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Baroness Young: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness, but I feel I should stress that I thought I was right then and I think that I am right today.

Baroness David: My Lords, I am not surprised.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for her clear exposition of the Bill and the principles behind it. The aim to improve the standards of education for the very young by reducing class sizes for five to seven year-olds, to give them a better start in life, surely cannot be disputed. A good early education is recognised today as having a profoundly beneficial effect on the whole of a child's education. No parent wants to see their child in an overcrowded class with an overstretched teacher in charge. Those who query the size of a class making a difference should ask any teacher or, indeed, any parent who opts for a private school.

When shall we learn to trust the teachers and give them back the confidence that they have had taken from them over recent years? The flight from the profession by heads and deputy heads by means of early retirement is evidence enough of the poor treatment that they have had from these Tory governments. Indeed, yesterday we heard that the number of those entering teacher training this year is down by 11 per cent. If noble Lords opposite point to some teachers who have been stroppy--and they sometimes seem to enjoy doing that--they should remember the vast bulk of the profession who are dedicated, do a good job and are just fed up with the way that they have been criticised. They have had to cope with constantly changing policies (for example, changes to the National Curriculum and testing) and a huge increase in paperwork.

I looked back at the Second Reading debate on the 1980 Bill in which Lord Butler of Saffron Walden took an important part. He was not happy with various

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parts of the Bill, transport being one area that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will remember well for the defeat that she suffered there. Of the assisted places scheme Lord Butler said:

    "I am not very taken by this clause".
He went on to say:

    "I therefore believe that this Bill is based upon the idea that a few assisted places may help; but now, when we find that the scheme has been halved--it is not going to cost £50 million in five or six years, it is going to cost only a few million in the next year or two; and in my view it cannot affect more than 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000 pupils"--
of course, the price has now risen to practically £160 million, with 37,000 students involved--

    "I really wonder whether the money might not be saved on this and given over to rural transport. I would not regret that at all, partly because I am, as was indicated in an article in the Sunday Times, especially keen to see the sixth-form classes at comprehensive schools improved. They are slowly improving. I have now retired from a great college, but my college is beginning to take sixth-form scholars of comprehensive schools, and I am encouraging them to take more. That means an improvement in the classes. I think that what is really wanted in education is an improvement in the State system".--[Official Report, 25/2/80; cols. 1048-1049.]

Lord Butler was an enlightened Tory, and, apart from some notable exceptions--a good many in this House--they seem a vanishing breed. He really wanted the state system to improve for the benefit of all children.

Over the years, the scheme--made out to be so modest in 1980--has expanded and expanded, as have the costs. In 1981, 220 schools took part, three more in 1983 and three more in 1984. The manifesto pledge that 35,000 places would be available by the mid-nineties meant that another 52 English schools had to be admitted. That was in fact achieved by 1989. But as there was some imbalance in provision in areas such as the Midlands and the North East--the same uneven geographical distribution had been the case with the direct grant schools--17 more schools were admitted to the scheme in 1996. To show what a good thing the independent schools think it is for them, 100 more applied to join.

I was amused to read in my files on the 1980 Bill an article by an education correspondent in November 1980 which ended,

    "One thing is clear, the APS schools like the bookies, cannot lose. Apart from creaming off an invaluable proportion of talented youngsters from the maintained sector they are going to be paid handsomely for their trouble. With hundreds of applicants at each school paying registration and examination fees, I estimate in this aspect alone the APS is a £250,000 bonanza for the independent sector. With a bonus, I am sure, of many extra fee paying pupils who do not end up with a win in the APS competition".
That correspondent was from the Daily Mail.

When the scheme started, it was intended for the very high flyers, and the schools to which they were to go were to be the really excellent. Before a school was admitted in those early years, HMI was able to comment on the quality of the school, and say if it deserved to have these special pupils and income from the state. That has not happened recently: and certainly some of the schools now in the scheme cannot compare with the best comprehensives.

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Another way in which the scheme has developed is in the age range at which pupils can take up a place--from 11 to 12, 13 and sixth form level. And then at the 1995 Conservative conference Mr. Major announced that the scheme would be doubled in size. So followed the cynical move in the final education Bill of the Tory Government to increase the scope of the scheme to include primary schools this year. That will mean the schools affected will go up from 293 to 355, and from some 5,700 entry places overall to 10,500. A piece of briefing that I received just before the debate states that the number of schools is now 477, but that does not match up with any other figure I have seen. Perhaps the noble Baroness can explain that. Unfortunately, although the 1997 Bill was severely truncated because of the early calling of the election, that clause was not deleted. The regulation that children must spend the two years previous to taking a place in a maintained school could no longer apply.

Regulations are issued each year, primarily to update the financial arrangements for parents' contributions in line with inflation. Not only did they do that very generously, in 1984, for instance, by over 6 per cent. when inflation was 5 per cent., and that at a time when student grants were to be increased by only 4 per cent. Also that year the provision that a child could be eligible for a sixth form place only if the local authority agreed, was revoked. (This had been put in to appease Lord Butler.)

The evidence I have seen seems to show that poorer families were well represented among those gaining places; two out of five households receiving help had incomes below £9,874. But the poll--incidentally it was an ISIS poll, therefore an independent school poll--showed that the proportion of professional and managerial families receiving financial support through the scheme had increased by 8 per cent. since 1991. ISIS suggests that this is through executive unemployment and business crashes. But we must also remember that a well-off household could receive help if more than one child in the family had a place, particularly if the children were at high fee schools. It is argued that the scheme has benefited the artificially poor. The middle classes, always smart at seeing what is to their advantage, have profited much more than the working classes. Professor Freeman of Middlesex University has pointed out that up to two-thirds of students taking up places at 16 are already fee-paying pupils in that school. What has happened to the rule that those taking up places should have spent two years in a maintained school? The original safeguards have slipped and slipped away.

I have emphasised my opposition to the APS as a matter of educational principle. The Government have said they will use the savings that accrue from its abolition to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds. It is vitally important, therefore, that the savings are as large as possible and occur as rapidly as possible. I know that my noble friend told us something about this in her opening speech but I think it needs to be made absolutely clear. Could she tell

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us when expenditure on the scheme will fall from the £160 million mentioned to zero? I understand that the savings are estimated to be only £100 million by the year 2000. Why is the figure as low as that? Is it to do with the extension of the scheme to primary schools in the 1997 Act? Apart from the entry class this year, can my noble friend assure me that the effect of this Bill is to limit the primary school concession to this year only? Am I to understand that we are committed to some of these pupils until they are 13? Other people have asked that. I hope she will answer these questions when she winds up.

