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Education (Schools) Bill

3.36 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Abolition of assisted places scheme in England and Wales]:

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 1:


Page 1, line 20, leave out ("1996-97") and insert ("1999-2000").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 1 I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 12, 16, 21, 22, 24 to 26 and 28. As noble Lords heard at Second Reading and as they will know from reading the

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Bill, this legislation has two primary purposes. The first, set out in the body of the Bill, is the abolition of the assisted places scheme. Although that was part of the Government's manifesto, we believe it to be a nasty little measure based on meanness and envy. The second purpose of the Bill is set out in the explanatory and financial memorandum: it is not dealt with elsewhere in the Bill. The explanatory and financial memorandum states that the Bill's provisions will lead to savings to be spent on reducing infant class sizes in the maintained sector and that those savings will be realised from the 1998-99 financial year onwards.

All parts of the Committee will accept that that is a perfectly admirable aim to pursue, so long as one does not become over-obsessive about the question of class sizes. There are many other measures that are equally important in terms of raising standards in schools, for example, whole class teaching and other ideas which have now been embraced by the new Government. We welcome that Damascene conversion to such methods of teaching. However, because the Bill encompasses the abolition of assisted places and the reduction of class sizes by using the resultant savings it is important that we should explore those issues. The Government have to explain just how the savings will be made and exactly what they amount to. That is the purpose of the amendments.

I assure the noble Baroness that at this stage I have no intention of pressing this particular group of amendments. The noble Baroness would be very near to being right in saying, if I wished to press the amendments, that they were wrecking amendments and would delay the purposes of the Bill for some two years. At this stage I seek further explanation of what the savings will be and how they will be made. Obviously, the Minister's answers will very much influence the decisions that we must take at later stages in the passage of the Bill through the House.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Skidelsky is unable to be here today. He sends his apologies. Sadly, he is in Cambridge, not in Hyde Park as some of us were this morning. Noble Lords who attended the Second Reading debate or who have read the report of it will be aware that my noble friend made a very powerful case on the very question of the costs and savings. Quite clearly and very simply, he rejected the claims of the Government that additional pupils could be accommodated at no extra cost to the Government.

At Second Reading the noble Baroness rightly claimed that the reduction in the number of pupils taking up offers under the assisted places scheme, and therefore the small increase in numbers going into the maintained sector, would place no extra burden on the maintained sector. Noble Lords were informed that there were some 800,000 surplus places and that the absorption of the small number of extra pupils would not place any burden on the maintained sector. However, as my noble friend correctly pointed out, the figure of 800,000 surplus places is simply irrelevant to the arguments that we have to address today. As my noble friend said--and it is important for the Committee to remember this--schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. Therefore, we have to recognise that much of the cost allegedly

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saved by pupils no longer being able to go into the assisted places scheme would not be clawed back. As my noble friend said, the average cost of an assisted place is some £3,900 and the average cost of a maintained place is about £2,700. That cost is a very real one because, as was mentioned at the time, schools are funded on a per-pupil basis.

If we take those crude figures as they are, we see that the difference between the two is some £1,200. As my noble friend put it, if one takes that net saving of £1,200 and multiples it by the number of pupils who would no longer be eligible for the assisted places scheme, by the end of the third year we have savings merely of some £28 million. That is way, way short of the £100 million that the noble Baroness and her right honourable and honourable friends have been quoting in another place and simply does not provide enough money to pay for the reduction in class sizes that is claimed to be one of the Bill's purposes.

In using those figures, my noble friend was painting what amounts to, as he put it, a particularly rosy picture from the Government's point of view. My noble friend very sensibly pointed out that no account had been taken of the fact that 9,000 assisted places are in sixth forms where, obviously, the costs are somewhat greater; in other words, the saving is somewhat smaller. Moreover, no account is taken of the capital costs of the pupils in the assisted places scheme. The capital costs for the independent sector must come out of the £3,900 figure relating to the average cost of an assisted place that I quoted. I can tell the noble Baroness that, on average, the independent sector estimates that it spends something in the order of £550 per pupil. Again, that is a figure which would be taken off the net savings that I quoted of £1,200 which brings down the £28 million probably by a matter of some 50 per cent., leaving it at a mere £14 million.

To be fair, since Second Reading the noble Baroness has written to my noble friend and copied the letter to me. In that letter of 3rd July she makes further claims about where the savings would come from. Perhaps I may refer to some extracts. The noble Baroness maintains that many of the pupils will stay on anyway in the independent schools and that those schools are confident that they will be able to fill the places previously occupied by pupils on the assisted places scheme with fee paying pupils. In other words, the noble Baroness is saying that they will get the savings and will do so by imposing the cost on the independent sector--a cost that was borne by the state.

The noble Baroness further claims that if phasing out the assisted places scheme does lead to a marginal increase in the number of pupils in the maintained sector, that increase is certain to be less than the number of surplus places in each and every LEA across the country. She says that LEAs, with the notice that they have, should have the ability to make appropriate arrangements to accommodate any additional pupils. In other words, the Minister has not moved any further from her original position; namely, that there are 800,000 surplus places and, therefore, the pupils can be absorbed at, as she puts it, "no extra cost".

