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Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1995

7.42 p.m.

Lord Henley rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft regulations cover England and Wales. Obviously separate arrangements are made for Scotland. But, before I come to the regulations themselves, perhaps I may first remind

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the House why we have an assisted places scheme at all. Noble Lords will remember that the scheme was introduced in 1981 to open up the educational opportunities of able children from less well-off families. The Government are firmly committed to encouraging high standards in education, wherever they are to be found. The scheme is an integral part of our policy of enhancing choice and diversity. We believe that parents in every part of the country should have access to the opportunities which the scheme offers. We will continue to support the scheme as an essential part of our policy of expanding educational choice and opportunity. The scheme is here to stay. I only wish that it were possible to make assisted places much more widely available than they are already.

I am sure that noble Lords will agree that we all want parents to be able to choose the education they think best for their children, regardless of income, and we want that choice to be a real one. The scheme provides parents with assistance towards the fees at 303 of our best independent schools—295 in England and eight in Wales. The assistance is on a sliding scale based on parents' income and follows the principle that the lower the income, the greater government assistance should be. The assisted places scheme builds on and extends schools' own contributions by way of bursaries and scholarships. It not only expands opportunities for children from lower-income families, but also helps to widen the social mix and create greater awareness and understanding across communities.

In short, the scheme is an academic success—assisted pupils on average achieve better GCSE and A-level results than their peers in independent and maintained schools, and have high entry rates into further and higher education. It is successful in the wider opportunities and experience that it provides in sport, the arts and other aspects of personal development. It is successful in giving all those opportunities to children who could not otherwise have afforded them.

The regulations governing the scheme were last consolidated in 1989. Amendments have been made in each year since then, chiefly to uprate the parental contribution tables that set out the amounts parents must pay towards their child's assisted place. The House has before it new consolidated regulations, the effects of which I shall explain shortly. Consolidation is essentially good housekeeping to update some detailed aspects of the rules and to bring all the previous changes into a single document. The consolidated regulations also, of course, include this year's parental contribution uprating. There are no radical changes in the operation of the scheme. If approved, the regulations will come into force on 25th August of this year for the school year 1995-96.

There are three main changes in the regulations which I will deal with in turn and which I hope that the House will find entirely straightforward.

First, there is the uprating of the parental contribution scales. Draft Regulation 15 refers to the scales of fee remission in Schedule 2 which, in turn, sets out the income bands used for assessing parents' contribution to fees for the school year 1995-96. Those bands have

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been uprated in line with the 2.4 per cent. movement in the retail prices index over the past 12 months to October of last year. The income threshold, at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees, is raised from £9,352 to £9,572 a year. The threshold for full remission of fees is set deliberately so that the least well-off families benefit most. The scale then rises in a fairly steep curve so that better-off families get progressively less assistance, and eventually none at all at high income levels. That is in keeping with the aim of the scheme, which is to open doors of opportunity to those who would otherwise never be able to contemplate paying fees. The scheme continues to prove highly successful in achieving that aim. Assisted place pupils come from families whose income is well below the national average. In fact, the average income is only a little over half of the national average. Two-fifths of them qualify for a totally free place because their income is below the threshold that I mentioned a moment ago.

Secondly, the definition of "parents" in draft Regulation 2 has been revised to take account of provisions in the Children Act 1989, and subsequent developments. It now clearly limits the definition to the person or persons with whom the child normally lives. There have been no major changes of substance but the wording has been clarified. In the usual case, the "parents" are the natural mother and father and both must make a declaration of their joint incomes to be eligible for assistance under the scheme. The draft regulations also cater for adoptive parents, single parents, those who are guardians or foster-parents and those who, although not the natural parents, may have custody or care and control of the child through informal care or fostering arrangements.

Thirdly, the residence requirements have been revised in the draft regulations to take account of the European Economic Area Agreement. They reflect our legal obligations to provide access to free or subsidised tuition for children of migrant workers on the same basis as for British residents. Draft Regulation 4 sets out the residence conditions. The vast majority of assisted pupils will, of course, satisfy the requirement that they should be ordinarily resident in the British Isles for at least two calendar years before taking up the assisted place. Children of migrant workers who are nationals of a state which has become a contracting party to the European Economic Area Agreement—that is, member states of the European Union, and certain others—are now treated in the same way as children normally resident in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. That is simply a technical change and entirely straightforward.

