Education Bill

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Mr. David Miliband (South Shields): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the millennium bridge. I am sure that he would not want anyone north of Watford to think that he did not realise that the real millennium bridge is between Gateshead and Newcastle. The imitation over the Thames should not be put in the same category.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am delighted that he has had the opportunity to visit that bridge, as have I. The bridge was not entirely clear in the picture, although I am sure that it is a splendid picture. I might add that, as I am married to a Geordie, I am very keen on the city of Newcastle and I think that the millennium bridge there is splendid. As one would expect, it is infinitely better than the southern effort in London, which does, indeed, wobble.

The Government's response to the proposals contains all the recommendations and whether they are accepted or not. Recommendation one, that the partnerships between independent and maintained schools should be expanded and embedded,

    ''with the eventual aim of reaching all schools''

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is accepted. Recommendation two, that the Department should

    ''explore and seek to provide what partnerships need to become sustainable in the longer term''

is accepted. Recommendation three is accepted, the document stating:

    ''We are committed to continued support for partnerships between the two sectors. We are determined to see through the changes that we have begun, embedding them fully in the system, and we will continue to invest in them to ensure that this happens.''

Recommendation four, that there should be

    ''a permanent mechanism for bringing together independent and state school representatives, alongside other bodies''

is accepted, with the comment that the composition of that will be discussed, and so on.

I make no criticism of any of that; it is absolutely the right policy. The Government are beginning to explore ways in which the skills, knowledge and expertise, and sometimes facilities, of the independent schools sector can be harnessed for the benefit of schools in the maintained sector. That is all well and good and appropriate.

The question is exactly how far the Government see such partnership arrangements progressing. The arrangements that they have made between maintained schools and independent schools, their partnership with the Sutton Trust and the various other proposals that have been put on the table could all have been done, to almost any extent, under clause 13. Those powers will enable Ministers to provide for places to be purchased at independent schools inside or outside the United Kingdom. There may be specific reasons why Ministers see it as appropriate to purchase places at independent schools outside the United Kingdom, perhaps for diplomatic or service families.

Amendment No. 239, by making it explicit that Ministers will have the scope, without recourse to Parliament, to spend money in any way they want for educational purposes, seeks to draw out the Government's exact intentions. We may see some exciting changes as a result of the powers in the Bill regardless of whether they are implemented by the current Government or a future Government. We may see more open traffic between the independent sector and the maintained sector. Indeed, looking at the other things that the Bill seeks to do, most notably the measures under an early clause that enable the provision of education through companies by schools, we may see that the division between independent, state and maintained schools disappears. The seeds of that are in clause 13, and it will be exciting to see what will be done with these powers.

I tabled amendment No. 239 in a spirit of inquiry as a probing amendment seeking to elicit some comment from the Minister about how far he or the Secretary of State want to go in experimenting with new ways of spending public money for educational purposes, and I look forward to his response.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I was interested in my hon. Friend's description of a picture of a bridge that he could not recognise as a good picture. His amendment is good, and it was not until he explained it in more

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detail that I realised how good it is. The passage of his lead amendment would render my amendment unnecessary. Indeed, it may be that the Bill already renders unnecessary my amendment and new clause, but perhaps the Minister could tell me why my amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment No. 153 would require the Secretary of State to make payment of an education credit in certain circumstances, but the bulk of my ideas are contained in new clause 1. The modest amendment and new clause seek to deal with a problem that many parents, perhaps more than we realise, face: many parents in my constituency do not achieve their first choice of school for their children, and many more parents face that situation in other constituencies. Only two out of the five high schools in my constituency are oversubscribed so we are rather fortunate, but many parents are disappointed because they do not achieve their first choice of school. Many more are disappointed because they dare not ask for their first choice of school for fear that if they fail to achieve it they would not be able to get into their second choice of school because by the time that their application was considered it would be full of first-choice applicants.

My amendment and new clause seek, in a small way, to remedy that problem. It may be that parents do not chose a school because they do not think that it is good enough, or it may be that they do not choose it for entirely different reasons with which we do not sympathise. Perhaps they want a place at a church school, but there is not sufficient space. We may not consider attending a church school important, but they might.

There are only three options for parents who fail to achieve a place at the school of their choice. First, they can suffer in silence—or otherwise—their child's being sent to a school that is not their first choice. Secondly, they can go private, an opportunity which is not open to many people. Thirdly, they can set up a school of their own, an avenue which is open to even fewer people, but which my cousin pursued in the 1960s when his son was not admitted to the school of his choice. Last year, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) did likewise in response to the London borough of Southwark's failure to provide sufficient places at popular schools. Indeed, many of his constituents refused to accept a place in some of the more unpopular secondary schools in the borough.

As I said, going private is a limited option. Not many people can afford a private education, even at some of the less expensive schools. Suffering in silence cannot be good for a child who has to attend a school that is not his parents' first choice. In seeking to assist those who want to set up a school of their own, or who want to go private, the amendments would not help everyone, but the Government will be pleased to hear that they would not cost much. If anything, they would result in a saving to the public purse.

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Under new clause 1, to which I want to refer in some detail, the Secretary of State would be required to pay an education credit to anyone who complies with certain requirements. The first requirement is that the person concerned is the parent of a child of statutory age. Secondly, he must have gone through the process outlined in sections 86 and 87 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, and the local authority must have been unable to offer a place at his preferred school. Thirdly, the child must have been admitted to, or will be admitted to, an existing independent school, or to a school established especially for the purpose, such as that with which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was involved. Moreover, to ensure that there is no dead-weight cost, the provision would apply only to those who have not been educated in independent schools for more than six months in the past three years. There is clearly an argument against using public money to fund those who, because they could afford a place in an independent school, have already secured one.

The new clause sets out how the value of the education credit will be calculated. The calculation is based, in rather elongated form, on the value of the age-weighted pupil unit that would follow the child, were he educated in a school in the local education authority area. The calculation therefore does not include any of the local authority's central overhead costs. Local authorities would publish information on the value of the education credit, and would have an obligation to pay the credit to the school at which the child was educated, after the child has received the education.

The provision would help the many people who are dissatisfied because they have not been allocated the school of their choice. Of course, it would help them only if they want their child to go to an independent school, and only if the school is sufficiently inexpensive for the education credit to cover the cost, or if the parent is able to make up the difference. The cost of educating an 11-year-old child for one year in two of three independent schools in my constituency is £2,805 and £3,090 respectively. That is very much in line with the age-weighted pupil unit for an 11-year-old. It does not cover it entirely, but it is quite close, and parents can afford to top up the education credit if necessary to take advantage of an independent school education for their children. I know of parents on modest means who pay to send their children to such schools already, because they are not satisfied with their local provision.

There are many other examples. The Minister may be aware of the John Loughborough school in Haringey, which was an independent school until it was accepted into the maintained sector. It is an inexpensive school for parents of modest means. We are not talking about a subsidy to Eton, Harrow or Rugby; we are talking about a modest scheme to assist parents whose children do not get into a school of their choice to use an alternative to the second choice, which may not be to their liking.

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