HC Deb 13 November 1996 vol 285 cc343-4
6. Mr. Canavan

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how much money has been spent on the assisted places scheme since its inception. [2075]

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

Over the 15 years since it started in 1981, we have spent just over £800 million on the assisted places scheme in England. This has helped over 80,000 able children, four fifths currently from families below the national average income.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Minister now tell us the whole truth, which is that, if we include the Scottish and Welsh expenditure, the assisted places scheme has cost the taxpayer more than £1.1 billion? That money has been used to subsidise private fee-paying schools when it could and should be spent on deprived local education authority schools which educate the overwhelming majority of children.

Mrs. Gillan

First, after his years of experience in the House, the hon. Gentleman should know that matters concerning Wales and Scotland should be addressed to my right hon. and hon. Friends in those Departments. If he thinks about it, he will see that, even in England, if we have spent about £300 billion on education over the past 15 years, the amount that we have spent on the assisted places scheme is considerably less than 0.5 per cent. The assisted places are good value for money—far better value for money than schools such as Hackney Downs.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Is my hon. Friend aware—I know that several of her right hon. and hon. Friends are—of the cruel and cynical decision by the Lib-Lab coalition that now runs Lincolnshire county council to abolish the county assisted places schemes for the Stamford endowed schools? That leaves a population of 20,000 in the town of Stamford without any sixth form for children whose parents cannot afford to pay fees. Does my hon. Friend agree that a vicious and ideologically inspired decision such as that is a frightening foretaste of what would happen to the country if a Labour or Lib-Lab Government came to power after the next election?

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend is right to draw this matter to the attention of the House. Yet again, we have evidence of another reduction of choice perpetrated by the Opposition on the parents of children.

Mr. Kilfoyle

Given the extraordinary figure of —1.1 billion spent on the assisted places scheme, will the hon. Lady confirm that 32 per cent. of primary school pupils in the maintained sector—1.3 million children—are in classes of more than 30? Is it not a national disgrace that, while they are languishing in those over-size classes, the money is being spent as a subsidy in the private sector? Does the hon. Lady agree with her hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), who said that there are two things wrong with the assisted places scheme—its principle and its practice?

Mrs. Gillan

Once again, we are privileged to hear the hon. Gentleman, who seems to have lost not only his moustache but his sense of humour. One needs a sense of humour to listen to the same old rubbish that is peddled by the hon. Gentleman time after time. People know that the assisted places scheme is good value for money. It offers opportunity to the most able pupils from the least well-off families. Indeed, 40 per cent. of the pupils in the scheme come from families with an income below £9,873.

That attitude is a bit rich, because more than 20 Labour Members went to independent schools such as Eton, Winchester and Fettes. They now have a policy that would deny children from less well-off families the ability to attend good independent schools. It is the politics of envy at its worst.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Further to her last answer, does my hon. Friend agree that the assisted places scheme gives a chance to bright youngsters who have the misfortune to live in Labour-controlled local education authorities? They have a chance to escape from those areas, as did the children of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). They can have a decent education and a good start in life, which they would never get under Labour.

Mrs. Gillan

As usual, my hon. Friend is in fine form, and makes a good point full of common sense. The scheme widens the educational opportunities of able children from less well-off families, and gives them a choice of an education that they would not otherwise have had. That is why in the Education Bill we propose an expansion of the scheme to include preparatory schools. That paves the way for more choice for parents.