HL Deb 22 July 1996 vol 574 cc1225-33

6.9 p.m.

Lord Henley rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 20th June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will recall that we introduced the Assisted Places Scheme in 1981 for the purposes of opening up educational opportunities for able children from less well-off families. The draft regulations before the House this evening cover England and Wales. Separate arrangements were made for a corresponding scheme in Scotland. Before I explain the draft regulations, I should like to restate why the scheme exists and why it is a remarkable success.

The Government are committed to raising standards in education. The Assisted Places Scheme plays a key part in promoting excellence in academic achievement and enhancing choice and diversity. We want all parents and children to have a rich variety of good schools from which to choose, regardless of income. Through the assisted places scheme, we are making opportunities at top independent schools more widely available. In contrast, noble Lords opposite would remove these opportunities from thousands of children. Their stated intention to abolish the assisted places scheme would restrict access to thousands of children and make independent schools solely the preserve of those who can afford the fees. It would remove the ladder of opportunity from these talented children.

Independent schools themselves wish to see the benefits of an independent education made more widely available. Many are reaching out into the community and enjoying a greater social and cultural mix within their walls. They have a long and honourable tradition of offering scholarships. But there are limits to what schools can do by themselves. The Assisted Places Scheme builds on and extends the schools' own contributions. It is a shining example of partnership between the state and the independent sector.

Since this excellent scheme was introduced, almost 80,000 children in England and Wales have benefited. There are now well over 30,000 pupils in the scheme. Four out of 10 assisted pupils enjoy totally free education because their family income is below the threshold of £9,572 a year and eight out of 10 are from families with incomes below the national average of £18,540 a year. Eighty per cent. come from the lower middle, skilled and unskilled working classes.

We want to widen access still further to parents in every part of the country. That is why we are doubling the scheme—to give twice as many children the opportunity to benefit. At present, there are 5,900 entry places available each year in 300 schools in England and Wales. From September 1996 there will be almost 10,000 places available to some 370 schools. Over 60 new schools will join the scheme, selected on the basis of their record of academic achievement. For the first time the scheme will support children under the age of 11. This new development extends the ladder of opportunity to younger children, an initiative we hope to build on in the future.

All the schools in the scheme have been carefully selected on the basis of their records of academic achievement. In 1995, over 94 per cent. of assisted pupils doing GCSE achieved grades A* to C, with some schools getting 100 per cent. pass rates. Ninety-four per cent. of assisted pupils entering for A-level received grades A to E, with some pupils achieving four grade A passes. Recent independent research by the London School of Economics confirms that, first, assisted pupils entered for significantly more A and AS-levels than their counterparts of similar ability in the maintained sector. Secondly, they achieved higher total points scores than pupils in the maintained sector. Thirdly, their average points score per examination entry was higher than for maintained sector pupils. Fourthly, overall the benefit of an assisted place is between 3.2 and 6.2 A-level points. Translated into grades, the advantage is between one-and-a-half and three A-level grades over all subjects taken.

Despite this overwhelming evidence of the success of the scheme, noble Lords opposite are committed to abolishing it. The Labour Party has said that the funds released would be used to reduce class sizes in the maintained sector. But pupils who would otherwise have benefited from the scheme would need to be educated in the maintained sector. That would largely swallow up their planned savings.

The average net annual cost of an assisted place in England in 1995–96 was about £3,700. This is very roughly only £800 a year more than the equivalent average annual recurrent cost of a maintained secondary school place. This differential is more than justified by the better results for assisted places scheme pupils.

Abolishing the APS and educating all assisted pupils in the maintained sector would eventually save only about £24 million a year at current prices. That ignores the capital costs of building extra places in the maintained sector for the displaced pupils: £24 million would provide fewer than 1,000 extra primary school teachers—quite insufficient to fulfil Labour's pledge to eliminate classes of over 30 in the first three years of primary schooling. Indeed, it would reduce the average Key Stage 1 class size by less than half a pupil.

Phasing out the APS by stopping new intakes but letting pupils already in the scheme continue would save less than £5 million in the first academic year. Even that could not be realised for three years under existing legislation. The Education Act 1980 requires the Secretary of State to give schools three years' notice of any unilateral termination of their participation agreements. Furthermore, the under £5 million would pay for only 200 extra primary teachers—about one for every 90 primary schools. Any gain of that kind would be minimal compared with the loss of opportunity for the 10,000 pupils about to enter APS schools each year.

Turning now to the detail of the regulations before the House, these amendments have a very specific, straightforward purpose. They simply update the principal regulations, which are the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1995. Essentially, they implement the annual uprating of the parental contribution tables, and thus set out the amounts parents must pay towards their child's assisted place at a participating independent school in the coming year. If approved, the amended regulations will come into force on 25th August 1996.

