Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Will the Government

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1468

take into consideration the criteria of not building roads but encouraging people to use public transport--for example, bus or train--and encouraging freight by rail?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, what we are intent on doing in the White Paper on an integrated transport policy which we are committed to produce next spring is to look broadly at all the options, to look at the problems which have arisen with particular schemes and to consider solutions which might comprise using another form of transport or managing demand rather than building roads.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as the Departments of the Environment and of Transport and their predecessors have not been responsible for roads in Scotland for at least 40 years, does the Answer of the noble Baroness confine itself to England and Wales? Does she accept that different criteria apply in Scotland, where distances between towns are long and where the land in between can be barren heath?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the necessity for considering these issues in a Scottish context was recognised by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who made a parallel announcement of a strategic roads review in Scotland.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, in conducting this review, will the Government consult Railtrack about the possibility of building new railway lines and reopening branch lines?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we certainly intend that the review and the White Paper will be an open and consultative exercise. I expect that we shall receive representations from a wide variety of interests. This is an area where there are competing and often conflicting pressures. It is important that we listen to the widest range of views and consider the widest range of possible solutions.

Lord Renton: My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that in Scotland public transport is not available to people living in many of the remote places and that it is often a necessity in their case to improve roads?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, while I accept the failings of public transport in Scotland and in some parts of England and Wales too, we have to bear in mind that the solution may be to improve public transport rather than to assume that the only answer is to provide an alternative to public transport.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the almost uncontrollable excitement which we all feel at the prospect of this new White Paper which is to produce an integrated system of transport? So far, many governments have found this to be a pipe dream.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am delighted that there is such anticipation on Opposition Benches and elsewhere. It would be wrong to suggest that this will be an easy exercise or that there are simple solutions. On the

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1469

other hand, it would be equally wrong not to try to find those solutions, because an enormous number of pressures, both economic and environmental, indicate that we have to find some answers.

Lord Monson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that a great many people are anxious that minor road schemes should proceed? They can be extremely effective in reducing casualties among both motorists and pedestrians.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we accept that fact. The minor safety schemes which were in the Highways Agency's programme were specifically exempted from the review and will go ahead according to the programme.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, however successful the Government are in encouraging both freight and passenger traffic on to rail and other forms of public transport, the vast majority of traffic will still be by road for purely practical reasons? Therefore I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that to freeze the road programme altogether, in particular the construction of bypasses and motorway widening, would be to condemn the country to gridlock.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we have not frozen the roads programme altogether. Roads under construction continue to be constructed. We have recognised that 12 schemes are in urgent need of review. We are having an accelerated review of them and will announce the results before the end of July. However, the noble Lord should not prejudge the results of the White Paper exercise about an integrated transport policy.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, in the light of the contention about the high speed link to the Channel Tunnel, proposals to expand the railway system are likely to prove at least as contentious as the proposals to build new roads, if not more so?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I accept that what the noble Lord says is correct: there are no easy answers to these problems. There are costs to all the alternatives on offer. What is important is that we have a wide-ranging, open and honest public debate about the cost and benefits of various alternative ways of approaching the problems.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, will the review take into account the possibilities arising from road pricing?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, yes.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is high time that there was a continual dual carriageway from the capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh, to the capital of the north of England, Newcastle?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, in view of what I said about the need for careful assessment of

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1470

individual schemes, it would be wrong for me to prejudge the results of the review in the case of individual schemes.


3.22 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m., my noble friend the Leader of the House will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on the Denver Summit. I should like to take this opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement should not exceed 20 minutes from the end of the Minister's initial reply to the Opposition spokesmen, and contributions in the discussion should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification.

