HL Deb 16 June 1998 vol 590 cc1459-78

.—(1) The School Inspections Act 1996 shall be amended as follows.

(2) In section 25 (power of local education authority to inspect maintained school for specific purpose), before "Where" there shall be inserted "Subject to section 25A below,".

(3) After that section there shall be inserted— "Inspection of voluntary aided and foundation schools.

25A.—(1) In the case of a voluntary aided or foundation school to which the special measures provisions of this Act do not apply at the time, a local education authority may only exercise their powers under section 25 above with the agreement of the governing body.

(2) Where the governing body of a school does not agree to a request by a local education authority to exercise their powers under section 25, the authority may appeal against the decision of the governing body to the Secretary of State.

(3) Where a local education authority make an appeal under subsection (2) the decision of the Secretary of State shall be binding on both parties.".").

The noble Baroness said: The amendment aims to put on the face of the Bill the precise meaning of what we understand the Secretary of State to be saying about local authorities carrying out their functions. The draft code and the School Inspections Act make it absolutely clear that a local education authority may exercise its rights under Section 25 only for the purpose of exercising statutory functions. LEA functions are considerable. I have catalogued some. One has only to read through this considerable Bill to realise that. They will be even greater when the Bill is enacted. Many are very general. A large number are left open to wide interpretation.

Not only does the provision undermine the autonomy of good schools—a point I made a moment ago—but a local education authority could make life difficult for a school and still keep within the provisions of the code of practice. The LEA has only to argue that it is doing something in the interest of raising standards or school improvement under the functions in the Bill and that would pass muster.

The education development plan is one example. It is a new function which will open up many opportunities for LEAs to intervene in school life. As is well known, grant-maintained schools have functioned successfully without being subject to those provisions. We understand there to be a willingness in the department to sustain the level of autonomy that has been enjoyed by grant-maintained schools and to build on that. The Government have said that they want schools to be able to exercise greater autonomy. That is set out in paragraph 2 of the code of practice. The first words in that paragraph are the Government's starting point: there is a presumption in favour of school autonomy.

Paragraphs 3 and 4 refer to the need for that autonomy to be matched by accountability and the need to build in the necessary checks and balances. That is understood. My amendment will give statutory force to the Government's sentiments while providing a right of appeal to the Secretary of State by a local education authority which felt that a school was being unreasonable and hindering its ability to fulfil its statutory duty. It builds in the safeguard that where a local authority believes that it has a good case for intervention where the school is being difficult, it is possible to have that case considered.

The Minister will note that I have restricted the amendment to voluntary aided and foundation schools. There might be difficulty extending the provision to other types of schools, especially community schools, which under the provisions of the Bill have opted to remain community schools. From what the Minister said at a previous stage of the Bill I understand that about a year or so after Royal Assent community schools will have an option to become foundation schools. In other words, they will opt for yet more autonomy. If they remain community schools they are directly accountable to the local education authority.

I have restricted the amendment to foundation schools for the reasons I have set out. As other schools have a statutory relationship with the LEA, the right of access will work differently.

It may be that my amendment is in the wrong place in the Bill. If that is the case I shall be advised by the noble Lord. However, the point I wish to make is this. Schools which are performing well and are achieving at a high level, and schools which are showing discernible improvement year on year and are showing no grounds for concern, should be protected from an LEA which might wish to move in for inspectorial reasons. My amendment does no more than codify on the face of the Bill an important protection for the present grant-maintained schools and what will become foundation schools.

Whether the foundations come from the cohort of grant-maintained schools or from the cohort of community schools when that part of the Bill is implemented makes no odds. It is an important way of allaying some of the fears behind some of the press comment we have seen in the past few days about the Oratory School. It is no secret that Hammersmith and Fulham LEA is looking forward with relish to seeing the school return to it, the LEA having increased powers under the Bill. If the Government are serious, the amendment will protect such schools from undue interference from the local education authorities. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The noble Baroness in introducing the amendment expressed doubt about whether it is in the proper place in the Bill. She also commented on its scope. They are matters of fact to which I must respond. So far as we understand, there is no problem about the amendment's place in the Bill. It would have the effect which the noble Baroness intends. However, I must remind her about the provisions of the School Inspections Act 1996. Under that Act local education authorities have a right of access to any school maintained by them where they require information about the school for the purposes of exercising any of their functions and where it is not reasonably practicable to gain the information in any other manner. The Bill provides that that right of access shall be extended to voluntary-aided and foundation schools.

The proposed new clause would give the governing bodies of voluntary-aided and foundation schools almost total discretion over the extent to which the local authority was allowed access to the school. I accept that under the noble Baroness's amendment local authorities would have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State and that the Secretary of State's decision would be final. But our view is that the approach provided for in existing legislation and the draft code of practice on LEA-school relations will give schools adequate safeguards against the risk of unreasonable action on the part of the LEA. The code takes a much more positive view of LEA-school relations. It encourages collaborative working arrangements rather than assuming that there will be disputes and relying on rights of appeal to the Secretary of State to resolve disputes.