Regulation 4 of the draft regulations increases the allowance made for each dependent child from £1,165 to £1,200. This is in line with inflation and will maintain the level of help for families with more than one child.

Regulation 7 similarly uprates the income bands used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. The income threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £9,572 to £9,873 a year. There are corresponding increases in the thresholds for the higher income bands.

Regulation 3 permits schools to offer an assisted place to a child from the very beginning of his or her compulsory eduction. We are making places available, for the first time, to children in the junior and preparatory departments of some of our best independent schools.

Regulation 5 sets out a technical change to the requirement that at least 60 per cent. of all assisted pupils in a school should have been recruited from publicly maintained schools. The 60 per cent. rule would not be appropriate to children entering school at the start of their compulsory education. Regulation 5 therefore provides for five and six year-olds to be excepted or omitted from the calculation. There are no other substantive changes. I beg to move.


That the draft regulations laid before the House on 20th June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Henley.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I hope that all of your Lordships are regular readers of that very readable organ, the House Magazine. There is much wisdom to be gained in perusing it and the current issue is no exception. In the "Commons Diary", for example, on page 2, the honourable Member for Leominster tells us how he recently attended a meeting of the Malvern College Council, his old school. He says: The interesting point involves the difficulties being faced these days by many traditional public or boarding schools. The market for boarding is shrinking and schools need a varied base. In Malvern's case that base is boys and girls from the pre-prep to 18 with a lot of pupils from mainland Europe into the bargain. It is all a sign of the times and the possible ending of assisted places will strike a near mortal blow to some private schools". There is the heart of the matter. The assisted places scheme was not introduced in 1981 with the prime object of introducing the ragged-trousered offspring of some poverty-stricken, horny-handed son of toil to a benevolent Mr. Chips who would guide this nascent Newton, this emergent Einstein to heights of intellectual development beyond his parents' wildest dreams. No, it was introduced because then, and since, a number of independent boarding schools were in imminent danger of going bust.

And they still are—even with the exorbitant fees of over 30,000 children now in the system being paid to these independent schools by a benevolent government. We have the honourable Member for Leominster's published words for that.

Every summer just before we reach for our buckets and spades, we go through the ritual dance of considering how this scheme is faring. So I will only briefly rehearse the reasons why we on these Benches opposed it, have always opposed it and will continue to do so.

Suffice it to say, first, that we consider it entirely unjust to penalise the many for the advantage of a selected few. Secondly, we consider it unfair to cream off some of the most academically able children in the maintained sector and place them in independent schools, where they will unquestionably do very well. So they should. That will distort the picture of the academic achievements of that independent school, to the detriment of the academic results of the schools from which those children are taken. Thirdly, we oppose the scheme because it seems to us a totally unwarranted subsidy by the state of the private sector.

Is it not a fact that an essential difference between independent schools and local authority schools is that the former are far less accountable than the latter? I asked the Minister last year, and I ask him again: will he tell the House what degree of accountability, and in what form, is required from the 300 or so schools in the assisted places scheme which receive at the present moment something over £100 million of public money? Indeed, as is regularly pointed out in another place, the taxpayer also contributes more than £130 million to independent schools by virtue of the service boarding scheme. We are not opposed to the service boarding scheme as such, though we would very much like to see more extensive use made of the state boarding schools. But the assisted places scheme and the service boarding scheme together contribute a little more than £¼billion of public money to the independent education sector—yet independent schools are not accountable in anything like the same way as local education authority schools. Only a very few of them have had Ofsted reports. Is it not time that much stricter controls were imposed upon this very considerable amount of public money?

What is new in this year's regulations? Three things: the government proposal to double the number of places, the annual uprating and the decision to bring preparatory schools into the scheme for the first time. The real reasons for the first are not difficult to find. Boarding schools are finding it harder and harder to put paying bodies into beds. I was recently told, and I have heard it many times, that the first criterion of a successful head teacher in an independent boarding school is the ability to fill all the boarding places. The fashion for sending your children away from home to be educated is visibly waning, and it seems that more and more parents realise—as the Secretary of State for Wales is reported as realising—that good comprehensive school education makes private education a waste of money.

The annual uprating is not a contentious issue, and the regulations for it seem sensible and acceptable. I only wonder whether it will mean that more or less money will be left in the scheme when an incoming Labour Government inherit it, and turn the resources to better and more equitable use.

The extension of the scheme to what the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State described in another place as, the junior and preparatory departments of some of our best independent schools", would be amusing if it were not so sad. One can almost hear the howls of protest from those preparatory departments which have not been selected and which wish so fervently to get their trotters into the trough. And one can aurally perceive the sighs of relief from those which have been selected, and so saved, at least for the moment, from the rigours and humiliation of what we may refer to, euphemistically, as Carey Street.

