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Lord Lucas moved amendment No. 245:

Page 91, line 24, leave out ("Subject to subsection (2),").

The noble Lord said: It was not so very long ago in terms of memories in this place when Labour Party policy was expressed as:

That was the Labour Party manifesto of 1993. The words have changed. Now we hear:

    "The time has come for old prejudices to be buried. I want independent schools to know that the Government is looking forward to working in partnership with independent schools to raise standards."

That was Mr. Stephen Byers writing in the magazine Prep School, which I am sure is required reading for all members of the Government Benches these days. Mr. Byers goes on to say:

    "The Government has made it clear that we wish to build bridges wherever we can across education divides. The education apartheid created by the public/private divide diminishes the whole education system. The independent sector plays a vital role within our education system. That is why we are fully committed to fostering closer links between the state and private sector. Through partnership we will be able to raise standards for all our children."

Fine words. Suddenly, with Clause 120, when the Government discover that there is a prospect of actual co-operation between local authorities and private sector schools, they react like some schoolgirl who has discovered a snail in her salad. They shriek and shriek and want to do everything that they can to remove that offending object as quickly as possible.

In addressing the last amendment the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, heaped considerable praise and indeed responsibility on LEAs. However, in this next clause, we find that the Government are desperately trying to claw back any responsibility from those authorities for concluding deals in the interests of their children with neighbouring schools in the private sector in case they should, unhappily, come to an arrangement which might involve some active co-operation with the hated independent schools. I find that disturbing; indeed, it suggests to me that, although the words may have changed, the sentiments remain the same.

In abolishing assisted places and by the other action that they have taken towards the independent sector, it seems to me that the Government have demonstrated their true feelings which are against private education. The fine words of Mr. Byers are merely that: just words. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to prove me wrong and that she will be able to show that this clause is intended to allow for greater co-operation and to provide new avenues for co-operation. That is not evident from the face of the Bill, but I am willing to be convinced. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch: This is another example of the mean-spirited politics of envy. We have yet another

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rung of the ladder being taken away from able young people coming from low-income families. We have lost the assisted places scheme and, with the introduction of the work of the adjudicator, we are about to lose selection. We understand that children cannot be selected on the grounds of ability, but that, according to yesterday's statement,

    "bright children can be selected on the grounds of ability for Master Classes".

We now have the most incredible dog's breakfast of what it is that the Government believe or think about bright children: tinkering at the edges with gimmicky schemes and yet removing the bread-and-butter schemes which have been such a lifeline to bright young people from low-income families.

As I understand it, having abolished the assisted places scheme, the Government discovered one day to their horror that at least one LEA, thinking very much about the children in its area who were bright and who were suited to a fast-stream academic education, resolved to do something about it. The moment that the Government got wind of that they rushed into the back room and brought out counsel to draft them some words to ensure that no LEA could provide such a scheme. I cannot imagine a more mean-spirited action on the part of the Government.

Now that we have had the admissions document and are putting some flesh on the bones of the Bill as we go through it, we are beginning to see the real colour of the Government; indeed, the real intention behind the Bill. It is a levelling down and it is a dumbing down. In other words, you can have any colour car as long as it is black. They have removed all the chances that were there for children--autonomy of schools, assisted places schemes--and have attacked Oxford and Cambridge. All those actions add up to a comprehensive system and a levelling down and, ultimately, offer no chances for our bright young people.

I wholeheartedly support my noble friend's amendments. As the Minister knows, it is my intention to oppose the Question that Clause 120 should stand part of the Bill. I do not mind whether the clause is removed by that means or whether it is done by means of my noble friend's amendments. I believe that the amendments should succeed.

We had a most interesting debate the other day between the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and the Government Front Bench about what the Liberals would do if they were masters of this Bill. They would have been unequivocal in addressing and getting out of the system the selection of bright children in this way. The assisted places scheme certainly received their support. They would have been much more clear cut about how they dealt with grammar schools in the Bill. The Government talk and use the rhetoric of high standards. They use the rhetoric of looking to raise standards in education and, indeed, they use the rhetoric of being concerned about bright, able young children. However, when one looks at their actions, they simply do not match the rhetoric. Young people throughout the country will lose such opportunities.