House of Lords' Offices: Select Committee Report

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 8).--(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

    Appointment of Sub-Committees

    The Committee appointed the following Sub-Committees and Panel--

Finance and Staff Sub-Committee

    L. Boston of Faversham (Chairman), L. Colwyn, V. Cranborne, L. Gladwin of Clee, L. Harris of Greenwich, E. Northesk, L. Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L. Richard, L. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L. Sheppard of Didgemere, L. Weatherill, L. Williams of Elvel,

    with the Clerk of the Parliaments.
Administration and Works Sub-Committee

    V. Allenby of Megiddo, L. Berkeley, L. Boston of Faversham (Chairman), L. Carter, L. Colwyn, B. David, E. Gowrie, L. Harris of Greenwich, L. Methuen, B. Rawlings, L. Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L. Strathclyde, L. Weatherill,

    with the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1471

Library and Computers Sub-Committee

    L. Avebury, L. Freyberg, L. Hoffmann, L. Holderness, B. Lockwood, L. Lucas, L. McIntosh of Haringey, B. Nicol, B. Platt of Writtle, L. Renfrew of Kaimsthorn (Chairman), L. St. John of Bletso,

    with the Clerk of the Parliaments.
Refreshment Sub-Committee

    E. Arran, L. Carter, L. Chesham, L. Colwyn (Chairman), B. David, L. Graham of Edmonton, L. Harris of Greenwich, L. Howell, L. Lawrence, L. Palmer, V. Thurso,

    with the Clerk of the Parliaments.
Advisory Panel on Works of Art

    L. Chorley, L. Cobbold, L. Crathorne, V. Falkland, E. Gowrie (Chairman), B. Hilton of Eggardon, L. Hindlip, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L. Palmer, B. Trumpington,

    with the Clerk of the Parliaments.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Education (Schools) Bill

3.24 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Government are determined that all children will be offered a high quality education. There should be no question of a small group of children benefiting at the expense of many others.

More than £1 billion has been spent on the assisted places scheme since it was introduced. That money would have been better spent on the state system. The Bill represents a reordering of our educational priorities. It puts the interests of the 440,000 five, six and seven year-olds ahead of the 40,000 or so who would have benefited under the assisted places scheme. We promised to act quickly on class sizes and we intend to do so. Getting this Bill on to the statute book is a necessary first step. I make no apologies for moving quickly on this key pledge in our manifesto.

Class size is important. As I am sure many in your Lordships' House will agree, it is a key factor in improving standards in those vital early years of formal

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1472

education when pupils try to master the basics. That view is supported by research evidence in this country and in the United States.

The Ofsted report on class sizes in 1995 said that,

    "small class sizes are of benefit in the early years of primary education. Once pupils have achieved competency in basic learning, particularly in literacy, they are more able to learn effectively in larger classes".
I believe that parents share our wish to see smaller classes. The White Paper, to be published next month, will set out our plans to raise standards across the education system including cutting class sizes. Targets will be introduced progressively based on plans drawn up by the LEAs and schools. We shall consult the LEAs and others about the preparation of detailed plans to reduce class sizes which take into account particular local needs.

Reducing class sizes is just one part of our major programme to raise standards. The new standards and effectiveness unit demonstrates commitment to the basics of literacy and the determination to tackle failing schools. Nearly half of all primary schoolchildren transferring to secondary school are below the standards expected of 11 year-olds in English and mathematics. We really must turn that round. We have set tough targets to raise standards in both literacy and numeracy. The funds released from the assisted places scheme will make a positive contribution.

Ending the assisted places scheme is not just about facilitating smaller classes. We have long made it clear that we object to the principles on which the scheme is founded and the way it has operated in practice. We object in principle to the scheme. It has not met its objectives. Indeed, it has failed on a number of different counts. First, parental choice has not been enhanced. It is the schools which select the pupils who will receive support. Parental choice is a myth. Secondly, it has not been targeted on those the scheme intended to help. Nearly a third of assisted place holders were previously in the independent sector. I question whether pupils who had already been in the independent sector need the help that the scheme provided.

Thirdly, those benefiting do not all come from poor backgrounds. One in five of the children are from families with incomes above the national average. So we are seeing well-off people being subsidised by those poorer than themselves.

Fourthly, the scheme is hardly a ladder of opportunity for children from working-class backgrounds. More than half of assisted pupils come from the upper and middle classes. Only 46 per cent. of pupils come from working-class backgrounds.

Fifthly, the costs of the scheme are simply not justified. The previous government had planned to spend over £200 million in 1999-2000. Over time they would have had to spend double that to meet their commitment to double the size of the scheme. The average cost of a secondary assisted place in 1997-98 in England will be around £4,100. That is 47 per cent. more per pupil than the standard spending assessment for secondary pupils in state schools, which is £2,780 per annum.