There is nothing more to say about this year's regulations, except farewell, because it may well be that this is the last time we shall need to discuss these matters.

The Labour Party's position and policy on the assisted places scheme are transpicuously clear, and I can offer the honourable Member for Leominster and former pupil of Malvern College no crumb of comfort. The assisted places scheme is no part of our policy, and we shall abolish it. I refer noble Lords to our recent publication, New Labour, New Life for Britain, obtainable from Walworth Road at the bargain price of £10, where, on page 40, the first of Labour's early pledges is to, cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds by using money saved from the assisted places scheme". That is a promise. And, unlike the Government, we shall keep our word.

Lord Tope

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris, began by referring to the annual "ritual dance". Last year was the first year that I joined the dance. As a new boy, somewhat naïvely, I looked back at the previous 14 years of annual debates on this subject. I have to say that I did not feel greatly edified as a result of that research and I have not bothered with such detailed research this year. The noble Lord concluded by saying that next year's debate on this subject may be—just may be—a little different. I hope so, for many reasons—not least a degree of boredom in having to say the same things over and over again.

I need to put on record again this year that the Liberal Democrats continue to oppose the assisted places scheme. It continues to be our policy that we would phase it out. We would of course honour existing commitments, but it would be phased out over a period of time.

Before I go on to state the reasons for that, I must again put on record—as continually seems necessary—that we have no problem at all with, and no opposition to, independent schools. Indeed, our party conference in September will debate an even better education paper, available from our party headquarters. (I do not know the price). One proposal among many others will be the retention of charitable status for independent schools. It will also propose to extend charitable status to all schools. It will oppose any suggestion as to the imposition of VAT on school fees. Even more importantly, we shall be encouraging independent schools to work in partnership with local education authorities; to open up their facilities to wider use; to buy in services from LEAs; and indeed to sell services to LEAs where that is appropriate. It will seek to allow LEAs to set up locally determined partnership schemes to support pupils at independent schools—for instance, where there is seen to be a particular need, locally determined, perhaps on the part of those with special needs, perhaps in art and sport. I hope that that is evidence that the Liberal Democrats at least have no problem with independent schools and wish to work more closely and positively with them.

So why do we oppose the assisted places scheme? We oppose it first and foremost because it is a wrong use of public funds. As was stated earlier this evening, scarce public resources need to be targeted where they are most needed. In my submission, they are most needed in the provision of teachers, books and equipment, and long-overdue repairs to buildings. The Minister in his concluding remarks, which were intended, I think, more to rubbish the Labour Party's scheme than otherwise—stated that abolition of the assisted places scheme would save only £24 million; that would provide only 1,000 teachers. That is only a small drop of what is needed, but it is a very important drop. It is a much better use of those resources than the assisted places scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, said that the principal purpose of the scheme is to prop up the independent schools. I believe that to be the case. I suspect it is no coincidence that, as pupil numbers in independent schools are declining, so we are seeing an extension of this scheme.

As I said, I have no problem with independent schools. I wish them well. I hope they succeed. My problem is that I do not believe that the scheme is a proper use of scarce public funds at a time when I know only too well that education budgets, funded publicly, are being cut, and cut, and cut. The need is enormous. Abolition of the scheme will not begin to solve the problem, but it is a step in the right direction. At the moment we are taking another, slightly larger step in the wrong direction.

The next question that we have to ask is whether the scheme achieves what it is intended to achieve. In his opening speech the Minister gave some very impressive figures and statements of achievement by pupils on assisted places. I do not for a moment want to belittle that achievement. But these are children who have been chosen specifically for their academic ability. They have been put in smaller classes than would have been the case if they had stayed at an LEA school. They have been better resourced with books and equipment and undoubtedly they have been taught in better premises and better buildings. It would be remarkable indeed if they were not achieving better results. I do not believe that that proves that the scheme is working. It simply proves that it would be remarkable if it were otherwise.

I turn next to inspection, which we touched on last year. In his reply to last year's debate the Minister said that there would be appropriate inspection. I wonder whether in his reply the Minister would tell us what he considers to be "appropriate inspection". Is it correct that only three independent schools this year are likely to be inspected by Ofsted? Is that adequate? Is it appropriate? He said last year that it monitors the results of assisted places pupils. Of course it does, but that monitoring comes after the event and even then, as I said, those pupils are among the brightest. It does not monitor whether they are doing as well as they could or should do under such a scheme. I am seriously concerned about the very little inspection that appears to take place in relation to independent schools and particularly those which benefit from the assisted places scheme.