In summary, draft Regulations 1 and 2 deal with citation, commencement and application and with the interpretation of expressions used throughout the text. Draft Regulations 3 to 8 deal with eligibility for an assisted place and the updating of the residence requirements. Draft Regulations 9 to 15—together with Schedules 1 and 2—deal with the remission of fees and the uprated parental contribution scales. Draft Regulations 16 to 24 deal with the administrative arrangements, to which there are no major changes.

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The regulations as a whole also include some minor technical amendments and drafting changes, but I do not think that I need trouble your Lordships with such details. However, I shall explain any aspect more fully if any individual noble Lord wishes me to do so.

I hope I have explained the purpose of the draft regulations adequately. They will ensure the continued smooth and fair running of the assisted places scheme. It has long been popular with parents. The rate of take-up in schools, now at its highest level ever, is proof that it is going from strength to strength. The scheme is now in its fourteenth year. Along with many parents throughout the country, the Government are immensely encouraged to see the successes—in music, the arts and sport as well as in academic subjects—which assisted pupils have recorded. Over the years since this excellent scheme was introduced, more than 70,000 children have benefited from education at some 300 of our best independent schools. There are now some 31,000 pupils in the scheme in England and Wales and the Government are committed to supporting them. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 26th June be approved. [24th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Henley.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for bringing these regulations before your Lordships and introducing them in such a clear and efficient way. We on these Benches are quite clear as to what the regulations imply; and we are left in no doubt that the Minister and the Government firmly believe that the assisted places scheme is an excellent idea, is good value for money, and an assured success.

Because these regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure, we have an opportunity from time to time, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, to discuss the merits of the scheme itself, and so it will come as no surprise to the Minister to learn that we on these Benches are, just as we were last year, entirely opposed to the whole scheme in principle. We shall not seek to divide the House on this occasion, since it is the House's custom not to vote on regulations of this kind. But the Labour Party in government will certainly abolish this scheme and will do so by halting the provision of new places under it, but not by damaging in any way the prospects of pupils who are already embarked upon it.

At approximately three minutes past eight on 3rd July the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, introducing these regulations in another place, said,

    "we are committed to choice and diversity and ... we wish to encourage high standards in education wherever they are to be found".

So do we. But his next sentence was more enlightening. He said,

    "We want parents to be able to choose the education that they think best for their children, regardless of income".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/7/95; col. 91.]

Consider the impact of that phrase on an imaginary character, (we may call him Mr. John Jones, an ex-miner, now unemployed and living on social security in the Rhondda Valley) and his wife (who we may call

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Bronwen). They have a small son (whom we shall call Gareth) of some 10 years of age. They discuss his education. Mr. Jones informs his wife that it is the Government's desire that parents should be able to choose the education that they think best for their children, regardless of income.

He says to his wife, "Well, we must take this seriously. I have been down to the library, I have made a number of inquiries; I have consulted my friends at the Dog and Duck; and I hear very good things spoken of Eton College in Berkshire. The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Winchester is very well spoken of in the Dog and Duck; and high on the hill at Harrow is an educational establishment (it seems) which produces a very nice class of boy and high academic results in public examinations. Since we may now choose where to send Gareth to his best advantage, regardless of income, to which of these academies, then, shall we entrust the formative years of our offspring's adolescence"? And Bronwen will probably reply "I am sure I don't know anything much about these things and I'm quite content to leave the decision to you, Dad".

It is a fictional scenario in every sense of the word "fiction". It has been said that the assisted places scheme gives children from poor families, deprived areas, and inner cities an opportunity to benefit from private education. But that is only true if their parents know all about the scheme; approve of it; satisfy the criteria for eligibility; and (above all) if the children concerned are extremely bright academically. These children will be examined and selected by one of the schools which contribute to the scheme, and children who are of average or below-average intelligence are very unlikely to be selected, even though they could benefit greatly from an assisted places scheme.

I will not rehearse the reasons why we oppose the assisted places scheme, since they are on the record, both in the words of my noble friend Lady David in your Lordships' House last year, and in the debate which took place in another place on 3rd July. Suffice it to say, first, that we consider it entirely unjust to penalise the many for the advantage of a selected few, secondly, that we consider it unfair to cream off some of the most academically able children in the maintained sector, place them in independent schools, where they will unarguably do very well, and so distort the picture of the academic achievements of that independent school, to the detriment of the academic results of the schools from which these children are plucked. Thirdly, we oppose the scheme because it seems to us a totally unwarranted subsidy by the state of the private sector. I shall return to that point later.

