HL Deb 22 July 1994 vol 557 cc499-506

12.54 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 7th July be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is my pleasant task to move these regulations. Their purpose is to make minor changes to, but essentially to update as we do each year, the main regulations of an already well established scheme. The draft regulations therefore provide for amendments to be made to the principle regulations, which are the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989.

It may be helpful if I begin by referring to those principle regulations governing the administration of the scheme. Your Lordships will know that the assisted places scheme was established in 1981 for the purpose of widening the educational opportunities of able children from low income families. It provides their parents with assistance towards the fees of some of our best independent schools. The assistance is on a sliding scale based on parental income, and most of the changes embodied in the amending regulations are concerned simply with the annual revision of that scale. I hope your Lordships will therefore find them entirely straightforward.

I will deal in turn with each of the provisions before the House today. First, Regulation 1 of the draft regulations is a standard provision which deals with citation, commencement, application and interpretation. If approved, the regulations will come into force on 26th August 1994, ready for the school year 1994–95.

Regulation 2 of the draft regulations increases the allowance made for each dependent child, other than the assisted place holder, when calculating parents' total relevant income. The amount of the allowance is raised from £1,125 to £1,140, that is, by the same percentage which applies to the up-rating of the parental contribution scales —to which I shall come in a moment. Where parents have more than one child, this allowance reduces the contribution they would otherwise have to make towards the fees of the assisted place holder. It is helpful to parents with larger families, and up-rating it in line with inflation will maintain their position.

I now come to the main purpose of these regulations before the House today. Regulation 3 of the draft regulations sets out the income bands used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. These bands have been uprated to take account of the movement in the retail prices index to October last year—that is, by 1.4 per cent. The income threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £9,225 to £9,352 a year. There are corresponding increases in the thresholds for income bands above that level, in which progressively higher percentage contributions become due. The effect of this amendment is that parents whose relevant income has risen in line with inflation will continue to contribute the same proportion of that income. Their contribution will remain broadly constant in real terms. Those whose income has risen faster than inflation will contribute more in real terms. Others whose income has not kept pace with inflation will pay less. So the scheme targets help where it is most needed. I hope your Lordships will agree that this is wholly equitable.

The annual up-rating arrangements build upon the scheme's essential principle that the lower the parental income, the greater the Government assistance should be. The income threshold for full remission of fees—to which I have just referred—is set deliberately so that the least well-off families benefit most. The scale then rises in a fairly steep curve so that better off families get progressively less assistance, and eventually none at all at high income levels. This is in keeping with the aim of the scheme, which is to open doors of opportunity to those who would otherwise never be able to contemplate paying fees. The scheme continues to prove highly successful in achieving that aim. Assisted place pupils come from families whose income is well below the national average, and they do better at GCSE and A Level than their peers in maintained or independent schools generally.

The annual up-rating that I have described is necessary to ensure the continued smooth and fair running of the assisted places scheme. It has long been popular with parents. The rate of take up in schools, now at its highest level ever, is proof that it is going from strength to strength. The scheme is 0now in its 13th year. Along with many parents throughout the country, the Government 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 65,000 children have benefited from education at some 300 of our best independent schools. There are now over 30,000 pupils in the scheme in England and Wales, well over a third (40 per cent.) of whom are enjoying totally free education at these schools. That means that the parental income is well below £9,000 a year. The Government are committed to supporting them. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 7th July be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Baroness Blatch.)

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the regulations. But first I must congratulate her on her new appointment at the Home Office which I am sure she will enjoy and I hope she will be a civilising influence there. She must perhaps be quite glad that two very controversial Bills from the Home Office have got through this House now and she does not have to deal with those as she has had to deal with a good many very controversial education Bills in her time. I daresay she will be quite pleased that that is the end of those, for the moment anyway. I offer her my best wishes.

The Minister will know that the scheme is not popular on this side of the House. We object to subsidising private schools at the expense of maintained schools. There is no doubt that the assisted schools would for the most part be in very real difficulties if they did not receive the fees from these pupils. I understand that 21 private schools receive more than £750,000 each and seven more than £1 million. Sixty-three schools have more than 20 per cent. of their pupils on the scheme, 13 more than 30 per cent. and two more than 40 per cent. It is certain that the independent schools are glad to have those pupils, not only for the cash they receive but also because they boost their exam results. The maintained sector is the loser. This money, spread among those schools, would help with improving library facilities, equipment, field trips, upkeep of buildings and much else.

Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the cost of the scheme was £92.8 million in 1992–93 and is expected to rise to £110 million in 1995–96. I remind the House that in 1982–83 it was £8.5 million.

Will the noble Baroness tell us the intended number of places in 1994–95? I understand that there were 28,764 pupils in April 1994, although the maximum number of possible places is 33,593. I am not sure whether those figures fit in with the figures that the Minister gave when she introduced the regulations. If my figures are right, I believe that the shortfall of almost 5,000 is due to the Government not being able to meet the costs of the scheme if the maximum number of places were to be taken up. If that is not so perhaps we may have the explanation.

