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Baroness Warnock: I speak in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It is extraordinary that we hear so much about collaboration between the private sector and the public sector--I am very much in favour of it--except in the field of education. I do not wish to discuss at length two highly successful schemes that existed in the past which illustrated that co-operation. One was the direct grant schools and, later, there was the assisted places scheme. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I can think of

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innumerable cases of the successful use of assisted places. The Girls' Public Dayschool Trust with which I am associated has the largest number of assisted places in the country. Therefore, I know that that scheme worked.

However, let us forget about those two excellent systems that have now gone and ask why collaboration between the private sector and the public sector should not be permitted in this case. Although it is frequently thought that independent schools are somehow privileged, wonderful places which are rich by some curious means and which continue to exist through some kind of miracle, but which will die some day, the facts are different. Independent schools are kept going almost entirely by the private money of parents. Those parents make an enormous contribution to education in this country, even if we consider the matter from a numerical aspect and forget about what the schools offer. The private sector is educating an increasing number of our young people at the moment. To rule out collaboration between people who are putting their private money into the education of the country and the public sector seems to me an act of folly. It centres around an age old ambiguity surrounding the word "elite". There is an absolute endemic failure to distinguish between "elite" in the sense of a well selected, meritocratic number of people and an unjustly privileged number of people, as it were. Those people may overlap but the meaning of the word is not the same in those two contexts.

It is paradoxical that the Government are perfectly prepared to talk about centres of excellence but are not prepared to permit any elite institutions where this excellence may exist. Therefore I very much support the amendment. Alternatively, I would support omitting the clause altogether.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: In speaking against the amendment I am interested to hear what the Government's plans are to achieve greater co-operation with the private sector. I recognise the point the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made, and I wonder what the Government's plans are in this area. I also wish to respond to some of the extreme language of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The noble Baroness used the expressions, "removing all chances" and "dumbing down". We are talking about sending children to schools in the state sector. The noble Baroness often goes out of her way to say that some comprehensive schools are excellent. She has said on a number of occasions that her own children attended a good comprehensive school. Therefore I do not understand how she can use such extreme language with regard to children attending state schools. That is quite out of keeping with many of the points she makes on the more detailed aspects of the Bill.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I was not expressing outrage at sending children to state schools. I was concerned that an opportunity should be given to certain children to attend private schools.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: Nevertheless the noble Baroness used the expression "dumbing down".

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Presumably she meant that in the context of sending children to a state school. Further, there seems to be no recognition at all on the Opposition Benches that the Bill before us introduces a diversity of schools. Although some of my colleagues on this side of the Chamber do not like to admit it, the Bill takes on board many of the developments of grant-maintained schools, local management of schools and other such issues that we have seen develop over the past 10 years. We are far from going back to a fully comprehensive system. It is a shame that the Opposition are not addressing the nitty-gritty of the Bill and are choosing to have an argument with old Labour, as it were, about an issue that is really not on the table. They are not arguing about the details and the diversity of the system which the Bill seeks to put in place. Those are the points I wish to make. I believe that the Bill as a whole seeks to introduce equality for all children rather than protecting quality for those who are most privileged.

Lord Walton of Detchant: I have been an enthusiastic supporter of maintained education but I am also an enthusiastic supporter of collaboration between the public and private sectors. At a time in the National Health Service when the Government are attempting to reduce waiting lists it has been well recognised that health authorities may, when circumstances allow, purchase surgical procedures in the private sector. The question I pose to the Government is the following. Will this clause as it stands prevent any local authority, which recognises that particular pupils with special aptitudes cannot receive the education they deserve in the state sector, from purchasing education facilities in the independent sector, thereby furthering that kind of collaboration? My reading of the clause is that that will be the case and therefore I am in sympathy with the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: Before the Minister responds I hope I may put a particular gloss on the question that the noble Lord, Lord Detchant, asked. What about pupils who are sent to ballet schools, for the sake of argument, none of which, as far as I know, is maintained in the public sector? They are all private. Yet, without the support provided by local education authorities to pupils who attend ballet and acting schools, many who need that education and could benefit from it will not be able to receive it.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about this clause in today's debate. The Government gave a clear manifesto commitment to phase out the assisted places scheme. Indeed, they were elected with a large majority to do so. The Education (Schools) Act 1997 gave effect to that commitment. Resources freed as a result have already been allocated to allow the appointment of 1,500 teachers to keep over 100,000 pupils out of large infant classes. Funding previously allocated to benefit a favoured few will now be used to secure that many children make a strong and positive start to their school education. As more resources are freed they will further support the

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reduction in infant class sizes. I challenge Members of the Committee to suggest that that is not a good use of those resources.