The present draft of the code uses Section 25 of the School Inspections Act 1996 as the starting point on LEA rights of access into schools. This gives them the right to inspect any school maintained by them where they require information about the school for the purpose of exercising any of their functions and where it is not reasonably practicable for them to obtain the information in any other manner. The code also makes it clear that LEAs have no general legal power to insist on entry to schools against the wishes of the school. These arrangements have been in place for some time for existing categories of maintained school, except grant-maintained schools which are not maintained by the LEA. We are not aware that they have caused problems.

If a school at any time believes that the LEA is using those powers unreasonably, it can appeal to the Secretary of State. It would be open to the Secretary of State to issue a direction under Section 496 of the Education Act 1996. But, in general, we would expect the LEA and school to resolve any differences of view and to reach an agreed way of working which suits both parties without recourse to the appeals process. The present draft of the code offers appropriate guidance.

I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that the policy which is being implemented in this part of the Bill is predicated on agreement and consensus rather than on conflict. We do not want to see a significant number of appeals, although the right to appeal has been properly observed.

The noble Baroness raised the issue of community schools and their right to choose a new category. It is true that community schools will be able to choose a different category one year after implementation of the new framework. I stress that that is not one year after Royal Assent, as the noble Baroness appears to believe.

I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that there is nothing particularly new in the nature of the access which is provided. It is already provided in the School Inspections Act 1996 and the appeals procedure is already provided in the Education Act 1996. I hope that on that basis, and on the basis of our determination to put school standards at the heart of the new schools framework, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

Local authorities do not intervene in grant-maintained schools, but as they are to become foundation schools that situation will change considerably. In reply, the Minister referred to the right of access being extended to local education authorities, but he went on to say that schools will have "total discretion". When a school and its governors reject the LEA case for intervention, does the school have total discretion to refuse to allow it to intervene?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I believe that we should examine the kind of occasions when it might be necessary for a local education authority to seek access to a school. It might be necessary when a school's performance falls below an acceptable level. The LEA must have access to the school to know how best to support its improvement. The same is true in respect of an issue of health and safety, for example. The responsibility on the LEA is to promote high standards in all the schools for which it has responsibility.

The noble Baroness is right in saying that we are returning grant-maintained schools to a relationship with the local education authority which was removed by previous Conservative legislation. That political decision was taken before the election, announced before the election and included in the manifesto on which the people of this country decided to elect a Labour Government.

We do not intend to back down on our commitment to return grant-maintained schools to LEAs and to set up the foundation process. If we were to do so on an issue of this kind we would be betraying the whole purpose of the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to improve standards in our schools and a main agent for that purpose is the local education authority.

Baroness Blatch

The Minister has still not answered my question so I wish to put it again. Perhaps he will relate his answer to schools such as the Oratory School and many others which have been in touch with us and are concerned about this issue.

First, the noble Lord referred to "total discretion". Can he explain over what? Secondly, I agree that reaching agreement is a better course. If the LEA, the governors of a school and the staff believe that there is a good case for intervention, for providing information or whatever, that is the best way in which to move forward. Certainly on past records, there will be occasions when the school believes that the case for LEA intervention is not strong, and will take issue with it and resist it. Does "total discretion" come in there? Is it possible for a school to resist intervention by the LEA?

I return to a point made by the noble Lord about the previous government. They put a measure in an Act of Parliament which allows schools to opt voluntarily for grant-maintained status. Every single grant-maintained school did so because the parents, by popular consent, voted that the school should become a grant-maintained school. It was never imposed by the government. The government never took a power to impose grant-maintained status on any school.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I have looked carefully at my speaking notes and the only time that I used the phrase "total discretion" was when I referred to the effect of the noble Baroness's amendment. I said that the amendment would give the governing bodies of voluntary-aided and foundation schools almost total discretion over the extent to which the local authority was allowed access to the school.

The only other reference which could possibly justify the noble Baroness's intervention is when I said that the code makes it clear that LEAs have no general legal power to insist on entry to a school against the wishes of the school. That must be what the noble Baroness was referring to.

I used the phrase "almost total discretion" with reference to the amendment because it provides that there shall be reference to the Secretary of State in the course of dispute. I used the phrase that there is no general legal power to insist on entry because the code of conduct sets out quite clearly the circumstances in which entry might be necessary and, of course, provides that there is a system for appeal to the Secretary of State by any school which claims that entry is not necessary. Therefore, the description of a general power is entirely inaccurate.

If the noble Baroness suggests that there is a total discretion in relation to governors, the answer is that if access to the school were refused unreasonably—in other words, not in accordance with a code of practice—it would be open to the LEA to seek a direction from the Secretary of State. It would also be open to the LEA to issue a formal warning notice if it has concerns about a school's performance.

However, I repeat that it is important—and I am sure that it will be adhered to in 99.9 per cent. of cases—for schools and local education authorities to work together to promote standards rather than setting up a system of institutionalised conflict which could be brought about by the amendment which has been moved.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

Perhaps I may make a point in relation to voluntary-aided schools. I take it that those schools are included in the amendment because they have that degree of autonomy to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred.

