising that it is increasingly popular in some quarters. After all, many parents know that their local education authority schools are being starved of cash. Class sizes are rising; there are shortages of books and equipment; buildings are crumbling. Parents know that all those factors depress educational achievement.

Of course parents want their children to have the benefits of smaller class sizes, more books and equipment, and better-maintained buildings. The question is whether we should find ways of investing more in our education service. I hope that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) will join my party in calling for a significant increase in investment in the education service.

For those reasons, I am not convinced that the assisted places scheme is the best way to forge closer co-operation and make the best use of the important resource that is the independent school sector. I remind the House that it was the Prime Minister who told us that we had good state sector provision for the ablest pupils. It was the Prime Minister who said that it was those other, perhaps less able, pupils to whom we should be directing our attention. The assisted places scheme does not help us to do what even the Prime Minister says we should be doing.

10.49 pm
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

Each year we have this debate, which is extremely useful in that it shows the differences between Opposition and Conservative Members on education. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), in his short but lively contribution to the debate, said many things with which Opposition Members agree. He said that good teaching and good, well-resourced schools with bright children got good results. That was a statement of the extremely obvious. The difference between us is that the Government consider that only 1 per cent. or fewer of children should receive that good education.

The assisted places scheme emphasises the education of the few at the expense of the many. It is an admission of 17 years of failure if, as the Minister said, the Government believe that bright children can be educated only in independent schools. Deregulation of independent schools and their inspection has removed any accountability for taxpayers' money.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said, when local education authority budgets were settled for this year, they exposed a massive shortfall of funding. Many hon. Members, not only Opposition Members, will have beaten a path to the Minister to make representations on behalf of the local authority in their area. They saw class sizes rising, buildings crumbling and books and equipment shortages. Yet the only new initiative to come from the lips of the Prime Minister was a pledge to put £100 million more into the assisted places scheme.

Even the Government cannot claim that the assisted places scheme represents value for money. As has been demonstrated by other hon. Members, a place in an independent school, even considering the capital costs and the other costs involved in running the LEA, costs between one and a half and three times as much as a place in a maintained school. So even comparing like with like, costs in an independent school are far greater.

When the then Minister summed up this debate last year, he said Above all, the assisted places scheme offers good value for money. It produces better GCSE and A-level results than the maintained sector".—[Official Report, 3 July 1995; Vol. 263, c. 110.] The assisted places scheme is largely intended to cream off bright children from maintained schools, so is it surprising that independent schools perform better? The Minister made a conclusion of remarkable insight last year. He was telling us that taller people can reach higher shelves.

So are we surprised that we are paying so much more for assisted places or that the Government are not making proper checks that we are getting value for money? If the Government were genuine in their attempts to assist the brightest children, they would tackle the issue not just for the few but for the majority of children in all our schools. If the Minister was making a sincere effort to assist able and gifted children, she would insist that all schools in the maintained sector had a policy for the gifted, that proper and differentiated work went on in our schools, and that primary and secondary schools in the maintained sector had the necessary modern equipment—information technology and access to the Internet—so that those children could benefit from a varied and wide education. But instead the Government are ploughing £200 million of taxpayers' money into the independent sector.

We recognise diversity and choice, but we say that it should be available to all children within every school, not just to a few. However, we also recognise that £1 extra spent in one school is £1 less spent in another.

The most extraordinary feature of the assisted places scheme is that the scheme has been undersubscribed for nine years out of 14. Spending on the scheme has not reached the figure that the Government projected in nine years out of 14. Parents are leaving the places empty because they are unenthusiastic about the scheme, yet the Government have decided to double the amount of money spent on it.

