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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for speaking in the gap.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, there is no gap.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I apologise for not having given notice that I wished to speak.

It would be possible to debate at length the value of the principle of schools having a mixed entrance from all sections of the community which they serve. The Government endorsed the principle of the benefit for children with special needs attending where possible their local schools so that they could be educated with their peers in the local community. I find it difficult to understand how the Government can also espouse an argument about children being taken away. The widest, richest school community is that which serves a diverse locality. It is not one where the overwhelming majority of pupils is selected on grounds of parental income and the pupils' potential.

However, that is not the point that I wish to raise. At present in England, Scotland and Wales, Government Ministers, and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment herself, continually state that there is no

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relationship between class size and the performance of pupils until—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, speaking in your Lordships' House made this comment—the numbers in classes came down to about 15:1, and there was then some improvement. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he can reconcile that argument. To state that children will study as well in larger classes, flies in the face of the beliefs of all parents, governors and teachers concerned with education.

That leads me to my first question with reference to paragraph 21 on page 26 of the regulations. After a month's notice, the Secretary of State is able to allow an increase in fees paid under the assisted places scheme; and is able to require that that increase does not take place. Can the Minister tell us what the increase in fees has been over the past 12 months? Must there be an increase in class size in the independent sector, or has the independent sector been allowed to recoup the teachers' pay increase, decided by Government, to protect their class sizes by using money that is taken from the 98 per cent. of children in publicly funded schools?

In this country the independent sector can be criticised on many grounds. However, in all its advertisements offering its services the independent sector openly claims that even among a highly selected group of pupils and students the attainments reached are partly due to small class sizes and individual tuition and help. Will the Minister comment on how it is possible to take £102 million of taxpayers' money to a sector in which the classes are already considerably smaller than those in the public sector while exhorting parents in the public sector through the local education authority funded schools and church funded schools to accept larger classes?

It would appear to be a dogma which has gone badly wrong. The scheme is distorting the opportunities available to the overwhelming majority of pupils in schools in England and Wales. The system was born of dogma. Certainly it is not a system designed to help the overwhelming majority of pupils in schools in England and Wales. How can the Government justify that transfer of funds from the public sector to the independent sector in the increased amounts spent per pupil referred to by noble Lords?

8.15 p.m.

Lord Henley: My Lords, we have had what I would describe as a fairly predictable debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, put it. It was an opportunity to debate the generality of the assisted places schemes which, not surprisingly, noble Lords opposite do not seem to like for reasons probably best left unsaid.

I am quite pleased that noble Lords have had the opportunity to read the excellent document from Conservative Central Office. It is an absolutely wonderful document. I hope that noble Lords will take the opportunity to read it on other occasions. I shall even make it available to them when necessary, and perhaps

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one day—it is a trickle factor—it might have its effect and we might see the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, joining us on these Benches.

I quite understand the noble Lord's views. The noble Lord will understand if I completely and utterly disagree with him and other noble Lords. Sadly, I suspect that it will be unlikely that I can persuade them otherwise, but I live in hope. I note that they will continue to disapprove of the scheme; and I note their commitments to abolish the scheme after an election, in the unlikely event of their gaining power.

I believe that such disapproval—it now extends, it seems, to the concept of selection (I had thought that we had got beyond that) and to allegations of creaming off, which again I dismiss—is not shared by the many parents throughout the length and breadth of the land whose children have benefited from the scheme in the past, who continue to benefit from it now, and who hope to do so in future. When the noble Lord gives his little examples from the Welsh valleys, he should remember that many of those people live in the hope that they can benefit from the scheme. For that reason there are a number of schools in Wales which they can make use of and from which they can benefit.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred to the wonderful document from Conservative Central Office and asked about the number of schools benefiting from the scheme in England. Perhaps I may correct him on a possible discrepancy. The number of schools was 295 in England until last year when one school closed. Therefore 294 schools are in the scheme this year. A replacement school will be admitted this autumn, bringing the number back (if my mathematics is as good as that of some of my other noble friends) to 295.