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I was deeply saddened the other day to hear about a young boy attending a school in East Anglia under the assisted places scheme who has a disabled father. So that the father could better cope with the situation, an application was made for the young boy to be transferred to a school under the assisted places scheme which was nearer to his home. A school was found and it was willing to accept him. However, what happened? The DfEE said that, once the link is broken with the assisted places scheme, that is an end to the matter. In fact, if the boy had been placed in the other school which was willing to accept him, it would have saved the Government £5,000. Nevertheless, it counted for nothing. Those concerned rather cold-heartedly said that the boy must stay at the school which is not appropriate in terms of the logistics of the family or he must leave and take his chance in another local school. That is my understanding of the Government's intentions. I do not like what I see. I most warmly support my noble friend's amendment.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Tope: The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, briefly but accurately described my party's position on assisted places schemes, selection, grammar schools, and so on. I believe that I have made no secret of that in this Chamber or elsewhere. However, I have considerable sympathy with the amendment, although not necessarily with all that was said in moving it. Indeed, I was not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was making a sexist remark about snails in lettuce or launching an attack on organic farming. Either way, I do not wish to be associated with those remarks.

In supporting the abolition of the assisted places scheme, it was part of my party's policy that it is right and proper for LEAs to be able to determine what they do with the money they have in exercising their responsibility to ensure the proper education of the children in their area. I personally have a view about that, but I do not wish to impose it on other LEAs which may feel that there is another and more appropriate way in certain circumstances for particular children.

Therefore, for those reasons, although I start almost from the opposite point of view to the mover, I have considerable sympathy with the intention behind the amendment. I certainly feel that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is tackling the issue more appropriately with his amendment than the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will in her desire to remove the clause from the Bill.

Baroness Young: I very much support my noble friend Lord Lucas in his amendment. Shortly after the general election there was a great deal of press coverage about a consensus on education as regards raising standards, together with agreement on the national curriculum, testing and assessment, and so on. As the year has progressed and the education Bills have come before us, we have clearly seen a widening rather than a coming together. The saddest part about this clause is the fact that it does not actually support the individual child. I take perhaps a very simple view of education, but I believe that it is about the pupils; indeed, each individual pupil.

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I shall not repeat all the arguments about the assisted places scheme, but perhaps I may give Members of the Committee just two examples about two assisted-place pupils who are well known to me. One has just obtained a place at Cambridge. I do not believe that she would ever have been able to achieve such a place coming from the area in which she lived with the education normally available to her. She is an extremely clever girl and comes from a very poor home. The other pupil has, as I understand it, become part of a team which has won a gold medal for rowing internationally. That is an opportunity which she certainly would never have had if she had not been on an assisted places scheme. I quote those instances because they concern actual children who have benefited from the scheme.

The other argument is the one which was made very clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. Those in local government have an education budget, but it is a matter for the relevant committee to determine how that money should be spent. There has been a great deal of argument about the cost of sending a child to an independent school as compared with the cost of sending that child to a maintained school. However, if you compare like with like and include administrative costs and other such costs in a maintained school, the difference is not that great. If an opportunity can be offered to a child to develop a talent or a skill where the local authority for one reason or another cannot provide an appropriate course--that may apply to a course in a modern language, or Latin or Greek--and the child and the child's parents want that opportunity, and the local education authority is prepared to offer it, I believe it should have the right to do so. After all, the local education authority comprises democratically elected councillors who make these decisions.

The whole matter rests on the needs of the child concerned. I do not believe that we should say that local education authorities should not make these opportunities available under any circumstances. It may be a case of a special needs child who requires a particular course. It is extraordinary that we are debating this matter on a day when we hear on the radio and read in the newspapers that the Government will publish a paper on gifted children who will be singled out at primary school to attend special schools. I am not in the least against that. It is sensible that able children should be selected in that way. However, it is completely the opposite of what the Government said only last week in this Chamber. If we are seriously interested in helping the individual child, I hope very much that the Committee will support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lucas.

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