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10.37 pm

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. Having heard the interesting remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and having taught at Manchester grammar school for five years between 1960 and 1965, I would like to follow his remarks about education in Manchester. I understand the figures that he has given and his argument against the assisted places scheme.

Before I address those matters, let me remind the right hon. Member for Gorton that Manchester grammar school--in the days when I was teaching there--was a direct grant grammar school. It was, admittedly, highly selective at that time, and many hon. Members here may oppose that. It was so selective that some 2,000 young boys used to come to sit an examination, and only 200 used to get in. But socially it was totally non-selective. There was no question of fees at that time, and poor children came from all over the Manchester area. The right hon. Gentleman was right--children came from a wide area, but from all walks of life. The right hon. Gentleman will agree, because I was there and I know exactly what happened. The pupils came from as far away as Oldham, and even Southport, at that time.

Then, Manchester grammar school, as a direct grant state school, served the very pupils it cannot serve now because it is independent, and that is because a Labour Government abolished direct grant schools. The right hon. Member for Gorton is right; fees now have to be paid if a pupil from Manchester or anywhere else wants to attend Manchester grammar school. It is still a fine school, and a selective school, but it is now a fee-paying school, and that is why he made the speech that he made. It is a pity that he did not cast his mind back to the history of that great school, which I was lucky to serve for five years. It was certainly a privilege to be there. I think that he will agree that it is a fine school and one that we can be proud of.

I promised to be brief. All that I wanted to say about the regulations is that I have taught at schools other than Manchester grammar and have seen the benefits of the assisted places scheme. I will not deal with all the figures that have been bandied about. I am suspicious of bureaucracy and figures. I do not believe any of this nonsense, whether from the Government or from the Opposition, about £118 million--I have read the brief--or £263 million. It is all a load of hogwash.

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The assisted places scheme is a success for the young people who are on it because the schools that they go to are good schools, with good teachers, who work hard outside school hours and it is a quality--[Interruption.] This is not a party point. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) is laughing, but he knows that it is not a party point.

The quality of the teaching in those schools has led to the results that we have read about in recent reports. It is all too sad that the Labour party has abandoned young people from poorer families for old-fashioned reasons, because it is anti the independent sector. The Labour party has pledged to abolish the assisted places scheme. I think that it has made a mistake--it has misjudged because it is removing known benefits to pupils from less well-off families for pie in the sky.

10.41 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): As I have made clear in the House on a number of occasions in speeches on this issue, the Liberal Democrat party has no antipathy to the independent school sector, which is a valuable educational resource and one that we want to be made available to a much wider community. Indeed, as I have also said on a number of occasions, we welcome many of the areas of co-operation that exist between the state and the independent sectors. [Hon. Members: "What about the buts?"] I will come to those in a minute, if hon. Members can contain themselves.

For example, we welcome the joint membership of trade unions and professional associations, the joint in-service activities that take place, the shared use of premises, and even, on some occasions, the shared teaching. All those are examples of mutual co-operation for mutual benefit.

Conservative Members will be pleased to know that we have gone further. Recently, we made it clear that we are not in favour of removing charitable status from independent schools. We would prefer to achieve a level playing field, by including local education authority schools in the charitable status. We have also rejected the introduction of value added tax on independent school fees, which was first proposed by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett).

But--Conservative Members have been waiting for this--as I have said several times, we are not convinced that the assisted places scheme offers the best basis for co-operation between the state and independent sectors. We do not believe that it is the best way to extend mutual co-operation for mutual benefit.

After all, whatever other arguments might be used in the Chamber, the scheme is hardly the basis for wide-scale co-operation when it deals with less than 1 per cent. of the relevant school-age population. How can a scheme that spends large sums of public money on so few people be the best way to forge effective partnerships between the state and independent sectors?

There can be little or no justification for using public funds to prop up independent schools that would otherwise be unable to attract sufficient students--and so survive--without the assisted places scheme. It is interesting to note how the fees of several independent schools involved in the scheme have risen by considerably more than the average rate of inflation. One wonders

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whether such rises result from the almost certain knowledge that they will be covered by funding from the scheme.

It is also worrying that so few independent schools involved in the assisted places scheme are inspected. Questions from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) have recently revealed that it is unlikely that more than three independent schools will be inspected by the Office for Standards in Education over the next 12 months. It must be of great concern that the Government do not require independent schools involved in the scheme, using state school funding money, to make available scores on key stage 3 standard assessment tasks. It is difficult to know whether we are getting value for money from that use of public funds.

There is little evidence that the assisted places scheme provides value for money, and we must ask whether the money involved could not be used to greater effect. We have some evidence that the scheme is missing its intended target. For example, research shows that 40 per cent. of parents with children on the scheme earn more than £13,000. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) pointed out, recent evidence shows that only about 10 per cent. of the parents of children on the scheme come from manual backgrounds.

Two years ago, research showed that about 50 per cent. of parents with children on the scheme had attended independent schools. I doubt whether much has changed in the intervening two years. I would welcome a contradiction from the Minister of the evidence of two years ago that few people from ethnic minority backgrounds had received places. For those reasons and others that have been mentioned by other hon. Members, I am not convinced that the scheme is the best use of what will always be limited education resources.

We have already heard from Conservative Members that the assisted places scheme is popular. It is hardly surprising that it is increasingly popular in some quarters. After all, many parents know that their local education authority schools are being starved of cash. Class sizes are rising; there are shortages of books and equipment; buildings are crumbling. Parents know that all those factors depress educational achievement.