The important thing to remember is that this Bill is about improving the state system of education in this country and raising standards. Professor Rutter in his book 15,000 Hours showed how a few bright children in a school could have a very beneficial effect on the whole school. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said:

    "We, the profession, teachers and the majority of parents have agreed that class size matters. We must therefore ask, to which children does it matter? Does it matter to only a few, or to all our children in all our schools? The answer is very simple; we have a choice between excellence for a few or high quality education for the many. We have made a choice in favour of the many, because we know that, both for the individuals concerned and for social cohesion and the economy, literacy and numeracy matter to every one of us".

I support the Bill.

5.27 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, this Bill covers Scotland. There are of course different Ministers and systems north and south of the Border and it is no doubt convenient to deal with the same subject in one Bill. I find I am the only speaker from Scotland in the debate. That is one reason I decided to take part. Another reason was that I was in the chair for four years of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, since its inception in 1976. The council worked out a system of assisted places for Scotland which was adopted as the basis for the one now operating.

My third reason for taking part today is that I was Secretary of State for Scotland from 1970 to 1974 and so exercised central government's responsibility for schools in Scotland at a time when the future of the grant-aided schools had started to become a political issue. Incidentally, no Secretary of State from any party who has held that appointment before me is still alive. Consequently I feel I am in a good position to rehearse briefly the recent history that has led to the present situation in Scotland. I shall start 34 years ago when, following other roles in government, I was a junior Minister in the Scottish Office in 1963-64.

The grant-aided schools in Scotland were broadly the equivalent to the direct grant schools in England and Wales. Twenty or 30 per cent., or even more, of their costs were being met by government grants. There were scales for fee paying and various selection arrangements. Those schools set out in particular to take pupils with academic abilities. The intention was that

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parents of such children did not have to pay more than they could afford in fees. A Labour Government came into office in 1964 and froze the level of those grants. With inflation, the effect was their reduction.

When a Conservative Government returned six years later in 1970, the grant-aided system in Scotland was still in place and the new Government restored the earlier arrangements. I was Secretary of State; and I did so in Scotland. However, when the Labour Government arrived in 1974 they set about abolishing those grants altogether--they did not freeze them--by phasing them out. The schools then had to take decisions about their future. Individually they chose various courses.

In opposition, the Conservative Party studied how the principle could be retained. We were encouraged by many who hoped that bright and able children would still be enabled to benefit from appropriate schooling, although their parents might not be well off and could not afford the full economic fees. There were of course parents who were comfortably off as well.

The grant-aided schools in Scotland have produced leaders and successful professionals in all walks of life. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Steel--who made an outstanding maiden speech a few days ago--and my right honourable friend Mr. Malcolm Rifkind were at George Watson's in Edinburgh. I could give other notable examples. Those schools contained centres of excellence.

The Scottish Council of Independent Schools, realising that grants would be abolished, as they were, set itself the task of formulating a new scheme to continue the principle behind the grant-aided schools. As in England and Wales, we felt that starting again from scratch it would be fairest to attach future grants to pupils rather than schools. It would have been difficult and invidious to make a new selection of schools to receive grants. Some of the previous grant-aided schools had undergone considerable changes.

In those independent schools which joined the scheme, places would be offered subject to conditions. In the event, the large majority of schools joined, including, if my memory serves me right, Fettes College. After the Conservative Government took office in 1979, the assisted places scheme was introduced north and south of the Border. Now this Bill is designed to remove it. Parents of able and academic children--those parents may not be well off--will no longer be able to find appropriate places for the children. The scales of fees to be paid depended on the family circumstances. An efficient and popular system is to be scrapped.

I shall say a few words generally about traditional attitudes in Scotland to education. There has always been co-operation--I speak of a couple of hundred years; I do not refer to my own lifetime, but well before--in Scottish communities to help academic or talented young people to fulfil their potential. I am old enough to remember that in the 1930s both in the Highlands and in Glasgow there was no sense of envy. Combined efforts would be directed to helping a local

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child to continue his or her schooling and to reach university when it seemed likely that they would excel there; and very often they did.

In Scotland this value placed on education has been evident over a long period. I shall give examples from two centuries. At the end of the last century, one school, the High School of Glasgow, produced two Prime Ministers: Mr. Campbell-Bannerman and Mr. Bonar Law. In the 18th century, the same school produced two eminent generals: Sir John Moore, who died, still young for his rank, at Coruna, and is renowned still in the British Army for creating and training the first light infantry; and General Sir Colin Campbell, the first Lord Clyde, who was the son of a shoemaker. I could give many more examples from other Scottish schools. I do not suggest that those schools at that time were operating under the modern grant-aided scheme, but they were operating under the same principle.

I look forward to hearing my noble friend Lord Pilkington when he winds up and congratulate him on his position on the Front Bench. I have known him for 30 years since the time when he was a young teacher. He went on to exalted heights as the headmaster of more than one illustrious school.

In conclusion, I would have expected old Labour to do away with grant-aided schools, as they did in the late 1970s. Is it really consistent with the aims of New Labour to be destroying schemes that assist ability in the young where personal parental finance is lacking? Is it too late to have second thoughts? What about a review, ruling nothing in and nothing out? If the Bill goes ahead--I suspect for populist reasons--destroying the schemes will be regarded in the future as academic vandalism.

5.36 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, it would be hard to argue with the objective of reducing class sizes in junior schools or any other schools. I cannot help wondering whether this Bill does so in the way that I would have chosen. Should we do that by robbing Peter to pay Paul? Would it not have been better perhaps to throw new money at the problem? However, I gain the impression--I do not know from where--that this is a party political issue. It may be more appropriate for me from these Benches to take a more general view of the situation.

When the assisted places scheme has had a decent burial, I plead with the Government and express the hope that they will consider the great contribution which independent schools have made and could make in the future to the education of this country. I was much encouraged by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the Government's policy statement that they hope to work in partnership with the independent system.

I intend to speak today about my personal experience. Therefore I cannot avoid explaining a little of the background. For nearly three decades I have been a governor of Kings School, Canterbury. I attended the last governors' meeting this morning. I was given a very good lunch; I hope that that will not affect my ability

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to communicate with your Lordships. For over four decades I have been a governor of Northbourne Park School and a governor of two maintained schools.

