HL Deb 13 July 1995 vol 565 cc1902-14

7.42 p.m.

Lord Henley rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft regulations cover England and Wales. Obviously separate arrangements are made for Scotland. But, before I come to the regulations themselves, perhaps I may first remind the House why we have an assisted places scheme at all. Noble Lords will remember that the scheme was introduced in 1981 to open up the educational opportunities of able children from less well-off families. The Government are firmly committed to encouraging high standards in education, wherever they are to be found. The scheme is an integral part of our policy of enhancing choice and diversity. We believe that parents in every part of the country should have access to the opportunities which the scheme offers. We will continue to support the scheme as an essential part of our policy of expanding educational choice and opportunity. The scheme is here to stay. I only wish that it were possible to make assisted places much more widely available than they arc already.

I am sure that noble Lords will agree that we all want parents to he able to choose the education they think best for their children, regardless of income, and we want that choice to be a real one. The scheme provides parents with assistance towards the fees at 303 of our best independent schools—295 in England and eight in Wales. The assistance is on a sliding scale based on parents' income and follows the principle that the lower the income, the greater government assistance should he. The assisted places scheme builds on and extends schools' own contributions by way of bursaries and scholarships. It not only expands opportunities for children from lower-income families, but also helps to widen the social mix and create greater awareness and understanding across communities.

In short, the scheme is an academic success—assisted pupils on average achieve better GCSE and A-level results than their peers in independent and maintained schools, and have high entry rates into further and higher education. It is successful in the wider opportunities and experience that it provides in sport, the arts and other aspects of personal development. It is successful in giving all those opportunities to children who could not otherwise have afforded them.

The regulations governing the scheme were last consolidated in 1989. Amendments have been made in each year since then, chiefly to uprate the parental contribution tables that set out the amounts parents must pay towards their child's assisted place. The House has before it new consolidated regulations, the effects of which I shall explain shortly. Consolidation is essentially good housekeeping to update some detailed aspects of the rules and to hieing all the previous changes into a single document. The consolidated regulations also, of course, include this year's parental contribution uprating. There are no radical changes in the operation of the scheme. If approved, the regulations will come into force on 25th August of this year for the school year 1995–96.

There are three main changes in the regulations which I will deal with in turn and which I hope that the House will find entirely straightforward.

First, there is the uprating of the parental contribution scales. Draft Regulation 15 refers to the scales of fee remission in Schedule 2 which, in turn, sets out the income bands used for assessing parents' contribution to fees for the school year 1995–96. Those bands have been uprated in line with the 2.4 per cent. movement in the retail prices index over the past 12 months to October of last year. The income threshold, at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees, is raised from £9,352 to £9,572 a year. The threshold for full remission of fees 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. That 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. In fact, the average income is only a little over half of the national average. Two-fifths of them qualify for a totally free place because their income is below the threshold that I mentioned a moment ago.

Secondly, the definition of "parents" in draft Regulation 2 has been revised to take account of provisions in the Children Act 1989, and subsequent developments. It now clearly limits the definition to the person or persons with whom the child normally lives. There have been no major changes of substance but the wording has been clarified. In the usual case, the "parents" are the natural mother and father and both must make a declaration of their joint incomes to he eligible for assistance under the scheme. The draft regulations also cater for adoptive parents, single parents, those who are guardians or foster-parents and those who, although not the natural parents, may have custody or care and control of the child through informal care or fostering arrangements.

Thirdly. the residence requirements have been revised in the draft regulations to take account of the European Economic Area Agreement. They reflect our legal obligations to provide access to free or subsidised tuition for children of migrant workers on the same basis as for British residents. Draft Regulation 4 sets out the residence conditions. The vast majority of assisted pupils will, of course, satisfy the requirement that they should he ordinarily resident in the British Isles for at least two calendar years before taking up the assisted place. Children of migrant workers who are nationals of a state which has become a contracting party to the European Economic Area Agreement—that is, member states of the European Union, and certain others—are now treated in the same way as children normally resident in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. That is simply a technical change and entirely straightforward.

