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The Conservative party's analysis is flawed for one obvious reason. The lack of principle manifests itself in the evidence that it is a greater Government priority to spend public money on supporting a few--in a system in which it is hoped they will become privileged--than it is to spend more on the public sector, in which lack of funding results in many children's education not moving from the bottom rung. [Interruption.] I stress- -to the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and others--that those of us in whose constituencies education is most in crisis as a result of Government policy and failure to fund see the results clearly. The money is not being spent where it should be spent--to assist needy schools, children and
Column 631teachers. If it were not spent on the assisted places scheme, there might be more money available out of the public purse to help more people.
Mr. Hughes : Yes, I know. The hon. Lady's late arrival was compounded by the ignorance displayed in her intervention. On CTCs, the Government declared that they wished the majority of money to come from industry and the minority from the Department or the Treasury. That has not happened. The Government did not find more than a few people in industry who were prepared to fund CTCs.
The majority of money has come from the Department of Education and Science --80 per cent. to 20 per cent., the exact opposite of what was the original Government plan. There are two reasons for that. First, much of industry--I have spoken to several people--is not supportive of what they see as a divisive scheme. Secondly, this latest Government initiative that seeks to fund other things rather than the general education system is perceived to be what it is--a tokenist attempt, which, in its tokenism, deprives others of considerable resources where the greater priorities are and the greater money should be spent.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Having been a social worker in the east end of London, I was well aware of the ability of youngsters who really tried in those areas to get away from their schools and have wider educational opportunities in grammar schools. It is a tragedy that those youngsters are now denied that chance. I believe firmly that the assisted places scheme is giving back to those youngsters from disadvantaged homes the chance of which the Labour party, with the connivance of the Liberal party, deprived them.
Mr. Hughes : Last night I was at a farewell party for the head teacher of a primary school in my constituency, where the children speak at home 28 different mother languages. One of the former pupils of that primary school is now at Cambridge, having gone entirely through the county sector, and is expected to get a first-class honours science degree. There is no reason why to have excellence in education one has to perpetuate a system which divided children at 11 years on the basis of a single test which was shown academically to be often inaccurate in assessing people's ability, and cast children into two groups--the sheep and the goats--for good, to the great detriment of many of those who went into the secondary modern as opposed to the grammar school sector.
It is also inconsistent, this year above all, for Government Ministers to argue in favour of a continuation of the assisted places scheme. It is inconsistent because, if the Government are to be believed,
Column 632their education policy over the past 10 years has been successful--by their argument, the standards have gone up and good reforms have been made. If the county system is so much better now than it was 10 years ago, so much less is there a case for paying people to leave it to go into the independent sector. Even less so for the reason that this year, as a result of the Education Reform Act 1988, we will see the national curriculum in place. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear".] I agree entirely--hear, hear--and I am supportive of the objectives of a national curriculum. However, I hope that the Minister of State at the Home Office who assented to the support for the national curriculum will agree with the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) and me that it is entirely inconsistent that it should not also apply to certain schools-- those very schools to which the Government fund children to go. The private sector, which is free from any national curriculum and which can sometimes teach very poorly, is funded by the taxpayer and the public purse to ensure that certain children get on to what clearly is a ladder, not necessarily of opportunity for academic excellence, but of opportunity to become more privileged because of the result that the private education system often produces. The inconsistency is that in the year when we have the introduction of the national curriculum, instead of saying, "Our education reforms have been so good and we now have the national curriculum which will be so much better, so we do not need the assisted places scheme any more", the Government are saying, "We still need and we still want to encourage more and more people to leave the public sector and to go into the private sector of education, funded by the public purse". The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood said that the merit of the market place was that the parents, in choosing independent schools, vote with their feet. They do not--they vote with their wallets. The difference is that many people do not have anything in their wallets with which to vote. By picking just a few of the many hundreds of thousands of children whose parents do not have anything in their wallets, one is not changing the fundamental inequality that exists. One is not changing that inequality if some people can buy their way into the private sector and if the private sector is supported by a few others who have their places provided out of public funds when that is not an option for the majority of people in this country.
I am not in favour of a monopoly of county or state education ; I am in favour of independent schools--[ Hon. Members :-- "Oh."]--but I am not in favour of independent fee-paying schools in which some people have the right to buy their way into a position of advantage for their child when another child has no such advantage.
Mr. Gerald Howarth : The hon. Gentleman must realise that the downward pressure on fees in the independent sector is due to the fact that parents do not have unlimited wallets. If the hon. Gentleman took the time to study the parents who send their children to independent schools, he would find that they are not often "rich" ; they are simply parents who are making the most enormous sacrifices to send their children to such schools because they believe them to be better. The fact that it is their money-- and that they are careful about how they spend their money--means that they do vote with their feet. If a school is inadequate they will not send their child to that school,
Column 633they will withdraw the child and send him or her somewhere else. It is wholly untrue that independent schools are acting in a vacuum ; they are subject to the schools inspectorate like the whole of the maintained sector, so there is some kind of supervision.