I have nothing to declare because I have had no advantages from any of those situations. On the other hand, I and my family have made a commitment to reinvest the rent for the house--it belongs to me--from Northbourne Park School to help individual pupils to attend the school. From my long observation and experience I am convinced that there are young people who can gain enormous benefit from good, caring boarding education, especially when their lives have been torn apart by their experiences in the family. Children to whom that happens are not by any means restricted to those who are able to afford to pay. In our society today there are more and more children who could benefit from boarding education at some stage in their lives. There are parents who work long hours and are often away from home; there are broken homes; there are many fewer grandparents (and extended families) who are able to support their grandchildren.

I recognise the argument that the independent sector can be socially divisive. In so far as that is true, I deplore it. But surely the solution must be to widen the scope and range of those who enjoy the benefits which children in independent education enjoy today, and not to destroy the schools that provide those benefits.

Let no one be under any illusion that, by removing independent schools, what was described by Belloc as the "hoary social curse" will go away. My wife is French and I have the advantage of knowing something of French education and society. In spite of the fact that Frenchmen all call one another "monsieur" and nearly all send their children to the lycee, I assure the House that those who regard themselves as the upper crust in French society are no less arrogant and conceited than their opposite numbers in this country--far from it!

We should be looking at what independent education has to give. The assisted places scheme did not necessarily address that problem very effectively. The major advantages afforded by independent education in this country, which are not available to any considerable extent in the maintained sector, are: first, (in the better schools) good, caring boarding; secondly, high staff ratios and very good pastoral care; and thirdly (apart from the high standard of education) a wide variety of extra-curricular activities and sports which provide opportunities for children to build confidence and gain experience for life. In a perfect world those advantages should be available to all children who need them, both those who can pay and those who cannot, and in particular to those children who lack happy, secure, supportive homes. The cost of a boarding place in an English public school is about half the cost of a place in a special school.

Perhaps I may relate the story of one boy whom I shall call Peter, although it is not his real name. He came to the Stepney Children's Fund camps at the age of 10, about nine years ago. He was deeply disturbed. He had been rejected by both his parents and had had eight foster placements, all of which he had rejected.

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The social services department was in despair as to what to do with him and decided that he needed boarding education. A place was found for him in a state boarding school at a cost of £28,000 a year. Quite reasonably, the department decided that it could not afford that. I was able to find a place for him in an independent school in Kent under the assisted places scheme. He was lucky enough to have an extremely intelligent and flexible head of social services who was able to agree to pay the boarding fee. He went to the school and was cared for under the pastoral care system there. He did well at the school. He is now about to pass out of college and already has a management training place with one of the major supermarkets. That is a small success story for the APS. The noble Baroness may well say that one swallow does not make a summer. My reply would be: de mortuis nihil nisi bonum--this story may be a useful epitaph for the assisted places scheme.

When the assisted places scheme has been laid to rest, we should not as a nation demonise the independent sector because of its weaknesses. We should examine its strengths and try to build on them, so as to enrich the total provision that we can make for all children in this country.

5.44 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. We have enjoyed arguing about education for many years and I dare say we shall continue to do so. The noble Baroness and her department will be hard put to compress the rising demand for education within the straitjacket imposed by the Chancellor; however, I wish her well.

The Bill is designed to phase out the assisted places scheme. From the year 1998-99 there will be no new entrants into the scheme. By the year 2004-05 no pupils will be educated under it. The object of the exercise, stated clearly in the explanatory and financial memorandum, is to realise savings,

    "which will be spent on reducing infant class sizes in the maintained sector".

I do not want to spend time debating the merits of reducing infant class sizes or how much that will cost. I mention in passing the interesting fact that between 1991 and 1996 the average pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools remained unchanged at about 22, while the percentage of pupils in classes of over 30 increased from 20 to 27. Evidently, it is not the pupil-teacher ratio that is crucial but the way in which schools organise their teaching and the ratio of administration to teaching. I hope the Government will give some consideration to reducing the administrative burdens on schools. That will lower the cost of reducing class sizes.

I should like to concentrate on one point. The Government have claimed, somewhat imprudently, that almost the whole cost of reducing infant classes to 30 can be met by abolishing assisted places. The savings are calculated at £100 million by the year 2000, which will more than pay for the new teachers and classes required. That has been challenged from two sides--the cost of reducing class sizes to 30 will be greater than the Government expect, and savings from abolishing the

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assisted places scheme will be less. I want to concentrate on the savings aspect since that is crucial to the whole argument.

The Government's view is that there is a choice between assisting some 40,000 pupils to get a superior education and reducing class sizes for approximately 450,000 infant school pupils--a choice, as the Secretary of State said in another place,

    "between excellence for a few or high-quality education for the many".
The Minister echoed that idea today.

My contention is that this is a false choice; and the arithmetic bears me out. Indeed, it is worse than that. If the savings from abolishing the assisted places scheme are non-existent, or negligible, its abolition imposes two costs on society: reduction of choice and the lowering of educational quality for about 40,000 pupils. Those are two costs without any compensating advantages.

Having examined the figures, I believe that the Government's estimate of savings is wildly optimistic. Their calculation is as follows. The Government spend on average £3,900 for an assisted place. There are, or are shortly to be, 40,000 pupils with assisted places. Abolishing the assisted places scheme will therefore eventually save about £160 million a year. The Government expect that the annual saving will reach £100 million a year by the year 2000. That is expected to be the net annual saving, the amount that would be available for reducing infant class sizes in the maintained sector in three years' time.

The Government's view of the savings they will achieve seems to be based on the extraordinary proposition that 30,000 or so pupils who by the year 2000 would have been deprived of an assisted place through the run-down of the scheme will be accommodated almost costlessly within the state system. Why do they believe something so absurd? Apparently the Government believe that these extra pupils will take up spare places in the maintained schools, which will cost the state almost nothing. We have the airy statement by the Minister for school standards in the other place, Mr. Byers, that there are 800,000 empty places within the existing LEA provision, leaving ample scope for absorbing additional pupils. The Minister said today that she expected "no significant additional burden".

Noble Lords should recognise that the figures of vacancies are totally irrelevant to the problem of cost. Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. If school enrolment increases by 40,000, school budgets rise automatically in line with the standard cost per pupil in the relevant area. There is no mechanism for removing this extra cost. The extra children do not turn up at their school with a placard saying, "I would have had an assisted place, therefore you must take me at no extra cost to yourself". There is no way of identifying the source of extra numbers; schools simply budget for them whether or not they have spare capacity.

The only reputable way of calculating net saving is that adopted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in its recent analysis. It assumes that the net saving is the difference between the average annual cost of an assisted place, £3,900, and the average annual cost of a

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maintained place, £2,700, a difference of £1,200. On that basis, net annual saving by year three of the run-down is not £100 million but £28 million, compared with the cost of restricting infant classes to 30 in that year of £105 million. That leaves a funding gap of £77 million.

