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Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Surely, the point at issue is whether it is at the expense of the 450,000. The noble Lord assumes that it is. I was making a rather strong argument that it is not.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I have understood the arguments of the noble Lord and have read the paper to which he referred. But the Government have been elected on two very clear pledges. Whether or not they are reconcilable, they will be achieved individually. But if this Bill goes through substantial amounts of money will be released and class sizes will be reduced to 30 or less for five, six and seven year-olds. That is the substantive point, and that is the intention of the Government. Of course, this places a grave responsibility at the door of the new Government. Many state schools achieve high standards, but not all. One cannot dismiss the aspirations of many parents to send their children to independent schools as elitist or mere snobbery. There is genuine and widespread concern that standards of discipline and academic achievement are too low in parts of the state sector.
The Government are pursuing various initiatives to ensure that best practice spreads to all schools. I wish them well in that endeavour. However, they must be realistic as to why so many parents aspire to independent schooling for their children. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, laid down a challenge to the Government when he spoke of the benefits to some children of boarding school education. He said that children had to be treated as individuals. I know from experience that some young boys benefit from boarding school education.
The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, said that a reduction in class sizes was not of itself sufficient to increase standards. She is right. However, I have never read an independent school prospectus that did not boast about the small class sizes that it had to offer. The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said that independent schools benefited from the social mix of bright children coming from poorer backgrounds. The contrary argument is equally true. State schools will also benefit from these children and raise standards as a whole.
I have spoken briefly about why I believe the assisted places scheme is wrong in principle. When one looks at practice the argument is stronger still. Last autumn I had the privilege of addressing the Association of Independent School Bursars. My message was not well received. I emerged with only light flesh wounds. Nevertheless, all of the bursars were realistic about the resolve of the Labour Party to abolish the assisted places scheme. During coffee breaks I was regaled with stories about how the assisted places scheme was abused. I heard stories about the money paying for people's divorces and the general ingenuity of parents in accessing these funds. Those stories were told with a ribald humour which spoke volumes about the scheme's lack of success in helping the kind of children that it was meant to help.
However, the point was made that despite widespread abuse of the scheme, there were examples where children had been given life-enhancing opportunities that would never have been received without an independent school education. No doubt that argument was inculcated into the children themselves. I find that argument sad and fundamentally flawed, in that it consigns those who do not receive independent education to the second rank and fails to recognise that many state schools can and do offer a breadth of opportunity and achievement that encourages each child to make the most of his or her talents.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the Bill as nasty and mean spirited. They are wrong on both counts. The Bill puts the many above the few. If they call that old Labour, so be it. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, raged--I put it as highly as that--at the injustice of sending bright children to state schools. The noble Lord, Lord Butterfield, spoke of the sacrifice of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, spoke of throwing children onto the dust heap. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, called for a huge expansion of the independent sector. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, capped it all by speaking of anti-education. If the party opposite believes that, what an indictment of its education policies over the
Lord Beloff: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. My noble friends Lady Elles, Lady Young and Lord Butterfield said nothing of the kind. None of us on this side of the House has anything but admiration for excellent state schools, and clearly more children benefit from them than from the independent sector. The noble Lord has to advance a different argument, if he supports the Bill.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I wrote down the comments at the time they were made, and we can check Hansard. I stand by what I said. They were the arguments used against sending children to state schools when noble Lords opposite were arguing that the independent sector offered the only true opportunities.
I support the Bill because it narrows the gap between the unduly privileged and the underprivileged; it redistributes taxpayers' money from the private sector to the public sector; and, above all, I support it because our five, six and seven year-olds deserve smaller classes and a better start in life.
Baroness Elles: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I reiterate what my noble friend Lord Beloff said. Never did I use such words as those which the noble Lord has attached to me, and nor did my noble friend Lady Young. I therefore totally disregard his speech because he could not have been listening to anything said from this side of the House.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, the noble Lord may be as puzzled about that as he was about finance. It is plain that the purpose of the Bill is to release money to improve educational standards. Despite the philosophy of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby: "When I say a thing, it means what I say", which he asks the Government to apply to themselves, I shall be interested in the Minister's reply to the lucid indictment by my noble friend Lord Skidelsky of the financing that lies behind the scheme. If the finance does not stand up, then the Bill is revealed, as suggested by the right reverend Prelate, and my noble friends Lady Young, Lord Beloff, and many others, as the product of an educational ideology--an ideology which has played a large part in reducing standards and limiting opportunity. It is an ideology that destroyed grammar schools and the direct grant schools, and now does this. Naturally, as a child of poor parents and a former pupil of a direct grant school, I feel strongly about it.
The Prime Minister professes to have learnt a great deal from the Labour Party in Australia. But I am afraid that old Labour prevails in education. In Australia, the Labour Party has never opposed the use of public funds in the independent sector. It is happy to give grants to schools as selective as Sydney Grammar and as exclusive as Geelong. But the Government have no interest in any co-operation.
There are poor parents. I was High Master of St. Paul's for seven years. I ran the assisted places scheme. I must have seen income returns from some hundreds of people. We admitted about 20 pupils a year, but received many more applications. I never saw incomes above £15,000. With regard to middle class children, it is true that some had been in the private sector. They had lost a parent, parents had lost jobs, or a mother had suffered a divorce from a husband who did not have enough money to support two families. Those were the children who came from the independent sector. The myth of subsidy to the middle class is just a myth. It should not be used, because it is dishonest. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden. One would find that to be so from the headmasters of many schools.