I make three simple points. First, church schools, not least aided schools, have always maintained that they do not wish for separate or special treatment in those ordinary provisions. This appears to me to be a special provision for aided schools which the majority of them would reject.

Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, our experience is that there are inhibitors in place. There is the code of practice and, on the whole, aided schools have not found any difficulty in abiding by that code of practice. They have found it a good code to which to work.

Thirdly, I make the point made already by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. Good relationships lie clearly at the heart of building up standards. The experience of the vast bulk of schools—aided as well as controlled schools—is that there are those good relationships. As I said, aided schools have a measure of autonomy. There is no necessary reason why that autonomy should lead to any kind of conflict. It is possible to have the autonomy that aided and foundation schools will have in the future and still to work closely with LEAs. I hope that that will be the outcome.

Baroness Blatch

I am surprised that the right reverend Prelate said that the voluntary-aided schools have had no difficulty abiding by the code of practice because it is not yet in being. The document is out for consultation; the first draft has not yet come back to the department; and we shall not know what the final document looks like until it comes before the House.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

I apologise if I used the wrong phrase but I understand that there are already agreed constraints within which this whole matter is carried out. Am I not right about that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The right reverend Prelate is quite right. Although the code of practice to which we have referred is not yet in force, I can confirm on the part of the local education authorities that they value the constructive co-operation which exists with voluntary-aided schools.

Baroness Blatch

So do I, but I believe that we are talking about two different things. We are talking about a code of practice which refers to many statutes which are not yet on the statute book. Therefore, it is not yet in being. The autonomy which grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools enjoy at this moment is greater than that which they will enjoy under the Bill when it is enacted. That is the point I was making.

I return to the fundamental point that I was making. The code of practice is no more than an exhortation. We all applaud when things are going right and are going as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, describes. That is very important. It is far better to have harmony and agreement. But we know that when a large number of schools obtained grant-maintained status they did not enjoy a very good relationship with their LEAs. Many will now come together again. We want that to work and we shall applaud if it does work.

However, we must think of the most difficult scenario; namely, where the situation does not work out. We must ensure that the rights of a school are protected in this Bill. My amendment refers to the schools which are performing very well indeed. They are successful and are improving year on year. My amendment asks that they should be left alone. That is what the amendment seeks to achieve. Where a school is claiming to be successful and improving year on year but the LEA takes a different view, then it is possible for the LEA to appeal, to make its case and to have the decision overturned. That is entirely accepted within the amendment.

The noble Lord has not given me a satisfactory answer and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

3.57 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 244A) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 110; Not-Contents, 139.

Division No. 1
Addison, V. Knight of Collingtree, B.
Ailsa, M. Lang of Monkton, L.
Alport, L. Lauderdale, E.
Astor of Hever, L. Long, V.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Lucas, L.
Beloff, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Berners, B. McConnell, L.
Biffen, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Blatch, B. Mackay of Drumadoon, L.
Blyth, L. Marlesford, L.
Bowness, L. Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Mersey, V.
Braine of Wheatley, L. Miller of Hendon, B. [Teller.]
Broadbridge, L. Milverton, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Monson, L.
Bruntisfield, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Butterworth, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Byford, B. Moyne, L.
Cadman, L. Nickson, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Northesk, E.
Carnegy of Lour, B. O'Cathain, B.
Chesham, L. Onslow of Woking, L.
Clark of Kempston, L. Oppenheim-Barnes, B.
Coleridge, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Cowdrey of Tonbridge, L. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Cox, B. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Cross, V. Quinton, L.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Rankeillour, L.
Davidson, V. Rawlings, B.
Dean of Harptree, L. Reay, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L.
Eccles of Moulton, B. Renton, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Elibank, L. Rotherwick, L.
Elles, B. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Exmouth, V. Sandford, L.
Foley, L. Savile, L.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Seccombe, B.
Gainford, L. Selborne, E.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Skelmersdale, L.
Harding of Petherton, L. Skidelsky, L.
Hemphill, L. Stewartby, L.
Henley, L. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Holderness, L. Strathclyde, L. [Teller.]
HolmPatrick, L. Sudeley, L.
Hooper, B. Swinfen, L.
Hothfield, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Howe, E. Torrington, V.
Hylton-Foster, B. Ullswater, V.
Inglewood, L. Wakeham, L.
Kimball, L. Warnock, B.
Kinloss, Ly. Wharton, B.
Kinnoull, E. Young, B.
Acton, L. Janner of Braunstone, L.
Addington, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Judd, L.
Annan, L. Kilbracken, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Kintore, E.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Kirkhill, L.
Avebury, L. Linklater of Butterstone, B.
Barnett, L. Lockwood, B.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Berkeley, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Blackstone, B. Ludford, B.
Blease, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]
Borrie, L.
Brightman, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. McNair, L.
Burlison, L. McNally, L.
Callaghan of Cardiff, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Carlisle, E. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Meston, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] Milner of Leeds, L.
Castle of Blackburn, B. Molloy, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Monkswell, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Montague of Oxford, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Morris of Manchester, L.
David, B. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Nathan, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Nicol, B.
Dearing, L. Orme, L.
Desai, L. Oxford, Bp.
Dholakia, L. Palmer, L.
Diamond, L. Parry, L.
Dixon, L. Peston, L.
Donoughue, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Dormand of Easington, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Elis-Thomas, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Evans of Parkside, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Randall of St Budeaux, L.
Ezra, L. Rea, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Falkland, V. Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Ripon, Bp.
Gallacher, L. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Geraint, L. Rogers, of Riverside, L.
Russell-Johnston, L.
Gilbert, L.
Glenamara, L. Sainsbury, L.
Goodhart, L. Sandberg, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Grenfell, L. Serota, B.
Sewel, L.
Hamwee, B. Shepherd, L.
Hanworth, V. Shore of Stepney, L.
Hardie, L. Simon, V.
Hardy of Wath, L. Simon of Highbury, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Stallard, L.
Haskel, L. Steel of Aikwood, L.
Hattersley, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Hayman, B. Strabolgi, L.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Taverne, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Thomas of Macclesfield, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Tope, L.
Hooson, L. Tordoff, L.
Hoyle, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Hughes, L. Varley, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Walton of Detchant, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Weatherill, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord Chancellor.] Whitty, L.
Williams of Elvel, L.
Islwyn, L. Williams of Mostyn, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