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1473

Lastly, it fails to add value. That is the most telling criticism of all. Research published last year compared the performance of assisted pupils with that of matched state pupils of similar intelligence and ability. There was no statistically significant difference in terms of results achieved, both in total A-level point scores and average A-level points scores. Assisted pupils did not gain added value.

I now turn to the Bill's provisions in detail. Clause 1 repeals the duty on the Secretary of State to operate an assisted places scheme in England and Wales, and other statutory provisions. Clause 2 makes transitional arrangements for pupils holding assisted places at the beginning of the 1997-98 school year which allow them to continue to hold their places for that and subsequent years, but with a proviso for primary pupils. Clause 3 provides for regulations to prescribe transitional arrangements during the phasing out period. Clause 4 defines the terms used in Clauses 1 to 3 and Clause 5 has the same effect in relation to the operation of the assisted places scheme in Scotland. Clauses 6 and 7 and the schedule provide for consequential amendments, commencement and territorial extent.

The effect of the provisions is that there will be no intakes to assisted places in September 1998 and subsequent years. But we will honour commitments to children on the scheme and to those offered places for September 1997--in the case of pupils under the age of 11 until they have completed their primary education, save in special circumstances. There is a discretionary power so that pupils under the age of 11 can receive continued support for a period when they are of secondary age, and pupils of secondary age will be supported until they complete their education at their current school, usually at the age of 18.

We never said that we would provide for primary age children to hold their places all the way through to age 18. That would mean running the scheme for another 13 years. We said that we would provide for it to be phased out over about seven years.

It is more sensible to provide for primary age pupils to move to the maintained sector at the age of 11. We have made it clear that we will use discretionary power flexibly and in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of individual pupils. We will extend the period of support where there is good reason to do so: for example, in the case of a pupil resident in a part of the country where the normal age of transfer from primary to secondary schooling is later than the age of 11; and in the case of children who take up a 10 year-old place at a secondary school. We will also consider using discretion where the parents of a child in a prep school were given a promise of a place to the age of 13. However, each case will need to be considered on its individual merits.

Places will be available in the maintained sector for children who would otherwise have had assisted places. There is plenty of time for local education authorities to plan how best to accommodate these pupils. Currently, there are over 800,000 spare places within existing LEA provision in England--ample scope to accommodate the 10,000 or so pupils who would otherwise have joined the scheme each year from 1998.

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1474

Many assisted places scheme schools predict that they will have no difficulty in filling their places with fee-paying pupils. So, overall, the phasing out of the scheme may not have much net effect on maintained sector provision. We will keep that under review: for the present we do not believe that educating children who may otherwise have had assisted places will result in a significant additional burden on local education authorities.

We intend to make sure that the state sector is equipped to provide a first-rate education for all our children, including the most able and talented. We will be setting out our proposals in the forthcoming education White Paper and consulting on them. The independent sector does not have a monopoly in being able to provide for able and talented pupils. State schools can and do provide for very able children. The scheme represents an unwarranted subsidy to the private sector. Much better value for money will be achieved through transferring that funding to the state system.

The Bill marks the end of the assisted places scheme which has benefited so few at the expense of so many. It represents the beginning of the end of overcrowded infant classes and is another milestone on the road to raising standards. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time--(Baroness Blackstone.)

3.36 p.m.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her clear introduction of the Bill. She will not expect me, or for that matter many on these Benches, or, dare I say it, many on the other Benches in this House, to agree with all, or even much, of what she had to say about the Bill. In fact, I believe she is only too well aware that we do not like the Bill at all and do not agree with large parts of it. I particularly disagreed with her allegations that there was no added value and no benefit to the less well off; her implication that it was some sort of middle class "scam"; and her allegation that there was no parental choice. Those are matters to which we shall return in due course.

As my right honourable friend Mrs Shephard, then Shadow Education and Employment Secretary, put it in another place, this is "a mean little Bill". It is a further measure driven purely by dogma. Anyone who thinks that old Labour is dead need look no further than this Bill to see that it is very much alive and still flourishing in the heart of Labour's educational establishment.

Nevertheless, as always, I desire to be constructive and helpful. I shall therefore begin by saying a little about matters on which we can agree, and about the framework that we have left behind for the party opposite, on which, if they are so minded, they can continue to build and raise standards, as we have done over the past 18 years.