Clause 120 seeks to achieve the same positive benefits at local level. It provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the circumstances under which LEAs will be permitted to buy places at independent schools and preventing LEAs buying such places under any other circumstances. The key objective is to prevent LEAs establishing the assisted places scheme at local level. Again, we are absolutely committed to that manifesto pledge.

The clause has no effect on LEAs' powers to buy places at independent schools for pupils with special educational needs. Section 348 of the Education Act 1996 covers such provision and is not amended by the Bill.

The noble Lord's amendments would entirely wreck the purpose of the clause by giving LEAs an unrestricted ability to buy places at independent schools. I stress that is simply not consistent with the commitment given in our manifesto. We are clear that we want the regulations to enable LEAs to develop genuine partnerships--I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock--between the maintained and independent sectors similar to those which we are already supporting. Invitations to apply for support for partnership projects which were given out last year attracted an excellent response, with nearly 300 applications seeking over £5 million of support. We are presently providing a total of £600,000, of which £350,000 was government money, the rest supported by a trust, to support 48 projects covering a wide range of activities which bring independent and state schools together as equal partners. Projects involving numeracy, arts and science subjects, as well as sports and the performing arts, are being supported. All types of schools are involved and schemes will run in inner city, rural and urban settings.

Let me give just a few examples of the projects bidding for this support which were successful. First, there is a project involving one maintained and two independent schools in Bromley where the schools are sharing their different expertise to improve provision for modern foreign languages at all three schools, the type of project mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. There is a project promoted by Wakefield local education authority in which pupils from five secondary schools--three maintained and two independent--in the town are working together in cross-sector groups and attending joint lectures and master classes. Pairs of maintained and independent schools in north Somerset and separately in Wiltshire are collaborating to provide an A-level in music technology where small numbers of pupils in the individual schools make it more effective to run the course jointly. Simultaneous timetabling will support joint working, and there will be joint teaching.

We are making funding available for one year only (1998-99) at present in order to assess the impact before deciding on future arrangements. So in a sense those are pilot projects. The partnerships scheme will help pupils, staff and schools in both sectors through the sharing of expertise, skills and facilities. That is a long way from

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the assisted places scheme which was of no benefit to the maintained sector, did not represent a genuine partnership between the sectors, and was poor value for taxpayers' money.

Of course this is not an overnight solution: change will have to be incremental and at a pace that both sectors set. We are looking long term for much increased interaction between independent and maintained schools based on a recognition that both sectors working together can make an impact greater than they would by working separately. Regulations made under this clause will allow LEAs to develop that sort of co-operation locally. I hope that that is of some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant.

We shall consult in detail during the autumn on the provisions of the regulations to be made under Clause 120. Those regulations would be made by April 1999. We shall not commence the provisions of Clause 120 until regulations are ready to be laid. The existing provisions of the Education Act 1996 which give LEAs power to provide financial assistance to independent schools and to pay the fees of children attending such schools will remain in place until that time.

But we are clear that genuine partnership must involve at least two parties, and that there must be benefit to both sides. A scheme which would pay independent school fees in order to take a child wholly out of the maintained sector and place him or her full time in an independent school is in no sense a partnership between the two sectors. In those circumstances, where is the involvement of, or benefit to, the maintained sector? An LEA proposing such a course of action would be abdicating its responsibilities for its more able pupils and should be concentrating its resources on ensuring that all children, including the very able, can flourish within the maintained sector.

I agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. The language used by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, gave her position away. She simply wants to retain the assisted places scheme so that certain numbers of pupils for whom the state sector ought to be able to provide properly can receive a private education. It is not dumbing down for able pupils to be properly educated in the state sector. The noble Baroness said that her own children were properly educated in the state sector. So were mine. And that can be so for all pupils except those who have special needs and require special provision which not all local authorities are able to make.

I hope, in the light of my remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will be able to welcome the building of bridges referred to in the article he quoted by my honourable friend the Minister for School Standards. I hope that the noble Lord can feel pleased with the partnership schemes that we are now developing and intend to take further. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

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