HL Deb 20 July 1990 vol 521 cc1169-78

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Blatch rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 27th June be approved. [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the draft regulations provide a number of small amendments to be made to the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989 which were consolidated last year.

The assisted places scheme was established in 1981 for the purpose of widening the educational opportunities of able children from less well-off families. It provides their parents with assistance towards the fees of some of the best independent schools in the country. The assistance is on a sliding scale based on parental income and the principal changes embodied in the amending regulations are concerned with the annual revision of those scales.

In past years there have also been technical amendments to keep the definition of "total parental income" for the purposes of the scheme constant as tax legislation changes. This year one such amendment takes account of the position of APS parents who are eligible for relief on medical insurance in pursuance of Section 54 of the Finance Act 1989.

Regulation 1 of the draft regulations deals with citation, commencement, application and interpretation. The regulations are to come into force on 21st August 1990. Regulation 2 provides for grant-maintained schools (within the meaning of the Education Reform Act 1988) to be included in the definition of "publicly maintained schools" referred to in Regulation 19(2) of the principal regulations. I would mention at this point that the APS is not a means of supporting those families whose children would, in any event, have entered the independent sector without the aid of an assisted place. The scheme is intended to offer this type of education to the children of parents who, without assistance, would never have been able to afford it. Consequently, under the principal regulations, participating schools must ensure that at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils attended state schools immediately before taking up their assisted place. It is worth noting that in practice at this time 71 per cent. of those children attended state schools before taking up assisted places.

Regulation 3 of the draft regulations updates the 1989 regulations and relates to those parents who pay medical insurance. Its effect is to discount deductions from total income allowed on payments for medical insurance made by those parents aged over 60. For obvious reasons, few people will fall into this category.

Regulation 4 sets out the income scale used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. As has been the case in previous years, this has been uprated to take account of movements in the retail prices index. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £7,584 to £8,200.

The provisions and amendments I have just described will ensure the continued smooth running of the assisted places scheme and I trust that they will find favour with noble Lords. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 27th June be approved. [22nd Report from the Joint Committee}—(Baroness Blatch.)

Lord Peston

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing the regulations. I have a number of specific questions to ask her but, not surprisingly, I take this opportunity to make one or two comments. I shall not speak at great length because I feel that this is one of those areas where there is no meeting of minds, or perhaps there is a meeting of minds, in the sense that we simply agree to disagree. In the past I have railed against the method of using public funds, as have my predecessors. However, the Government have stuck to their view and I do not think that either side has made any concessions.

We believe that the assisted places scheme has been a method of reintroducing selection via the back door. The evidence which we have—I shall return to the point about evidence—shows all the deficiencies of selective schemes which have existed in the past. We also believe that the funds involved could have been used for better purposes. In anticipation of what might be said, I think that I should stress the fact that noble Lords on this side of the House, and our party, are fully committed to abolishing the assisted places scheme, if for no other reason than that we see no sign whatever of any evidence to suggest that any educational benefits have been derived from it.

I turn now to deal with the scheme itself. The noble Baroness did not say what the anticipated cost of the scheme would be for the coming year. I assume that it will be more or less of the same order of magnitude as it was in the financial year which has just ended; namely, of the order of £60 million, plus some uprating for inflation. I take it that the figures mentioned in the regulations are uprated as regards inflation. However, can she tell us what rate of inflation was actually used to readjust them. The noble Baroness referred to the so-called 60 per cent. figure, in that at least 60 per cent of the assisted places should be for pupils who have attended maintained schools. However, she said that the actual percentage is 71 per cent. I believe that this point is covered in the legislation, although it may be in earlier regulations. Can she clarify what meaning we are to place upon the importance of pupils having attended maintained schools? Is the criterion that pupils must have spent all of their time in education up until that point in maintained schools, or is it that they must have spent some time in maintained schools? It is most important that that point should be clarified in order to enable us to interpret the significance of those figures.