As I made clear in the debate on the Address, I believe that we achieved much over those 18 years. Much of it was structural and much related to delegating greater autonomy to the schools themselves. But the theme underlying all that we did was the attempt to

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1475

create greater parental choice and greater diversity, and thereby apply the best of all possible pressures to an ever continuing raising of standards.

In the course of that debate, I asked a number of questions pertinent to the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, winding up for the Government, described it as an inordinate number of questions. I have to say that I feel that it was positively "ordinate", in that there were only six questions relating to this Bill. A number of others related to other educational matters.

In the course of her reply the noble Baroness responded to one, possibly two, of those questions. That is fair enough. It must be for the noble Baroness to make her own speech and to decide just how many of the points put during the course of debate can be answered. I do not object to that. However, I feel that the questions I asked, especially those relating to this Bill, ought to be answered in due course by letter. It is now over a month since that debate and I still await a response to the various unanswered questions, in particular those relating to the abolition of the assisted places scheme.

In making that complaint I do not wish to imply any criticism of the officials within the Department for Education and Employment; as one who served there, I know how conscientious they are. However, Ministers should ensure that replies are made within a suitable time and in this case should ensure that the valid points which I and other noble Lords made a month before the Second Reading of this Bill are properly answered. We are now at Second Reading and I imagine that some of my noble friends are in the position--and I certainly am--that many of our legitimate inquiries have not been dealt with. We shall have to explore them in considerable detail at Committee stage and beyond.

I sought an assurance that the Bill would receive proper and correct scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament and that the proper time limits would be observed. I was given an assurance that that would be the case. It seems that that will be the case in this House, and I am grateful for that. But the somewhat indecent haste with which the Bill was rushed through another place was hardly in keeping with the spirit behind the assurance that I was given by the noble Baroness and it means that we shall have to examine the Bill with considerable care at Committee stage and beyond.

As I said, we believe this to be a mean and nasty little Bill, very much in keeping with the egalitarian dogma of old Labour that if not everyone can have something, no one can have it. We recognise though that--sadly, misguidedly--they have a very clear mandate for the Bill and for that reason alone we shall not oppose its Second Reading in this House. However, we have a number of legitimate concerns which we seek to put to the Government and which we believe they must answer before the Bill goes onto the statute book.

Perhaps I may start with the drafting of the Bill. We were told by the noble Baroness during the debate on the Address that the reduction of class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds would be financed by the abolition of the assisted places scheme. That is also stated on the face of the Bill to be its purpose. During

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1476

its passage through another place my right honourable and honourable friends were unable to elicit from Her Majesty's Government the details of the mechanisms to ensure that the money saved would be used in that way. I therefore believe that the Bill is skeletal and that, if the policy of reducing class sizes is to succeed, there will necessarily have to be further alterations to legislation surrounding, in particular, admissions procedures--namely, limiting parental choice. I therefore hope that the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee will look carefully at this measure and that Her Majesty's Government will, as we did when we were in government, note and act on any comments made by that committee.

My second point relates to the financial implications of abolition. The total cost of the scheme is currently some £134 million. Some 38,000 children benefit, at an average cost of something like £3,600. The noble Baroness seems to be saying that virtually all of that will be saved, ignoring the fact that those 38,000 children will have to be catered for in the maintained sector. In the debate on the Address the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, spoke of £20 million to £50 million being saved by 1998-99 or 1999-2000. In another place Mr. Stephen Byers (Official Report, Commons, 2/6/97; col. 111) gave a figure of some £100 million being "freed up", as he put it, by the year 2000. No doubt other figures will be given on other occasions. But there seems to be a distinct lack of precision about what might be saved and absolutely no recognition of the extra costs of bringing the assisted places scheme children back into the maintained sector. We are simply told that there are 800,000 surplus places, the implication being that there will be no extra costs. But where are those 800,000 surplus places? Are they where the assisted places children are? Are they in popular, successful schools? And are they genuinely surplus or merely notional?

