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Baroness Blackstone: I have just addressed the issue. The noble Lord may not agree with my interpretation of what Mr. Kilfoyle said in his letter. I am very sorry if he disagrees with it; but I have addressed the issue. The phasing out of the scheme must not take any longer than it has to. By putting provisions in the Bill to extend

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support as of right, the overall time frame and the cost of phasing out the scheme will be increased. We said that it will provide for the scheme to be wound up in seven years. That is a generous time frame in view of our very long-standing objections to the scheme and the scheme's very doubtful merits. Any prolonging of the phasing out of the scheme would affect delivery on our commitment to reduce infant class sizes by the end of this Parliament. I have to reiterate that we have a commitment to the electorate that we want to honour. I sincerely hope that I have given the noble Lord, Lord Tope, sufficient assurance that he will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: Before the Minister sits down, may I say that we have listened with great care to a lengthy explanation. But her speech can be simply summarised in these words: "Yes, I agree that during the course of the election campaign the Shadow Minister for schools, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, gave a specific pledge. Yes, I agree we are breaking it now for the reasons that I have given".

Baroness Blackstone: No. I quoted earlier from Mr. Kilfoyle's letter where he said

    "much will obviously depend on the school to which the child has been admitted."

I believe that Members of the Committee opposite are reading too much into this pledge, or promise as they describe it. We are extremely concerned that the right thing is done by children in preparatory schools. We believe that the right thing for these children is to transfer into state secondary schools at the time when all other children are transferring to them. If they are to stay in preparatory schools until the age of 13, there will be a problem if the parents wish to have a full choice of which secondary school to send their child. There will be a problem for the child in trying to catch up with the state school curriculum and to be fully integrated into it. There will be a problem for the child in terms of forming friendships since all the other children in the state secondary school will have entered it.

Lord Henley: But--

Baroness Blackstone: I am sorry, but I shall not give way. The noble Lord must allow me to try to answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and to finish what I am saying. When making such a change to educational legislation, it is important to take into consideration the interests of the children. In deciding that this is the right way to operate the scheme and in fulfilling what we clearly said in our manifesto, we are trying to take into account the needs of children. I repeat that it seems to me that if noble Lords opposite think that all children should be able to stay in prep school until the age of 13 they must then have in mind a wish to provide a bridge into private, independent secondary schools; otherwise they would be more willing to concede that it makes much more sense for those children to transfer at the same time as those who are transferring in the state system.

Baroness Young: I am very disappointed by the Minister's reply. I am sure that she will read carefully

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in Hansard what she said, as we all will. I am bound to say that I was very surprised by the arguments that she adduced because I did not feel that they in any way answered the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. As the noble Baroness rightly said, parents mind very much about the education of their children. The fact is that if you are a parent and you receive a letter like that from Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, who at that time was the shadow Minister for schools, you will write to try to find out the Government's view. The parents then received a letter back and assumed that it was correct. A normal parent would draw the assumption that the child could automatically have remained at that school until the age of 13. However, they now find that that may not be the case. Of course, the parents might decide in any event that they would prefer their child to leave that school at the age of 11, but that is not the point. All the reasons which the noble Baroness gave are perfectly good reasons. Most children do transfer at the age of 11 and if they do not they may indeed have difficulty in making friends and may not be with their age group, but that is irrelevant to the issue at point.

It is a very serious charge to say that the Government have genuinely misled many parents. We now find a completely different situation. Although the noble Baroness has given an enormous number of circumstances, the situation is not the same as she described on Second Reading, although I concede that she would not then have had the time to say all that. On Second Reading she seemed to suggest that extending the scheme, as Mr. Peter Kilfoyle suggested that it could be extended, would be open to abuse. That certainly was not in his letter and I think that it is a terrible reflection on the parents and the school.

I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is going to do, but this is a very serious matter to which I am sure that he will return at a later stage. Indeed, we should all return to it. It is most regrettable that parents have been completely misled. Furthermore--I am surprised to have to say this--I do not think that the noble Baroness has been helpful to the Committee in dealing with the issue.

Baroness Blackstone: I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, feels like that. I have been doing my utmost to be as helpful as I possibly can. I have tried to set out the position clearly and at some length. I could not develop this in the Second Reading debate although I spent quite some time during my wind-up speech doing the best that I could to answer all the questions that had been put. Perhaps I may repeat what I have already said. We shall use our discretion as sympathetically as we can where children in preparatory schools--in other words, schools with an age range from seven, eight and nine up to 13--may have been given a clear promise that they can keep their place up to the age of 13 in the belief that the new Government gave such an undertaking. We shall honour that commitment. What more can I say? I ask Members of the Committee and especially noble Lords opposite to accept what I am saying.

Perhaps I may pick up on the point about abuse. At Second Reading I was referring to schools which are simply using this as a bridge into independent secondary schools--in other words, providing another two years of

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private schooling at the taxpayers' expense for those who will then go on to pay for their child's independent secondary schooling.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Tope: I am grateful to have an opportunity to intervene in the debate that I started. I begin by expressing my gratitude to the Minister for her robust defence of me against jibes from the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I have been flattered tonight--not for the first time and probably not for the last time--by the contest between the Government and the Opposition to woo the support of the Liberal Democrats. I simply confirm that whichever side we support will be the right side.

I am grateful to the Minister for what I accept was a careful and considered response. I accept--even if other noble Lords do not--that the Minister was trying to be genuinely helpful. However, I am worried by some aspects of her comments. As I said in my opening remarks, I have much sympathy with the view that the right age for children to transfer to the state secondary scheme is 11, which is the normal age. Children who transfer at a later age when others have transferred earlier may well encounter difficulties. However, where I part company from the Minister is that I think that that is a decision for the parents, not for the Government. I hope that when considering matters such as at what age their child should transfer and to what parents will take all factors into account. Ultimately, however, it should be the parent's decision, not the Government's. This is perhaps a point of principle and difference between ourselves and the Government.

Much has been made of Peter Kilfoyle's letter. It should be pointed out that it was not a letter from an anxious Labour candidate--well, perhaps it was, but not in that context--who was trying to reassure and to woo a constituent who was not sure whether to vote for him; it was a letter written to the chairman of a concerned association, the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, by the Labour Party's official education spokesman during the general election campaign. Presumably, the letter was written with the knowledge, and on the authority, of his party and represented his party's view. That is why we make much of the letter. There is a need to meet that commitment. It may be that, in the way of things, the Opposition make more of it than they should, but, in the way of things, the Government are making rather less of it than they should.

I should like to read in Hansard what the Minister said and to consider the matter carefully. Much of what the noble Baroness said tonight has been said previously, but some points are additional and are new. I should like the opportunity to consider them carefully before deciding how to proceed. In the light of that, it appears appropriate for me tonight to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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