I turn now to deal with gross family income. I have tried to do the relevant calculations myself, but I simply do not have the ability to do so. However, can the noble Baroness tell us, for example, in the case where there were two assisted pupils, what the gross family income would have to be—I refer to the income before allowances are made—before no money would be forthcoming for an assisted place? I emphasise the word "gross" as I had some difficulty in working it out for myself. Therefore, if those who are advising the noble Baroness cannot make the calculation on the spot, I should be perfectly happy to have the information sent to me.

On the question of costs, perhaps I may make a point which is often ignored. The matter has been debated here and in another place. I put it to the noble Baroness that comparing the actual unit cost of an assisted place with the unit cost of a place in a maintained school, and arguing that that throws light on the cost of the scheme, is an incorrect calculation. There can be no doubt that the unit cost of a young person in the scheme is a cost to the tax payer. But to cite the unit cost of a place in the maintained schools in comparison is erroneous because it must be compared with the amount which would be saved in a maintained school. The amount saved in the maintained school is a marginal cost.

Where we have an excess of maintained school places—in many of the areas about which we are talking we have an excess—the marginal cost of those pupils is zero. On clear economic grounds, the whole cost of the assisted places scheme falls upon the taxpayer. There are few savings to be offset against it. That is a piece of elementary economics, and it is something which I put to the noble Baroness or those who advise her, for them to think about.

My next question relates to research. Most of the debates on the subject, especially in the other place, have been of a knock-about kind: "Don't you know that your Miss Such-and-such has an assisted place? Her father is poor and she ended up a Cambridge", or some other fate worse than death, and, "Isn't that an example of the benefits of the assisted places scheme?" Such anecdotes are not research. They do not answer the question: how do you know that that person with ability would not have gone to Cambridge having been at a comprehensive? Vast numbers of young people from poor backgrounds do precisely that. To quote such anecdotes is of no help. We must ask whether any research has been undertaken to show whether there are positive benefits of the kind that we have in mind.

Secondly, we must ask whether there has been any serious research into the effect the assisted places scheme has on the schools to which those young people might have gone. Is there any evidence, as was argued at the outset, that allowing those people to leave the maintained system would act as a spur to an improvement in the maintained system? I ask those questions because the only research of which I am aware shows nothing of the kind. It shows the opposite: that on the whole it is impossible to demonstrate any net benefit from the assisted places scheme or any net benefit to the maintained system.

After the £200 million that has gone into the scheme since it started, I should have thought that the Department of Education and Science would have felt that it should fund a great deal of research to test those matters. I do not suggest that it is easy. I can think of hundreds of reasons why it is hard to do such research, but, since claims were made about the scheme's benefits, the proper use of public funds requires that we study the effects.

I regret to say that I have spoken for longer than I wanted, especially considering the time of the day and the day of the week. However, we are debating important matters. I thank the noble Baroness. I do not require all the answers to my questions immediately, but that does not mean that I do not regard them as not worth answering.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

I too thank the Minister for her exposition of the new regulations. I am sure that the figures are what the Government intend them to be and I understand that the scheme is thriving. I have no doubt that the pupils, the parents and the school are happy about the scheme. The schools are having some nice, bright pupils whom they would not otherwise have. They are also getting an egalitarian image, which must please them.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I become apparently irrelevant for a short time. The only excuse for irrelevance is that one will not be long. I have just been reading an HMI report about some schools in Hackney. It is pretty hair-raising. I shall read a few excerpts. I want to emphasise that the report does not apply to all the schools in the borough of Hackney, some of which are excellent. I have seen some of them, and I know how well they are working. However, there are others which are not so good.

The inspections were carried out in January of this year. The report states: in the smaller sample of primary schools visited in January 1990 the percentage of unsatisfactory lessons was 55%. These figures are to be compared with the national figure of 30 per cent. for all primary school lessons in the academic year 1988–89. Considering each school as a whole, none of the primary schools inspected is outstanding; most range from adequate to poor; about half a dozen give cause for concern". That is the most serious comment the inspectors can make, "cause for concern".