Figures quoted in another place indicate that between 1988–89 and 1992–93 there was a 6 per cent. increase in participation in the assisted places scheme but the cost increased by 40 per cent. Those figures are given at col. 275 of Hansard for 19th July in another place. What are the equivalent figures for LEA maintained schools?

For reasons which have not been fully explained, private school fees have increased at a rate well above inflation in recent years. It has been suggested that those schools which have about half the pupils on APS have put up their fees even more knowing that it will be the taxpayer who will pick up the bill. Perhaps the Minister would care to comment on that. In the 1992–93 academic year fees ranged from £2,790 to £9,210. That is a very big spread. The average cost was £3,236. The average cost in an LEA maintained school is £2,741.

Why do the Government discriminate in favour of such a small minority? Have reports from HMI and Ofsted indicated that pupils in assisted places achieve better results than those in LEA schools? Have reports indicated that the quality of education is better?

I should like to ask about sixth forms in the independent sector. How many pupils move at 16 or 17 from the maintained to the private sector and how many from the private sector to sixth forms in schools, sixth form colleges or tertiary colleges? When the 1980 Education Bill was going through this House, Lord Butler had misgivings about the scheme as a whole and was in particular anxious about maintained school sixth forms being weakened by pupils moving at that stage. That is why originally the LEAs had a veto on pupils moving then, which has since been removed. The many conditions laid down in 1981 have been whittled away, making it easier for pupils to transfer at any age.

Under Regulation 19 of the principal regulations, participating schools must ensure that at least 60 per cent. of all their assisted places pupils attended state schools before taking up their places. Two years should have been spent there. Is that still the case?

I apologise for asking so many questions, but I hope that I shall get the answers.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as a member of the governing council of an independent school which has been operating the scheme for a long time. I had intended to ask one or two brief questions, but after the speech from the noble Baroness opposite, which was a collection of the ragbag arguments of the Labour Party for the past decade, I feel that I must protest. We know that there is a hatred on the part of the other side of the House towards independent schools. They trawl whatever newspaper cuttings they can find to denigrate private independent schools. I resent that. What is more, the children at those schools resent it as well.

I now return to what I was going to say. First, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend on her translation to another department. To whichever department she goes she will bring a civilising influence. She masters her brief so that those on the other side feel uncomfortable when they try to argue with her.

I had a brief word with the noble Baroness a few weeks ago because the school on whose governing council I sit is finding that the cost of running the scheme is beginning to be very heavy. We are carrying a burden which runs well into five figures. That is very worrying. My noble friend was kind enough to say that she would be happy to see me at a mutually convenient time, together with the headmaster. Having myself been a Minister who was once translated, I hope that I may assume that she will pass on that undertaking to her new colleague, whom I shall not worry until the autumn. That would be very helpful.

The danger is that it appears from the information at my disposal that we are not the only independent school which is finding a growing burden because of what I can only imagine is the Treasury's refusal to face up to the real costs which the schools are carrying.

I say no more than that today. That was all that I originally intended to say, but I was somewhat provoked.

Lord Addington

My Lords, on these Benches we are not overly happy about the scheme. We cannot help but feel that the money spent on the assisted places scheme could be better spent in the mainstream maintained sector.

I can understand if, after 15 years of government and a great deal of change in the education system, most of which has been in favour of choice and greater variety, there is still insufficient capacity within the state sector to provide children with ability from lower income families with the right degree of choice, the Government wish to go to the private sector regardless of how good a job is done there. However, I cannot help but feel that, if the sums of money which are being spent—and we have just heard from the noble Lord that apparently even more is now required—were pumped into the mainstream system, it would help more children. One would not be helping individuals but helping classes by providing better teachers and better facilities. That is the only real objection to the scheme. We are not talking about providing individual education; we are talking about helping a large number of pupils with the resources available.

Having said that, there is little more that I can say about the scheme. I hope that it assists that comparatively small number of pupils in our education system who benefit from it.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is unfortunate that we repeat this debate every year. We return to the unadulterated politics of envy. These are young people from extremely low income families who are given a lifeline because their local schools simply cannot provide for them. Often it is not a question of money but relates to the performance of the school. Some young people, perhaps from inner cities, are given an opportunity to partake of a very good education.

My noble friend Lord Finsberg will know, as I know, how much the schools welcome the opportunity to make their schools and expertise available to young people from low income families. They are careful to make sun: that those pupils are not distinguishable in any way when one visits the schools. They add to the life and enrichment of the school. I find the debate that we are having extremely stultifying.

