HL Deb 23 July 1993 vol 548 cc942-8

2.5 p.m.

Viscount Astor rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 29th June be approved [36th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, it is my pleasant task to explain the regulations governing the administration of the assisted places scheme to your Lordships. The purpose of the regulations is to make minor amendments and update the regulations of an already well-established scheme. The draft regulations provide for amendments to be made to principal regulations which are the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989.

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.

There are several other technical amendments which are necessary in order to keep the definition of "total parental income" for the purposes of the scheme in line with changes in tax legislation and to update the wording of the regulations to reflect current practice and circumstances. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 29th June be approved [36th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Viscount Astor.)

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his introduction. If he will forgive me, I shall briefly discuss some of the political implications of the regulations as this is really our annual opportunity to discuss the assisted places scheme and its ramifications.

The arguments against the assisted places scheme will be familiar to the House. We believe that it is wrong in principle to subsiclise the private sector. It is wrong in principle to cream off some of the most able pupils from the state sector and send them to the private sector. We would go further and say that it is an admission of failure by the Government that they think it necessary to have this scheme in order to educate properly some of the most able children from our poorer families.

We go even further and say that there is a substantial body of evidence that the system does not provide the added value (to use the current jargon) to increase the educational achievements of the children. They are bright and they would do well in the maintained sector. They do well in the private sector but, as far as I understand it, neither HMI nor the Audit Commission could see any actual benefit in the examination results and the like to the children who take up the assisted places.

In practice the scheme has been characterised as one to benefit what one might term "distressed gentlefolk"—that is to say, the kind of parents who were themselves educated in the private sector, who I believe make up the majority of parents with children using the scheme. Such parents have fallen on hard times and they are no longer able to afford fees. So in practice it is turning into a self-perpetuating scheme for people who are used to the private sector; and it is the majority of children in the state sector who are suffering as a result.

I believe that current statistics show that only 7 per cent. of pupils on the assisted places scheme are the children of manual workers. As I said, about two-thirds of the pupils who take up the assisted places when they are 16 are already in the independent sector before doing so.

A more compelling reason to be against the scheme is a cruder one—that is to say, it encourages educational snobbery in that it undermines the maintained sector. In a nutshell, one can say that it is social opportunities for the few at the expense of the many.

As I said in my introduction, these arguments have been well rehearsed and they will be well understood by the Minister. What intrigues me is how the argument in favour of the assisted places scheme will change as the educational measures which this House and another place considered very fully are put into place. We are in the process of concluding consideration of the Education Bill. The Government will see a great change in the educational landscape of our country. The catchphrase which we have heard time and time again is introducing greater diversity and choice into the maintained sector.

Noble Lords may be aware that I am a local councillor in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which is a Conservative-controlled council. In the past three years in Wandsworth we have seen—very much against my wishesthe introduction of a diversity of schools. We have selective schools; specialised schools in the secondary sector; two CTC schools; and we shall he having a Church of England school moving into the borough. That is very much the kind of provision which the Education Bill seeks to put forward across the country. Conservative councils argue that they are putting forward these policies in anticipation of national government policies.

It would intrigue me to be a fly on the wall and hear the Minister justifying to his Conservative colleagues in Wandsworth Borough Council why it is that the children in that borough council are getting less support from the Department for Education because that department chooses to subsidise the private sector. It has exactly the system which the noble Viscount says is to their benefit. Yet he still maintains the subsidy to the private sector.

In practice, I suspect that it would not be an intriguing conversation, because the Minister is well used to having his cake and eating it. I suggest that he has done very well on that. I wonder how the diversity of choice which is being introduced does not detract from the necessity for introducing choice to go to the independent sector.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister how it is that sending children to the private sector benefits the vast majority of children who are still educated in the maintained sector. For our part we are opposed both in principle and in practice to this scheme. We see it as socially and educationally divisive, expensive and fundamentally misguided.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I rise to comment only briefly on the assisted places scheme. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, has just pointed out, it is expensive. Essentially, it is a system for distressed gentlefolk. The middle classes take advantage of it to place their children in certain schools—and in schools in which the children do not necessarily receive a better education. There is no evidence to prove that a child who achieves under one system cannot achieve under another.

The Government are paying more money to educate children in this way. I have the figures with me. It costs about £3,100 to educate a child under the assisted places scheme, as opposed to £2,195 in the maintained sector. We are paying more to have children wearing slightly smarter blazers. It is ridiculous. It could be argued that if such children receive a state education, they will still achieve because if a child can pass exams, he or she can pass exams no matter what school is attended. But if bright children are now to receive a slightly better standard of education in the new, reformed education system in which there is increased diversity, why on earth are we paying extra for them?

It has already been pointed out that people from the lower social classes—if I can use such a term—are not benefiting from the scheme. Perhaps a better way of putting that might be to refer to people who are not traditionally recruited into the public school system. So why do we have this system? There does not seem to be much of a case for it. My party and I are not opposed to the principle of private education per se, but we are opposed to wasting money on it by subsidising children within it when that money is desperately needed in the state system.