Even that may be too rosy a picture. In estimating net saving, what we need to know is not the difference between the average cost of an assisted place and a maintained place but the difference between the average cost of an assisted place and the actual cost of the maintained place equivalent. Many pupils with assisted places would actually cost the state more than £2,700 in the maintained sector. For example, 9,000 of the assisted places are in sixth forms, where the difference in cost between an assisted place and a maintained place is much less than £1,200. In addition, the standard spending assessment per pupil in some areas, particularly urban areas, is much higher than in others. Assisted places pupils drawn from such areas may cost the Government less now than their maintained sector counterparts.

And that is not all. The average cost given for a state school pupil omits capital grants, whereas the fees of independent schools cover most of their capital spending. In 1995 independent schools spent an average of £550 per pupil on new facilities. Per-pupil capital expenditure in the maintained sector may well be less on average--I do not have the figures--but any allowance made under this head would reduce the difference in cost, and thus net saving, even further.

There is, of course, one way in which the Government could squeeze extra savings from abolishing assisted places, and that is by reducing its spending per pupil, and thus increasing class sizes, in its secondary schools. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether that is in fact the Government's intention. If it is, it will certainly come as a great surprise to those who voted for the Labour Party in May.

What are we to conclude from all this? A reasonable view would be that the net savings from abolishing the assisted places scheme would be very low--at most, in the order of £20 million a year over the seven-year run-down--as against the cost of reducing infant class size of £70 million a year over the same period. These savings are chicken-feed to the dragons of rising public spending on education. The financial link between the two projects--the claim that they are alternatives--is largely spurious.

What is left, it seems to me, is simply an old-fashioned piece of class war. Mr. Gerald Kaufman asked in another place why parents in his constituency should subsidise assisted places for a few privileged children, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, made the same point in this debate. The fact is that over the country as a whole the subsidy is massively the other way. Fee-paying parents save the state about £2.5 billion a year, £1.25 billion that would otherwise be spent educating 600,000 children in state schools and an equivalent amount that independent-school parents pay in tax for state education which they do not use. Let us at any rate be clear about who is subsidising whom.

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I should like to conclude with a general observation. At present we have in this country a huge state education system which runs side by side with a very small independent sector. On the one side we have the planned provision of a standardised product; on the other side, variety, choice and a great deal of excellence. The Bill, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out, raises barriers between the two systems even higher than they are at the moment. But there is really no reason to continue this way. Education does not have to be centrally planned and publicly provided; it is so only because since the war governments have, through heavy taxes, prevented most parents buying the education they want for their children. I should like to see the private sector in education expand. That ought to be the goal of my party, which should also challenge the reformers in the Government. Stopping people getting what they want is a characteristic feature of the old state socialism; it is the reverse of what we on these Benches think about education; and I submit that it should have no place in the thinking of New Labour.

5.57 p.m.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, the Bill did not come as any surprise to those on this side of the House; it was indeed among the issues mentioned before the general election and when it came we were expecting it. But the extraordinary pronouncements, conduct and attitude of the Prime Minister which appeared to show that new Labour was not so very far away from the policies and thinking of the Conservative Party certainly do not stretch to this Bill. The Bill has caused us to revert to our opinion of the Labour Party as it was in the 1970s--that is, old Labour. This return to old Labour restores its position to what it was before 1979 by abolishing the assisted places scheme and restores its lack of any clear policy to improve teaching standards in maintained schools.

I agree with what my noble friend Lord Skidelsky said about the way that this so-called policy has not been thought out. We have seen over and over again that school standards are not radically altered by the number of children in a class but by the qualities of the teachers, especially those of the headteacher. While there are some excellent teachers and headteachers whose standing and abilities are effective in their schools, that position is by no means general. There will be little change in the quality of schools unless consideration is given to more than just the numbers in classrooms. From the speeches we have heard from the other side of the House and those made in another place, it seemed as though a magic wand would be waved to reduce the number of children in a class to under 30 and all would be well; the children would become brilliant, would pass their exams and become great academics or whatever one wished them to be. We know perfectly well that none of that is true.

So far there has been no guidance on those issues, no evidence of an intention to improve on inadequate teaching, no information about methods to be used to encourage teachers and headteachers to apply successful methods, leading to improvement. There has been practically no information on the Bill at all, even to

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those who are keen and interested to know what the intentions of the Government are. A White Paper has been promised, but when will it be produced? It was going to be in June. It would have been helpful to have had it before debating the Bill, not after. It is to be hoped that in future the Government, when they have got used to being in government, will seek to ensure that a White Paper is published before introducing the relevant Bill. When there is no White Paper, as in the present case, it leads to the belief, regrettably, that the Government are determined to abolish a system that they dislike because it is not in accordance with their principles. It has nothing to do with whether several thousand children have benefited from new opportunities to learn and study at a higher level than might otherwise have been the case. That is not the reason for this particular Bill.

Those children have mainly come from families with very low incomes. Over 40 per cent. of those families have a gross annual income of below £10,000. We have been into all the figures and it has been pointed out that at least 83 per cent. of the families do indeed have low incomes. Yet, over 90 per cent. of those children have achieved high grades in their GCSEs and A-levels, far more than the average of the maintained schools at the same ages. The denial of that opportunity to a broad selection of young children is based on the old Labour policy of central planning and equality at the lowest common level. We have been given no evidence that standards in schools are to be or can be raised, strengthening the abilities and skills of the young. Reduction in numbers will not have positive effects in schools without other improvements and changes as well.

There is also anxiety concerning the financial consequences of the Bill. Other noble Lords have also touched on that matter. It is stated that savings will be around £100 million by the year 2000. But that figure at least is surely controversial. The figures can only be estimated and not known. Consequently, they vary--estimates always vary. A departmental estimate in 1996 forecast that reducing class numbers for five, six and seven year-olds could cost between £120 million and £250 million, those estimated costs being for additional teachers only. So said Robin Squire, speaking in the other place on 28th October 1996. The Institute of Public Finance estimated that to phase out assisted places schemes could cause a deficit of up to £250 million.

I know that those are controversial figures and that they are estimates. But we must recognise that they are estimates which are given by highly reputable organisations. They must be taken into account when planning some particular future policy. As I said, all those figures are only estimates but it is evident that, if class sizes are cut to 30 pupils or below, the choice of school available to a parent will be more limited. By the generally agreed principle of supply and demand, it will be the unpopular school--that is, the less efficient school--which will have places to offer. That will be the problem. As the assisted places are phased out, those children will not have the opportunity to go into schools where the classes are few and smaller but will only have

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the opportunity to go to those schools which have been neglected or are not recognised as good schools in the general neighbourhood where the children live.

