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5.5 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Ms Flint) on what I am sure the whole House will agree was an absolutely excellent speech. I particularly commend her comments on education and her clear and passionate commitment. I very much hope that the Secretary of State noted her comments and will ensure that she does not have to wait 37 years before she assumes a senior position and is able to do something about her commitment to education.

The hon. Member for Don Valley spent much of her speech describing why she was not going to break a number of records set by her predecessors. Judging from her confidence, humour, candour and honesty, I am sure that she will very soon be held in the same affection among her constituents as her predecessor. I am sure that we all wish her well.

There was some humour in some of the other speeches too. I agreed in particular with the former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), when she bemoaned the fact that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) was no longer present in education debates. She implied that he is not very happy in his post in the Office of Public Service. I do not know whether that is so, but I can reveal that he has a very large desk--at least he told me he has. He said that it took him three and a half minutes to circumnavigate it. I am sure that we would all have liked very much to hear his thoughts on education today.

I want to make it clear that the Liberal Democrats will support the Second Reading of the Bill. In the 17 or 18 years' operation of the assisted places scheme, we have consistently made clear our opposition to it. It logically follows that we shall support a Bill proposing its abolition, and we shall do so willingly. I shall express one or two reservations about some of its details, but we shall support abolition of the scheme.

The reasons for our opposition have been repeated on numerous occasions and are very clear. We have given the same reasons year after year every time the scheme has been debated. We dislike a scheme that, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) pointed out, is centrally administered, that takes no account of local need and that leads to enormous regional variations in the allocation of funds.

We dislike a scheme that appears to use taxpayers' money to prop up independent schools that have a high proportion of assisted places pupils when such schools

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might otherwise fail. We are especially concerned about allegations that some independent schools that rely heavily on assisted places may have artificially inflated their fees, knowing that the state will meet the new, higher fees.

At no time have we been convinced that the scheme offers value for money, or that it has even met the criteria laid down by the previous Administration. For example, it is often said that the scheme offers pupils a superior education. On a number of occasions the former Secretary of State and her former ministerial colleagues told us that pupils on the assisted places scheme achieved outstanding GCSE and A-level results and that those schools made sure that that happened. That was certainly true in many cases, but not in all.

Indeed, it would hardly be surprising if those results were particularly good given the intake of those schools--they admit that under 1 per cent. of their intake require any form of special education. Excellent results are not universal, however, and in 1996 a significant number of those schools did less well than their neighbouring state schools, especially at A-level. The results achieved at some supposedly excellent schools on the assisted places scheme were mediocre.

Not long ago, the former Prime Minister visited Pangbourne college and cited it as an example of how the excellent private sector provides excellent education to the children of poor families. That college was out-performed at A-level by 25 of Berkshire's comprehensive schools as well as by several grammar schools in the area. There are many other examples of independent schools on the scheme that deliver less good A-level and GCSE results than those achieved by state schools in their areas. It is by no means universally true that the additional cost to the state of the scheme ensures a better education for all the students who participate in it.

It is equally untrue that all such participants come from so-called working class backgrounds, as was originally intended. The Secretary of State rehearsed that argument in detail. I will not repeat it other than to draw attention to the frequent references made by him to a speech by the former Conservative Member of Parliament for Buckingham, Mr. George Walden, about seven months ago. On that occasion--the Secretary of State omitted to cite it--he also said:


Given my remarks so far, the House will fully understand the reasons for my party's opposition to the assisted places scheme and, therefore, our reasons for supporting the Bill.

Whenever my colleagues or I have spoken about the scheme we have always made it clear that it is the scheme that we oppose, not independent schools. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), whom we are delighted to see has rejoined our Benches after a brief absence, said in 1988:


Similar comments have been made by other right hon. and hon. Friends on numerous occasions, but we have now gone further than that by calling for the replacement of

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the assisted places scheme with local partnership schemes drawn up between the state and independent schools. In our 1997 election manifesto we stated:


    "We will phase out the Assisted Places Scheme and use the money saved to enable LEAs, if they wish, to enter into local partnership schemes. These could include assisting the funding of pupils at independent schools."

The House will be aware of the extensive current collaboration between the state and the independent sector. We want to build on that co-operation to open the enormous resource of the independent sector to the entire community, to their mutual benefit.

Our plans are intended to operate at local level with the local identification of educational needs. It is our intention that the independent sector should be used to help to meet those needs, especially when the state sector is either unable to meet them or can do so only at disproportionate cost.

My party's views are best summarised by the following quotation, which states:


Those words are not mine, but those of the current Secretary of State in an interview with the Independent Schools Information Service--ISIS--magazine in October 1995. I agree with every single word.

Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman went further in that interview in his apparent support for the Liberal Democrat policy on the way forward for independent schools because he said:


He went so far as to agree with us when he said that there would need to be a mechanism to sort out difficulties if, at a local level, there was hostility to the idea of placing a child at an independent school.

Given such agreement between my party and the Secretary of State, I hope that it will be possible for us to work together to develop that new approach to the replacement of the assisted places scheme. It is my sincere regret that the Bill makes no reference to the urgent need to develop that new form of partnership, but I know that the Secretary of State is keen on it.

Mr. Blunkett: I take the unusual step of intervening to point out to the hon. Gentleman, who has correctly quoted me, that what I described in that interview is perfectly feasible under the terms of the Education Act 1944. The House will be aware that, according to what were known as the Martin rules, children were aided in voluntary and private sector provision where there was no suitable provision available for them either because of their special needs or aptitude that could not be met by the local authority. That remains the case. We wish to establish sensible criteria to avoid those rules being misused by local authorities of a different persuasion from my own to trigger selection. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, this winter we will take steps to ensure that selection is not part of the process.

Mr. Foster: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In the interview from which I quoted, he made

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similar comments about the Martin rules, but he also said that a genuine review should take place to see how those rules might be used to help children so that an appropriate placement could be made according to their needs. I entirely agree with that and his subsequent intervention. He is absolutely right that we do not want to put in place a system that offers an alternative form of selection by the backdoor. It is clear that selection on academic ability or by interview has been rejected by the electorate. We will certainly commit ourselves to work with the Secretary of State to develop that new way forward.

My second concern is that we remain to be convinced that the money released by the phasing out of the assisted places scheme will be sufficient to reduce class sizes for children aged five, six and seven. We would want the Government to go still further and reduce class sizes at least to 30 for all primary school pupils; my party has placed that commitment clearly on record, with a clear explanation of how we would fund it.

We are not alone in our concern. Reference has already been made to the work done by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which clearly disagrees with the Government and believes that there will be insufficient funding. In a previous debate, I referred to concern even on the Labour Benches. For example, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), said to the Western Mail on 7 April:


He went on to say that if there was insufficient money he would have to talk to his colleagues about where the extra resources would come from.

The previous Government certainly did not accept the present Government's figures. Last year, I tabled a parliamentary question asking for an analysis of the likely cost of meeting the pledge that has been made by the present Government. The reply said:


Clearly, that estimate does not include capital costs or the likely additional costs for teacher training.

We are prepared to suspend judgment until we see the White Paper in which the Government will explain the mechanism and, one hopes, give some details on how the money is to be used, but because of our continuing concern it is my intention to table an amendment in Committee that would at least require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament annually on the amount that has been freed as a result of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme and on how it is to be spent.

Despite those concerns, we intend to support the Bill tonight. We share the Secretary of State's vision for a new approach to education that will get rid of much of the division that has existed for far too long, created by the market forces approach of the previous Administration. Above all, we share his vision of an education system that delivers excellence, not only for the many rather than the few, but for all.

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