In summary. draft Regulations 1 and 2 deal with citation, commencement and application and with the interpretation of expressions used throughout the text. Draft Regulations 3 to 8 deal with eligibility for an assisted place and the updating of the residence requirements. Draft Regulations 9 to 15—together with Schedules I and 2—deal with the remission of fees and the uprated parental contribution scales. Draft Regulations 16 to 24 deal with the administrative arrangements, to which there are no major changes.

The regulations as a whole also include some minor technical amendments and drafting changes, but I do not think that I need trouble your Lordships with such details. However. I shall explain any aspect more fully if any individual noble Lord wishes me to do so.

I hope I have explained the purpose of the draft regulations adequately. They will 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 now in its fourteenth 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, more than 70,000 children have benefited from education at some 300 of our best independent schools. There are now some 31,000 pupils in the scheme in England and Wales and the Government are committed to supporting them. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved. [24th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Henley.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for bringing these regulations before your Lordships and introducing them in such a clear and efficient way. We on these Benches are quite clear as to what the regulations imply; and we are left in no doubt that the Minister and the Government firmly believe that the assisted places scheme is an excellent idea, is good value for money, and an assured success.

Because these regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure, we have an opportunity from time to time, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, to discuss the merits of the scheme itself, and so it will come as no surprise to the Minister to learn that we on these Benches are, just as we were last year, entirely opposed to the whole scheme in principle. We shall not seek to divide the House on this occasion, since it is the House's custom not to vote on regulations of this kind. But the Labour Party in government will certainly abolish this scheme and will do so by halting the provision of new places under it, but not by damaging in any way the prospects of pupils who are already embarked upon it.

At approximately three minutes past eight on 3rd July the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, introducing these regulations in another place, said, we are committed to choice and diversity and … we wish to encourage high standards in education wherever they are to be found". So do we. But his next sentence was more enlightening. He said, We want parents to he able to choose the education that they think best for their children. regardless of income".—[Official Report, Commons. 3/7/95: col. 91.] Consider the impact of that phrase on an imaginary character, (we may call him Mr. John Jones, an ex-miner, now unemployed and living on social security in the Rhondda Valley) and his wife (who we may call Bronwen). They have a small son (whom we shall call Gareth) of some 10 years of age. They discuss his education. Mr. Jones informs his wife that it is the Government's desire that parents should be able to choose the education that they think best for their children, regardless of income.

He says to his wife, "Well, we must take this seriously. I have been down to the library, I have made a number of inquiries; I have consulted my friends at the Dog and Duck; and I hear very good things spoken of Eton College in Berkshire. The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Winchester is very well spoken of in the Dog and Duck; and high on the hill at Harrow is an educational establishment (it seems) which produces a very nice class of boy and high academic results in public examinations. Since we may now choose where to send Gareth to his best advantage, regardless of income, to which of these academies, then, shall we entrust the formative years of our offspring's adolescence"? And Bronwen will probably reply "I am sure I don't know anything much about these things and I'm quite content to leave the decision to you, Dad".

It is a fictional scenario in every sense of the word "fiction". It has been said that the assisted places scheme gives children from poor families, deprived areas, and inner cities an opportunity to benefit from private education. But that is only true if their parents know all about the scheme; approve of it; satisfy the criteria for eligibility; and (above all) if the children concerned arc extremely bright academically. These children will he examined and selected by one of the schools which contribute to the scheme, and children who are of average or below-average intelligence are very unlikely to be selected, even though they could benefit greatly from an assisted places scheme.

I will not rehearse the reasons why we oppose the assisted places scheme, since they are on the record, both in the words of my noble friend Lady David in your Lordships' House last year, and in the debate which took place in another place on 3rd July. Suffice it to say, first, that we consider it entirely unjust to penalise the many for the advantage of a selected few, secondly, that we consider it unfair to cream off some of the most academically able children in the maintained sector, place them in independent schools, where they will unarguably do very well, and so distort the picture of the academic achievements of that independent school, to the detriment of the academic results of the schools from which these children are plucked. Thirdly, we oppose the scheme because it seems to us a totally unwarranted subsidy by the state of the private sector. I shall return to that point later.