One important issue affecting about 1,700 children has also been raised. There are 2,000 children at present in assisted places in junior schools, who, under the Government's current proposals, will cease to benefit from that education at the age of 11. It is understood that the Government will use their discretion as to those children who might be allowed to stay on until the age of 13 in those areas where there are not local schools which terminate at 11, when the children go on to the next stage of their education.

But it is no consolation to parents, or indeed to the children, to know what is to happen to them or what discretion will be used by the relevant Minister. It is not a way to treat children who have been working hard at a high level to get on with their studies and with their life just to chuck them out on to a kind of dustheap and to be told, "We are not going to keep you in this kind of school any more. You will have to go back to whatever school is in your area." It will not be the best school--as I said, those are the schools in which numbers are going down--and the children will have a very hard time of it.

The relaxation by the Government, under heavy pressure, to enable 330 children to maintain their assisted places up to the age of 13, so enabling them to go straight on to their next school, is indeed to be welcomed. But it does not solve the problem of the other 1,700 or so children who will have to be removed from their preparatory schools at the age of 11. Some schools have offered assisted places to some of those young school children. It looks as though schools themselves are seeking to raise funding to meet the costs that are now government funded. Those schools will contribute to carrying on in new ways the assisted places schemes which are now being brought to an end. The right reverend Prelate in his speech clearly expressed concern over that particular action. In fact, it is a typical case of the Government withdrawing funds and it being left to individuals to seek out new ways of solving a major problem and dealing with it.

I am sure we shall find that schools will react. Certainly that applies to Manchester Grammar School. The Girls Public Day Schools--there are 25 of them in the south of England--intend to find ways of getting round that problem. That is to be warmly welcomed. The Government should be thankful that there are still people in this country with the courage and initiative to meet these problems and that when the Government make a mess of things there are individuals who can get round the difficulties and find new solutions.

But perhaps the Government may have coherent answers to some of the problems that have been raised so far in today's debate. We shall certainly look forward to the noble Baroness's reply when she comes to wind up the debate. If we do not hear the answers from her, we may perhaps find them in that mythical White Paper which may be published next month.

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6.6 p.m.

Lord Parry: My Lords, in the high summer of 1945, I left the training college where I had been prepared for teaching and went to teach in the public education system. Up to that date my preparation had been at the Neyland Board School, followed by two years at Trinity College, Carmarthen. Then I began to teach.

At that time, education in Britain was a patchwork. The type of education that you received depended on where you lived. It was a patchwork because not enough public money was devoted to it. In fact, only in certain areas were sufficient sums of money available to provide a decent education for those who could not afford to pay for it themselves. That is an issue that has been stated time and again. In this country there are a great many such people. The right reverend Prelate is not in his seat, so I cannot refer to what he said, but he was wrong. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, has put on this education debate an influence which is all his own. It ignores the fact that there are still thousands of families in this country who, even when they want to do so, cannot afford to educate their children. The system has to be rearranged and has to provide for those people.

In the past couple of days I have shown your Lordships the national newspaper of Wales. This debate applies to Wales. The noble Lord who used to be Secretary of State for Scotland, when the Conservative Party had Secretaries of State for Scotland, has told the Chamber that this Bill applies to Scotland, as it does to Wales. The headline in today's national newspaper of Wales is:

    "Classrooms in chaos fear as teachers quit".
The text goes on to sketch out the fact that the people who would normally have gone into teaching under the old system no longer see teaching as an attractive profession. There are great difficulties in the education system in Britain, which we forget when we boast of what we have contributed to it. The newspaper isolates the point that I would have made in response to the right reverend Prelate; namely, that if people do not go in for teaching, class sizes will be again radically altered. It is vitally important that the kind of financial contribution that this Bill seeks to make is made available to general education rather than to privileged education.

I am in no sense speaking the politics of envy. In my 32 years as a teacher, in the 20 years that my daughter has been teaching and in the time that my wife was ancillary to the teaching service, we have indeed been into the classrooms and seen the children. We know the advantages and the disadvantages that accrue to so many children in our classrooms in Britain today.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Blackstone both on her elevation to the Front Bench and on the precise and concise way in which she presented the Bill. Many of the misunderstandings which are alleged to have arisen and many of the challenges that have been made to the Bill ignore the very points that my noble friend systematically made in her presentation. For example, I was astonished to hear the noble Lord, Lord Henley--again not in his place--make the charge that this was a mean-spirited Bill and that it represented only broken promises to the 11 year-olds when my noble friend had specifically outlined the provisions that will be made.

24 Jun 1997 : Column 1514

I forgot to say that, as well as being an old teacher, I am also Old Labour. In 1945 I joined the Labour Party. I am amazed that tonight the only references to the Labour councils of the past were so dismissive of everything that was done from 1945 on an impulse generated in radical liberalism which was, incidentally, fought, in Wales at any rate, by the High Church. Then, after the coalition presentation of the 1945 Act, we had a reconstruction of religious education. I wonder how many noble Lords who make the plea for the privatisation of education themselves benefited from the public education system. Certainly there are hundreds and thousands of people in this country who would not have attained the standards that they did if it had not been for Old Labour councillors--under-educated themselves but of brilliant intelligence--devoting their energy and morality to creating a system better than the one under which Labour had grown up. For instance, the University of Wales in Aberystwyth was funded by the pennies of the miners when their wages were derisory.

I was immensely impressed, and am glad I can be positive in this, by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I can support much of what he said. I believe that one of the areas that we have not really looked into in public education is the boarding system. There are great advantages that can be found in education in residential schools properly run. But first we must fund the provision for the general schools. One must make certain that those children who attend them are properly educated, and that comes back to these simple facts.

Every piece of research that has been conducted into education in my lifetime has proved that the major influences on the education of a child are, first, the attitude of his home to the school in which he is taught; secondly, the quality of the teacher; and, thirdly, the amount of time that the good teacher can devote to the children in his or her care.

When my daughter began teaching in Pembrokeshire--not a bad area--an education system that won plaudits from all around, she found herself in her first years teaching in the school hall that was also the dining hall. She had 32 children--infants in the admission class--to teach under those conditions and every day her day was shortened by the necessity of putting up the tables for lunch. When one sees that type of education, how can one blame teachers? For 22 years in this House, every time someone criticised the teacher and blamed the ills in education on the teacher, I stood here and disavowed it. Far too often the House was turned into a place which challenged the standards of the teachers rather than the system under which those teachers taught.