There seems to be much conflicting evidence about who exactly are the parental beneficiaries from this scheme. The Minister quoted figures that suited his case. I shall quote some that suit mine. Two years ago research showed that 50 per cent. of parents benefiting from the scheme themselves had been to independent schools. That may have changed but I doubt whether it has changed significantly in two years. The research showed that only 10 per cent. of those parents were in manual work. It showed that a very much smaller percentage even than that came from ethnic minority backgrounds. There is evidence to suggest—I choose my words carefully—that many, not all but many, of the parents who benefit through the assisted places scheme could and would afford to pay for a place at an independent school if they were not fortunate enough to benefit through this scheme.

I conclude by stressing, as I did earlier, that my party is keen to co-operate with the independent sector and support it in that way, but we do not believe that a scheme which applies to less than 1 per cent. of school-age children is the right or appropriate way to widen that co-operation with the independent sector. The assisted places scheme is simply not the way to forge wider and better co-operation with the independent sector. Above all, it is not the best use of public funds. That money is small compared with what is needed. The "only £24 million" to which the Minister referred goes only a little way towards solving the problems that we have debated before in your Lordships' Chamber. But that sum of money is much needed and it is much better and more effectively targeted as public funds to support publicly funded schools. We oppose the order.

Lord Henley

My Lords, as always, we have had a very interesting debate—what the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, calls a ritual dance. He has taken part in that dance for a number of years longer than I have, but I hope to outlast him and look forward to debating with him again next year and the year after from this side of the Box.

As we go through this "ritual dance", we hear ritual noises from the parties opposite, and particularly from the Liberal Party, of alleged cuts in education at a time when this year we were able to find an extra £878 million for education as a whole.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He should not perhaps try to quote such figures to me. Is he aware that Ministers in another place have accepted that the additional money that the Government made available does not even reach the amount of money that the local education authorities themselves were already providing and that therefore no additional money has gone into the publicly funded education sector this year? In fact, there has been another reduction.

Lord Henley

My Lords, that is absolute nonsense. An extra £878 million has come from the central taxpayer and has gone to local authorities in the form of whatever the grant is called and made available to schools. One simply cannot say that there has not been extra money. I reject the allegations of cuts. We have seen considerable increases in the size of the education budget over the years. As I have made clear to the House on a number of occasions, throughout the United Kingdom we now spend something of the order of £35 billion on education at all levels. That is a very considerable sum indeed.

I totally reject the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, that this is some form of charitable relief for the independent sector and particularly the boarding part of it. First, let me make clear that, despite what he said, the assisted places scheme does not cover boarding fees. If a child is in receipt of an assisted place and is boarding, the boarding fees will come from somewhere else. So this is not outdoor relief or charitable relief for the maintained sector.

Let me also make clear the size of the sector about which we are talking. On average, less than one in seven of all pupils at assisted places schemes are government assisted pupils. Assisted pupils make up less than 0.4 per cent. of the total maintained and independent sector school population. So to say that they are keeping together the independent sector—or rather the 300 schools that benefit from the scheme—is quite simply nonsense. Also, to say that they will have an undue effect on the maintained sector by creaming off those from locally maintained schools is again nonsense and does not take us any further forward at all.

Both the noble Lords, Lord Morris and Lord Tope, made much of inspection. I can assure them that Ofsted will continue to inspect as and where appropriate and will conduct those inspections in as rigorous a manner as in the maintained sector. But it is obviously a matter for Ofsted, which is an independent body, and not one for the Government to direct, to decide exactly which schools it should inspect.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, also tried to make out that those who benefit from the scheme were not those who ought to benefit from it. Let me make it quite clear that we have conducted quite an amount of research into the socio-economic background of parents and children who benefit. We know from an independent survey carried out by MORI for the Independent Schools Information Service that 80 per cent. of parents in the scheme—not the 40 per cent. claimed by the noble Lord—come from socio-economic groups which have not traditionally been associated with private schooling; that is, the upper and middle classes. I can also assure the noble Lord that again some 80 per cent. come from classes C1, C2 and DE—again, not those associated with private education.

I accept that the party opposite, like us, believes that we ought to extend opportunities for all pupils. But unlike that party, we believe in doing so by expanding choice and diversity and by placing choice in the parents' hands. That is why earlier this afternoon we debated the nursery voucher scheme and I am grateful that it has now completed its course through this House. The assisted places scheme also plays a vital part in this process. It is plainly achieving its objective of giving access to some of the best independent schools for children who would not otherwise have been able to contemplate them. We on this side of the House believe that that can only be to their and the nation's advantage. That is why I quoted the figures earlier. We intend to give twice as many children this opportunity and will expand and extend the scheme accordingly. The draft regulations before the House help to achieve just that. I commend them to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.