In addition, the report says about primary schools that old school buildings pose problems: over half the primary schools visited provide a dismal setting for teaching and learning; untidy classrooms, poorly organised resource rooms and a low standard of cleaning contribute to the shabby environment. In some schools the quality of facilities such as the toilets raises questions about the attitudes which are conveyed, consciously or unconsciously, to pupils by the school. For example in one primary school a single toilet roll was left hanging at the entrance to the building". Regarding secondary schools, the report states: Visits to eight of the ten secondary schools in Hackney revealed that overall standards are significantly below the national average of one in three lessons judged to be good or very good; in Hackney only one in five lessons could be so described. Nationally a third of all lessons are judged to be less than satisfactory or poor; in Hackney the figure is over 40 per cent. and a tenth of all lessons displayed serious shortcomings. The core subjects fare no better than the rest: half the science lessons, half the mathematics and two-fifths of the English lessons were unsatisfactory or poor". The inspectors basically do not blame lack of funding for materials and equipment. It is the shortage of teachers that concerns them. They say: Most Hackney schools are unable to recruit and retain sufficient teachers of any kind and find even more difficulty in attracting those with the experience and quality needed to teach effectively in the difficult conditions prevailing in the Borough… Despite all that local effort Hackney entered into in the 1990s knowing that some children will not receive any teaching at all unless vacancies can be filled. Many more pupils will experience a succession of temporary teachers passing through their classrooms, each trying to pick up where the last left off, but leaving before they get to know the children and develop any secure idea of their capabilities. Some schools will continue to struggle without a permanent head and some without a permanent deputy either". We all know that the basic cause of this is not the ILEA, which was responsible at the time of the inspections. It was the underfunding of the system as a whole. No less a person than David Jewell, chief master of Haileybury and chairman of the Headmasters' Conference, said: Underfunding of state education has been scandalous. Teachers' salaries are absolutely scandalous". Dr. Rae, former headmaster of Westminster, also considers that the scheme should be funded by the schools themselves, not by public funds.

We On these Benches are all for parental choice and opportunity for the less well off. But these benefits must be balanced against the obligation of a government to provide public services. Education is a public service like health, and in a civilised country we consider that it is a birthright. What justification can there be for diverting taxpayers' money—that is, public funds—into private interests, when the public service stands in such dire need?

There has been a fair amount of talk in recent years of a two-tier society, and, more ominously, of a growth of an underclass. It seems to us that the assisted places scheme is likely to contribute to precisely that.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the Labour Party has opposed the scheme since its inception. The regulations being considered today, the way in which the scheme is working and the principle involved have not led us to change our view. The cost per year for each assisted place pupil for 1989–90 was £2,364. This information came in a written reply to me yesterday from the Minister. She also stated that the equivalent national cost of a pupil in secondary education for that year is not yet available, but for 1988–89 it was £1,985 in the maintained sector.

The fact that there is a difference, in that the cost of an assisted place represents the greater cost, is unacceptable. The difference may not be very great but the assisted places scheme as a whole is expensive and unnecessary. I do not know what the total cost of the scheme is but it must run into many millions of pounds. As the noble Lord who has just spoken said, the scheme is being implemented at a time when the maintained sector is crying out for money. Every day we hear tales of crumbling schools, serious shortages of teachers and inadequate supplies of teaching materials, not least of text books.

The scheme was intended to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have no doubt that some children in the scheme come from such backgrounds. However, I should like to ask the Minister—my noble friend on the Front Bench touched on this—how much detailed research is being carried out on that point. I assume some research is being carried out. If that is the case, it should be published so that we can see what is happening. I ask particularly about that matter because that is why the scheme was instituted. When it first came before your Lordships' House, that reason was quoted as the raison d'être of the scheme. Further, I ask about this matter because of a book entitled The State and Private Education: An Evaluation of the Assisted Places Scheme written by Edwards, Fitz and Whitty. The study was funded by the Government through the Science and Engineering Research Council, so presumably it has some respectability.

