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Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord is disappointed. However, the mere fact that he cannot disagree with the Statement does not make it of no consequence. If one looks at the Statement and the communique one sees a good deal of meat. Of course, one does not find total agreement. One would not expect that. My right honourable friend says that this is the first G8 summit that he has attended and he has recognised that it did best, if I may put it inelegantly, when it had time to concentrate and focus on a particular subject. Therefore, he will try next year in Birmingham to focus on two, which I believe most people agree is a sensible way to proceed.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I shall try to find the precise page in the communique that assists the noble and learned Lord. I thought that I had flagged the page. I do not believe that it was a previously existing commitment. The Government of the Ukraine is grateful that 300 million dollars is to be made available. Help has now arrived. I am informed that G7 and other countries have already given some money to the Chernobyl clean up and the Ukraine energy sector, but this is new money to make the sarcophagus safe.
In the debate in reply to Her Majesty's most gracious Speech my brother prelate the Bishop of Ripon, who is chairman of the Church of England Board of Education, spoke supportively of the Government's commitment to education. I echo that support in general while disagreeing with the subject matter of this Bill. My right reverend brother, had he been able to attend the House today, would not altogether agree with what I am about to say. However, Christians can legitimately differ on many matters, as we do, and remain friends, as we do. Realistically, with the kind of majority that is at the disposal of the present Government, it would be naive to hope to persuade them to change their mind about an issue to which they referred specifically in their election manifesto. However, there are certain considerations arising from the Government's proposals which I believe have not been given sufficient weight about which I wish to speak briefly.
The Government's proposal concerning assisted places is inextricably linked to the reduction of class sizes in primary schools. No one doubts the rightness of their aims. It is the method with which I and many others are deeply unhappy. Educationally, the assisted places scheme has nothing whatever to do with primary school class sizes. The only link between them is money. The hope is that the savings made by abolishing the one will supply the needs of the other; in other words, the prime declared motive for the abolition of the assisted places scheme is economic. If there is a positive educational reason for so doing it is hard to discern. Quite apart from the doubts already expressed in many places about whether the sums involved add up, there is a moral as well as economic issue at stake in terms of the rightness of destroying something that on any analysis has benefited the education of many thousands of children.
I speak with some experience of these matters and, I trust, without prejudice. My children were educated, at both primary and secondary levels, at local authority and independent schools. They were well educated in both sectors. Two of them are now senior teachers, one in a comprehensive school and the other in an independent preparatory school. For some years before my translation to Norwich I was the Archbishop's adviser to the Headmasters' Conference, providing a link between the Church and the independent schools. Like many in your Lordships' House, I have been a governor of several schools in both sectors of education.
Many of us have sad memories of the abolition of direct grant schools. It was a decision that did little to improve education generally. On the contrary, frequently there was an adverse result when many such schools became fully independent. That resulted in the narrowing of the social spectrum from which the pupils for those schools came. Entry was not a matter only of academic promise but of the ability to pay. The assisted places scheme had the effect, to some extent, of reversing that unfortunate development. The result of its abolition will undoubtedly be, once again, to limit entry to independent schools to the children of parents who are wealthy enough to pay the fees. That is neither good for independent schools nor for educational standards generally.
To comment upon economic matters is perilous territory for anyone on these Benches, though in the past I crossed swords many times with the previous government on the subject of the iniquitous VAT charges on ancient buildings, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, knows well. At the risk of talking as a fool, I do not understand why the improvement of education in one sector must necessarily be at the cost of destroying another; why budgets are so self-contained within one department that it is impossible to devise some way of finding money from some other source. Furthermore, successive governments have underestimated the willingness of the British people to pay the necessary costs of good education. The success of the Liberal Democrats in the recent election may not have been
As far as I am aware, the abolition of independent education is not on the Government's agenda. Therefore one may assume that the Government have a concern for the children who are educated in those schools. The independent schools are part of our educational system, and a significant part. There is a tradition, dating back to the earliest days when the Church founded many such institutions, of pioneering experiment and innovation which has benefited the whole field of education. That tradition of experiment and innovation is still very much alive, and still of potential benefit to schools of every kind.