4.7 p.m.

Clause 120 [Restrictions on financial assistance to non-maintained schools]:

Lord Lucas moved amendment No. 245:

Page 91, line 24, leave out ("Subject to subsection (2),").

The noble Lord said: It was not so very long ago in terms of memories in this place when Labour Party policy was expressed as: Private schools are a major obstacle to a free and fair education system able to serve the needs of the whole community. We will integrate private schools with the local authority sector where necessary. That was the Labour Party manifesto of 1993. The words have changed. Now we hear: The time has come for old prejudices to be buried. I want independent schools to know that the Government is looking forward to working in partnership with independent schools to raise standards. That was Mr. Stephen Byers writing in the magazine Prep School, which I am sure is required reading for all members of the Government Benches these days. Mr. Byers goes on to say: The Government has made it clear that we wish to build bridges wherever we can across education divides. The education apartheid created by the public/private divide diminishes the whole education system. The independent sector plays a vital role within our education system. That is why we are fully committed to fostering closer links between the state and private sector. Through partnership we will be able to raise standards for all our children. Fine words. Suddenly, with Clause 120, when the Government discover that there is a prospect of actual co-operation between local authorities and private sector schools, they react like some schoolgirl who has discovered a snail in her salad. They shriek and shriek and want to do everything that they can to remove that offending object as quickly as possible.

In addressing the last amendment the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, heaped considerable praise and indeed responsibility on LEAs. However, in this next clause, we find that the Government are desperately trying to claw back any responsibility from those authorities for concluding deals in the interests of their children with neighbouring schools in the private sector in case they should, unhappily, come to an arrangement which might involve some active co-operation with the hated independent schools. I find that disturbing; indeed, it suggests to me that, although the words may have changed, the sentiments remain the same.

In abolishing assisted places and by the other action that they have taken towards the independent sector, it seems to me that the Government have demonstrated their true feelings which are against private education. The fine words of Mr. Byers are merely that: just words. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to prove me wrong and that she will be able to show that this clause is intended to allow for greater co-operation and to provide new avenues for co-operation. That is not evident from the face of the Bill, but I am willing to be convinced. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

This is another example of the mean-spirited politics of envy. We have yet another rung of the ladder being taken away from able young people coming from low-income families. We have lost the assisted places scheme and, with the introduction of the work of the adjudicator, we are about to lose selection. We understand that children cannot be selected on the grounds of ability, but that, according to yesterday's statement, bright children can be selected on the grounds of ability for Master Classes". We now have the most incredible dog's breakfast of what it is that the Government believe or think about bright children: tinkering at the edges with gimmicky schemes and yet removing the bread-and-butter schemes which have been such a lifeline to bright young people from low-income families.

As I understand it, having abolished the assisted places scheme, the Government discovered one day to their horror that at least one LEA, thinking very much about the children in its area who were bright and who were suited to a fast-stream academic education, resolved to do something about it. The moment that the Government got wind of that they rushed into the back room and brought out counsel to draft them some words to ensure that no LEA could provide such a scheme. I cannot imagine a more mean-spirited action on the part of the Government.

Now that we have had the admissions document and are putting some flesh on the bones of the Bill as we go through it, we are beginning to see the real colour of the Government; indeed, the real intention behind the Bill. It is a levelling down and it is a dumbing down. In other words, you can have any colour car as long as it is black. They have removed all the chances that were there for children—autonomy of schools, assisted places schemes—and have attacked Oxford and Cambridge. All those actions add up to a comprehensive system and a levelling down and, ultimately, offer no chances for our bright young people.