That brings me to my third point, which relates to parental choice and admissions. The Bill removes one aspect of parental choice. The noble Baroness, in suggesting that there will be no extra costs in that the surplus places can be used, implies that she will not allow the good, popular schools to expand. Parents are therefore unlikely even to get their second choice; the choice will be limited to those failing schools burdened with surplus places which the LEA wishes to support artificially, thereby placating their friends among the militants of the teaching unions. Parents who now have their first choice in the assisted places scheme will be denied that choice, will probably not even get their second choice, the popular maintained school, but will be driven to a third or fourth choice.

Fourthly, can we hear a little more about how the savings will lead to smaller class sizes? I believe that the noble Baroness will be aware of the research by the Institute of Public Finance, whose estimates show that:

    "Eliminating all classes exceeding 30 for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds would cost about £65 million annually, with an additional estimated £100 million in capital costs--but only if action was taken simultaneously to restrict admissions to primary schools.

    Government savings from phasing out the assisted places scheme would amount, after seven years, to no more than £49 million annually (once the cost of educating pupils in state schools instead had been taken into account).

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1477

    Phasing out assisted places as pupils leave school would only release savings in stages: no savings would be likely before 1998-99, when a mere £13 million would be saved.

    Since the annual savings from the assisted places scheme would only reach their maximum levels in 2004/5, the re-allocation of funds to cutting class sizes would have an accumulated deficit of more than £250 million by then".
I therefore ask the noble Baroness whether the Government will go further in restricting the admissions policy of primary schools. That matter is not addressed in the Bill but is implicit in it and must therefore be addressed by the Government during the Bill's passage through this House.

Fifthly, I should like to come on to New Labour's first and clearest broken promise, not alluded to by the noble Baroness--namely, the broken promise to the 11 year-olds. Before the election we had from Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, a Front Bench spokesman on education--though we understand that he has now been sent off to the outer darkness of the Office of Public Service--an absolutely clear assurance that, if a child had an assisted place at a school which takes children to the age of 13, that place would be honoured until the child was 13. After the election, on 22nd May, in a Department for Education and Employment circular, it was stated that in fact children under the age of 11 would only stay on until the end of their primary education, i.e. 11. That was an absolutely clear breach of a pre-election promise. Since then we have had a partial re-think from the Government and we are now told that some children will be allowed to stay on, but only at the Secretary of State's discretion. I hope that during the course of the Bill we can hear from the noble Baroness that, in keeping with the promise made by her honourable friend, all can, as of right, stay on until 13.

Further, would the noble Baroness clarify what is meant by the "end of primary education" in those LEAs with middle schools? Would children be affected at nine or 13? That is another point that we shall wish to explore later on in the passage of the Bill.

I also understand that there will be anomalies facing some 10 and 11 year-olds in Scotland. Those are detailed matters on which I do not seek assurances at the moment, nor do I feel that it would be appropriate to go into such detail at Second Reading. But I can give an assurance to the noble Baroness that we shall want some explanations at Committee stage. She might possibly want to ask her noble friend Lord Sewel for the Scottish Office to attend on some of those occasions, as we believe that his presence will be necessary to deal with the Scottish matters in the Bill, this being a Bill which affects England and Wales and Scotland.

Those are just a few of the points that the Government must answer. There are many more which will be raised by my noble friends in the course of this afternoon and many more that we shall wish to raise at Committee stage and later. I could have said more about the benefits of the scheme to so many individuals over the years. No doubt many of my noble friends who have much more experience of this scheme will address those points in due course. Let me say how grateful I am that so many of my noble friends who have experience of the assisted places scheme and of how it has worked and

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1478

benefited children from all areas will take part in the debate this afternoon. I know for a fact that there are many others who wished to speak but could not be present. For example, my noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, who was the Secretary of State who introduced the assisted places scheme some 16 years ago, told me that he unfortunately would be unable to be present today, though he hoped to take part in later stages of the Bill. He asked me to make it clear to the House that in his view abolition was a disaster which could only damage the educational prospects of many of our bright children who live in inner-city areas.

As I said, others will make that point forcefully. One can only hope that the Government will listen and show for once that New Labour is genuinely new and not merely the old, envy ridden, class hating, old Socialist dog.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I do not want to follow too closely the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in his sentiments on the Bill. One of the pleasures for me in welcoming the Bill is that I shall not, year after year, have to come to this Chamber and think of new ways of explaining why we oppose the assisted places scheme. The Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed the assisted places scheme. It must therefore logically follow that we support a Bill which, broadly speaking, will phase out such a scheme.

