HL Deb 25 April 1985 vol 462 cc1239-45

4.31 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton rose to move, That the regulations laid before the House on 20th March be approved. [16th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Earl said: My Lords, these draft regulations consolidate the previous regulations (as amended) governing the detailed operation of the assisted places scheme, and propose some limited further amendments. The scheme, which was established to widen the educational opportunites available to children from less well-off families, has now been running for four years, and noble Lords may have observed that the full set of regulations and amending regulations was just beginning to seem unwieldy. It would, I am sure, be to the convenience of noble Lords and also to all the schools in the scheme if they could turn to a single set of consolidated regulations. That is what has been prepared for the House to consider today.

For the most part, there is little change from the regulations as previously approved. There are some very minor technical changes, with which I will not weary noble Lords. I shall just draw out the main changes. Regulation 4 has been slightly changed, in line with recent changes in the mandatory awards regulations, to extend eligibility to those who, though not technically refugees or having asylum, nevertheless have formal permission to stay in this country. Regulation 11 provides for the normal allowance against parental income for a dependant, when working out contributions to fees, to be increased from £850 to £900, which is broadly in line with inflation. It also provides for the actual amount of any contribution to a dependant's mandatory award to be deducted where this is greater than £900, removing an anomaly which affected very few but which was an injustice for them nonetheless.

Regulation 15 provides for the income scale for assessing parental contributions to be set out hereafter in a separate schedule. This is done purely for the convenience of those handling the regulations as a working document. However successful the Government may be in keeping down inflation, the income scale will need regular review in order to keep the burden on parents constant as far as possible in real terms.

If I may turn to Schedule 2, noble Lords will see that it proposes a modest uplifting of the scale in line with the modest inflation we are in fact enjoying. It should continue to ensure that something like 40 per cent. of pupils come from families with gross incomes that entitle them to full fee remission—that is, in this case, below £6,376 all told. Probably 80 per cent. of them will come from below average income families. As I said in my opening remarks, this has always been, and will remain, a scheme for children from lower income families.

The only other provision in the regulations to which I should draw noble Lords' attention is Regulation 24. As it stands, it is entirely technical. But noble Lords should be aware that Regulation 24 from the previous regulations, as amended, is being omitted. This prohibited participating schools from employing barred teachers. It is being omitted now purely because of technical doubts as to its vires. The prohibition is being introduced instead to schools' participation agreements, and Section 71 of the Education Act 1944 can anyway act as a fail safe device. So the omission of the previous Regulation 24 should have no practical effect. I only refer to it here for the avoidance of misunderstanding. I believe that I have referred to all the changes of any substance against earlier provisions, but if any noble Lords wish further clarification on these or any other matters in the draft regulations, I shall do my best to answer them in closing. I beg to move.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 20th March be approved. [16th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(The Earl of Swinton.)

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for explaining the regulations. I agree that it is convenient to have the amended regulations all together in one place along with what remains of the old ones. One cannot object to the changes that have been made. However, as the noble Earl may remember, I was very critical last year of the relaxation in the conditions governing applications for assisted places since the first regulations were laid in 1980 so that more pupils could more easily be syphoned off to private establishments. The safeguards that had been written into the 1980 Bill were being gradually whittled away. There do not seem to have been any more changes of that sort this year to make it easier for pupils to transfer, I am glad to say. That does not mean that I can give a general welcome to the regulations because our opposition to the scheme remains as strong as ever.

The financial arrangements have been updated, as the noble Earl said—and generously, as before. The allowance for dependants is increased to £900 from £850, an increase of 5.9 per cent. The level of income at or below which fees are to be wholly remitted is set at £6,376 instead of £6,046, up by 5.5 per cent. The figures in the table in Schedule 2—the scales of remission—are similarly increased by 5.5 per cent. Why, I ask the noble Earl, should the parents of assisted places pupils be treated so much more kindly than students whose grant is to be increased by only 3 per cent., well below the rate of inflation, estimated now to be at least 6 per cent. It seems grossly unfair.

The estimated cost of the scheme for 1984–85 is, I see, £22,512,000, an increase of £7.5 million over the 1983–84 figure of £14,995,000. In 1985–86, it is estimated to go up by another £8.5 million to £31,137,000. The Government are providing a huge subsidy to the private sector. I was horrified to read an answer to a Written Question put by Mr. Freud in which it was estimated that by 1988 47 schools will have over 20 per cent. of their pupils paid for under the assisted places scheme, 50 schools over 30 per cent. and 40 schools over 40 per cent. The subsidy is clearly extremely important to the survival of these schools. I should like to know the total number of schools now in the scheme.