In the article from which I quoted there is enough evidence to say: let us pass this Bill; let us pass it quickly. We have already been told that it is only one plank in a programme to which my party, new and old, is committed. We are going to drive it through and that is not in any sense out of envy; it is because we want the same opportunities for all the children that some of your Lordships have enjoyed.

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6.15 p.m.

Lord Butterfield: My Lords, I speak from this side of the House but, first, I heartily congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, on her promotion. It is good to find someone who has tertiary education responsibilities having so much influence in educational affairs. I am sure that there will be some fencing, but in general we shall be wearing masks.

I begin by saying that I regret that the opportunity was not taken by the Government in the Bill to build on the assisted places scheme in an upwards direction. The noble Lord, Lord Parry, touched my heart because one of my names is Hughes and I therefore have some Welsh genes. I understand what he says in relation to the differences that exist in different parts of the country. But it does not seem to me that we have given enough attention to the scheme. I understand that 46 per cent. of those on assisted places are from poorer families. I am not sure that that 46 per cent. should be sacrificed, as it seems they are going to be.

I hope it is acceptable if an old educationalist, as I like to believe I am, says that my philosophy is that if the quality of the pastures is different in different parts of the field--education is different in different parts of the country--I am not convinced that the right thing to do is to put up a barrier so that people cannot go where education is good. That is the sort of philosophy that lies behind the Bill we are considering.

I appreciated the speeches made at Second Reading in another place. I was impressed by some of the remarks made by the Secretary of State. All of us must admire him for his courage and fortitude. I have certainly enjoyed entertaining him to lunch in the past to talk over the whole question of trying to help the people's health generally by health promotion. However, I was distressed--bearing in mind my philosophy--when he said that we have a choice between excellence for the few and high quality education for the many. My feeling is that we should be trying to help the many obtain the excellence that is apparently available to the few.

It is important to realise that widening opportunity should be a general feeling in the country. That does not necessarily mean that we should take a few thousand children who are on assisted places schemes and dispose of them in favour of the many because, according to the Secretary of State, it will be a good thing--for individuals, for social cohesion and for the economy--to get rid of those places. I find that a very bitter pill to swallow. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, has dealt with an aspect I wish to address. I am not convinced that it will have an immediate effect on class size. Long ago--not as long ago as the time referred to by the former Secretary of State for Scotland--I was Vice-Chancellor at Nottingham. One of the things we were always considering there, because it mattered to us, was population change. As I understand it, the population of young people is in decline. The number of births over the last five years has fallen by 7 or 8 per cent. If those figures are projected into the future--bearing in mind the concern that we all have regarding births to teenaged children--the chances are that the number of children

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coming into primary education will decline. I may be wrong, but that is my interpretation of the tables on population trends I have seen. I am not sure, therefore, that it is such a good argument to put forward at this time.

Mr. Don Foster, speaking for the Liberal Democrats in another place, said he wanted to get rid of the scheme because it was centrally controlled. I understand that, I suppose. But he also felt that it was encouraging independent schools to raise their fees so that they could get more money from the Government through assisted places. I find that a rather tortuous argument.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard said that the Bill was driven by dogma. The dictionary definition of dogma is "a way of thinking not based on or tested by reflection". This debate gives us the opportunity for such reflection. The important thing is that we do not seem to be paying very much attention to the competitive aspects of achieving an assisted place, or indeed to the competitiveness we need in the country and which we need to accept into our educational system. Nor is there any recognition of the confidence that a scholarship gives to those who achieve one, or any appreciation of the satisfaction that a scholarship in the family gives to parents. As chairman of the united medical and dental schools of St. Thomas's and Guy's Hospital, I saw many people of non-British ethnicity who had managed to get their children into those medical schools and see them qualify. It was obvious that involving themselves in competition had given them pleasure.

I have also been busy for the last 12 or 13 years giving scholarships to people from Hong Kong and Tokyo as well as from this country. We should not underestimate the effect on young people of success in a scholarship scheme. I have to declare a bias. When my father's business in Stechford ran into difficulties during the great depression I was very fortunate to be supported by a scholarship at secondary school, at medical school and also in order to go to the US.

I acknowledge all of that, but I remain concerned that only yesterday our Prime Minister drew attention to the need to protect the atmosphere by reducing levels of CO 2 and other gases, not least, he said, because of the future of our children. I certainly concur with that and admire his courage in standing up for what we heard in the Statement today. But there is another serious threat which we must not neglect. Having grandchildren, I am concerned not only about the environment but about our standard of living as we go into the next century.

I refer to the splendid speeches made in this House only a week ago about competitiveness in British industry. We all realise how important it is to face the competition which is growing in the East. Competitiveness is extremely important to our industry. Standing on the other side of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, conducted a splendid review of what we need in terms of competitiveness in this country. It is not simply productive competitiveness in selling our cars, our shoes, our clothes and so on. Design is very important. I believe that we must add to the case for education the recognition and encouragement, not only of aptitude but of competition, which is definitely a very important spur.

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I am coming to the view that competition is an invaluable yardstick for our choice of policies as we move forward. I do not mean bruising competition. I recall, when a professor at Guy's, the nurse tutors saying that the girls who were trying to achieve high marks and win prizes in their examinations were not necessarily the good nurses. The need was for caring nurses. I concede that completely, but I fear that we must face competition.

I am concerned that we in this country are moving into the circle of saying what people like to hear and then giving it to them but not appreciating that we also have to think as well as do service to people's attitudes. I believe that in future consideration of our policies and in the coming century it will be very important to encourage a competitive attitude. That is why I regret the tone of the Bill.

6.28 p.m.

Viscount Hampden: My Lords, I begin with a confession. I hope when I have finished my brief intervention your Lordships will not say, "Thank goodness for that!".

My confession is that I have not spoken in your Lordships' House in an education debate since July 1979, when I supported the noble Baroness, Lady Young, when she introduced her education Bill, which I remember was vehemently opposed by the noble Baroness, Lady David. I remember being saddened that day on hearing so many Peers on the Labour Benches say how grateful they were for their own grammar school education but how determined they were to stop anyone else having a similar education. Having listened to some of the speeches from this side of the House this afternoon, I am not sure that anything much has changed.

It was with some trepidation that I intervened in 1979. I have the same trepidation again. I am not an educationist and I am not involved in local government but, like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I have for over 30 years been involved as a governor of a school. The school was founded by my family over 400 years ago and is situated in Battersea. In 1979 we had just changed from being a grammar school, forced out by the then government's education policy, and had become an independent school. We were very much looking forward to involving ourselves with the assisted places which were about to be introduced.