I would have been quite content to leave it at that, were it not for the fact that, quite unexpectedly, there came into my possession yesterday a copy of the briefing note, prepared for today's debate in your Lordships' House, on this Motion, from the Conservative Central Office. I read it, I confess, with some interest, and found some parts of it quite helpful, and parts of it accurate. There are a few points which might benefit from further research. For example, the brief states that in 1994-5 over 34,100 pupils were able to benefit from assisted places. Other usually reliable

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sources say that in April 1994 there were 28,764 pupils on the scheme, and that the shortfall of 5,000 against the estimated figure of 34,139 is due to the Government not being able to meet the costs of the scheme. I do not know whether that is true or not. The brief states that there are 294 schools in this scheme; the DFE figure, which the Minister has quoted, is 295. I would be interested to know whether they have gained one recently, or lost one. But these are details.

What did cause me a little mild surprise was the appendix attached to the briefing, intended presumably for the Minister's edification, which listed a number of members of the Shadow Cabinet, and gave selected details of their education. The list was headed with these words,

    "The following Members of the Shadow Cabinet were all educated at schools which would be seriously damaged by Labour's current education policies, such as the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme. Having benefited from attending these schools Labour politicians now seek to kick away the ladder of opportunity, and deny the rights that they enjoyed to the children of today".

It does seem to me a bit rich to impute vile motives to honourable Members on the basis of what was done to them at the age of 11. So I was greatly relieved and heartened when the Minister, introducing these regulations, clearly depended upon a good factual Civil Service brief and (if indeed he ever read it) eschewed this rather unfortunate and regrettable appendix.

There are just three questions I should like to ask the Minister about the scheme and the regulations. The first concerns the matter of numbers. As I understand it, the scheme involves approximately 0.89 per cent. of secondary school pupils. That means that about 99 per cent. are not on the assisted places scheme. If we assume that something like half of these would not be eligible for the scheme in the first place, that still means that about 48 per cent. of the age cohort do not apply for these nice free or subsidised places. Can the Minister explain why this should be so? Why are they not rushing in huge numbers to compete for this juicy financial and academic advantage?

Can he tell us the results of all the research which must have been done over the past 15 years into those who apply and those who do not? If, as seems likely, a large percentage of those eligible to apply for the scheme do not apply for it, does this not mean that the entire scheme is really no more than yet another ideologically-driven attempt by the Government to introduce division and faction into the education system; and that it has been a failure?

Secondly, I have some worries about the cost of the scheme, although I realise that costs can be computed in a number of different ways (depending on what you want to prove) and that it is very difficult to extrapolate unit costs when there are so many variables in the equation. But is it not a fact that from 1989 to 1995 the cost of the assisted places scheme increased from £50.9 million to £102 million—almost exactly a 100 per cent. increase? Can the Minister tell the House why, in that same period, the number of places increased by only 2.6 per cent., from 33,280 to 34,139? One would like to know where all the extra money went.

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Thirdly, is it not a fact that an essential difference between independent schools and local education authority schools is that the former are far less accountable than the latter? Can he tell the House what degree of accountability is required from the 294 or 295 schools in the assisted places scheme, which receive, at present, £102 million of public money?

Indeed, as was pointed out in another place, the taxpayer also contributes more than £130 million to independent schools by virtue of the service boarding scheme. We have no opposition to the service boarding scheme as such, although we would very much like to see more use made of the state boarding schools. But the assisted places scheme and the service boarding scheme together contribute a little more than £0.25 billion of public money to the independent sector. Yet independent schools are nothing like as accountable as local authority schools have been required to be, and only one or two of them have had Ofsted reports. Is it not time that stricter controls were imposed upon this very considerable amount of public money? That is why we welcome the requirement in Part 5 of the regulations for the accounts of schools to be audited by a person who is eligible to audit company accounts. That is one small step in the right direction, but we would encourage the Government to go much further down this track, and much faster.

I would be most grateful for any enlightenment the Minister can give us on these three questions because, as I said, although we are implacably opposed to the assisted places scheme and all its works, we do not oppose the regulations which are before us today. Even when we regard a scheme as unjust and unfair, it is better that it should operate efficiently than inefficiently. These regulations, in our submission, will assist in improving the efficiency of the scheme.