If one can provide the same standard of education and the same benefits within the state system, why pay more into the private system, especially when we are establishing a greater diversity of schools? Surely the pupils in a school which has grant-maintained status and which is funded directly by the Government are receiving funding which is identical to that given to a child who has an assisted place, so why are we still pumping in this money? This system is not only anachronistic; it does not make mathematical sense.

2.15 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I should like to say just a few words. I greatly regret the fact that I do not agree with either my noble friend Lord Ponsonby or the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about the assisted places scheme. I regret that I cannot agree with my party's policy on this as described by my noble friend, particularly because I was a very old friend and admirer of his father. I am so glad that my noble friend has taken over the mantle of speaking on educational matters from our Front Bench.

However, I find my party's attitude on this much too rigid. It does not take account of clever children from all classes. If I may say so, I also object to the phrase that the scheme is helping the "distressed middle classes". Does it matter if the middle class is distressed? Does it matter if a middle class family is poor and cannot send a child to a good school? Why should that be regarded as something to be disapproved of?

I know of one little girl whose father deserted the family and who then had to attend the village school where she was not fully stretched. There was no Latin or modern language teaching. The school went at the rate of the slowest child and the little girl was very bored. However, she was able to get an assisted place in a good private school where she is already the head of her form and is doing extremely well. We all know of such cases.

It seems to me that from a national point of view we have to cream off the talent of the country from whichever class they come—from the working class or the distressed middle class. We should be talking about any children whose parents cannot afford the best education for them. In France, for example, the talent of the country is creamed off. The clever children are sent through the system. The brilliant ones end up as products of the grandes écoles which produce high powered technocrats to an extent that is hardly known in this country and to the great benefit of that nation.

Although I have agreed with hardly anything that the present Government have done during the past decade, I support the regulations. I think that the Government are to be commended on introducing this scheme—and on their courage in doing so—because the realistic point of view is that it is much the best way of using the talent of the most brilliant children in the country, from whichever class they come.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I am grateful to him for the remarks he made about his regard for my father. Does he accept that the argument he put forward and the argument I put forward are not necessarily exclusive? I was arguing that it was an admission of failure by the Government that they see it necessary to send the brightest children into the private sector. They are not providing suitable education for such children themselves. As I said, that is an admission of failure.

I was also arguing that, in practice, as the statistical evidence demonstrates, it is those in the know who take advantage of the scheme. I was questioning whether the places are going to the brightest children rather than just the bright children with parents in the know. I believe I quoted the statistic that only 7 per cent. of the children on the scheme have parents who are manual workers. We are interested in ensuring that the most able children are educated properly. I do not see that our points of view are exclusive.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed briefly to answer that point. First, of course, the children have to pass an examination to get into a private school. Secondly—here I am in agreement— the scheme stems from the fact that this country does not have a good public education system. We do not have a public education system of the standard one finds in Germany or France. Until we have that, I am afraid that we have to make use of schemes of this kind, otherwise there is a great waste of natural talent and brilliant minds.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Addington, have made it plain that they do not like the scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, is in favour of the scheme but says that we have it because this country does not have a good education system. I dispute that. The reason we need the scheme is because it provides choice. The scheme is a good one.

Perhaps I may answer some of the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Addington. They said that it was a scheme for distressed gentlefolk only. That is not true. The figures show that it is not true. I shall prove that now. The most recent statistics prove that the assisted places scheme is meeting its objective of helping children from disadvantaged families attend some of the best independent schools in the country. More than one third (38 per cent.) of all pupils receiving fee remission qualify for free places because of the level of their parents' income; that is, —9,056 or less in the year 1992–93. Sixty per cent. of all assisted place holders are from families with incomes of less that £13,000 per annum.

Independent surveys, such as those taken for ISIS by Mori, confirm that low income families are the ones being reached and served. well by the scheme. The Mori study shows that the majority of parents entitled, to assistance are from the lower middle class, skilled manual workers and similar groups. Eighty per cent of parents with children on assisted places are from social groups other than the middle class or upper middle class traditionally associated with private schooling. I believe that that proves the point.

Perhaps I may make one other point to the noble. Lord, Lord Strabolgi. Entrance to the schools is run on the basis of examinations, but selection need not be based exclusively upon academic merit. Some schools place particular emphasis upon helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government believe firmly in the principle that parents in every part of the country should have access to the opportunities which a scheme such as this offers. The assisted places scheme is now in its twelfth year. The Government have done and will continue to support the scheme as part of their policy of widening educational choice and opportunity. Along with many parents throughout the country, we are immensely encouraged to see the successes—in music, the arts and sport as well as in academic subjects—which assisted pupils have recorded. Over the years since this excellent scheme was introduced, over 60,000 children have benefited from education at some of the best independent schools in the country.

There are now more than 28,000 pupils in the scheme, well over one-third of whom are enjoying totally free education at the schools. This is a good scheme. I commend the regulations to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past two o'clock.