As far as I am aware, the study constitutes the most detailed investigation into the scheme. Its conclusions cannot make happy reading for the Government. The authors reveal that only 10 per cent. of assisted place pupils have fathers who are manual workers, while 50 per cent. of such pupils have fathers who are employed in service industries. The figure of 10 per cent. condemns the scheme as a failure in its main objective.

It would also be useful—I believe I have made this point in previous debates on the subject—and interesting to be given the numbers of assisted place pupils by region. That is a genuine query on my part. I have no information on that aspect, nor have I ever seen any published. I suspect, however, that my region, the northern region, has fewer such pupils than, say, the South East. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House what information there is on that regional aspect. I hope that if it is not readily available she will consider trying to obtain it and will place it in the Library.

Supporters and Members of the Government frequently ask what the Labour Party will do about the scheme when it comes to office. My noble friend has already dealt with this point, but I shall add a few further remarks. I repeat that the Labour Party has said many times that it will end the scheme but that all pupils in the scheme will be allowed to complete their courses. That process will permit money and resources to be used much more effectively.

I hope the House will forgive me for repeating myself, but I must say once again that my main reason for intervening in the debate is to say that the main objective of the scheme is not being achieved. As I have already said, it is not working to the benefit of the children of disadvantaged parents. When one considers the amount of money and the amount of time and effort which have been spent on the scheme since it came into operation in 1980—it has now been in operation for a decade—particularly in the context of the huge problems of education at the present time, one begins to despair of this Government ever getting anything right.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the assisted places scheme is now in its ninth successful year. I can assure noble Lords opposite that any doubts which they may have about it are not shared by the many parents whose children have benefited and will continue to benefit from it.

There are now 27,000 pupils in the assisted places scheme, of whom about two thirds come from families with incomes under £12,000 a year. The scale for determining the amount of fee remission is intentionally a demanding one and only those families with incomes currently below £7,584 qualify for completely free places. That figure will be uprated to £8,200 in future. Even so, in the current school year one third of all assisted pupils are eligible for full remission of fees. It is quite clear that the scheme is working to the advantage of those less well off families for whom it was intended.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, suggested on the basis of the research to which he referred that only 10 per cent. of all young people taking advantage of the scheme come from families whose parents are involved in manual work. I prefer to think of salary levels rather than of what people do for a living. All sorts of people work at salary levels comparable to those of people who do manual work. I cannot restate too often that one-third of the children who are being helped under the scheme come from families in which the salary level is at or below £7,400 a year. Two-thirds of all the children helped under the scheme come from families earning £12,000 or less a year, and only 18 per cent. of children come from families where the salary level is above £14,000 a year. That means that the majority of children helped under the scheme come from families earning very low salaries, whether manual workers or not. I believe that the scheme is reaching those young people of ability who come from low-salaried families.

Lord Peston

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Baroness so that we know what we are talking about. Are the salaries that she quoted what I refer to as net income and what the regulations refer to as relevant income, or was she quoting the figure that I asked for, which was gross salaries? I have a feeling that she quoted the former.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am talking about the income that is taken into account when allowances are deducted. Nevertheless a salary of £7,400, by anyone's standards, even taking allowances into account, is a very low salary. The level of £12,000 is the net salary. I shall ask for more details, which may come before the end of the debate. Otherwise I shall write to the noble Lord.

The APS provides excellent value for money. In the 1988–89 academic year the average cost to the taxpayer of each assisted pupil was £2,121. The corresponding average cost of a pupil in the maintained sector, as the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, pointed out, was £1,985, a difference of only £136. It is also worth noting that one of the reasons for the marginally higher cost is that the rate for young people under the scheme staying on into the sixth form is much higher than in the maintained sector. The fact that the taxpayer bears that cost annually for these young people bears out the point that we are spending the money on children from lower salaried families. The children we are supporting in the scheme are those we have to support to a higher level because they come from families earning at the lower end of the scale.