It is all the harder to bear the increase in expenditure year by year on this scheme when the maintained schools are so hard-pressed for money for books, equipment, the upkeep of their buildings, and so on. Only a week or two ago, the Educational Publishers Council announced that school book sales had fallen by £2 million in 1984 and that a cut in cash of this size means, in real terms, against the general rate index, that schools had over £5 million less to spend on books than in 1983. This comes after repeated reports from HMIs of the shortages and the difficulties that this causes for the education of children. Standards in state schools should be the Secretary of State's first consideration. These cannot be raised as he constantly says he wishes them to be raised if the tools of learning are not available to the pupils.

I should like to know how many assisted pupils are now in sixth-forms, and how many transferred at 16 in September 1984. I should also like to give the noble Earl and the House some information about what is happening in my own area of south Cambridgeshire, where we have two excellent sixth-form colleges. Last September, 86 pupils transferred from private schools at 16, 9 per cent. of the total entry at 16. Applications for September 1985 are 133, again 9 to 10 per cent. of those applying. These are students of very high ability transferring to do A-levels, mostly from the two Perse schools and St. Mary's Convent, Cambridge.

I understand that over the country as a whole, where the number of sixth-form and tertiary colleges is increasing, private schools are losing about one-third of their 16-year-old pupils. I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will be proud of the quality of the maintained schools and say that he is proud, and that he will not relax any more of the conditions of the assisted places scheme but will see that adequate funds go into the maintained sector for books, equipment and, above all, teachers.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl the Minister for his presentation of the draft regulations, 1985. I am prepared to go along with the Minister a certain distance in agreeing that the scheme is showing some success within its own limitations. It is, I understand, giving help to certain needy sections of society, and notably one-parent families and families suffering from the impact of unemployment. I believe also that a high proportion of the children of clergy are benefiting from the scheme. These are indeed good sales points. One can appreciate furthermore the argument that in considering educational matters it is individual children who matter, and if certain individual children are benefiting one should not quibble too much about the rights and wrongs of the principle.

However, we on these Benches do not like the flavour of it. One recalls the headmaster of Westminster School's dictum that it was like trying to cope with a famine by sending a small party of children to the Ritz for lunch. Dr. Rae also described the scheme as a piece of old-style social engineering. It reminds me of a friend of mine from the war-days who said that when peace came he was going to put a donkey in the middle of a field with the lushest grass imaginable and feed it on ambrosial apples and celestial carrots to make up for all the ill-treatment, brutality and burdens that the donkeys of the Mediterranean area have had to endure down the ages.

However, to be serious, we feel that it is a retrograde step to be siphoning money and talent out of the educational framework within which 94 per cent. of our children have to work. In this latter regard one is particularly concerned about sixth forms. Anyone who has worked in a school, as I have spent my life doing, knows how important are the oldest and ablest children in a school. They set an example, they draw the standard of their juniors up towards their own level, and they determine the image of the school. Even the loss of two or three children of that calibre can adversely affect a school's quality. Of course it may be that the loss of a few from a sixth form may mean the abandonment of a whole course of study. In the year 1983–84 the numbers of sixth form assisted places filled was in excess of 1,400. Presumably, the number will have gone up in the current year. I believe that the take-up this year has been 79 per cent.

One also has to consider the psychological effect on all the children in a school when one or more of their number is lifted out of it. Again from experience, I know the disastrous effect of dividing a class of children into sheep and goats. The good ones will do computer studies and the rest will go on with their adding and subtracting. The most spectacular result of that is a total collapse of confidence on the part of the adders and subtracters. How far is this happening—this tendency for the children left behind to devalue themselves? I suggest that some assessment should be made of it by the headmasters of schools which have lost pupils.

Another loss that a maintained school may suffer as a result of the removal of a child is the loss of one lot of concerned parents who might otherwise have made a valuable contribution in PTA work. Our battered educational system needs nurture and care and money spent on it, rather like the railways and the roads. I suppose that it could be described as part of the infrastructure. To spend money—something like, I believe, £31 million in the coming academic year, a sum much needed for text books and equipment—in a process which favours the few only will increasingly tend to subvert it rather than support it.

It is said that the effect on the maintained sector is minimal owing to the small number of children involved. However, one fears for the future. There are some 20,000 children currently in assisted places. How will it be when the number has risen to twice that figure? I understand that is the intention of the Government. The take-up rate among 11 to 13-year olds increased on the last occasion from 87 per cent. to 91 per cent.

I come to the main question that I should like to ask the noble Earl the Minister. Is it correct that when the scheme is fully implemented the number of children enjoying assisted places will be something in the region of 40,000 and no more? I should also like to ask whether the noble Earl can confirm that the system is in fact under-subscribed in that 674 places have not been taken up in the current year, and that this figure would be higher if the stipulation that a participating school should take 60 per cent. from the maintained sector had not been relaxed?