Some of the 355 independent schools currently in the scheme are highly dependent on taxpayers' money. In fact, if the scheme were extended further, they could almost become private state-funded schools, but the difference is that the education that they supply costs more and no one is accountable to the taxpayer for the money spent. If the Government have their way, the taxpayer will spend more than £200 million on the assisted places scheme. More than £100 million is spent on the service boarding scheme and the funding of other schemes means that about £350 million of taxpayers' money is paid to independent schools. Yet those schools do not follow the national curriculum or conduct standard assessment tests. They do not have to give the same type of detailed information to parents as maintained schools nor are they subjected to full Ofsted reports.

Maintained schools have to be inspected every four years and it was the original ambition of the Government that independent schools should be inspected every seven years. However, the chief inspector of schools told me recently that only three independent schools, out of nearly 2,300, will be inspected next year. I shall assist the Minister with the arithmetic and tell her that, on that basis, it will take just over 700 years to inspect all the independent schools. Yet when the chief inspector of schools appeared before the Education and Employment Committee, he admitted that the education in many of the independent schools was less than good. In answer to one of my questions, he said: We have found some independent schools where the education is less than miraculous. Despite that the Government do not insist that those schools, which receive substantial amounts of taxpayers' money, are examined in the same way as maintained schools.

I have staled that independent schools are more expensive. The one simple reason why education in independent schools is more expensive than in maintained schools is that most of a school's budget is spent on teachers' salaries and independent schools have considerably better teacher-pupil ratios than maintained schools. In short, independent schools have smaller classes and smaller classes get better results. The House need not take my word for it, because it can take the word of David Woodhead, the national director of the Independent Schools Information Service. In ISIS's magazine, he wrote: In any survey of parents' reasons for choosing independent schools, smaller classes are mentioned amongst the most influential factors … teachers in independent schools have to teach, on average, about 60 per cent. of the number of pupils of their maintained sector equivalents. Most tellingly, he also says in the same article: If smaller classes are good enough for independent schools, they are good enough for other types of schools, too. I totally subscribe to that view. If we are going to find resources for smaller classes, we should find the resources for all schools.

Like parents, we reject the Government's illogical, ill-founded notion that there is no connection between class size and children's academic performance. That is demonstrated by the money that the Government are spending on the assisted places scheme. The Labour party will replace the assisted places scheme: we will give a real chance to all pupils, whether bright or not, by using the money that is currently allocated to the scheme to reduce class sizes in early-years education. Labour Members will reflect that intention in our votes tonight.

10.59 pm
Mr. Kilfoyle

With the leave of the House. I had not intended to speak again until I listened to the contribution by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson). I commend the contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I also agreed with many of the remarks by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

The hon. Member for Norwich, North viewed the past with rose-coloured glasses. I also attended a direct grant school that was fine in some respects. However, at that school—which is now independent, like so many others—I learnt about the class divisions in society. It was not the same sort of school that the hon. Gentleman recalls from the 1950s and 1960s. I returned to speak to the old boys and I was booed and cheered in equal measure when I reminded them of the lessons that I learnt—which were not the valuable ones that one often derives from education.

I returned also to my primary school and I pointed out that the values that have stood me in good stead throughout life were the ones that I learnt there rather than at the direct grant school. I disabuse anyone who has experience of a direct grant school of the notion that there is good and bad in every school. It is ridiculous to argue that what obtained in those halcyon days would have the same effect in this day and age.

I put to the Minister three points arising from the debate. First, will she assure the House that the 60,000 extra children who enter the system next year will receive the same funding as the Government propose for those who will be advantaged under the direct grant scheme? Secondly, will she assure us that the scheme is not a subsidy for private schools that might not exist otherwise? Lastly, will she take seriously the allegations concerning fraud within the system?

It is all very well to talk, as we did earlier, about people who allegedly defraud the benefit system while seeking asylum in this country. I want to know how seriously the Government will take the claim by David Jewell from Haileybury school that 20 per cent. of applications are fraudulent. Apart from conducting a cursory audit, what will the Government do about that?

