HC Deb 20 January 1997 vol 288 cc609-10
7. Mr. Flynn

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what assessment he has made of the effect of the assisted places scheme on Welsh comprehensive schools. [9913]

Mr. Jonathan Evans

I have made no assessment. The assisted places scheme enhances parental choice and has proved popular with parents who could not otherwise have had their child educated in the independent sector.

Mr. Flynn

Do not standards in all teams—in education and elsewhere—fall when high flyers are removed, and are not those standards restored when the stars return? Do not our schools need brilliant pupils in the same way as they need brilliant teachers? Are not our schools impoverished by the loss of high flyers and stars—those who set the pace, such as the Quinnells and the Gibbs? Would not school standards be restored if such pupils were allowed to continue to act as school leaders and pupils whom all other pupils seek to emulate? Why do the Government persist with a scheme that robs all our schools of their most brilliant pupils?

Mr. Evans

Most assessments that I have heard of last Saturday's match say that Scott Gibbs, Scott Quinnell and Allan Bateman gained from the experience of rugby league and that that was what gave the extra edge to their play. The Government's policy increases choice and opportunity. At least the hon. Gentleman has the merit of consistency: he has always opposed choice in education. At the weekend, his local newspaper quoted him as saying that schemes such as the assisted place scheme rob council schools of pupils.

The same could be said about the grant-maintained system, the independent system and the rest. His policy is to ensure that there is no choice or opportunity. Moreover, he is out of step with his own supporters. He may have noticed the MORI poll in The Times today, which shows that 64 per cent. of those who profess support for the Liberal Democrats and 55 per cent. of those who profess support for the Labour party approve of the assisted places scheme—so we shall no doubt see the Labour party's policy change tomorrow.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the proposals, which he may have seen, to abolish the assisted places scheme are not properly costed, as they do not allow for those who would have to return to the state system if it were abolished? Will he also confirm that Labour's scheme is real, old, unreconstructed socialism, levelling everybody down to the lowest common denominator, instead of allowing those from poor families to rise to the limit of their abilities?

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is right; the Opposition's proposals are a fraud on the electorate. He is also right to say that pupils will need to be educated, and cost is attached to that. The assisted places scheme budget is 0.27 per cent. of the total LEA schools budget in Wales, and we shall not revisit the subject for three years because the contractual obligation between the Government and the schools that are part of the scheme provides that the scheme should remain in operation for three years in any event. The Opposition claim that there would be additional money for education, but where would it come from?

Mr. Dafis

Does the Minister accept that the Education Bill, including provision for the assisted places scheme, is irrelevant to the needs of Wales and that if it were implemented it could be damaging? Does he accept that we need legislation in Wales to create a rational and effective education system targeted to our needs, and that that legislation should be devised and enacted in Wales? Is not a Parliament for Wales with legislative power urgently needed?

Mr. Evans

I accept that the majority of children in Wales will continue to be educated in local education authority schools. The hon. Gentleman and the Opposition parties are hostile to the choice and opportunity presented by parents and governors choosing to go down the grant-maintained route, by the existence of the independent sector and by the promotion of opportunities for a limited number of children to participate in the assisted places scheme. I do not understand how a well-meaning person like the hon. Gentleman can demonstrate such hostility to the choice and opportunity available to young people in Wales.