I would have been quite content to leave it at that, were it not for the fact that, quite unexpectedly, there came into my possession yesterday a copy of the briefing note, prepared for today's debate in your Lordships' House, on this Motion, from the Conservative Central Office. I read it, I confess, with some interest, and found some parts of it quite helpful, and parts of it accurate. There are a few points which might benefit from further research. For example, the brief states that in 1994–5 over 34,100 pupils were able to benefit from assisted places. Other usually reliable sources say that in April 1994 there were 28,764 pupils on the scheme, and that the shortfall of 5,000 against the estimated figure of 34,139 is due to the Government not being able to meet the costs of the scheme. I do not know whether that is true or not. The brief states that there are 294 schools in this scheme; the DFE figure, which the Minister has quoted, is 295. I would be interested to know whether they have gained one recently, or lost one. But these are details.

What did cause me a little mild surprise was the appendix attached to the briefing, intended presumably for the Minister's edification, which listed a number of members of the Shadow Cabinet, and gave selected details of their education. The list was headed with these words, The following Members of the Shadow Cabinet were all educated at schools which would be seriously damaged by Labour's current education policies, such as the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme. Having benefited from attending these schools Labour politicians now seek to kick away the ladder of opportunity, and deny the rights that they enjoyed to the children of today". It does seem to me a bit rich to impute vile motives to honourable Members on the basis of what was done to them at the age of 11. So I was greatly relieved and heartened when the Minister, introducing these regulations, clearly depended upon a good factual Civil Service brief and (if indeed he ever read it) eschewed this rather unfortunate and regrettable appendix.

There are just three questions I should like to ask the Minister about the scheme and the regulations. The first concerns the matter of numbers. As I understand it, the scheme involves approximately 0.89 per cent, of secondary school pupils. That means that about 99 per cent, are not on the assisted places scheme. If we assume that something like half of these would not be eligible for the scheme in the first place, that still means that about 48 per cent, of the age cohort do not apply for these nice free or subsidised places. Can the Minister explain why this should be so? Why are they not rushing in huge numbers to compete for this juicy financial and academic advantage?

Can he tell us the results of all the research which must have been done over the past 15 years into those who apply and those who do not? If, as seems likely, a large percentage of those eligible to apply for the scheme do not apply for it, does this not mean that the entire scheme is really no more than yet another ideologically-driven attempt by the Government to introduce division and faction into the education system; and that it has been a failure?

Secondly, I have some worries about the cost of the scheme, although I realise that costs can be computed in a number of different ways (depending on what you want to prove) and that it is very difficult to extrapolate unit costs when there are so many variables in the equation. But is it not a fact that from 1989 to 1995 the cost of the assisted places scheme increased from £50.9 million to £102 million—almost exactly a 100 per cent. increase? Can the Minister tell the House why, in that same period, the number of places increased by only 2.6 per cent., from 33,280 to 34,139? One would like to know where all the extra money went.

Thirdly, is it not a fact that an essential difference between independent schools and local education authority schools is that the former are far less accountable than the latter? Can he tell the House what degree of accountability is required from the 294 or 295 schools in the assisted places scheme, which receive, at present, £102 million of public money?

Indeed, as was pointed out in another place, the taxpayer also contributes more than £130 million to independent schools by virtue of the service boarding scheme. We have no opposition to the service boarding scheme as such, although we would very much like to see more use made of the state boarding schools. But the assisted places scheme and the service boarding scheme together contribute a little more than £0.25 billion of public money to the independent sector. Yet independent schools are nothing like as accountable as local authority schools have been required to be, and only one or two of them have had Ofsted reports. Is it not time that stricter controls were imposed upon this very considerable amount of public money? That is why we welcome the requirement in Part 5 of the regulations for the accounts of schools to be audited by a person who is eligible to audit company accounts. That is one small step in the right direction, but we would encourage the Government to go much further down this track, and much faster.

I would be most grateful for any enlightenment the Minister can give us on these three questions because, as I said, although we are implacably opposed to the assisted places scheme and all its works, we do not oppose the regulations which are before us today. Even when we regard a scheme as unjust and unfair, it is better that it should operate efficiently than inefficiently. These regulations, in our submission, will assist in improving the efficiency of the scheme.