That benefit was explicitly recognised recently by the Secretary of State, because he has enlisted Dulwich College and King Edward's School, Birmingham, to assist the Department for Education in a scheme to promote reading ability in state schools. It is ironic, to say the least, that a Government who acknowledge an important function for independent schools and wish to work in partnership with them, should, at the same time, wish to deprive certain children of the benefits of an education in schools which they clearly value.
There is a further related and final point that I want to make. The abolition of the assisted places scheme will inevitably stifle some aspects of the pioneering educational work of independent schools, because it will limit the intake of children to an ever narrower social spectrum, or, rather, economic spectrum.
Among the proper concerns of all education is not just academic achievement but the development of the whole person, which includes an appreciation of what it means to live in a society that is socially and racially mixed. The limitation of entry to independent schools will undermine that primary purpose. The independent schools will survive and probably thrive, but they will be the poorer, because they will become the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. That, in turn, will increase division in a society which the Government are pledged to unite.
Excellence in education is the Government's declared aim. Excellence consists of developing what is good and eliminating what is bad. What, one might ask, is intrinsically bad about the opening of educational opportunities in independent schools to those who would otherwise not be able to benefit from them? Neither excellence in education nor unity in society is best served by the destruction of that which is good.
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, this is a short and limited Bill. It represents a small part only of the measures which the new Labour Government, through their election manifesto, are pledged to make to improve our education system. The object of the Bill is simple. It is to phase out the assisted places scheme which the previous government introduced in 1981,
It is a controversial Bill, because it reflects a fundamental difference between the philosophies of the present Government and the previous government. It concerns the many rather than the few. The priority of the new Labour Government is to raise standards of education for all our children, while the priority of the previous government was to provide, in their view, a superior provision for a small minority of children.
The purpose behind the Bill is to use the resources to help bring down class sizes for the half a million or so primary schoolchildren aged five to seven years in classes of more than 30. As my noble friend said, it is most important that that be done among the younger age group in the first instance.
Members opposite will no doubt criticise, as did their friends in another place, the move on the basis that it will not provide enough money to meet its objectives and, in any case, reducing class sizes, even in infant schools, will not solve all our education problems. Of course they may be right in some respects, but at least the Bill is a step in the right direction. It is a step in the process of doing just that: improving our education system. It is part of a comprehensive programme many of whose facets are already being put in place.
Questions have been raised about how much will be saved by the scheme. Experts are coming up with different figures as to how much will be saved. I am not going to quote any of those figures selectively. There is no doubt that there will be some savings. Of course, if the previous government had continued in office, they would have increased the number of assisted places, which means, as we project into the future, that an increased amount of money would have been spent on a few, and therefore the amount saved will increase.
Currently there are some 38,000 assisted places in the scheme. The numbers involved, as I said, were set to rise under the new government, and so too was the expenditure: from £117.5 million in the current financial year to something like £180 million in the year 1999-2000.
Members of the party opposite have also criticised the Bill on the basis that it will lead to overcrowding and increases in class sizes and will reduce parental choice. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, made quite a point about parental choice. Those arguments are fallacious, as is the whole concept of any meaningful parental choice for the great majority of parents.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State believes that the children involved in the assisted places scheme can be absorbed into the state system. After all, what are we talking about? Of the 38,000 children currently involved, only 43 per cent. are on free places. For the remainder, there is some parental contribution, and as we have already heard this afternoon, one-third of the children already come from the private education sector. Therefore, one can
If the scheme is as successful as noble Lords opposite claim, those children should be evenly spread over the country, as are the 80,000 empty places within the existing provisions of the LEAs. Therefore, all could be easily accommodated. If the pupils are not so evenly spread, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, indicated and as I suspect, and there are clusters in more prosperous areas, the scheme is flawed on grounds of geographical as well as educational discrimination. According to the Audit Commission report on supply and the allocation of school places published last autumn, one in six schools currently has more than 25 per cent. of places unfilled while one in five is more than 5 per cent. above the MOE capacity; that is the previous government's open enrolment measure of physical capacity.