11.2 pm

Mrs. Gillan

With the leave of the House I shall reply to the debate. I assure Opposition Members that any doubts that they may have about the assisted places scheme are not shared by the many parents whose children have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from it under this and the next Conservative Government.

Opposition Members claim that the assisted places scheme costs much more per pupil than maintained schooling and that abolishing the scheme would save substantial sums of money. They are quite wrong. In fact, in some parts of the country assisted places are cheaper than maintained schooling. In many inner-London local education authorities, last year's standard spending assessment unit cost for pupils aged 11 to 15 years was well above the national average assisted place cost of £3,700. For example, in Tower Hamlets it was more than £4,000; in Southwark, nearly £4,100; in Hackney, more than £4,300; and in Lambeth, nearly £4,500. Those four LEAs were among the 10 worst performing LEAs in the country in terms of the percentage of pupils who attained five or more GCSE grades A to C. We can contrast that with the benefits derived from the assisted places scheme.

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) to a letter that appeared in The Mail on Sunday last weekend. It was from a grandmother, who wrote: It disgusts me that the Labour Party intends to scrap assisted places in the top schools for poorer children if they get back in power. My grand-daughter will be one of the so-called 'minority' affected". She continued: This would give a gifted and hard-working child the start in life that she deserves. Despite the insistence of Tony Blair and some of his shadow cabinet on selective schooling for their own children, they seem determined to ruin the chances for the offspring of less privileged parents. That is the truth behind the Labour party's stance tonight.

The hon. Member for Walton asked where the children who are in the assisted places scheme come from. I am extremely pleased to tell him that 80 per cent. come from C1, C2 and DE families—lower middle class, skilled working class and unskilled working class. The average cost of an assisted place is £3,700. If money were everything, why was the cost of a pupil's education at Hackney Downs—a school that the Government had to close—£6,489?

I am happy to take up the hon. Gentleman's point, but there is absolutely no evidence of widespread abuse of the scheme. Steps are already in place to detect and prevent fraudulent applications by parents for assisted places. If the hon. Gentleman knows of anybody with evidence of fraud, he should bring it immediately to my Department. Indeed, checks are carried out by my Department every year.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), in an elegant speech, complained about the education in his area. Capital allocations in his area are the responsibility of the local education authority. I suggest that he asks the LEA to look at surplus places in the Manchester area. There must be savings to be made there.

My excellent Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), in a lively contribution, made the point that the Labour party had destroyed direct grant schools. That was an act of vandalism for which nobody will forgive the Labour party. Nobody can spin a line to my hon. Friend. He knows a success when he sees one, and he knows that the assisted places scheme is a great success.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was right when he said to me earlier that he would be making a speech that I may have heard before. I certainly had heard most of it before. I can reassure him that schools are inspected on a five to eight-year cycle. If he wants evidence of value for money, I refer him to the detailed research produced by the London school of economics, which proves the success of the scheme.

While listening to the speech by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), I heard him argue for the abolition of independent schools. He certainly has no love for them. Perhaps this is the real Labour party and the hidden agenda is the abolition of independent schools: tomorrow, assisted places; the day after, independent schools. He said that the scheme was not taken up. This September, almost 100 per cent. of all the places on the scheme will be taken up. Overall, the take-up is 95 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman wanted assurances that the scheme was not propping up the independent sector, for which he has no love. On average, 14 per cent. of pupils go to independent schools. He made a point about pupil-teacher ratios. I have already said that the cost of Hackney Downs was two and a half times the national cost of a maintained secondary place, but on pupil-teacher ratios, the ratio was 1:8. I rest my case.

The Conservative party supports independent schools and supports assisted places, which have provided a ladder of opportunity to able pupils from poor families. The assisted places scheme is safe in the hands of the Conservative party. I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 269, Noes 230.