In doing that, let me say very strongly and clearly that we are not in the least driven by dogma and envy, nor are we motivated by any opposition to independent schools--indeed, quite the opposite. I shall quote very briefly from the Liberal Democrat election manifesto--it is the only time that I shall do so--where we said about independent schools:

    "We will forge a new partnership with the independent sector and we will encourage independent schools to work with state schools. We will phase out the Assisted Places Schemes 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. Pupils currently covered by APS would, however, be protected until they finish their studies".
That is a positive view about a partnership with independent schools. It is not in any sense an opposition to independent schools. I believe that the Government committed themselves to increased partnership between the state sector and the independent sector and I look forward to hearing, either in today's debate or more likely perhaps in the White Paper that we shall shortly receive, exactly what that means.

Our objection is not to independent schools. It is to the assisted places scheme. The reasons for our objections to such schemes were very well described by the Minister in her opening speech. The scheme is centrally administered; it takes no account of local need; and there are large regional variations--if there is any doubt about that, there are the very interesting figures published in the research paper 97/70 which show enormous regional variations, tilted, perhaps not surprisingly, to the South-East of England and particularly I note to the county of Surrey: there are no

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1479

less than 1,264 places within that county alone. The scheme takes no account of local need and is not administered locally.

As the Minister said, it is at the very least debatable and it is certainly my view that it does not help those who most need it. As she said, one-third of those people already on the assisted places scheme come to it from within the private sector. I do not wish to make a sweeping judgment of all of those people but it must be true, as the Minister suspects, that many of them probably could afford to be in the private sector. Certainly, they are in a mind set which prefers the private sector to the state sector and I question whether that is a proper use of public funds. Also, it is not usually the best way to help those who are most in need of help from the state. Perhaps that is a point that we shall develop further.

I also question whether the scheme provides value for money. As the Minister explained and as I believe is well known, the costs per pupil in the assisted places scheme are dramatically greater than the money provided for those in the state scheme. I should here perhaps declare an interest as a leader of a council which is a local education authority. I find it iniquitous to have to explain to parents, when occasionally I do, why, as a local education authority, we receive barely half what is given to a pupil who has the good fortune perhaps to attend with an assisted place. Above all, however, the objection to the assisted places scheme is that using taxpayers' money to subsidise independent schools is simply not a proper and best use of public money.

Since the general election and the Labour victory and the very clear commitment to abolishing the assisted places scheme, I have come to realise, as I previously suspected, that maybe the scheme is not necessary either. I note with interest, as will other noble Lords, that since the election a number of independent schools, which genuinely, I believe, have a commitment to helping those whose parents cannot afford to pay the fees, have been making their own arrangements. Most notably, perhaps, the Girls Public Day School Trust has already announced that it will be preserving its 3,000 places to assist pupils to attend its schools without paying the full fees. Other schools are making similar arrangements and similar announcements. I welcome that. Good luck to them. But it seems to me to illustrate that it is not necessary to be using taxpayers' money for those purposes. It is far better that the schools themselves should do it, if that is the measure of their commitment.

I welcome the Bill and support the commitment to phasing out the scheme, as we did in our election manifesto. It is obviously right to honour commitments made to those pupils who are already in the scheme or who will be in the scheme from September this year. At this stage I come to the one point on which I do differ from the Government so far. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, quite rightly referred to it and it is perhaps the only part of his speech with which I agreed--I hope that that does not cause him too much distress--namely, the question of pupils in the scheme at preparatory schools which continue to provide education up to the age of 13.

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1480

As the debate started, I was handed a letter, received by one of my noble friends, from which I want to quote just one paragraph. It is from a parent whose son has an assisted place at a preparatory school. He writes:

    "My son's name is Joseph. He is seven years old and has an assisted place at [a school in] Swansea. If the new law is passed, I will have to explain to him why he can't stay in a school he has grown to love. He will have to be told that when all his friends move up to year six he will not be joining them. The teachers who have guided him in his academic development will no longer support him. What the government doesn't seem to have considered is that not all independent schools are arranged into two separate entities".
I felt that that letter put the dilemma very well. As has already been said, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, when he was an education spokesman, on 1st April said very clearly and unequivocally:

    "If a child has a place at a school which runs to 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13".

