Education Bill

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Caroline Flint (Don Valley): The amendments sound seductive, but in reality they would drive a coach and horses through the maintained sector. The provisions are the assisted places scheme by another name. They are similar to the disastrous nursery vouchers scheme, which did nothing to build on nursery education provision and caused chaos in the system.

Politicians of all parties—I have mentioned this before in the Committee—should be careful when talking about choice. The reality in my constituency and many others is that most parents' kids attend their first-choice school. The parents choose the school that is closest to where they live, even if they are not entirely happy with how that school operates. That is why we should not be distracted by attempts to pump money into the independent sector. Instead we should focus on putting resources into the maintained sector and ensuring that every school provides a standard of education of which every child and family can be proud.

The Bill gives schools the opportunity to innovate, experiment and join in partnership with others in a productive and co-operative way, and allows us to build on the achievements of the maintained sector. The amendment of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight offers none of that. It offers diversionary activities and division and does nothing to meet the needs of the vast majority of children, who attend maintained schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): It is a particular privilege to make my ministerial debut with you in the Chair, Mr. Griffiths. I have felt, during the last few sittings, like a footballer awaiting his debut, only to remain on the bench. It was not the Government's decisions but the time-wasting tactics of the Opposition that led to that situation.

It is appropriate for me to begin my contribution to the debate by discussing these particular amendments. I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). The amendments are effectively a denial of history. We talk about democratic accountability and accountability through the House, but we also need to remember accountability to the electorate.

In 1997 and 2001, the British electorate voted for education policies that drew a line under the kind of divisive policies contained in the amendments. The Government made it clear in their offering to the British people in 1997 that they would phase out the assisted places scheme and use the money to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. The Government put a clear choice before the British people and they voted accordingly.

The British people also, when asked about the Government's great successes, repeatedly express respect for and concur with the view that we need to create a British education system that provides opportunities for all. We must move away from an education system that educates an elite, which has created a structural skills and productivity deficit and

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significant problems of social division and social exclusion in this country. We have not, as a country, focused on the vast majority of children and young people who are educated in the maintained sector. Rather, we have focused on a small minority educated in the independent sector.

The Government have no problem with the concept of parents choosing to send their children to independent schools, but the Government do not believe that it is the state's responsibility to target what will always be finite resources on the independent sector. Amendment No. 153 and new clause 1 would simply reintroduce the assisted places scheme. It would be interesting for the Committee to know whether that represents official Conservative party policy or the view of the Isle of Wight branch of the Conservative party, but it provides another example of how the Conservative party is cut adrift from the mainstream British electorate. As long as that remains the case, the Conservative party will remain unelectable, which will not worry Labour or Liberal Democrat Members.

I cannot accept that the proposed scheme would represent a saving to the taxpayer. The sums do not add up and it would require some extremely creative accounting to demonstrate any saving. We would also run the risk of creating a situation in which parents would make an application to a school, although they knew that their child had little chance of being accepted, and then, having been unsuccessful in their first choice of school, become eligible for an education credit. The long-term consequence of accepting the amendment would be that the Government would end up funding all independent places. Furthermore, the calculation made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, in terms of the transfer of resources from the maintained sector, underestimates the cost of places in most independent schools. Therefore, only those parents who could top up that amount would be able to exercise the option that the hon. Gentleman claims to be making available to a wide range of parents.

Mr. Brady: One thing that inhibits debate in this interesting area is that the Government have always been reluctant to publish the cost per place in a maintained school for comparison with the cost in the independent sector. The cost per place that is quoted for the maintained sector is usually a revenue cost and no attempt is made to include a capital element. Will the Minister undertake to put that right and to publish details of the cost of a place in the maintained sector, including the capital element?

Mr. Lewis: The Government have been gradually moving towards a far more transparent process of funding education. We will change the nature of the standard spending assessment from next April and we are increasing significantly the proportion of funding delegated to individual schools. The inevitable consequence of creating a fairer financial regime and changing the SSA system, set up under the Conservative Government to such inequitable effect, will be to make the cost of providing places far more transparent.

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Mr. Brady: I welcome the Minister's commitment to greater transparency, but instead of waiting for the SSA to be reformed—an interminable process—will he publish an assessment of the cost per place in the maintained sector, including the capital element?

Mr. Lewis: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the SSA system will be completely overhauled and the new system will be put in place from 1 April 2003. That commitment was made by the relevant Cabinet Ministers and we intend to honour that commitment. So far as I am aware, all the expenditure—revenue or capital expenditure—in the maintained sector is in the public domain, as is the number of pupils. With some imaginative research facilities, to which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has access, it should not be too difficult to identify the sum that we spend in relation to the number of pupils in the maintained sector.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I am sure that the Minister is trying to help my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, but the value of sites occupied by maintained schools is not in the public domain. An independent school has to meet the notional rent payable on those sites. A maintained school does not meet it openly, although, of course, it is met. I think that my hon. Friend sought that information.

Will the Minister explain why new clause 1 would be the recipe whereby the Government fund all places in independent schools? The sum of money is not sufficient to fund a place in many independent schools, and new clause 1(2)(e) suggests that a parent will not be eligible for a credit if

    ''the child has . . . been educated in an independent school . . . for more than six months in the preceding three years''.

Mr. Lewis: It would take considerable time to reach that point, but that is the logical long-term consequence of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. In promoting new clause 1, he acknowledged that, depending on the fee rate of the independent school, a top-up from parents would be required in many, if not most, circumstances.

Mr. Willis: I welcome the Minister to the Committee. I had thought that he had a bad throat. Will he confirm that the clause makes the amendment irrelevant, because it gives the Secretary of State the power to give a direct grant to any private school that he chooses, so that it can fund whatever it wants? Yes or no?

Mr. Lewis: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no intention of using the powers in that way. I ask him to consider not the words, but the actions of the Government since our election in 1997. We have made it clear that we welcome partnership between the independent and maintained sectors, but we do not believe it appropriate for the state to fund the small minority of young people educated in the independent sector. We should target finite resources on the majority of young people who are educated in the maintained sector.

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It would be disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the Government would turn on its head not only the words and rhetoric post-1997, but every action that we have taken on education policy post-1997. We want the education of the many, not the few. We are ensuring that all individuals have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. We are targeting resources on areas with a culture of low aspiration, where for far too long, young people have not been given opportunities to fulfil their potential. Such policies form the part of the Government's track record of which we are most proud.

Mr. Turner: Disingenuousness is not limited to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, if it is present in him at all. The Minister is being disingenuous. The Government have taken many actions that no one expected them to take in 1997, such as introducing tuition fees, and also introducing the Bill. Having piled an increasing amount of legislation on to schools in the past four years, they are now trying in their feeble way to deregulate.

6.15 pm

 
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