Division No. 201] [11.09 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Bowis, John
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Brandreth, Gyles
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Brazier, Julian
Alton, David Bright Sir Graham
Amess, David Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Arbuthnot, James Browning, Mrs Angela
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)
Ashby, David Budgen, Nicholas
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Burns, Simon
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Burt, Alistair
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Butcher, John
Baldry, Tony Butler, Peter
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Butterfill, John
Bates, Michael Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Batiste, Spencer Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Bellingham, Henry Carrington, Matthew
Bendall, VMan Carrtiss, Michael
Beresford, Sir Paul Cash, William
Biffen, Rt Hon John Chapman, Sir Sydney
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Churchill, Mr
Booth, Hartley Clappison, James
Boswell, Tim Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Coe, Sebastian
Bowden, Sir Andrew Colvin, Michael
Congdon, David Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Conway, Derek Hunter, Andrew
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Jack, Michael
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Jenkin, Bernard
Couchman, James Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Cran, James Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Key, Robert
Davis, David (Boothferry) King, Rt Hon Tom
Day, Stephen Kirkhope, Timothy
Deva, Nirj Joseph Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Devlin, Tim Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Knox, Sir David
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Dover, Den Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Duncan, Alan Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Duncan Smith, Iain Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Dunn, Bob Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Durant, Sir Anthony Legg, Barry
Dykes, Hugh Leigh, Edward
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Elletson, Harold Lidington, David
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Lord, Michael
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Evennett, David MacKay, Andrew
Faber, David Maclean, Ftt Hon David
Fabricant, Michael McLoughlin, Patrick
Fenner, Dame Peggy McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Madel, Sir David
Fishburn, Dudley Maitland, Lady Olga
Forman, Nigel Malone, Gerald
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling) Mans, Keith
Forth, Eric Marland, Paul
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Marshall, Sir Michael (Amndel)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
French, Douglas Mates, Michael
Fry, Sir Peter Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Gale, Roger Mellor, Rt Hon David
Gallie, Phil Merchant, Piers
Garnier, Edward Mills, Iain
Gill, Christopher Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Gillan, Cheryl Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Moate, Sir Roger
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Gorst, Sir John Moss, Malcolm
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Nelson, Anthony
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Neubert, Sir Michael
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Nicholls, Patrick
Hague, Rt Hon William Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Norris, Steve
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Oppenheim, Phillip
Hampson, Dr Keith Paice, James
Hannam, Sir John Patnick, Sir Irvine
Hargreaves, Andrew Patten, Rt Hon John
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Pawsey, James
Hawkins, Nick Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hawksley, Warren Pickles, Eric
Hayes, Jerry Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Heald, Oliver Potter, David (Waveney)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hendry, Charles Powell, William (Corby)
Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test) Rathbone, Tim
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Horam, John Richards, Rod
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Riddick, Graham
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Robatnan, Andrew
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Temple-Morris, Peter
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Thomason, Roy
Sackville, Tom Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Shaw, David (Dover) Tracey, Richard
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Tredinnick, David
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford) Trend, Michael
Shersby, Sir Michael Twinn, Dr Ian
Sims, Sir Roger Viggers, Peter
Skeet, Sir Trevor Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Waller, Gary
Soames, Nicholas Ward, John
Spencer, Sir Derek Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Waterson, Nigel
Spfeer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Watts, John
Spink, Dr Robert Wells, Bowen
Spring Richard Whitney, Ray
Whittjngdale, John
Sproat, Iain Widdecombe, Ann
Squire, Robin (Homchurch) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wilkinson, John
Stephen, Michael Willetts, David
Stem, Michael Wilshire, David
Stewart, Allan Wolfson, Mark