8 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for the very clear way in which he introduced the regulations. Unfortunately, the reasons he gave for supporting the scheme in principle are, by and large, exactly the reasons why the Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed the scheme since its inception some 14 years ago. Having read the many debates that have taken place on the scheme over the years, and from what I have heard tonight, including the comments of the noble Lord who has just spoken, there is nothing which causes us to consider changing our minds on the subject.

Before I rehearse our reasons for opposition in principle to the scheme I want to make two points clear. First, our opposition is not based in any way on a dislike of independent schools or on any ambivalence in our attitude towards them. They make a valuable and necessary contribution to the educational life of the country.

Secondly, in common with the noble Lord who has just spoken, while we would wish to end the scheme we would certainly continue to support pupils currently receiving assistance under the scheme until they leave school. To do otherwise would be grossly unfair to those pupils, and we would certainly not wish to do that.

As has been said, the aim of the scheme was to provide assisted places at high quality independent schools to bright children from less well-off backgrounds. I cannot follow the example from the Welsh Valleys, but the noble Lord put the case extremely well. That aim is wrong in principle because it fosters elitism. It is wrong in terms of public education policy because it takes brighter children out of the state system, whereas instead they should be encouraged and supported to remain in the state system and to help to improve standards there.

Public money should be used to improve standards in publicly funded schools, and not used to prop up independent schools, some of which would not succeed in a genuinely open market. The assisted places scheme owes far more to ideology than to any sound educational principles.

We believe the scheme to be wrong in principle, but then we must ask whether it achieves what it is intended to achieve. At best that case is not proven. The Government point to the academic achievements of pupils on the assisted places scheme. Indeed, the Minister referred to that in his speech tonight. Given that the children concerned are selected particularly because of their academic ability, it is not remarkable that they achieve good examination results. Indeed, it would be remarkable if they did not have good examination results.

Research shows that in the main places have not gone 10 the kind of children for whom they were intended. It seems that the Government have no data on how many parents benefiting from the assisted places scheme could have afforded the full cost of places at independent schools. However, we do know that some 30 per cent. of those places go to pupils coming from independent primary schools. I would not make the assumption that necessarily all of those parents who can afford a private education at primary level can necessarily do so at secondary level, but one is led to wonder whether at least some of those 30 per cent. could have managed without the state subsidy.

On the other hand, it is a matter of great concern that only 7 per cent. of parents benefiting from the assisted places scheme are of African, Asian or Caribbean origin. Given the multicultural and multi-ethnic nature of our society, we must question whether the scheme is achieving what it is intended to achieve.

The Minister said tonight that the scheme was intended to increase choice and diversity. Fewer than 1 per cent. of eligible children benefit from the assisted places scheme. It is doing nothing at all to widen choice for the other 99 per cent. of children.

I come now to the point which for me, as leader of a local education authority, is the one on which I feel strongest. Is the scheme good value for money? Does it represent the best and proper use of taxpayers' money? Assisted places cost twice as much on average as an LEA place. As has already been said, the cost of the assisted places scheme has risen from £50.9 million in 1989 to £102 million currently. That is a 100 per cent. increase in cost in five years. Yet there has been only a 2.6 per cent. increase in places. That does not sound to me like good value for money. I look forward with great interest to the Minister's answer to the question which has already been put to him about that.

It is no news to your Lordships' House that this year local education authorities suffered a cut in real terms in funding for secondary schools. We have heard much, not least from the Secretary of State herself, of the damage that is being done to schools—larger class sizes, less money available for equipment and maintenance, and so on. The pressures on our schools in LEAs are well documented and well known and are a cause of great concern, if press reports are to be believed, even to the Prime Minister himself.

Given that, how can I go back to headteachers in my borough and explain to them, as they struggle with desperately tight budgets, that a place in an independent school is worth twice as much taxpayers' money as a place in their schools? I cannot do that. I am not willing to do that. I should be very interested if the Minister were to come to one of my schools and try to justify that.

How can it be justified in those circumstances to put over £100 million a year of public money into independent schools which have themselves chosen not to be in the public sector? Our publicly funded schools are desperately short of resources. That should be the priority for a government using taxpayers' money.