That position has been getting worse. Between 1994-95, the percentage of secondary schools in which the numbers on roll exceeded the MOE test increased from 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. The secondary school population was projected to rise by 12 per cent. between 1996 and 2004. At primary school level in England, 31.8 per cent. of pupils are in classes of more than 30. The percentage increased in each year during the four years prior to the 1996 audit. However, we must ask by what standard the Opposition criticise the new Labour Government, bearing in mind that they left the state system in such a situation. What plans had they in place to cope with it? So far as I can see, none, except to transfer further money to the private sector through providing more assisted places. That is an expensive and increasingly divisive approach to a problem which, according to the Audit Commission, arose to a considerable extent as a result of the tensions and conflicts in the policy objectives of the previous government.
The Bill seeks to end a mistaken and inequitable use of education resources. It does not attempt to put in place alternative policies. Such policies will be outlined in the anticipated White Paper to which my noble friend referred and in the subsequent Bill, which we shall have in the autumn. I look forward to the introduction of that Bill. In the meantime, I welcome this Bill as an important means of paving the way.
It is indeed ironic that the Bill comes from a government led by a Prime Minister who was educated at Fettes--an excellent school, which takes assisted-place pupils--who during the general election campaign asked the British people to trust him and who looked for the support of the whole community. The Government have hardly been in office five minutes before introducing a piece of legislation which breaks a promise that was made quite clearly during the general election campaign. We shall expect during the course of the Bill to have a more satisfactory answer than we have yet received.
The Bill does not take into account the whole community; it leaves out the children in assisted places. The way in which they have been referred to today is in many ways disgraceful. They are real children in real schools; they are not just numbers on a list. I wonder how many of those who are so critical of the scheme have met any of them, have visited the schools and have seen how so many children have had opportunities and have benefited in ways that would not otherwise have been available. I do not believe that such children are being helped, although I for one would include them in "the community". I was interested in the points made by the right reverend Prelate about the fact that the Government have already asked the independent schools to give them help in raising standards.
We should not be surprised by the Bill. After all, it follows traditional Labour Party policy. I well recall the previous Labour Government abolishing the direct grant schools in 1976, when the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, was Secretary of State for Education. It would be difficult to argue that the abolition of the direct grant schools raised standards or helped the education of the people of this country. Undoubtedly, those schools were some of the academically best. Most scientists would agree that they produced a large proportion of this country's scientists and they were damaged by the ending of the direct grants.
Another untrue statement is that the assisted places scheme is a subsidy to the schools. The direct grant scheme was a subsidy to the schools, but those of us who were interested in trying to find a replacement looked to the assisted places scheme, which is a help to the pupils and not to the schools. It is difficult to believe that as a result of the Bill educational standards will rise.
I agree with the Minister on two points. We all want educational standards to rise and we would all like smaller class sizes. However, it is difficult to believe that the Bill will achieve either. There is no real link between the two points and, as my noble friend Lord Henley made clear, the sums do not add up. I shall not repeat the argument, because he made it plain, but I agree with what he said.
Therefore, what is the point of the legislation? The Minister, in her concluding remarks, said that she objected to the assisted places scheme on principle. First, the argument is that parental choice is not enhanced. I did not follow the Minister's argument on that. It seemed to be that there is no parental choice because the schools determine who attends them. But all parental choice works like that. Indeed, the Prime Minister chose a grant-maintained school for his son, and I have no doubt that that school chooses whether to have the pupils who come to it. Moreover, when the Minister's right honourable friend, Ms Harman, chose to send her son to a grammar school, again such a school will choose whether it will admit the pupils who apply. That is not an absence of freedom of choice; it is the way that freedom of choice works.
