Previous Section Home Page

Column 1263

the pupil support budget, which is a centrally retained discretionary exception in the LMS scheme. The schools will henceforth have to recover the cost directly from parents. Continued payment of the subsidy would be a matter for the authority if the proposed variation is approved.

Proposals are being considered in the light of statutory guidance issued for LMS schemes. I assure my hon. Friend that, as always, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will carefully consider all the relevant factors before reaching decisions on those matters, and we shall seek to take those decisions as soon as we reasonably can. I should like to say a few words about the Anglo-European school, Ingatestone, and also cover the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon. Should I run out of time, I shall communicate to him on those important issues. The question of the Anglo-European school was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon. As he said, it concerns the LEA's review of transport arrangements that it now makes for pupils attending that self- governing school.

I recently visited that excellent school and saw its achievements for myself. It is unique in Essex in that it is a comprehensive school with a strong European emphasis and offers the international baccalaureate. Because it serves a wide area of Essex, the LEA has always provided subsidised transport for its pupils over and above legal requirements. Pupils in other Essex comprehensive schools do not get such treatment, which has no doubt led Essex to begin consultations about the possibility of phasing it out from September 1995. My hon. Friend suggests that that move shows a bias against GM schools by the authority. Given some of the other concerns that he so ably expressed, I understand why he could reach that conclusion. It is not, however, necessarily the case in this instance.

It would be wrong for Essex to let any of its actions be governed by bias against GM schools, but, under law, it is entitled to review those arrangements. It might be helpful if I explain a little of the legal context. The law requires free transport for a pupil of compulsory school age who attends his or her nearest suitable school and who, to reach it, must travel beyond the statutory walking distance, which is three miles for a pupil aged eight to 16. The courts have held that LEAs are not normally obliged to provide free transport for pupils whose parents have preferred a school other than the nearest suitable school, even if the preferred school is beyond walking distance.

If an Ingatestone pupil could have attended an ordinary comprehensive school nearer home, Ingatestone would not

Column 1264

be considered his or her nearest suitable school and he or she would not be entitled to free transport to it, even if it were more than three miles from home. However, the law also enables local education authorities to assist those for whom they do not consider free transport is necessary. That is the direction that Essex has been using to assist children whose parents have chosen to send them to Ingatestone rather than to the nearest suitable school. In making that provision available, the authority has gone beyond what is required by law. Provided that the LEA has acted reasonably and treated GM school pupils as favourably as comparable pupils at LEA schools, whether and how it assists pupils who do not qualify for free transport on grounds of necessity is a matter for the authority and my Department would not normally intervene.

Home-to-school transport is expensive, especially for shire authorities. In 1991-92, which is the latest year for which I have figures, Essex spent almost £7.5 million on it. Most of the expenditure will be necessary to ensure that no Essex pupil is denied a suitable education through inability to reach a suitable school. But some of that is at the discretion of Essex.

Finally, on the basis on which schools compete to attract pupils, the Government believe that schools should compete not through the availability of transport inducements but by raising educational standards and widening choice. That is the whole thrust of the Government's reforms. I am happy to acknowledge that Ingatestone Anglo-European school already sets high standards. Last summer, 68 per cent. of its 15-year-olds passed five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with the Essex average of 39 per cent. I am also happy to acknowledge that the school's European emphasis has contributed to choice and diversity in Essex for more than 20 years.

Ultimately, the most powerful arguments for self-governing schools--I return to the theme of this debate--are what they do, their consequences and how the schools are seen. I urge parents, anywhere in the country, who have not taken the opportunity to visit a self-governing school, to do so. They will see the benefits and gains and, I hope, return to their school, if it is still run by an LEA, determined to change it to a self-governing

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Three o'clock.

Written Answers Section

  Home Page