I wholeheartedly support my noble friend's amendments. As the Minister knows, it is my intention to oppose the Question that Clause 120 should stand part of the Bill. I do not mind whether the clause is removed by that means or whether it is done by means of my noble friend's amendments. I believe that the amendments should succeed.

We had a most interesting debate the other day between the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and the Government Front Bench about what the Liberals would do if they were masters of this Bill. They would have been unequivocal in addressing and getting out of the system the selection of bright children in this way. The assisted places scheme certainly received their support. They would have been much more clear cut about how they dealt with grammar schools in the Bill. The Government talk and use the rhetoric of high standards. They use the rhetoric of looking to raise standards in education and, indeed, they use the rhetoric of being concerned about bright, able young children. However, when one looks at their actions, they simply do not match the rhetoric. Young people throughout the country will lose such opportunities.

I was deeply saddened the other day to hear about a young boy attending a school in East Anglia under the assisted places scheme who has a disabled father. So that the father could better cope with the situation, an application was made for the young boy to be transferred to a school under the assisted places scheme which was nearer to his home. A school was found and it was willing to accept him. However, what happened? The DfEE said that, once the link is broken with the assisted places scheme, that is an end to the matter. In fact, if the boy had been placed in the other school which was willing to accept him, it would have saved the Government £5,000. Nevertheless, it counted for nothing. Those concerned rather cold-heartedly said that the boy must stay at the school which is not appropriate in terms of the logistics of the family or he must leave and take his chance in another local school. That is my understanding of the Government's intentions. I do not like what I see. I most warmly support my noble friend's amendment.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Tope

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, briefly but accurately described my party's position on assisted places schemes, selection, grammar schools, and so on. I believe that I have made no secret of that in this Chamber or elsewhere. However, I have considerable sympathy with the amendment, although not necessarily with all that was said in moving it. Indeed, I was not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was making a sexist remark about snails in lettuce or launching an attack on organic farming. Either way, I do not wish to be associated with those remarks.

In supporting the abolition of the assisted places scheme, it was part of my party's policy that it is right and proper for LEAs to be able to determine what they do with the money they have in exercising their responsibility to ensure the proper education of the children in their area. I personally have a view about that, but I do not wish to impose it on other LEAs which may feel that there is another and more appropriate way in certain circumstances for particular children.

Therefore, for those reasons, although I start almost from the opposite point of view to the mover, I have considerable sympathy with the intention behind the amendment. I certainly feel that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is tackling the issue more appropriately with his amendment than the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will in her desire to remove the clause from the Bill.

Baroness Young

I very much support my noble friend Lord Lucas in his amendment. Shortly after the general election there was a great deal of press coverage about a consensus on education as regards raising standards, together with agreement on the national curriculum, testing and assessment, and so on. As the year has progressed and the education Bills have come before us, we have clearly seen a widening rather than a coming together. The saddest part about this clause is the fact that it does not actually support the individual child. I take perhaps a very simple view of education, but I believe that it is about the pupils; indeed, each individual pupil.

I shall not repeat all the arguments about the assisted places scheme, but perhaps I may give Members of the Committee just two examples about two assisted-place pupils who are well known to me. One has just obtained a place at Cambridge. I do not believe that she would ever have been able to achieve such a place coming from the area in which she lived with the education normally available to her. She is an extremely clever girl and comes from a very poor home. The other pupil has, as I understand it, become part of a team which has won a gold medal for rowing internationally. That is an opportunity which she certainly would never have had if she had not been on an assisted places scheme. I quote those instances because they concern actual children who have benefited from the scheme.

The other argument is the one which was made very clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. Those in local government have an education budget, but it is a matter for the relevant committee to determine how that money should be spent. There has been a great deal of argument about the cost of sending a child to an independent school as compared with the cost of sending that child to a maintained school. However, if you compare like with like and include administrative costs and other such costs in a maintained school, the difference is not that great. If an opportunity can be offered to a child to develop a talent or a skill where the local authority for one reason or another cannot provide an appropriate course—that may apply to a course in a modern language, or Latin or Greek—and the child and the child's parents want that opportunity, and the local education authority is prepared to offer it, I believe it should have the right to do so. After all, the local education authority comprises democratically elected councillors who make these decisions.

The whole matter rests on the needs of the child concerned. I do not believe that we should say that local education authorities should not make these opportunities available under any circumstances. It may be a case of a special needs child who requires a particular course. It is extraordinary that we are debating this matter on a day when we hear on the radio and read in the newspapers that the Government will publish a paper on gifted children who will be singled out at primary school to attend special schools. I am not in the least against that. It is sensible that able children should be selected in that way. However, it is completely the opposite of what the Government said only last week in this Chamber. If we are seriously interested in helping the individual child, I hope very much that the Committee will support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lucas.