I regret very much, although I am not in the least surprised, that the Government have not used this opportunity to rethink their priorities for the use of taxpayers' money and have not taken this chance to start the wind-down of the scheme. The assisted places scheme is wrong in principle, it is failing in practice, it provides no value for money and it is a misuse of public funds. Above all, it is of no benefit to the 93 per cent. of children in the state sector, who should he our main concern for the investment of taxpayers' money.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for speaking in the gap.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, there is no gap.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I apologise for not having given notice that I wished to speak.

It would be possible to debate at length the value of the principle of schools having a mixed entrance from all sections of the community which they serve. The Government endorsed the principle of the benefit for children with special needs attending where possible their local schools so that they could be educated with their peers in the local community. I find it difficult to understand how the Government can also espouse an argument about children being taken away. The widest, richest school community is that which serves a diverse locality. It is not one where the overwhelming majority of pupils is selected on grounds of parental income and the pupils' potential.

However, that is not the point that I wish to raise. At present in England, Scotland and Wales, Government Ministers, and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment herself, continually state that there is no relationship between class size and the performance of pupils until—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, speaking in your Lordships' House made this comment—the numbers in classes came down to about 15:1, and there was then some improvement. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he can reconcile that argument. To state that children will study as well in larger classes, flies in the face of the beliefs of all parents, governors and teachers concerned with education.

That leads me to my first question with reference to paragraph 21 on page 26 of the regulations. After a month's notice, the Secretary of State is able to allow an increase in fees paid under the assisted places scheme; and is able to require that that increase does not take place. Can the Minister tell us what the increase in fees has been over the past 12 months? Must there be an increase in class size in the independent sector, or has the independent sector been allowed to recoup the teachers' pay increase, decided by Government, to protect their class sizes by using money that is taken from the 98 per cent. of children in publicly funded schools?

In this country the independent sector can be criticised on many grounds. However, in all its advertisements offering its services the independent sector openly claims that even among a highly selected group of pupils and students the attainments reached are partly due to small class sizes and individual tuition and help. Will the Minister comment on how it is possible to take £102 million of taxpayers' money to a sector in which the classes are already considerably smaller than those in the public sector while exhorting parents in the public sector through the local education authority funded schools and church funded schools to accept larger classes?

It would appear to be a dogma which has gone badly wrong. The scheme is distorting the opportunities available to the overwhelming majority of pupils in schools in England and Wales. The system was born of dogma. Certainly it is not a system designed to help the overwhelming majority of pupils in schools in England and Wales. How can the Government justify that transfer of funds from the public sector to the independent sector in the increased amounts spent per pupil referred to by noble Lords?

8.15 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, we have had what I would describe as a fairly predictable debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, put it. It was an opportunity to debate the generality of the assisted places schemes which, not surprisingly, noble Lords opposite do not seem to like for reasons probably best left unsaid.

I am quite pleased that noble Lords have had the opportunity to read the excellent document from Conservative Central Office. It is an absolutely wonderful document. I hope that noble Lords will take the opportunity to read it on other occasions. I shall even make it available to them when necessary, and perhaps one day—it is a trickle factor—it might have its effect and we might see the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, joining us on these Benches.

I quite understand the noble Lord's views. The noble Lord will understand if I completely and utterly disagree with him and other noble Lords. Sadly, I suspect that it will be unlikely that I can persuade them otherwise, but I live in hope. I note that they will continue to disapprove of the scheme; and I note their commitments to abolish the scheme after an election, in the unlikely event of their gaining power.

I believe that such disapproval—it now extends, it seems, to the concept of selection (I had thought that we had got beyond that) and to allegations of creaming off, which again I dismiss—is not shared by the many parents throughout the length and breadth of the land whose children have benefited from the scheme in the past, who continue to benefit from it now, and who hope to do so in future. When the noble Lord gives his little examples from the Welsh valleys, he should remember that many of those people live in the hope that they can benefit from the scheme. For that reason there are a number of schools in Wales which they can make use of and from which they can benefit.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred to the wonderful document from Conservative Central Office and asked about the number of schools benefiting from the scheme in England. Perhaps I may correct him on a possible discrepancy. The number of schools was 295 in England until last year when one school closed. Therefore 294 schools are in the scheme this year. A replacement school will be admitted this autumn, bringing the number back (if my mathematics is as good as that of some of my other noble friends) to 295.