Let us look at the reason, because it is important. Why did poor parents elect to leave the maintained sector and take up assisted places in independent schools? It was because those schools offered specialist courses which were not available to the children in the maintained schools in the area where they lived. I shall give some examples. Some children have an aptitude for languages. In areas such as Hackney and Stoke Newington, few schools offered more than two modern languages, and many did not offer that. At St. Paul's, as did many other independent schools, we offered four or more modern languages as well as Latin and Greek. Because of our nature as a selective school, we had a fine mathematics department at post-16 level which could offer double mathematics and the whole range of mathematical studies. I can assure the Minister that those courses were not available in the area comprehensives from which those children came. That was especially true of the poorer areas of the city and certain ethnic areas of the city. That is why they came.
Paradoxically, the Government recognise the value of the specialisation that exists in many independent schools. Only last week, in a press statement, the Minister's colleague, the Minister responsible for schools standards, Estelle Morris, said:
It therefore seems to us--as my noble friends have said--odd and ideologically motivated that a government who are prepared to set up specialist schools are not prepared, as are the Australian Government, to take advantage of the specialisations which already exist in independent schools and are available to poor families through the assisted places scheme.
As a headmaster of 17 years standing, I can assure the Minister and her colleagues that if they believe £100,000 and an extra £100 a pupil can create language departments equivalent to those which exist in independent schools and which are the product of years of work, of choice of staff, and years of investment in satellite dishes, language laboratories, and so forth, and that they will have the equivalent of the language department of St. Paul's available now to poor children, they are mistaken.
Perhaps I may underline a point made by the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords. The main candidates for assisted places are pupils in the former direct grant schools. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was right when he said that this scheme was created to try in some way to continue the tradition of the direct grant schools. Everyone must acknowledge that they were sacrificed on the altar of ideology because they withdrew from the state sector and became independent, sadly and reluctantly, so as to maintain their academic specialisation.
These schools, many in the great northern cities such as the one I attended, have a long history of serving the talented children of poor parents. I very much doubt whether poor parents in Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle will find any even designated maintained schools which will replace the existing excellence of schools such as Bradford Grammar, Manchester Grammar, the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, King Edward's, Birmingham, and so forth. As one of my noble friends said, they are schools with an international reputation for excellence.
As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and others, the tragedy is that the money released by depriving these able and poor children of access to schools such as those will not achieve the transformation of the education system that the Government claim. I repeat that I shall be delighted if the noble Baroness, with the support of her officials, can shoot down the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in flames. It will be a great gladiatorial combat, to which I look forward.
However, perhaps I may go further and underline what was said by my noble friend Lord Henley. If class sizes are reduced to 30 the popular schools--those are the best schools which are full--will have to turn away pupils. If a law provides that classes must have no more than 30 pupils anyone with a child at a bad school who wants to move to a popular school which has classes of more than 30 will be told, "No luck, my son. You stay where you are". If I were a parent I should prefer a class of 32 in a good school rather than a class of 30 in a bad school.
I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about that, but the Government could solve the problem in a simple way. They could spend more money on buildings in the popular schools so that the popular and best schools can take more children. But we return to the mystery of money. Where will the money come from? In that respect I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the Liberal Democrats. If you want to improve things and not force children to go to bad schools just because you limit the class size you must spend money on the good schools. The end result will be to force children to remain in poor schools. Therefore, the result of this sorry little Bill will be to abolish the chance of bright pupils to go to schools such as Manchester Grammar and force others to go into classes of 30 in bad schools.
This country needs both smaller classes and specialised academic courses for academically able pupils. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that a country which does not value its academically able pupils is a country doomed to decline. As I have said often in this House, in every other part of Europe there are post-16 centres of excellence for able pupils; brilliant sixth forms equivalent to that of Manchester Grammar. The assisted places scheme provided some chance for that in our country. I must therefore say that it is a mean, nasty little Bill, as my noble friend said, and many will suffer.
In Committee, I and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will press the Minister about the proposal to force children to leave at 11. I shall be interested to hear how the Secretary of State will offer his appeals system. There are some difficult cases. I know of a dyslexic child aged 10 in an independent school. Will he be able to go to a dyslexic unit? There is another point which the Minister might dismiss but which I believe is important. If at a private school a pupil started to learn French at eight and Latin at nine, is it good for his or her education to have to begin French again at 11 and possibly abandon Latin altogether?
I cannot imagine any other European country depriving poor and clever children of a chance to attend schools which are recognised as excellent and have produced many people who have contributed to the nation. I refer to schools such as Manchester Grammar, St. Paul's and Westminster, but I could extend the catalogue further. The Government are saying that such pupils should not attend those schools, and the end result will be children forced to remain in unpopular schools and in classes of 30 in bad schools. It is a bad Bill and owes a lot to an ideology which desires and believes only in a state monopoly of education. It obstinately refuses to see that co-operation between the independent and state sectors would help to improve education.
When the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, used to stand at this Dispatch Box I constantly reminded him that he was like the Bourbons; he had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. I am afraid that I must apply the same epithet to the Government. This Bill ought not to have been put forward.
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