8 p.m.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I too thank the Minister for the very clear way in which he introduced the regulations. Unfortunately, the reasons he gave for supporting the scheme in principle are, by and large, exactly the reasons why the Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed the scheme since its inception some 14 years ago. Having read the many debates that have taken place on the scheme over the years, and from what I have heard tonight, including the comments of the noble Lord who has just spoken, there is nothing which causes us to consider changing our minds on the subject.

Before I rehearse our reasons for opposition in principle to the scheme I want to make two points clear. First, our opposition is not based in any way on a dislike of independent schools or on any ambivalence in our attitude towards them. They make a valuable and necessary contribution to the educational life of the country.

Secondly, in common with the noble Lord who has just spoken, while we would wish to end the scheme we would certainly continue to support pupils currently receiving assistance under the scheme until they leave school. To do otherwise would be grossly unfair to those pupils, and we would certainly not wish to do that.

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As has been said, the aim of the scheme was to provide assisted places at high quality independent schools to bright children from less well-off backgrounds. I cannot follow the example from the Welsh Valleys, but the noble Lord put the case extremely well. That aim is wrong in principle because it fosters elitism. It is wrong in terms of public education policy because it takes brighter children out of the state system, whereas instead they should be encouraged and supported to remain in the state system and to help to improve standards there.

Public money should be used to improve standards in publicly funded schools, and not used to prop up independent schools, some of which would not succeed in a genuinely open market. The assisted places scheme owes far more to ideology than to any sound educational principles.

We believe the scheme to be wrong in principle, but then we must ask whether it achieves what it is intended to achieve. At best that case is not proven. The Government point to the academic achievements of pupils on the assisted places scheme. Indeed, the Minister referred to that in his speech tonight. Given that the children concerned are selected particularly because of their academic ability, it is not remarkable that they achieve good examination results. Indeed, it would be remarkable if they did not have good examination results.

Research shows that in the main places have not gone to the kind of children for whom they were intended. It seems that the Government have no data on how many parents benefiting from the assisted places scheme could have afforded the full cost of places at independent schools. However, we do know that some 30 per cent. of those places go to pupils coming from independent primary schools. I would not make the assumption that necessarily all of those parents who can afford a private education at primary level can necessarily do so at secondary level, but one is led to wonder whether at least some of those 30 per cent. could have managed without the state subsidy.

On the other hand, it is a matter of great concern that only 7 per cent. of parents benefiting from the assisted places scheme are of African, Asian or Caribbean origin. Given the multicultural and multi-ethnic nature of our society, we must question whether the scheme is achieving what it is intended to achieve.

The Minister said tonight that the scheme was intended to increase choice and diversity. Fewer than 1 per cent. of eligible children benefit from the assisted places scheme. It is doing nothing at all to widen choice for the other 99 per cent. of children.

I come now to the point which for me, as leader of a local education authority, is the one on which I feel strongest. Is the scheme good value for money? Does it represent the best and proper use of taxpayers' money? Assisted places cost twice as much on average as an LEA place. As has already been said, the cost of the assisted places scheme has risen from £50.9 million in 1989 to £102 million currently. That is a 100 per cent. increase in cost in five years. Yet there has been only a 2.6 per cent. increase in places. That does not sound to

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me like good value for money. I look forward with great interest to the Minister's answer to the question which has already been put to him about that.

It is no news to your Lordships' House that this year local education authorities suffered a cut in real terms in funding for secondary schools. We have heard much, not least from the Secretary of State herself, of the damage that is being done to schools—larger class sizes, less money available for equipment and maintenance, and so on. The pressures on our schools in LEAs are well documented and well known and are a cause of great concern, if press reports are to be believed, even to the Prime Minister himself.

Given that, how can I go back to headteachers in my borough and explain to them, as they struggle with desperately tight budgets, that a place in an independent school is worth twice as much taxpayers' money as a place in their schools? I cannot do that. I am not willing to do that. I should be very interested if the Minister were to come to one of my schools and try to justify that.

How can it be justified in those circumstances to put over £100 million a year of public money into independent schools which have themselves chosen not to be in the public sector? Our publicly funded schools are desperately short of resources. That should be the priority for a government using taxpayers' money.

I regret very much, although I am not in the least surprised, that the Government have not used this opportunity to rethink their priorities for the use of taxpayers' money and have not taken this chance to start the wind-down of the scheme. The assisted places scheme is wrong in principle, it is failing in practice, it provides no value for money and it is a misuse of public funds. Above all, it is of no benefit to the 93 per cent. of children in the state sector, who should be our main concern for the investment of taxpayers' money.

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