Of course parents want their children to have the benefits of smaller class sizes, more books and equipment, and better-maintained buildings. The question is whether we should find ways of investing more in our education service. I hope that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) will join my party in calling for a significant increase in investment in the education service.

For those reasons, I am not convinced that the assisted places scheme is the best way to forge closer co-operation and make the best use of the important resource that is the independent school sector. I remind the House that it was the Prime Minister who told us that we had good state sector provision for the ablest pupils. It was the Prime Minister who said that it was those other, perhaps less able, pupils to whom we should be directing our attention. The assisted places scheme does not help us to do what even the Prime Minister says we should be doing.

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10.49 pm

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport): Each year we have this debate, which is extremely useful in that it shows the differences between Opposition and Conservative Members on education. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), in his short but lively contribution to the debate, said many things with which Opposition Members agree. He said that good teaching and good, well-resourced schools with bright children got good results. That was a statement of the extremely obvious. The difference between us is that the Government consider that only 1 per cent. or fewer of children should receive that good education.

The assisted places scheme emphasises the education of the few at the expense of the many. It is an admission of 17 years of failure if, as the Minister said, the Government believe that bright children can be educated only in independent schools. Deregulation of independent schools and their inspection has removed any accountability for taxpayers' money.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said, when local education authority budgets were settled for this year, they exposed a massive shortfall of funding. Many hon. Members, not only Opposition Members, will have beaten a path to the Minister to make representations on behalf of the local authority in their area. They saw class sizes rising, buildings crumbling and books and equipment shortages. Yet the only new initiative to come from the lips of the Prime Minister was a pledge to put £100 million more into the assisted places scheme.

Even the Government cannot claim that the assisted places scheme represents value for money. As has been demonstrated by other hon. Members, a place in an independent school, even considering the capital costs and the other costs involved in running the LEA, costs between one and a half and three times as much as a place in a maintained school. So even comparing like with like, costs in an independent school are far greater.

When the then Minister summed up this debate last year, he said

The assisted places scheme is largely intended to cream off bright children from maintained schools, so is it surprising that independent schools perform better? The Minister made a conclusion of remarkable insight last year. He was telling us that taller people can reach higher shelves.

So are we surprised that we are paying so much more for assisted places or that the Government are not making proper checks that we are getting value for money? If the Government were genuine in their attempts to assist the brightest children, they would tackle the issue not just for the few but for the majority of children in all our schools. If the Minister was making a sincere effort to assist able and gifted children, she would insist that all schools in the maintained sector had a policy for the gifted, that proper and differentiated work went on in our schools, and that primary and secondary schools in the maintained sector had the necessary modern equipment--information technology and access to the Internet--so that those children could benefit from a varied and wide education. But instead the Government are ploughing £200 million of taxpayers' money into the independent sector.

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We recognise diversity and choice, but we say that it should be available to all children within every school, not just to a few. However, we also recognise that £1 extra spent in one school is £1 less spent in another.

The most extraordinary feature of the assisted places scheme is that the scheme has been undersubscribed for nine years out of 14. Spending on the scheme has not reached the figure that the Government projected in nine years out of 14. Parents are leaving the places empty because they are unenthusiastic about the scheme, yet the Government have decided to double the amount of money spent on it.

Some of the 355 independent schools currently in the scheme are highly dependent on taxpayers' money. In fact, if the scheme were extended further, they could almost become private state-funded schools, but the difference is that the education that they supply costs more and no one is accountable to the taxpayer for the money spent. If the Government have their way, the taxpayer will spend more than £200 million on the assisted places scheme. More than £100 million is spent on the service boarding scheme and the funding of other schemes means that about £350 million of taxpayers' money is paid to independent schools. Yet those schools do not follow the national curriculum or conduct standard assessment tests. They do not have to give the same type of detailed information to parents as maintained schools nor are they subjected to full Ofsted reports.

Maintained schools have to be inspected every four years and it was the original ambition of the Government that independent schools should be inspected every seven years. However, the chief inspector of schools told me recently that only three independent schools, out of nearly 2,300, will be inspected next year. I shall assist the Minister with the arithmetic and tell her that, on that basis, it will take just over 700 years to inspect all the independent schools. Yet when the chief inspector of schools appeared before the Education and Employment Committee, he admitted that the education in many of the independent schools was less than good. In answer to one of my questions, he said:

Despite that the Government do not insist that those schools, which receive substantial amounts of taxpayers' money, are examined in the same way as maintained schools.

I have stated that independent schools are more expensive. The one simple reason why education in independent schools is more expensive than in maintained schools is that most of a school's budget is spent on teachers' salaries and independent schools have considerably better teacher-pupil ratios than maintained schools. In short, independent schools have smaller classes and smaller classes get better results. The House need not take my word for it, because it can take the word of David Woodhead, the national director of the Independent Schools Information Service. In ISIS's magazine, he wrote:

Most tellingly, he also says in the same article:

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    "If smaller classes are good enough for independent schools, they are good enough for other types of schools, too."

I totally subscribe to that view. If we are going to find resources for smaller classes, we should find the resources for all schools.

Like parents, we reject the Government's illogical, ill-founded notion that there is no connection between class size and children's academic performance. That is demonstrated by the money that the Government are spending on the assisted places scheme. The Labour party will replace the assisted places scheme: we will give a real chance to all pupils, whether bright or not, by using the money that is currently allocated to the scheme to reduce class sizes in early-years education. Labour Members will reflect that intention in our votes tonight.

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