Baroness David

My Lords, I really do not think that envy comes into it at all. We are anxious that state: schools should be as good as possible. If as the Minister says, state schools are not adequate, the Government have been in power for 15 years and they ought to be ashamed that the schools are not better.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness has taken me completely out of context. Many thousands of our state schools are highly performing, giving every satisfaction to the parental customer and the children whom they serve. That is not so for every school in the system, it is increasingly the case that they perform better, that is certainly true. But we also know that the individual needs, aptitudes and abilities of a small proportion of the children are well served by the scheme. We happen to think that it is a good scheme, it is certainly popular with the schools and children. We shall continue to support it. We already know that there is a real likelihood, if what we believe from the leader of the party in another place comes true, that VAT will be levied on independent schools. That is not just making sure that this scheme does not survive, it is taking a measure which will probably secure the demise of many independent schools. I find that definitely part of the politics of envy.

Perhaps I may give the House the background of the families from which the children come. In 80 per cent. of the assisted places in the scheme, the families have a. relevant income below the national average of £18,000. That is, 80 per cent. of the children come from families with an income below £18,000; 91 per cent. below £20,000; 99 per cent. below £25,000; 40 per cent. of the families are below the threshold of £9,225. I believe that we are serving the needs of children predominantly from low income families.

I was asked specifically about the academic performance of the schools. I am pleased to answer that question: in assisted places schools—and that includes all the children in the schools—for GCSE grades A to C the children achieve a 91 per cent. pass. The assisted places pupils only in those schools have a better record of a 92 per cent. pass rate. If one accepts the record of all independent schools, it is 87 per cent, and if one takes the whole of the state sector, it is 50 per cent.

I move to A-levels, grades A to E passes. For the assisted places schools, all pupils have a 93 per cent. pass rate; if one takes only the pupils from assisted places schools it is 92 per cent.; for all independent schools, it is 90 per cent. and for all state schools it is 82 per cent. Therefore, I am pleased to confirm that the academic performance of the young people is better than the national average and is certainly better even within the independent school average.

The noble Baroness knows that the 60 per cent. to 40 per cent. ratio still applies, and I can confirm that. Overall, the percentage in the scheme from maintained schools is nearer 70 per cent. to 30 per cent. than 60 per cent. to 40 per cent.

As regards the participation scheme, I cannot remember the specific figures mentioned by the noble Baroness; but in the 1992–93 out-turn, the places available were 33,593. For the 1993–94 out-turn, they were 33,878, and for 1994–95 the expected and projected figures are 34,124. The projected figures for the following year are 34,332 and for the year 1996–97, they are 34,379. The first year percentage take-up in each of those years is 100 per cent.

The other point made by the noble Baroness was about cash. The voted estimates for schools assisted places schemes from 1988 started at £51 million for 1988–1989. As the noble Baroness said, it is to rise to £110 million for 1996–97. For the present academic year, it is £102 million. That is as the scheme matures and it is entirely in accordance with plans. I was asked to confirm the cost of the scheme as rising from £93 million in 1992–93 to a planned £110 million. I have already done that and given all the figures.

Going back to the incomes of families, the average income of a family on an assisted places scheme is £10,982. That is only 58 per cent. of the average national income.

The last point which I shall address in the debate is the cost of a place in maintained schools compared with the cost in assisted places schemes. The average cost of an assisted places pupil in 1992–93 was £3,405. That was made up of £3,280 on fees and £125 on incidental expenses, which include uniform and travel.

The average parental contribution towards fees was £716, which reflects the low income of the families, and the average fee was £3,996. In some areas, the average cost of an assisted place is cheaper than the cost of a maintained pupil and I can give three examples. Of three Labour boroughs, in Tower Hamlets, the cost of a secondary place was £3,920; in Hammersmith and Fulham, it was £3,630; in Hackney, it was £3,523. The higher average cost of an assisted place that I gave at the beginning reflects the higher than average cost of sixth-form provision in which a greater than average proportion of assisted places pupils participate, the effective targeting of the scheme's benefits to those on low-income families which I have already mentioned and incidental expenses for uniform and travel grants. So I do not believe that it is in any way an extravagant scheme and I believe that the benefits are there for all to see.

I thank noble Lords for their very kind remarks about my new appointment. My final comment to my noble friend Lord Finsberg is that I shall be pleased to pass on his request for a meeting to discuss this. The point which he made is important, it is causing tensions but the accusation made by the noble Baroness simply does not hold true. The rise in the fees in independent schools has no effect on the scheme because there is a capping system on the fees. Therefore, on the amount of money paid per place, whether it is the most expensive independent school in the land, average or below average, the amount of capping per pupil in the scheme remains the same. My noble friend is right to say that that is beginning to cause tensions because the contribution being made by the independent schools to the education of those children is now proving costly. I believe that that is the point that my noble friend wishes to discuss.

Baroness David

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, she did not answer my questions about the transfer at 16. Perhaps she would prefer to write to me about it, in which case I shall be quite happy.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall of course write. There were many detailed and rather specific questions raised and with no notice it is difficult to answer them all. However, I shall write to noble Lords on any questions which I have not answered. I commend the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.