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This group of amendments covers not only England. As the noble Baroness will notice, it also covers Scotland. I have tabled amendments to Clause 5. It seems that the position in Scotland is somewhat different. A very similar scheme exists there, but obviously a different Minister--a Scottish Minister--deals with it. We have heard from Mr. Brian Wilson; indeed, I have an exclusive article from the Scotsman, although I regret to say that I have forgotten its date. However, Mr. Wilson has made remarks to the effect that it will not be possible to restrict primary classes to 30 and that there will not be sufficient money from the abolition of the scheme in Scotland to cover the extra costs of reducing class sizes. When the Minister comes to reply--no doubt some of my noble friends will wish to pass some comments--I hope that she will comment on what her honourable friend in the Scottish Office has been saying in Scotland about the effect of the abolition of the assisted places scheme and how that sacrifice fails to cut class sizes.

I have one further point to make. The Bill is designed not only to abolish the assisted places scheme but also to reduce class sizes. Obviously, if one wishes to reduce class sizes, it is most important to have sufficient teachers so to do. Indeed, one cannot reduce class sizes unless there are sufficient teachers. We heard only recently that there are some fairly major problems with teacher recruitment. Therefore, can the Minister say how many new teachers will be required to reduce class sizes in the three years that the Government are talking about for children aged five, six and seven? Can she also tell the Committee what are the current shortfalls in recruitment? Moreover, if there are such shortfalls, where are we to find the extra teachers, not only for reducing class sizes in primary schools but also for the other areas where there are shortages?

I hope very much that the Minister will be able to give us slightly more satisfactory answers on the issue of savings than we received either on Second Reading or in subsequent correspondence. Alternatively, perhaps the noble Baroness will give us the answers to questions raised by my right honourable and honourable friends in another place. As I said, I have no intention at this stage of pressing this group of amendments. However, the answers that the Minister gives will certainly influence our decisions about how we take these matters forward at later stages. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy: I wish to speak to Amendment No. 22, which is one of those now being discussed as it forms part of the grouping. That amendment to Clause 5, which deals with Scotland, would have a similar effect to Amendment No. 1; that is to say, postponement. There are especially cogent reasons for postponement in Scotland. On Second Reading, the noble Baroness told us that there would be a White Paper early in July. Indeed, on 7th July the White Paper was published and the noble Baroness repeated a Statement on it which was made in another place.

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There was much advance publicity for the White Paper in the press and the impression was given that it would apply to the whole of Britain. I managed to obtain a copy just before the noble Baroness repeated the Statement. I could see at a glance that there was nothing in the White Paper--or, indeed, in the Statement--which had anything to do with Scotland. In fact, it is confined to England or to England and Wales. I asked the noble Baroness whether a White Paper for Scotland would be issued and when. She kindly said that she would write to me on the matter. That was only three days ago, so I am not complaining that I have not yet received her letter. However, the same day, the junior Minister at the Scottish Office dealing with education, the honourable gentleman Mr. Brian Wilson, gave a press conference lasting 45 minutes at the same time as the White Paper was published.

On Second Reading, the Minister told us that the White Paper was to be published and described it as a wide-ranging document. She said that there would be plenty of time to debate it. Not, apparently, in Scotland, and for Scottish parliamentarians. It did not range wide enough even to touch on Scotland. On Tuesday, headlines in the Scottish press ran, "Scotland's schools miss out", and:


    "Better schools for all, apart from Scotland".

I was not the only person to feel that that had not been well handled.

Apparently no White Paper or document for discussion will appear in Scotland in the foreseeable future. A press conference is not equivalent to a public parliamentary document. It is totally inadequate. I am sure that my noble friends feel the same about it.

A further reason why postponement in Scotland is even more necessary is that, when the Bill was published, a press notice issued on 23rd May by the Department for Education and Employment stated that savings would amount to some £100 million by 2000. That was repeated by the Minister on Second Reading. Did that figure include Scotland? No one seems to know. I hope that we shall receive an answer today.

It is important to know, because of a decision reported in the Scottish press and referred to by my noble friend Lord Henley. I can give him the date. It was 2nd July--Wednesday of last week. Again, the report was that Scottish Office Ministers had stated that not enough money would be raised in Scotland from scrapping the assisted places scheme to enable the manifesto commitment to reduce primary school classes to be carried out. The headline in The Scotsman read:


    "Assisted place sacrifice fails to cut classes".

The word "sacrifice" is significant. The assisted places scheme is widely well regarded in Scotland. Will a Minister confirm or comment on the point? I hope that the noble Baroness will today, because I do not see the Scottish Office Minister here. If reports are correct, then that is a cogent argument for at least postponing the

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proposals for Scotland. Indeed, during the pause, it might be found that the best course would be to keep the assisted places for Scotland after all.


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