In the past 18 years we have had many assisted places pupils going through our school. In fact we are probably one of the bigger users of the scheme. The idea that it is some kind of middle-class scam where people who have been clever enough kid the headmaster that they depend on the income to get their boys, and now girls, into the school is nonsense. When I said to the headmaster, "It looks as if the Labour Party is going to win the election. Will all our assisted places pupils' parents suddenly find that they have a grandmother who has a little nest egg?", he assured me that that was not so and that every single case was genuine.

Emanuel School is not a high-flying school. It is very much a community school which tries to provide a well rounded education, both academically and sportingly,

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and contributes to the community of Battersea. That was no better exemplified than when the terrible train crash outside Clapham Junction eight or nine years ago caused the school to be the centre for the rescue operations. The then government appreciated the efforts the school had made. This was demonstrated by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who was then the Home Office Minister, coming down to a very moving memorial service which was attended by the widow of the train driver who was killed and by the widow of one of the passengers who was killed. The noble Earl expressed appreciation of what the school had done.

This is the kind of school that the Government should be helping, not hindering. I know that it is not the custom in your Lordships' House to oppose a Second Reading. I also appreciate the convention that this was well signalled in the Labour Party's manifesto and the fact that the Official Opposition will not be opposing the Bill. However, I feel that it is a very poor start for this new Government. To be in opposition for 18 years, win an election with a thumping majority and then start off with this mean little Bill is a very bad start.

6.31 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, I too should like to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, in conducting her first education Bill through the House and to say that in the higher education sector at least there is great rejoicing that we have someone making policy who knows about the sector.

I find it rather difficult to speak against any measure which attempts to find money to help children in the early years. It is quite obvious from what other noble Lords have said that they too have been seduced by the strength of the argument to improve the ratio in class sizes in the early years into feeling supportive towards the Bill. However, I feel it is quite meretricious to present the Bill as something which is about reducing class sizes for the early years when it is not. The Bill is about attacking the assisted places scheme and as such it must be judged.

Of course we all want to see class sizes reduced. Class sizes are very important in the early years, although I think that their importance is very much exaggerated for older children. I have no intention now of repeating the many arguments which have been made for the value and strength of the assisted places scheme itself. However, I must say that I am very sad at the opportunities which some children will lose because of the abolition of the scheme, most particularly those whose older siblings have benefited from the scheme and who themselves hoped and expected that they too would be fortunate enough to follow.

I should like to remind the House that the Minister's arguments about the number of middle-class parents who were involved were for me very unpersuasive. The professional classes of my experience are not particularly wealthy and quite often the professional classes who are supporting two and three children find themselves, particularly where they are in one-parent families because of separation, divorce or widowhood,

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extremely strapped for cash. It has made a great difference to them to be able to get assisted places for their children.

I am also sad at the impact that the removal of the scheme will have on some of the independent schools themselves. As other noble Lords have said, it is very good for the independent sector to have a social and financial mix in their pupil populations. I would feel that we had lost something very valuable if the independent sector were to return to the days when only those who could afford to pay were able to send their children to independent schools. I know that the independent schools themselves will make great efforts to continue, through scholarships and so on, to provide opportunities. Nevertheless, there is bound to be a reduction in the number of children, particularly those from lower economic and financial backgrounds and from the very deprived personal backgrounds who have been the main beneficiaries, on anyone's analysis, of the scheme. I think particularly that it will hit some of the very good girls schools, which always find it harder to attract endowment money and therefore may be the most affected by this rather unfortunate measure.

Other noble Lords have made excellent points about the strength of the scheme. Therefore, I should like to make just two or three points which are particularly addressed to the argument relating to the reduction in class sizes for the early years. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will make it clear to anxious parents who have been whipped up by the media that reducing class sizes is not very easy. It is not simply a matter of producing a little money out of a hat and, hey presto, next year all the class sizes will be below 30. That is true for many reasons.

First, the LEAs now make many of the decisions about the way in which money is spent. I note that the Minister said that she intended to hold discussions with the LEAs about how they would reduce class sizes with the rather small sum of money that they are to be given. Nevertheless, I worry very much whether she has in fact from the Department of Education and Employment the authority to tell LEAs what they are to do, particularly as, if we continue the argument, the next stage is that the schools themselves have the final choice as to what they will do with the resources given to them.

As my noble friend Lord Skidelsky made dramatically clear, schools with quite low ratios of pupils to teacher can nevertheless decide whether they teach in large classes or in small classes or whether in fact, as many of them do, they divide the day up into periods of larger-class teaching and then smaller groups working with classroom auxiliaries on particular aspects of the curriculum. In fact there is already a ratio between pupils and teacher which is adequate to allow schools to teach in quite small classes--well below 30--if they so choose. I do not think that one or two extra teachers in a few schools will make a great deal of difference to the way in which schools organise themselves. I should be interested to know from the Minister how she intends to follow through this strange conundrum of intervening at the level of the schools' decisions as to what they do with resources.

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The second reason is that five and six year-olds do not come in neat packages of 29, 28 or 27. They come in all kinds of different packages year on year. In the case of a very small infants school in a village which is relatively isolated, I should be interested to know what the Government propose they would do if in one unfortunate year that infants school in the isolated village found itself with a class of 32. Would they then take three children and bus them down the road to the nearest village, which I suggest would be extremely unfortunate for the three who were kicked out, or would they ask the school to invest the huge sum of money needed to bring in an extra teacher and provide an extra classroom in order to divide those 32 children into two classes of 16, so that they could somehow magically deliver their promise of having classes under 30? It is not simple. I hope that that honest truth is conveyed to the parents and the anxious public of this country.

Another matter in the noble Baroness's opening statement worried me even more. I feel very anxious about what she said as regards putting pupils who would putatively be recipients of assisted places into the surplus places of the maintained sector without any additional cost. My noble friend Lord Skidelsky suggested that that would be impossible. Certainly, under existing legislation it would be impossible. My fear is that perhaps there is some proposal to turn back from the principle that the money follows the child and that in future we shall have new legislation which will somehow say that the surplus places are no longer to be funded, but to be filled up to a certain level without any additional money.

That is a very worrying thought. I would hate to be the head of a school which was suddenly made to take five extra children and was told, "After all, we know that you haven't got any surplus places, my love, but down the road there are 25 such places, so I'm afraid that there isn't any funding for them and they are coming to your school now". Somehow they are fitted in, but however it is done and in whatever way those surplus places are distributed for the additional pupils without the assisted places scheme in independent schools, it would mean that in the state sector the overall unit of funding per pupil would have to go down. There would be less money spent per pupil because, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is absolutely no such thing as a free place. Anyone who has ever run a school or an institution can tell you that.