Finally, as a former teacher of English, I should like to ask the noble Earl whether he can do anything to improve the prose style of the compilers of such documents as the one we have before us. I have received some very strange offerings in my 40 years of teaching but none to beat some of the gems in this, which I have had the utmost difficulty in decoding. Perhaps I may give just two examples. The first extract is as follows—and, mark you my Lords, the paragraph has no commas and so I shall read it as it is written. It says: Nothing in this Regulation shall prevent a child from being selected for an assisted place in advance of its being ascertained that such a condition is satisfied if the selection is subject to the condition being satisfied". I think that means as follows: provided it is realised that these conditions must ultimately be fulfilled, there is no reason why a child should not be provisionally selected for an assisted place.

The other extract to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention is this piece of officialese: It shall be a condition that the child … either shall have attained the age of 11 years or, in the case of the child who, if selected for an assisted place, would be provided with education with pupils the generality of whom would have attained that age, be of such age that he will have attained the age of 11 years before 1st August next following the beginning of his first assisted year". That—if your Lordships would like me to attempt to decode it—I think means that the child must either be 11 years old or, if younger, must be able to work with 11-year olds and must in any case reach his 11th birthday by 1st August in the first assisted year.

4.48 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to welcome the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, to the Alliance Front Bench, especially after the very good common sense which he expressed as regards the use of the English language in publications. I can only say in my own defence that I take enormous trouble when I write to your Lordships to ensure that the letters are correct grammatically. I am afraid that I do not have the time to go through publications put out by the DES in a similar way. However, we are very pleased to see the noble Lord sitting on the Front Bench and I hope that we shall be crossing swords—if that is not too strong a term—from time to time.

It comes as no surprise to me at all that both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord on the Opposite side should once again use the opportunity of the debate on these regulations to attack the scheme as a whole. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, this is becoming something of a habit. I cannot understand why the noble Baroness persists in her opposition to the scheme: now into its fourth year, its success and popularity are transparent.

Noble Lords opposite have often enough complained about the exclusivity of the public schools. The assisted places scheme has changed all that. On average, about a third of each intake in a high proportion of the best independent schools in the country now come from low-income or very low-income families. That is all thanks to the assisted places scheme. There are now over 17,300 pupils benefiting from it, and nearly three-quarters of them are from families with below-average incomes. I am delighted to confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, said—namely, that the majority of these come from single-parent families or have parents who are unemployed. I must say that what the noble Lord said about the children of clergy was news to me. However, I am sure that I would take his word on that. Indeed, perhaps I may answer one of the noble Lord's questions at this stage. When the scheme is fully working we expect there to be about 34,000 children in it. I think that the noble Lord mentioned the figure of 40,000, but it will be slightly less than that. A full 40 per cent. of these children come from families whose gross combined income is less than £6,000. Those who complained—and I must confess that I was one of them—that the scheme would be little more than a subsidy for the rich have long since lost the argument.

Neither is the scheme a means of sustaining those, albeit of lower income, who would somehow have had their children at independent schools anyway. Schools are asked, under the principal regulations, to ensure that at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils attended maintained schools immediately before taking up the place. In practice some 70 per cent. of pupils admitted to assisted places come from maintained schools. The scheme is plainly achieving its objective of opening up the best independent schools to children who almost certainly would not otherwise have been able to look on them as an option. Its success has been conspicuous, its popularity widespread and still growing.

The noble Baroness asked me a number of questions. There are 226 schools, I understand, partaking in the scheme at the moment. She asked me about the comparison with student awards. The 3 per cent. increase in awards relates to the amount of the full grant, not the parental income assessment. The parental income assessment, as in the APS, is related to increases in earnings, and the uplift figure is quite similar, allowing for differences in the base from which the two happen to be measured.

There was some consternation expressed by both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, about the expenditure on books and equipment in maintained schools. I fully accept that there is concern about provision for books and equipment in maintained schools, although provision for pupils rose substantially between 1981–82 and 1982–83, and again slightly between 1982–83 and 1983–84. But we share this concern and have made clear that we regard this as an area which will be given priority within the resources available to local authorities. The Government's expenditure plans provide scope for this, but choices ultimately lie with local authorities and the schools themselves.

The noble Baroness asked me about the number of sixth-form pupils, and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, did also. The figures I have are that in 1983 there were 745 entrants, and in 1984 817 entrants. I must stress that the number of places across the country for sixth-form entrants is so small that it cannot have much impact on maintained sixth forms.

No assisted places school can recruit more than five pupils a year to assisted places in the sixth form. We have found that only a relatively small proportion of those that are admitted come from maintained schools. It is unusual for any single maintained school to lose even one, let alone more than one, pupil to an assisted sixth-form place.

I believe that I have answered all the points which were raised, but if when I read Hansard I find that I have omitted any, I shall write to either the noble Baroness or the noble Lord concerned. In the meantime, I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.