I turn to the noble Lord's question about research into non-applicants or non-entrants to the scheme. No research has been undertaken in the past years on reasons why parents do not apply for places, or how well the pupils do elsewhere if they do not enter the scheme. However, I can tell the noble Lord that with the Independent Schools Joint Council, we are currently funding research into a comparison between entrants to the scheme and similarly qualified pupils going elsewhere. There will be a study of their comparative achievements. The results should be available next year. However, in terms of the remarks made by both noble Lords and the noble Baroness, the evidence at present indicates that children who go to schools under assisted places schemes do a lot better than their peers in the maintained sector, and their peers who have gone to the private sector without the benefit of the scheme.

I turn to the question of the accountability of schools and inspection by Ofsted. I can assure the noble Lord that there will be appropriate inspection. As regards financial accountability, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State can call for the school's accounts and other information where appropriate. The department collects information on the performance and achievement of assisted pupils.

The noble Lord also made allegations that the scheme was, I think he said, twice as expensive as the costs of pupils in the maintained sector. I do not believe that that

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is the case, in fact there is less difference than the noble Lord, Lord Tope, claimed between the average cost for an assisted place and that for a maintained school place when all factors are taken into account. The average net cost of an assisted pupil in England—and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will be pleased to know that the position in Wales is broadly similar—in the current financial year of 1995-96 is estimated to be about £3,700. The average education standard spending assessment unit allocation for local education authorities in the same year is over £2,600 for secondary pupils aged 11 to 15 and over £3,600 for the post 16 year-olds. But it is misleading to contrast these figures as they stand because that is not comparing like with like.

First, the assisted places scheme has a greater proportion of sixth form places and these are more expensive to provide. Secondly, the scheme's overall unit costs include elements for certain capital costs and some other independent sector overheads not covered in education SSAs. These factors are technically difficult to quantify and there is a margin of error when making estimates. Allowing for all that, I believe that the difference between average assisted place and maintained school costs is probably no more than just a few hundred pounds and not the figures that were claimed by noble Lords opposite.

This difference is far outweighed by wide variations in unit costs between individual local authorities: for example, over £400 difference between the averages for outer London and the shire counties for secondary pupils aged 11 to 15, and over £2,000 difference between the lowest and highest cost authorities. In some areas, such as inner London, the average unit cost is actually significantly higher than the average assisted place cost, even without making the sixth form and capital adjustments I mentioned earlier.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, also queried the growth in costs of the scheme over the years. It is true that the cost in England has risen from £57 million in 1989-90 to £101 million in 1994-95—a rise of 77 per cent. But I have to say to the noble Lord that there are several factors behind this. First, over that period the actual take-up of places (as distinct from the number available) has increased by 10 per cent. Secondly, the proportion of totally free places has risen from 32 per cent. to 42 per cent., representing a 45 per cent. increase in actual numbers. That includes a number of factors, not least the recession, the state of the economy generally and the fact that the scheme becomes better targeted on the people at whom it is aimed. Over the period, therefore, the average net cost of an assisted pupil rose by some 56 per cent. This is in fact not much more than the rise in the average unit cost of maintained secondary education of about 50 per cent.

But debating detailed figures risks missing the main point. Above all, the assisted places scheme we believe offers good value for money by producing better GCSE and A-level results than in the maintained sector, as well as enhancing choice and diversity, as I mentioned in my opening remarks and also when I began to wind up.

As I said earlier, I do not believe that it is likely that I shall ever convince noble Lords opposite of the merits of the scheme. I end by saying that I am grateful to the

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noble Lord for at least welcoming the regulations as they are and for agreeing that they represent a tidy consolidation of the regulations. For that reason, they are to be welcomed. I hope that one day, when we get further documents from Central Office, we might persuade the noble Lord opposite of the merits of the scheme. However, until that time I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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