Baroness Warnock

I speak in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It is extraordinary that we hear so much about collaboration between the private sector and the public sector—I am very much in favour of it—except in the field of education. I do not wish to discuss at length two highly successful schemes that existed in the past which illustrated that co-operation. One was the direct grant schools and, later, there was the assisted places scheme. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I can think of innumerable cases of the successful use of assisted places. The Girls' Public Dayschool Trust with which I am associated has the largest number of assisted places in the country. Therefore, I know that that scheme worked.

However, let us forget about those two excellent systems that have now gone and ask why collaboration between the private sector and the public sector should not be permitted in this case. Although it is frequently thought that independent schools are somehow privileged, wonderful places which are rich by some curious means and which continue to exist through some kind of miracle, but which will die some day, the facts are different. Independent schools are kept going almost entirely by the private money of parents. Those parents make an enormous contribution to education in this country, even if we consider the matter from a numerical aspect and forget about what the schools offer. The private sector is educating an increasing number of our young people at the moment. To rule out collaboration between people who are putting their private money into the education of the country and the public sector seems to me an act of folly. It centres around an age old ambiguity surrounding the word "élite". There is an absolute endemic failure to distinguish between "élite" in the sense of a well selected, meritocratic number of people and an unjustly privileged number of people, as it were. Those people may overlap but the meaning of the word is not the same in those two contexts.

It is paradoxical that the Government are perfectly prepared to talk about centres of excellence but are not prepared to permit any élite institutions where this excellence may exist. Therefore I very much support the amendment. Alternatively, I would support omitting the clause altogether.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

In speaking against the amendment I am interested to hear what the Government's plans are to achieve greater co-operation with the private sector. I recognise the point the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made, and I wonder what the Government's plans are in this area. I also wish to respond to some of the extreme language of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The noble Baroness used the expressions, "removing all chances" and "dumbing down". We are talking about sending children to schools in the state sector. The noble Baroness often goes out of her way to say that some comprehensive schools are excellent. She has said on a number of occasions that her own children attended a good comprehensive school. Therefore I do not understand how she can use such extreme language with regard to children attending state schools. That is quite out of keeping with many of the points she makes on the more detailed aspects of the Bill.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I was not expressing outrage at sending children to state schools. I was concerned that an opportunity should be given to certain children to attend private schools.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

Nevertheless the noble Baroness used the expression "dumbing down". Presumably she meant that in the context of sending children to a state school. Further, there seems to be no recognition at all on the Opposition Benches that the Bill before us introduces a diversity of schools. Although some of my colleagues on this side of the Chamber do not like to admit it, the Bill takes on board many of the developments of grant-maintained schools, local management of schools and other such issues that we have seen develop over the past 10 years. We are far from going back to a fully comprehensive system. It is a shame that the Opposition are not addressing the nitty-gritty of the Bill and are choosing to have an argument with old Labour, as it were, about an issue that is really not on the table. They are not arguing about the details and the diversity of the system which the Bill seeks to put in place. Those are the points I wish to make. I believe that the Bill as a whole seeks to introduce equality for all children rather than protecting quality for those who are most privileged.

Lord Walton of Detchant

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of maintained education but I am also an enthusiastic supporter of collaboration between the public and private sectors. At a time in the National Health Service when the Government are attempting to reduce waiting lists it has been well recognised that health authorities may, when circumstances allow, purchase surgical procedures in the private sector. The question I pose to the Government is the following. Will this clause as it stands prevent any local authority, which recognises that particular pupils with special aptitudes cannot receive the education they deserve in the state sector, from purchasing education facilities in the independent sector, thereby furthering that kind of collaboration? My reading of the clause is that that will be the case and therefore I am in sympathy with the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

Before the Minister responds I hope I may put a particular gloss on the question that the noble Lord, Lord Detchant, asked. What about pupils who are sent to ballet schools, for the sake of argument, none of which, as far as I know, is maintained in the public sector? They are all private. Yet, without the support provided by local education authorities to pupils who attend ballet and acting schools, many who need that education and could benefit from it will not be able to receive it.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about this clause in today's debate. The Government gave a clear manifesto commitment to phase out the assisted places scheme. Indeed, they were elected with a large majority to do so. The Education (Schools) Act 1997 gave effect to that commitment. Resources freed as a result have already been allocated to allow the appointment of 1,500 teachers to keep over 100,000 pupils out of large infant classes. Funding previously allocated to benefit a favoured few will now be used to secure that many children make a strong and positive start to their school education. As more resources are freed they will further support the reduction in infant class sizes. I challenge Members of the Committee to suggest that that is not a good use of those resources.

Clause 120 seeks to achieve the same positive benefits at local level. It provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the circumstances under which LEAs will be permitted to buy places at independent schools and preventing LEAs buying such places under any other circumstances. The key objective is to prevent LEAs establishing the assisted places scheme at local level. Again, we are absolutely committed to that manifesto pledge.

The clause has no effect on LEAs' powers to buy places at independent schools for pupils with special educational needs. Section 348 of the Education Act 1996 covers such provision and is not amended by the Bill.