We have also been told that assisted places have not been a ladder of opportunity. However, if one looks at the facts, it will be seen that 46 per cent. of assisted-place pupils come from socio-economic groups C2, D and E, with an additional 37 per cent. coming from socio-economic group C1. That means 83 per cent. are coming from what I do not believe anyone would describe as the richest section of society. As 11 per cent. of assisted-place pupils come from ethnic minorities, it seems to me that the scheme is providing a great service. About 42 per cent. of the places are free because the families concerned have an annual income of less than £9,873 and the average annual income of assisted-place families is £10,650. It is a ladder of opportunity, and I am sorry that it is being pulled away and not extended.
Further, we are told that the scheme does not add value. That is simply not true. In 1995-96, Dr. Anne West of the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics, studied the A-level results of a group of assisted-place holders and compared them with the results of academically matched contemporaries who had been offered assisted places but eventually took up places in state schools. She found that the assisted-place pupils achieved results on average between one-and-a-half and three grades higher than their state school counterparts. As everyone knows, such results make an enormous difference when it comes to a choice of university and a course at university.
As I said earlier, the scheme does add value. It is not a subsidy to schools; independent schools will continue when there are no assisted places. Many of them could fill their places over and over again. However, for the reasons clearly spelt out by the right
I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, said that Conservatives use the scheme simply to provide something for the few. If the noble Baroness reads through the policies that we pursued while in government, she will see that we did a great deal to enhance choice--not only parental choice as laid down by Act of Parliament early on in 1980, but also by the establishment of grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, specialist schools for languages, and so on. Indeed, there was a great variety of schools, all designed to provide more opportunities for children with different abilities and talents. The assisted places scheme is one part of that whole.
Perhaps I may conclude on the rather heartless argument of saying that there are 800,000 places in the maintained system and they are empty. The first question that one has to ask oneself is: why are they empty? The chances are that those places are in unpopular schools; in other words, people do not want to send their children to those schools and, therefore, there are empty places. Is that the right place to direct assisted-place pupils? In effect, far from being given great benefits, it is quite possible that those children will be callously sent off to schools which are not very good. It is difficult to see how that will raise educational standards for them.
So far as concerns regional variations, independent schools are spread exactly evenly from one end of the country to the other. Therefore, one would expect to have regional variations. However, in so far as it has been possible, those schools which have wished to join the scheme have been spread throughout the country. If there are some areas without any assisted places, it probably means that they are without any independent schools where that would apply.
I believe that the assisted places scheme has given enormous opportunities to the children in it. It is only the children who will be hurt by this legislation. It is very sad that the scheme is now to be wound up. I do not believe that it will make any difference to class sizes because the sums do not add up. Further, the Government will have to find considerably more money than they presently intend to do if they are to achieve what they want. The Government will have to realise that once they say that no class size can rise above 30, popular schools may find that they will have to prevent many parents from having their first choice. I do not use that as an important argument because we would all like to see standards rising and class sizes falling. However, one has to ask oneself: what is the purpose of the Bill? I find it difficult to see that it will achieve any educational objective, despite having listened to arguments this afternoon put forward in support of the legislation. This is a very sad day for education; it is indeed a tragedy for the children concerned.
Baroness David: My Lords, there is one thing that I simply do not understand about the speech just made by the noble Baroness. She said that there has been criticism of the children who have assisted places. I do not remember either of my noble friends saying a single word against assisted places; indeed, they did not do so. Those children who now have assisted places will be able to finish their careers in their present schools. I believe that to be both generous and right. Nevertheless, I very much resent the way that we have been attacked for no reason.
It gives me very great pleasure to be taking part today in this Second Reading debate on the Bill which abolishes the assisted places scheme. The reason for my great pleasure is not only my strong dislike of the scheme and my disapproval of it as unprincipled in giving help to the few at the expense of the many, but also that, some 17 years ago, I led the opposition to the 1980 Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, then led for the government, and, judging from her speech today, as I would have predicted, her views have not changed at all--
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