Since that time we have had, I must say, muddle and confusion from the Government as to exactly what they do mean, which has, I am sad to say, been characterised by weasel words about discretion and so on. I had hoped, following the intervention of the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time after the Third Reading of the Bill in another place, that today the Minister might clarify the position more fully. But she said that it is subject to discretion; that people like the author of the letter from which I quoted will have to apply individually; and that the Minister will have to consider each and every case separately. In my view that is simply not good enough. A clear commitment was given specifically for children through to the age of 13, with a more general commitment that we would honour the assisted places scheme for those already in it, and that must include the children about whom we are talking. There are a relatively small number of such children but it is important to them. I hope that the Government, during the course of the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House, will think again about that.

It is stated in the Financial Memorandum that the objective of the Bill is to reduce infant school class sizes in the maintained sector. I understand that the Government have said it is their objective to reduce the numbers to no more than 30 by the end of this Parliament--presumably the year 2002--for infant classes, for children aged five, six and seven. Liberal Democrats too share that objective. Indeed, we would go further; as is well known, we would have done it by the famous penny on tax and would have provided for the reduction of class sizes in all primary schools.

When I made that point in the debate on the Queen's Speech in your Lordships' House, at the end of the debate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, rounded on me and accused me of being typical old Labour. After the debate I was poached by many on the Government Benches and welcomed with open arms. I was fully expecting to be given an application form at any time. I do not regard that in the least as old Labour and, indeed, as an old Young Liberal I feel that the insult was perhaps well intended. I regard it as common sense. I acknowledge immediately, as I did in that debate, that without doubt the greatest benefit of small classes comes in the earliest years and that

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1481

if there has to be a priority, then priority given to five, six and seven year-olds is clearly right. I therefore support that.

My concern is what happens to those children when they are aged seven, eight, nine and so forth. Let me declare two interests. First, I am married to a primary school teacher; secondly, I am a governor of a junior school which takes children from the ages of seven to 11. If the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, or others feel that class sizes do not matter at those ages, then I say to him: ask any teacher. Ask any teacher if they think that class sizes do not matter. Ask any parent if that is their view. The noble Lord will hold a very different view.

Let me say straight away that a smaller class does not immediately convert a bad teacher into a good teacher; of course it does not. But a smaller class enables a good teacher to teach better and to be able to give much closer individual attention to the pupils. That matters at the age of seven onwards nearly as much as it does before the age of seven.

Therefore I welcome the Government's Bill. I welcome the objective of the Bill, even though I feel it is too limited. But I have to say, in conclusion, that I am extremely doubtful as to whether the Government's arithmetic will add up and whether the money to be saved from the assisted places scheme will achieve the objective desired. Indeed, I note the subtle wording that Ministers use as the debate continues which tends to indicate that they too are coming to that conclusion. They are now talking about "contributing to" rather than "achieving". It is a contribution I welcome.

There are hugely different estimates as to what will be the net savings from the assisted places scheme. We shall probably not know that until there are actual figures available. There are also widely-ranging estimates of what the full cost of the reduction in class sizes will be. By that I mean not just the additional teachers, but also all the associated costs. It is all very well to say that there are 800,000 surplus places; but not all of those are in the schools which will need to accommodate additional pupils. Those savings will need to be carefully monitored, as will the progress--if there is progress--towards smaller class sizes, and we will return to that later in the consideration of the Bill.

I speak now, as a leader of a council and a local education authority, with great trepidation that in the first year, perhaps the first two years, we are more likely to go in the opposite direction. The Government's adherence to Tory spending plans and even more so to keeping to the plans not only in total, but within departments, looks as though it will mean a bad settlement for local government this year. If local government this year receives a bad settlement then inevitably schools will suffer.

I fear that the first full year of a Labour Government will not lead to a reduction in class sizes for anyone. It will actually mean even larger class sizes and even fewer teachers. I shall look with considerable interest at how matters develop in the months before the revenue support grant settlement. I do not doubt the Government's commitment to smaller class sizes; I simply doubt their will to put that commitment into practice.

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1482

But that is for the future. For now, with the proviso I made, we are pleased with the Bill, and for the first time in your Lordships' House I am able to give an almost unqualified welcome to an education Bill.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page