Mr. Simon Hughes : Of course, there is some kind of supervision. However, I am very aware that, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, it is not the same kind of supervision. I am also aware of the pattern of and the trends in the people who send their children to private schools. In constituencies such as mine where, in general, the secondary education provided by the local authority is poor, some parents make great sacrifices to buy their children out of that system--and I understand that. Often those parents do so because they think that it will give their children an advantage. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it does not. However, those parents do not do so necessarily or normally because the private system provides better educational standards, but because they believe that, all things taken together, it will give their children an advantage at the end of their schooling.
A far better system would be to ensure that there is indeed choice, but choice that is not determined by whether one can pay to exercise it and that is not precluded from those who cannot pay but still wish to exercise it, and choice across a whole range of options in which money is not the object.
I had hoped that when introducing the debate the Minister would say how the assisted places scheme was achieving the objectives that he and his predecessors had set for it. He explained the changes in the regulations, but, as the hon. Member for Durham, North-West said at the beginning of her speech, over the eight or nine years that the system has been operating, there is no evidence that it has achieved the objectives originally set for it. The only evidence that exists is that the Government have continued to spend a proportion of taxpayers' money when increasingly over that time the greater priorities have been elsewhere. When a Government do not have the courage to put their money where their priorities should be, it is a sad day for education.
Mr. Butcher : First, I give my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) the assurance that we shall be looking at the outcome of the scheme. It is right that we should follow up and examine the achievements of those who pass through the assisted places scheme as they move into higher education or careers.
The speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was pretty mixed up. There was a time when the Liberal party was committed to pluralism and believed in choice, but the moment the hon. Gentleman was tested on that point, he implied that he believed in independent schools, but not in fee-paying independent schools. If that is his position, I assume that he really means that he likes independent schools which have free places. Therefore, can I assume that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of grant-maintained schools?
Column 634schools, and I am grateful for that. If the hon. Gentleman is to stay true to his logic, I hope that he will declare his commitment to city technology colleges. I understand that he runs with both the hare and the hounds in his constituency on that matter.
Mr. Simon Hughes : I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I am a governor of a school in Southwark that is going through the process of deciding whether it should be a CTC. I voted against the proposal because for the Government to refuse that school £1.5 million to be relocated and rebuilt on a different site and then to bribe the school by offering it £10 million to become a CTC was completely inappropriate and against the wishes of the community, the parents and all locally-elected representatives. I do not believe in that sort of selective pressure on the local education system.
Mr. Butcher : The Liberal party is clearly all over the place and that explains why it is no longer concerned about policy formation and is descending into the sort of agitprop irrelevancies which now pose as policy in that party.
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central) : Let me provide the Minister with some information because he did not take part in the debates last year on the Education Reform Bill and he will have missed the strong and fundamental opposition to grant-maintained schools offered by the then education spokesperson for what was then the Liberal party who is now the leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats. When the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) says that the SLD believes in pluralism, he really means that he has one policy and his leader has another.
Mr. Butcher : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is at this point that the cross-party consensus comes into question. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) began by talking about the social mix in independent schools which take pupils under the approved places scheme. I thought that she was leaning towards the proposition that in order to improve the social mix in her terms, and even in the Government's terms, to get more young people from low-income families into those schools, we should increase the number of assisted places available. If she is true to her logic she should support us in increasing the number of places and we shall then only have to agree by how many the current number of 35,000 places must be increased. Then we would get the sort of social mix for which I thought that she was arguing.
But matters get much worse. We are fortunate tonight in having all the members of the Labour party's education team on parade on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) went to Reading grammar school, a selective school. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) went to Lincoln school, a selective school in his time. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West is the only one, consistent with her principles, who went to a non-selective school. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) attended Brentwood school, now in the assisted places scheme. So far so good. In his time it was a direct grant school, which he attended from 1957 to 1964. I wish that I had had that advantage. I went to a common or garden grammar school.
Mr. Butcher : Under the direct grant arrangements a capitation fee was paid by the DES on behalf of every pupil. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman, laugh as he may at the moment, was the beneficiary of state assistance to attend a selective school. Why is it that tonight he and his privileged team of colleagues, who are perched on the Opposition Front Bench like starlings, wish to say to Brentwood school, the old school of the hon. Member for Blackburn, "You can't do it under the APS"? Why is the hon. Gentleman saying that parents on low incomes should not have the same opportunities that his parents had? It seems that they are not to have that choice if he has his way. If he is to be consistent with his philosophy, he should support the Government.