The noble Lord's amendments would entirely wreck the purpose of the clause by giving LEAs an unrestricted ability to buy places at independent schools. I stress that is simply not consistent with the commitment given in our manifesto. We are clear that we want the regulations to enable LEAs to develop genuine partnerships—I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock—between the maintained and independent sectors similar to those which we are already supporting. Invitations to apply for support for partnership projects which were given out last year attracted an excellent response, with nearly 300 applications seeking over £5 million of support. We are presently providing a total of £600,000, of which £350,000 was government money, the rest supported by a trust, to support 48 projects covering a wide range of activities which bring independent and state schools together as equal partners. Projects involving numeracy, arts and science subjects, as well as sports and the performing arts, are being supported. All types of schools are involved and schemes will run in inner city, rural and urban settings.

Let me give just a few examples of the projects bidding for this support which were successful. First, there is a project involving one maintained and two independent schools in Bromley where the schools are sharing their different expertise to improve provision for modern foreign languages at all three schools, the type of project mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. There is a project promoted by Wakefield local education authority in which pupils from five secondary schools—three maintained and two independent—in the town are working together in cross-sector groups and attending joint lectures and master classes. Pairs of maintained and independent schools in north Somerset and separately in Wiltshire are collaborating to provide an A-level in music technology where small numbers of pupils in the individual schools make it more effective to run the course jointly. Simultaneous timetabling will support joint working, and there will be joint teaching.

We are making funding available for one year only (1998–99) at present in order to assess the impact before deciding on future arrangements. So in a sense those are pilot projects. The partnerships scheme will help pupils, staff and schools in both sectors through the sharing of expertise, skills and facilities. That is a long way from the assisted places scheme which was of no benefit to the maintained sector, did not represent a genuine partnership between the sectors, and was poor value for taxpayers' money.

Of course this is not an overnight solution: change will have to be incremental and at a pace that both sectors set. We are looking long term for much increased interaction between independent and maintained schools based on a recognition that both sectors working together can make an impact greater than they would by working separately. Regulations made under this clause will allow LEAs to develop that sort of co-operation locally. I hope that that is of some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.

We shall consult in detail during the autumn on the provisions of the regulations to be made under Clause 120. Those regulations would be made by April 1999. We shall not commence the provisions of Clause 120 until regulations are ready to be laid. The existing provisions of the Education Act 1996 which give LEAs power to provide financial assistance to independent schools and to pay the fees of children attending such schools will remain in place until that time.

But we are clear that genuine partnership must involve at least two parties, and that there must be benefit to both sides. A scheme which would pay independent school fees in order to take a child wholly out of the maintained sector and place him or her full time in an independent school is in no sense a partnership between the two sectors. In those circumstances, where is the involvement of, or benefit to, the maintained sector? An LEA proposing such a course of action would be abdicating its responsibilities for its more able pupils and should be concentrating its resources on ensuring that all children, including the very able, can flourish within the maintained sector.

I agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. The language used by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, gave her position away. She simply wants to retain the assisted places scheme so that certain numbers of pupils for whom the state sector ought to be able to provide properly can receive a private education. It is not dumbing down for able pupils to be properly educated in the state sector. The noble Baroness said that her own children were properly educated in the state sector. So were mine. And that can be so for all pupils except those who have special needs and require special provision which not all local authorities are able to make.

I hope, in the light of my remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will be able to welcome the building of bridges referred to in the article he quoted by my honourable friend the Minister for School Standards. I hope that the noble Lord can feel pleased with the partnership schemes that we are now developing and intend to take further. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Lucas

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on this amendment. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I have so often found myself in disagreement with amendments that they have proposed, and have probably said so in no uncertain terms. So I am conscious of the honour they do me on this occasion. I am indebted finally to the immense wisdom of my noble friend Lady Young. What this matter should be about is not systems and which system benefits, but about the children and what is best for the individual children.

The noble Baroness mentioned a range of products and I welcome them. I am delighted that the Government are turning their faces in this direction. I can think of a number of projects involving relationships between Dauntsey's and its neighbouring school in West Lavington which had to be abandoned when the colour of that particular local education authority changed. I hope that the colleagues of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in that part of the world will be listening to what the Government are proposing and perhaps reviving the sort of co-operation which used to exist. Whatever criticisms the Government may have of the assisted places scheme, within that scheme were a number of schools in the independent sector, particularly the Girls' Public Dayschool Trust and the likes of Manchester Grammar, which were committed to it heart and soul because it enabled them to fulfil their ambition, which was to educate the children of the poor—or at least the needy—rather than just the children of the rich, which is the prospect they now have to face returning to.

I give particular praise to the efforts that the Girls' Public Dayschool Trust is making to raise funds to enable it to continue to offer full fee scholarships to those who need them. It has done extremely well to date and I wish it every continued success. However, what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said is also important. Local authorities are democratically elected bodies, and it seems to me they can quite reasonably be trusted to take these kinds of decisions themselves. If they start behaving unfairly and doing something which most of their electors will consider to be to the disadvantage of their children, they will not be long in office. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, if he found himself in an opposition party in such a council, would be very sanguine of his prospects at the next election. I do not think there is any danger of creating something which will be unpopular locally, and if it is popular locally and if it is what the people want I do not see why the Government should be afraid of it.