My last point is this. I was very privileged to be one of Her Majesty's Inspectors for 17 years of my life and to share with schools and colleges their daily work. Very often nowadays we hear far too much about a tiny minority of schools and teachers who are failing. In parenthesis, I believe most teachers now feel that although the press in the past chastised them with whips, New Labour appears to be outdoing itself in chastising them with scorpions. Hardly a day goes by without hearing of yet more schools failing and that there are more bad teachers around. That does not do much to make the good teachers feel cheerful.

However, my point is this. In those years I visited many hundreds of schools in both the independent and the state sectors. I can say without any doubt that the

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majority of the schools were good and a substantial minority were excellent. Some were poor but there was absolutely no correlation with where the good, bad or excellent schools were to be found. Some were in the state sector and others in the independent sector. Although I have fought throughout my professional career against the idea that independent schools were necessarily always good and state schools were necessarily always inferior, I wish to say very strongly that I hope we shall get away from the idea that somehow independent schools are there to be raided for a bit of extra money if it is needed or they are somehow socially divisive and therefore a bad thing in themselves.

There is excellence in the state sector and also in the independent sector. Some of the excellence in the latter is of world-class quality. It seems to me that any responsible government would wish to ensure that it is excellence which is promoted wherever it is to be found and that bright children should have access to the excellence of the independent sector regardless of their parents' ability to pay.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, several noble Lords have congratulated the noble Baroness Lady Blackstone on her accession to office. On the contrary, I feel obliged to offer her my commiseration. After all, here is someone who has built up a justified reputation in the education world--with a very firm foundation in a grammar school, which is not the kind of school favoured by her party--and the London School of Economics, which, prior to the foundation of the University of Buckingham, was the last university institution to be founded wholly by private enterprise. Yet here is the noble Baroness obliged to begin her tenure of office by introducing this pitiful little Bill.

It could be called an anti-education Bill. But it is not a consolation to be told that it is only the beginning of a whole series of further measures which we are to hear about in the promised White Paper because one wonders if the philosophy which underlies this Bill will be the philosophy of the other measures which we are to expect.

I believe that expectations were raised by Mr. Tony Blair during his election campaign when he constantly stressed this aspect of policy. One may remember him going around repeating the mantra, "Education, education, education". That reminds me very much of something I learnt about his late Majesty, King Charles II. On the ship returning him from exile he was asked by one of his courtiers what would be the watchword of the new reign. "Alistair, my boy," he said, "it is obvious--chastity, chastity, chastity". So mantras do not always tell one a great deal.

But what has impressed me in this debate is something which was most clearly enunciated by the right reverend Prelate--that is to say, that there is a direct connection between the assisted places scheme and the abolition of the direct grant schools and that they in turn rest on a long tradition of founding schools in which the Church of the right reverend Prelate initially played the major role; namely, that independent

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education in this country, both for those who were to become the ruling or administrative class and for many others, existed long before there was a state system. The state system is a relatively recent accretion to the British educational system and all proposals for change might well take that into account.

I speak with particular concern on this matter. Although I am not a member of the right reverend Prelate's Church I enjoyed the fruits of the work of one of its great figures in the Renaissance period, Dean Colet. It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, is not in his place because I could point out that his school in Glasgow might have produced quite good generals: we produced, inter alia, Marlborough and Monty. Those who have appreciated the fact that they are enjoying something which goes back to thinking about education centuries ago must have some concern about what is the apparent philosophy of noble Lords opposite. I believe it was the noble Baroness Lady Lockwood who said that we are engaged in a controversy about the philosophy of education. While agreeing with her, I am not sure that I would define the difference in that way. There is no contradiction in the idea that there is an ineluctable contest between the education of an entire younger population up to their maximum and the selection and training of people of outstanding ability, but the contradiction clearly exists in the minds of Her Majesty's present Ministers as evinced by this Bill.

A good deal has been said about the disappointment of individual children whose careers may be cut off or the disappointment of parents who may suddenly find themselves unable to continue the education of their children in the way that they had hoped. As noble Lords will be aware, I am not a sentimental person. I do not go in for that kind of thing. I look at it entirely cold-bloodedly from the point of view of the national interest. It is in the national interest that wherever outstanding talent exists in any field the use of it for the nation's benefit, whether it be in commerce, administration or on the battlefield, should not be curtailed by the lack of funds in the particular child's family. That seems to me to be essential. But, in order to bring that about, one needs a great variety of schools, because there are different forms of excellence. One needs boarding schools as well as day schools. One needs a whole gamut of educational provision. What depresses me about the philosophy (if I may call it that) of the noble Lords opposite is that it is based on the belief that the nation's interests can be served within a system of only one kind of school. I believe that it cannot be done, and no serious country believes that it can be done or proceeds along those lines.

Since my noble friend Lord Skidelsky and others have demolished any argument that a serious financial contribution to the general education system will be made by this Bill--it appears to me that numeracy standards should be looked at in Her Majesty's Government before they are looked at in the population at large, but that is by the way--it seems to me that there is nothing to this Bill except a gesture against the notion of selection, the notion of differentiated schools, the notion that there is a national interest above the

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interest of any child, family or school and that that should be at the heart of education policy. I hope that one day it will be again.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, no Bill can have been more widely expected than this. Since its introduction in 1981 the assisted places scheme has been consistently opposed by the Labour Party. This year's manifesto spelt out the abolition of the assisted places scheme and the intention to use the funds to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year olds. This commitment was one of the five key pledges made by the Prime Minister to the electorate. No doubt it played its part in the victory on 1st May.

The noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky, Lord Henley and Lord Tope, and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, have questioned the financial calculations that make that pledge. I have read the paper to which they referred and listened to the arguments made by my noble friend the Minister. I am not sufficiently expert to be aware of the merits of the argument. However, there are two matters on which I am clear. First, the abolition of this scheme will release substantial sums for the DfEE to spend as it sees fit. Secondly, it was one of the five key pledges that class sizes would be reduced to 30. I have no doubt that that key pledge will be met.

For the record, the argument against the assisted places scheme is one of fairness. We believe it is fairer that 440,000 five, six and seven year-olds should have their class sizes reduced to 30 or less than that just 38,000 schoolchildren should be selected to attend independent schools. Irrespective of the use to which the money is put, no government should subsidise the independent sector at the expense of the children who are directly in their care. I believe that it was a tacit admission of failure by the previous government that they did not believe the state sector could offer high standards to all those for whom it was responsible.

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