Mr. Straw : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for informing the House of what could be read in any of the reference works of the past 15 years. I am not in the least ashamed of where my parents happened to arrange for me to go to school. None of us is responsible for where we went to school. Instead we are responsible for where our children go to school. When we went to school, there were no comprehensive schools. All schools were selective. As the Minister wishes to trade family histories, he should be made aware that my youngest sister failed the 11-plus. It was only because comprehensive education was available in the adjoining education division that she had the chance to take advantage of higher education. The Labour party is concerned that there should be real choice for everyone and not merely for a privileged few. That is why we have pushed for the comprehensive principle throughout the country.
Mr. Butcher : The hon. Gentleman has done nothing to persuade me or, I think, the House that the inconsistency embodied in his own career does not remain strong. The privileged bunch on the Opposition Front Bench is saying that it will deny opportunities to children of poor and less well- off families through the APS. It is a scheme which benefited one of the bunch directly. Two more of its members enjoyed privilege with state funding in a selective system. I find its position difficult to contemplate.
Why do we help children whose parents are on low incomes? I shall use some real examples. The Labour party has been pretty good of late--let us pay it the compliment--of taking individual cases and making general points from them. I shall take the opportunity of taking some individual cases and making general points from them. I shall present real examples of pupils who have done well against the odds through the APS. There was the girl suffering from cystic fibrosis whose widowed mother put her through an APS school in Surrey. Last year, she left that school with one A and two B grades at A-level and she is now studying law at university.
There was the Coventry boy whose four A grades and one B at A-level won him a place at Oxford, where he is now reading mathematics. I am sure that his father, an unemployed labourer, is rightly proud. There was the London assisted pupil who achieved two As and a C at A-level last year. Both parents are blind. I am sure that with that handicap bringing up children can be a monumental struggle. If the assisted place gave those parents the reassurance that their child was being educated
Column 636according to their wishes, who would begrudge them that? We believe that they should have that choice. If the local neighbourhood comprehensive school is not to their choice, they should have the opportunity to send their child elsewhere.
Ms. Armstrong : Is the Minister really saying that that opportunity should be available only to those on the assisted places scheme? Is he saying that such an opportunity could not be made available in the local comprehensive? Is he saying that he is not committed to ensuring that that opportunity is available in every comprehensive school in the country, for every child?
Mr. Butcher : No, I am not saying any of those things. The hon. Lady has just dug herself a very deep hole. If she examines the Education Reform Act 1988, which she opposed root and branch, she will find that a theme runs through it. It will be seen that in the case both of grant-maintained schools and CTCs the Government will be giving the independent sector real competition and a real run for its money--because we have expectations of the state's free system that are the same as those that we have in respect of the independent system. The Government are giving real choice in those terms. The examples I gave related to people who opted for a certain ethos. We say that that same ethos can come through in our state systems, through the grant-maintained schools and through the CTCs. We are the friends of the underprivileged in that regard.
Mr. Dunn : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition's contribution is quite bizarre? They are saying that because something cannot be available to all, it should not be available to anyone. Presumably the same applies, in the Opposition's view, to those people who cannot afford to buy their own house--and the Opposition would argue also that because some people cannot afford to buy a car, no one should own a car. That is the logic of the politics of envy.
Mr. Butcher : My hon. Friend the Whip advised me not to prolong the debate, and in order to put Labour out of its misery we should not do so. We have been given enough material tonight to keep us going until the next general election.
Labour has been exposed as the party not of equality and opportunity but of dull uniformity and mediocrity. That is Labour's game. It believes in equality--full stop. We believe in true equality of opportunity. I shall sit down and challenge the Opposition to undertake a little research. They have not done much, and they ought to do more.
We know which schools the members of the Shadow Cabinet attended. My estimate is that one third of them attended independent schools. I say to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that they are a tough bunch, are they not? They are a privileged lot. One third of their number attended independent schools, and another third attended selective schools--and only one third of them shared the hon. Lady's lonely new tradition of attending a comprehensive school.
Ms. Armstrong : I am amazed at the Minister's ignorance of educational history. It took Labour Governments to introduce comprehensive education. I confess to attending a selective school after I took the 11 plus. My predecessor as Member of Parliament for my
Column 637constituency was chairman of the education committee and took that school out of selectivity and made it a comprehensive school, which was an enlightening and uplifting experience for me.
The Minister should know and understand that it took legislation in this House to move towards non-selective education, and that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when Education Secretary, took more schools out of selection than any previous Secretary of State for Education.
Question put :--
The House divided : Ayes 93, Noes 17.
Division No. 314] [11.14 pm
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon John
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Fox, Sir Marcus
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Hampson, Dr Keith
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Hunt, David (Wirral W)