Even that small difference is due to the high proportion of sixth form provision which the scheme supports. The excellence of the output from the assisted places scheme expenditure is beyond question. Of those young people entered for A-levels, assisted place holders achieve on average a pass rate of around 90 per cent. The average for the maintained sector is 75 per cent. Not only are those young people from low salaried backgrounds entering the system; they also benefit greatly from it.

Like noble Lords opposite, we believe in equality of opportunity for all pupils. We believe that the assisted places scheme plays a vital part in that process and does so by levelling up rather than by levelling down.

I am pleased to say that from September, 17 more schools will be able to offer pupils assisted places under the scheme. These schools are mainly in regions of the country where the provision of assisted places has been relatively poor. In addition to this limited expansion we are continuing with plans to achieve a take-up rate of 100 per cent. by redistributing unfilled places to schools where demand exceeds supply. Thus, the opportunities offered by the scheme will be opened to even more families throughout the country.

The assisted places scheme is plainly achieving its objective of opening up some of the best independent schools to children who almost certainly would not otherwise have been able to look to them as an option. That can only be to their and the nation's advantage.

One or two other points were raised during the debate. For the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I am now advised that the figure to which I referred earlier was a gross figure.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I take it that the noble Baroness is completely confident about that answer. I must say that I find it almost impossible to believe. Nonetheless I am willing to wait for further consideration.

Baroness Blatch

I am assured, my Lords, that it is a gross figure. As a gross figure it supports even more the case that I was making earlier.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked me about the length of time that a child may have been in a maintained primary school before going into the assisted places scheme. I am assured that it is the school immediately prior—in other words, the school from which the young person comes into the assisted places scheme has to be a state school. The minimum percentage is 60 per cent.

I was asked about the estimated cost of the scheme in the coming year. I am advised that it is around £61 million. That again is the figure mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. It will be subject to final adjustment because it depends upon the number of young people who take up the scheme.

As leas been said before, the figure for children who benefit from the scheme now is around 27,000. The aim is to take the target figure up to 35,000, and bringing the new schools on stream may help us to achieve it.

The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, spent most of the time talking about schools in Hackney. There are not many noble Lords still in the Chamber this afternoon. But most noble Lords would agree with him that there is enormous cause for concern. However, I do not believe that it is right to invalidate a scheme which costs the taxpayer of this country less than half of 1 per cent. of all that is spent on education and which benefits upwards of 27,000 young people. The fact that the results are very poor in Hackney is not a good reason for invalidating the scheme.

I was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, about the level of income at which benefit falls away. It depends where one starts. Not only is there a banded income which determines how we help people, but it also depends very much on the fees charged by a school. In order to be specific, I should need to know the fee for any school mentioned. I could then give specific figures about the level to which we would help a young person. If the noble Lord cares to give me an example of the fees of a specific school, I shall write to him on this point.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, asked about regional statistics. I can write and send them to him. I have already made reference to the 17 new schools which are coming into the scheme. Their geographical spread is designed specifically to assist where assisted places are not available in some parts of the country. I made some mental calculations while listening to the debate. I believe that something like seven of the 17 are in the North and North East, eight are in the Midlands, one is in East Anglia and one is in the South.

I shall write to noble Lords if I have missed any other points that were raised when I have had the opportunity to read the report of this debate. I believe that I have answered—

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Are we talking of the same thing? I spoke of the origin of pupils from a region, not the number of schools, although that would be interesting too. For example, in my part of the country, I refer to the number of pupils from the northern region, the West Midlands, the South East and so on. Are we talking of the same figure?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall be more specific when I write. I shall take proper note of the question. What I said was not entirely irrelevant because most of those young people have assisted day places and inevitably they will go to a local independent school. In the North East one would expect that the children attending would come from the North East. However, we shall give the noble Lord a breakdown of the children in the system.

If I have missed any points I shall write to noble Lords. I commend the regulation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.