I turn to the noble Lord's question about research into non-applicants or non-entrants to the scheme. No research has been undertaken in the past years on reasons why parents do not apply for places, or how well the pupils do elsewhere if they do not enter the scheme. However, I can tell the noble Lord that with the Independent Schools Joint Council, we are currently funding research into a comparison between entrants to the scheme and similarly qualified pupils going elsewhere. There will be a study of their comparative achievements. The results should he available next year. However, in terms of the remarks made by both noble Lords and the noble Baroness, the evidence at present indicates that children who go to schools under assisted places schemes do a lot better than their peers in the maintained sector, and their peers who have gone to the private sector without the benefit of the scheme.

I turn to the question of the accountability of schools and inspection by Ofsted. I can assure the noble Lord that there will he appropriate inspection. As regards financial accountability, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State can call for the school's accounts and other information where appropriate. The department collects information on the performance and achievement of assisted pupils.

The noble Lord also made allegations that the scheme was, I think he said, twice as expensive as the costs of pupils in the maintained sector. I do not believe that that is the case, in fact there is less difference than the noble Lord, Lord Tope, claimed between the average cost for an assisted place and that for a maintained school place when all factors are taken into account. The average net cost of an assisted pupil in England—and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will be pleased to know that the position in Wales is broadly similar—in the current financial year of 1995–96 is estimated to be about £3,700. The average education standard spending assessment unit allocation for local education authorities in the same year is over £2,600 for secondary pupils aged 11 to 15 and over £3,600 for the post 16 year-olds. But it is misleading to contrast these figures as they stand because that is not comparing like with like.

First, the assisted places scheme has a greater proportion of sixth form places and these are more expensive to provide. Secondly, the scheme's overall unit costs include elements for certain capital costs and some other independent sector overheads not covered in education SSAs. These factors are technically difficult to quantify and there is a margin of error when making estimates. Allowing for all that, I believe that the difference between average assisted place and maintained school costs is probably no more than just a few hundred pounds and not the figures that were claimed by noble Lords opposite.

This difference is far outweighed by wide variations in unit costs between individual local authorities: for example, over £400 difference between the averages for outer London and the shire counties for secondary pupils aged 11 to 15, and over £2,000 difference between the lowest and highest cost authorities. In some areas, such as inner London, the average unit cost is actually significantly higher than the average assisted place cost, even without making the sixth form and capital adjustments I mentioned earlier.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, also queried the growth in costs of the scheme over the years. It is true that the cost in England has risen from £57 million in 1989–90 to £101 million in 1994–95—a rise of 77 per cent. But I have to say to the noble Lord that there are several factors behind this. First, over that period the actual take-up of places (as distinct from the number available) has increased by 10 per cent. Secondly, the proportion of totally free places has risen from 32 per cent. to 42 per cent., representing a 45 per cent. increase in actual numbers. That includes a number of factors, not least the recession, the state of the economy generally and the fact that the scheme becomes better targeted on the people at whom it is aimed. Over the period, therefore, the average net cost of an assisted pupil rose by some 56 per cent. This is in fact not much more than the rise in the average unit cost of maintained secondary education of about 50 per cent.

But debating detailed figures risks missing the main point. Above all, the assisted places scheme we believe offers good value for money by producing better GCSE and A-level results than in the maintained sector, as well as enhancing choice and diversity, as I mentioned in my opening remarks and also when I began to wind up.

As I said earlier, I do not believe that it is likely that I shall ever convince noble Lords opposite of the merits of the scheme. I end by saying that I am grateful to the noble Lord for at least welcoming the regulations as they are and for agreeing that they represent a tidy consolidation of the regulations. For that reason, they are to be welcomed. I hope that one day, when we get further documents from Central Office, we might persuade the noble Lord opposite of the merits of the scheme. However, until that time I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.