HL Deb 25 July 1991 vol 531 cc887-92

11.45 a.m.

Baroness Match rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2nd July be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: The draft regulations provide for certain small amendments, which I will describe, to be made to the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989. The assisted places scheme is now in its 10th year. It 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.

The other amendments are 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 also takes account of the position of APS parents who are eligible for relief on single gifts made by individuals to charities in pursuance of Section 25 of the Finance Act 1990. However, I am sure that noble Lords will find the amendments I shall describe as quite straightforward.

Regulation 1 of the draft regulations deals with citation, commencement, application and interpretation. The regulations are to come into force on 30th August 1991. Regulation 2 of the draft regulations updates the 1989 regulations to take account of the introduction of residence orders made under the Children Act 1989 and allows for the repeal of the Children Act 1975 by the 1989 Act. This is a technical amendment which will enable the effect of residence orders under the new Act to be recognised when that Act comes into force. Custodianship orders under the 1975 Act will continue to have effect despite its repeal and the regulations reflect that.

Regulation 3 of the draft regulations uprates the amount of the allowance that can be deducted from parents' total relevant income for each dependent child, other than the assisted place holder, in the family. The amount is raised from £1,000 to £1,065; that is, by the same percentage which applies to the uprating of the income scales to which I shall address myself in a moment. This allowance is helpful to parents with large families and uprating it will ensure that their position is not worsened.

Regulation 4 amends Regulation 19 of the principal regulations which is concerned with recruitment to assisted places. Regulation 19 requires schools to select at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils from publicly maintained schools. This requirement lies at the heart of the scheme and reflects the aim to give priority to those children from less well-off families who would otherwise have gone to such schools and would not have had the opportunity of an independent school education. The amendment will allow a pupil at the school (whether he is assisted or not) to have the benefit of an assisted place later in his school career, if that becomes necessary, provided he originally came from a publicly maintained school. It will help in those cases of hardship which arise from time to time. Generally, schools have little trouble in recruiting at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils from state schools. Indeed, the average for the scheme as a whole is over 70 per cent.

Regulation 5 of the draft regulations is a small technical amendment and updates the 1989 regulations so as to discount deductions from total income allowed on donations to charity by individuals under the gift aid scheme. Regulation 6 sets out the income scale used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. This year this has been uprated to take account of the movement in the retail prices index to April this year and the figure is 6.4 per cent. At a time of rapidly falling inflation, I believe this revaluation of the income bands to a current level of inflation, rather than the method used in former years which would have resulted in an uplift of 9.8 per cent., to be an equitable measure to ensure that a proper balance is struck between the contributions that parents can reasonably be expected to afford and the need for taxpayers' money to be used prudently and with maximum effect.

The effect of this amendment will be to call for a slightly larger contribution from parents, but it still represents an excellent opportunity for their children to benefit from the type of education offered at the schools which participate in the scheme. It ensures that a proper balance is struck between the contributions that parents can reasonably be expected to afford and the need for taxpayers' money to be used prudently and with maximum effect. This revaluation of the income bands therefore represents an equitable measure to ensure that balance is even. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £8,200 to £8,714 and will mean that approximately one-third of all parents will still qualify for full fee remission. The threshold is set deliberately low so that the least well-off benefit most. In cases where there are more than three assisted pupils in a family, provision is made for fees in respect of the fourth and subsequent child to be wholly remitted.

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

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2nd July be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Blatch.)

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the regulations and the amendments to them. It will come as no surprise to your Lordships that on this side of the House we have difficulties with the regulations. The reason we have difficulties is that we consider that the assisted places scheme was misconceived from the start and has totally failed in its objectives. The main reason that we have always opposed the scheme is that it undermines the state schools because it creams off able pupils.

I begin by asking the Minister how she would feel as a head teacher trying to achieve high standards and good results when this scheme picks off two or three of her most able pupils. Would not the Minister feel at least a little disappointed, if not resentful, in those circumstances? I say that because very bright and highly motivated pupils are valuable in any school, not just in their own right but because of the standards they set for other pupils and the effect that they can have in the development of the ethos of the school and the development of commitment to study among other pupils. The introduction of the new system of publishing examination results will make teachers in the state system even more resentful when faced with the creaming off process. I ask how the Minister would feel not rhetorically but expecting an answer. I hope the answer will demonstrate some sympathy for heads and their staff in state schools when that happens to them.

The second reason why we oppose the scheme and are therefore unhappy about the regulations is that it undermines state schools by implicitly suggesting that clever children who obtain assisted places will get a better education in private schools. If that is true, is it not a serious indictment of the Government who have overall responsibility for our state schools? Why, after 12 years, have the Government failed to ensure that we have a secondary school system which can successfully cater for bright children from working-class homes, or from any other background? Have the German or French Governments, or any other European government, developed an assisted places scheme which syphons off bright children from state schools? Of course they have not. In Europe governments are focusing attention on providing high quality state schools. Moreover, Ministers in those countries send their own children to state schools. I look forward to the day when Conservative Ministers do so here.