There is a lot to be said for looking at the needs of the individual child and recognising that in some circumstances the independent schools will have the particular facilities and the particular resources which can enable particular children to benefit in a way that they could not in state sector schools which are necessarily constrained as to resources and the variety of experience they can provide. Like my noble friend Lady Blatch, I am a user of the state sector and extremely happy to be so, but I can certainly appreciate that there are some children who would be better off if they could have the benefit of the facilities of an independent school. The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, pointed out that in medicine the National Health Service is free to go private when it wishes and where it is best for the patient. That is the principle which should apply to these cases. I know that the noble Baroness the Minister is coming from a position and a commitment which makes this difficult for her, but I think the Government are in error here. I do not see that they can offer me anything by way of concessions or conversations until Report stage, and so I would very much like to test the opinion of the Committee.

4.43 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 245) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 114; Not-Contents, 113.

Division No. 2
Addington, L. Hothfield, L.
Addison, V. Howe, E.
Ailsa, M. Jopling, L.
Alport, L. Kitchener, E.
Astor of Hever, L. Knight of Collingtree, B.
Avebury, L. Lang of Monkton, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Lauderdale, E,
Beloff, L. Lester of Herne Hill, L.
Berners, B. Lindsay, E.
Blatch, B. Linklater of Butterstone, B.
Blyth, L. Long, V.
Bowness, L. Lucas, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Braine of Wheatley, L. Ludford, B.
Broadbridge, L. Lyell, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Bruntisfield, L. Mackay of Drumadoon, L.
Byford, B. McNair, L.
Cadman, L. Marlesford, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Carlisle, E. Mersey, V.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Miller of Hendon, B.
Clark of Kempston, L. Milverton, L.
Courtown, E. Monson, L.
Cox, B. Montrose, D.
Cross, V. Moyne, L.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Nickson, L.
Davidson, V. Norrie, L.
Dean of Harptree, L. Northbourne, L.
Dholakia, L. Northesk, E.
Dixon-Smith, L. O'Cathain, B.
Eccles of Moulton, B. Onslow of Woking, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Elibank, L. Palmer, L.
Elles, B. Park of Monmouth, B.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Ezra, L. Rankeillour, L.
Foley, L. Reay, L.
Gainford, L. Redesdale, L.
Geraint, L. Rees-Mogg, L.
Grey, E. Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L.
Hampton, L. Rennell, L.
Hamwee, B. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Rotherwick, L.
Hemphill, L. Russell-Johnston, L.
Henley, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Sanderson of Bowden, L. Teviot, L.
Sandford, L. Teynham, L.
Savile, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Seccombe, B. [Teller.] Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Sharples, B. Tope, L.
Skelmersdale, L. Torrington, V.
Skidelsky, L. Tugendhat, L.
Steel of Aikwood, L. Ullswater, V.
Stodart of Leaston, L. Warnock, B.
Strathclyde, L. [Teller.] Wise, L.
Sudeley, L. Young, B.
Acton, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Judd, L.
Annan, L. Kennedy of The Shaws, B.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Kennet, L.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Kilbracken, L.
Barnett, L. Kirkhill, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Lockwood, B.
Blackstone, B. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Blease, L. Longford, E.
Borrie, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]
Burlison, L.
Callaghan of Cardiff, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] Milner of Leeds, L.
Castle of Blackburn, B. Molloy, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Monkswell, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Montague of Oxford, L.
David, B. Morris of Manchester, L.
Davies of Coity, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. Nicol, B.
Dean of Beswick, L. Orme, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Oxford, Bp.
Dearing, L. Parry, L.
Desai, L. Peston, L.
Diamond, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Dixon, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Donoughue, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Evans of Parkside, L. Puttnam, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Rea, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Gallacher, L. Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Gilbert, L. Ripon, Bp.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Rogers of Riverside, L.
Grenfell, L. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Hanworth, V. Sefton of Garston, L.
Hardie, L. Serota, B.
Hardy of Wath, L. Sewel, L.
Haskel, L. Shepherd, L.
Hattersley, L. Shore of Stepney, L.
Hayman, B. Simon, V.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Simon of Highbury, L.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Stallard, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Hoyle, L. Strabolgi, L.
Hughes, L. Strafford, E.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Taverne, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord Chancellor.] Thomas of Macclesfield, L.
Turner of Camden, B.
Islwyn, L. Walton of Detchant, L.
Janner of Braunstone, L. Whitty, L.
Jay of Paddington, B. Williams of Elvel, L.
Jeger, B. Williams of Mostyn, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

4.51 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux): Amendment No. 246 should be agreed to as it is coupled with Amendment No. 245.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 246:

Page 91, line 30, leave out from beginning to end of line 10 on page 92.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 120, as amended, agreed to.

Baroness Blackstone moved Amendment No. 246F:

After Clause 120, insert the following new clause—