Streeter, Gary Wood, Timothy
Sumberg, David Yeo, Tim
Sweeney, Walter Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Sykes, John
Tapsell, Sir Peter Tellers for the Ayes:
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Mr. Richard Ottaway and Mr. Roger Knapman.
Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strgfd)
Adams, Mrs Irene Coffey, Ann
Ainger, Nick Cohen, Harry
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Corbyn, Jeremy
Armstrong, Hilary Corston, Jean
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Cousins, Jim
Ashton, Joe Cox, Tom
Austin-Walker, John Cummings, John
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Barnes, Harry Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Barron, Kevin Dafis, Cynog
Battle, John Dafyell, Tam
Bayley, Hugh Darling, Alistair
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Davidson, Ian
Berth, Rt Hon A J Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)
Bell, Stuart Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Bermingham, Gerald Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Betts, Clive Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Blunkett, David Denham, John
Boateng, Paul Dewar, Donald
Bradley, Keith Dixon, Don
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Donohoe, Brian H
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Dowd, Jim
Byers, Stephen Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Caborn, Richard Eagle, Ms Angela
Callaghan, Jim Eastham, Ken
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Etherington, Bill
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Evans, John (St Helens N)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Fatchett, Derek
Campbell-Savours, D N Faulds, Andrew
Cann, Jamie Flynn, Paul
Chidgey, David Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Chisholm, Malcolm Foster, Don (Bath)
Clapham, Michael Fraser, John
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Fyfe, Maria
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Galbraith, Sam
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Gapes, Mike
Clelland, David George, Bruce
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Gerrard, Neil
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Godman, Dr Norman A Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Godsiff, Roger Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Golding, Mrs Llin Jowell, Tessa
Graham, Thomas Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Keen, Alan
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Khabra, Piara S
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Kilfoyle, Peter
Grocott, Bruce Kirkwood, Archy
Gunnell, John Lewis, Terry
Hain, Peter Liddell, Mrs Helen
Hall, Mike Livingstone, Ken
Hanson, David Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Hardy, Peter Llwyd, Elfyn
Harman, Ms Harriet Loyden, Eddie
Harvey, Nick McAllion, John
Henderson, Doug McAvoy, Thomas
Heppell, John McCartney, Ian
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Macdonald, Calum
Hinchliffe, David McFall, John
Hodge, Margaret McKelvey, William
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) Mackinlay, Andrew
Home Robertson, John McLeish, Henry
Hood, Jimmy McMaster, Gordon
Hoon, Geoffrey McNamara, Kevin
Howarth, George (Knowsley North) MacShane, Denis
Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd) McWilliam, John
Hoyle, Doug Madden, Max
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Maddock, Diana
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Mahon, Alice
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Mandelson, Peter
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Marek, Dr John
Hutton, John Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Illsley, Eric Martlew, Eric
Ingram, Adam Maxton, John
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Meacher, Michael
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Meale, Alan
Jamieson, David Michael, Alun
Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Morgan, Rhodri Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mudie, George Snape, Peter
Mullin, Chris Soley, Clive
Murphy, Paul Spearing, Nigel
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Steinberg, Gerry
O'Hara, Edward Stevenson, George
Olner, Bill Straw, Jack
O'Neill, Martin Sutcliffe, Gerry
Pearson, Ian Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Pickthall, Colin Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Pike, Peter L Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Pope, Greg Trickett, Jon
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Turner, Dennis
Prescott, Rt Hon John Tyler, Paul
Primarolo, Dawn Vaz, Keith
Quin Ms.Joyce Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Radice, Giles Walley, Joan
Raynsford, Nick Wareing, Robert N
Reid, Dr John Watson, Mike
Wicks, Malcolm
Rendel, David Wigley, Dafydd
Roche, Mrs Barbara Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Rogers, Allan Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Rooker, Jeff Wilson, Brian
Rooney, Terry Winnick, David
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Worthington, Tony
Rowlands, Ted Wray, Jimmy
Sedgemore, Brian Wright, Dr Tony
Sheerman, Barry
Short, Clare Tellers for the Noes:
Simpson, Alan Mrs. Jane Kennedy and Mrs. Bridget Prentice.
Skinner, Dennis

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1996, which were laid before this House on 20th June, be approved.
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