The third reason for our anxieties on these Benches is that the scheme is a failure on its own terms. It set out to support children from working-class back-grounds by providing funds to cover their fees in independent schools. Does the Minister accept the findings of independent research on the scheme which shows that more than 50 per cent. of the parents on the scheme come from professional and managerial backgrounds and only 7 per cent. from manual backgrounds? Does the Minister accept the finding that 63 per cent. of mothers and 51 per cent. of fathers of pupils on the scheme attended an independent or selective school? The scheme is supporting middle-class parents, many of whom went to independent schools themselves, who have fallen on hard times and therefore have relatively low incomes. The research also shows that a higher proportion of the pupils on the scheme than would be expected in the population as a whole are the children of broken marriages being brought up by their mothers. I should like to know from the Minister whether the father's income is always—I underline "always"—taken into account in assessing income levels for the scheme, even where children are living with their mothers. Surely it should always be taken into account.

When presenting these regulations the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place made a great deal of the fact that the cost of the scheme is not very great, comparing the average cost of an assisted place with the average cost of educating a pupil in a state secondary school. If I may say so, that just will not wash. It is an unacceptable argument for the reasons I have already given. The scheme is damaging to morale and to standards in the state system far beyond its actual cost.

There is another technical reason why these figures are nonsense. The Minister will surely agree that there are many spare places in state secondary schools. She and her colleagues are always reminding us of that fact and criticising local education authorities for not taking surplus places out of the system. Therefore, the cost of educating an extra pupil is small. In those circumstances, does not the Minister agree that the relevant comparison is not between the average cost of an assisted place and the average cost of a state secondary school place, but between the average cost of an assisted place and the marginal cost of a state secondary school place? As there are surplus places in secondary schools, will the Minister comment on the fact that in some private schools as many as one-third of places are maintained by the taxpayer through the assisted places scheme? With proportions as high as that, there must be some question about whether those schools would be viable without the scheme. Why should the taxpayer be propping up independent schools in this way when there are many spare places in state secondary schools?

I turn to one or two specific points. Have I correctly understood that the existing regulations allow up to 40 per cent. of pupils on the scheme to be recruited from independent schools? Am I also correct in assuming that under the new regulations parents of pupils already attending existing independent schools can apply for an assisted place if their income falls, provided their son or daughter came from a publicly maintained school originally? If that is the case, in both respects is it not yet another example of the scheme supporting parents who already use the private school system? I cannot believe that that was originally intended when the scheme was set up.

On a different matter, am I right in assuming that the regulations sanction fee increases for the purposes of the scheme of up to 12 per cent? Inflation over the past year may have been high because of the Government's mishandling of the economy, but it certainly was not 12 per cent.

There is nothing in the regulations that I can welcome. They relate to a deeply flawed scheme; a scheme that I know many fair-minded teachers in independent schools believe to be both unfair and wrong in principle. After 10 years there is no consensus of support for the scheme in any part of the education system. It is a divisive scheme. It is a scheme with low take-up in some parts of the country, especially among those groups that it was originally designed to help. But, most of all, is it not extra ordinary that the Government continue with the scheme after the Education Reform Act 1988 of which they are so proud and which was meant to do so much for standards and qualities in publicly-maintained schools?

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, although I would not disagree with the thrust of my noble friend's arguments from the Front Bench, I ask the House whether we cannot clear out of our vocabulary on this subject the phrase "bright children". The other side of this coin is dull children. More than 20 years ago in another place I made my maiden speech on the Education (Handicapped Children) Bill. If we do not use a different vocabulary, we simply reinforce all the old stereotypes and prejudices which have made it so difficult to better the lot of the children who are less fortunate and less gifted.

12 midday

Baroness Blotch

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, says about terminology. While I share his concern on that matter, I believe that we have just had an indulgence in class politics of the worst kind. It has been unadulterated politics of envy. These regulations are technical regulations. We have before us today adjustments and upratings for a scheme that is already in place and on which the philosophical arguments have already taken place in both Houses.

I am unapologetic about the scheme. On this side of the House we advocate pluralism. We live happily with the private sector and the state sector. Within the state sector we live happily with comprehensive schools, grammar schools, CTCs and grant maintained schools. We believe that that is a very good thing. If I were the head teacher looking at this scheme and if I were concerned about all children, I would think that these young people were being given an opportunity. I would see it as an opportunity and a challenge to the education system. I am not sure that I would be jealous or envious. The effect of creaming off from other schools is so negligible as to have almost no effect at all. The scheme is an opportunity for families.

On the question of statistics, I do not class people as coming from middle class, upper class or lower class homes. I do not indulge in that kind of terminology about people. One-third of all children who benefit from the scheme come from families with incomes of £8,034 or less. For two-thirds of the children who benefit from the scheme the family income taken into account is less than £13,043. Only a small number come from families where the income is £15,000 and above. The scheme is meant for children from low income families. It provides excellent educational opportunities for them. I believe that the scheme should be supported.

The other points raised by the noble Baroness relate to the philosophical argument. The only other technical point concerned the income of the father. The income of the father is not taken into account where parents are legally separated or divorced—in other words, where the father is not the responsible parent at the time. In all other cases the income of both parents must be declared. I hope that the House will accept the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.