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Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, I hope that all of your Lordships are regular readers of that very readable organ, the House Magazine. There is much wisdom to be gained in perusing it and the current issue is no exception. In the "Commons Diary", for example, on page 2, the honourable Member for Leominster tells us how he recently attended a meeting of the Malvern College Council, his old school. He says:
Every summer just before we reach for our buckets and spades, we go through the ritual dance of considering how this scheme is faring. So I will only briefly rehearse the reasons why we on these Benches opposed it, have always opposed it and will continue to do so.
Suffice it to say, first, that we consider it entirely unjust to penalise the many for the advantage of a selected few. Secondly, we consider it unfair to cream off some of the most academically able children in the maintained sector and place them in independent schools, where they will unquestionably do very well. So they should. That will distort the picture of the academic achievements of that independent school, to the detriment of the academic results of the schools from which those children are taken. Thirdly, we oppose the scheme because it seems to us a totally unwarranted subsidy by the state of the private sector.
Is it not a fact that an essential difference between independent schools and local authority schools is that the former are far less accountable than the latter? I asked the Minister last year, and I ask him again: will he tell the House what degree of accountability, and in what form, is required from the 300 or so schools in the assisted places scheme which receive at the present moment something over £100 million of public money? Indeed, as is regularly pointed out in another place, the taxpayer also contributes more than £130 million to independent schools by virtue of the service boarding scheme. We are not opposed to the service boarding scheme as such, though we would very much like to see more extensive use made of the state boarding schools. But the assisted places scheme and the service boarding scheme together contribute a little more than £¼ billion of public money to the independent education sector--yet independent schools are not accountable in anything like the same way as local education authority schools. Only a very few of them have had Ofsted reports. Is it not time that much stricter controls were imposed upon this very considerable amount of public money?
What is new in this year's regulations? Three things: the government proposal to double the number of places, the annual uprating and the decision to bring preparatory schools into the scheme for the first time. The real reasons for the first are not difficult to find. Boarding schools are finding it harder and harder to put paying bodies into beds. I was recently told, and I have heard it many times, that the first criterion of a successful head teacher in an independent boarding school is the ability to fill all the boarding places. The fashion for sending your children away from home to be educated is visibly waning, and it seems that more and more parents realise--as the Secretary of State for Wales is reported as realising--that good comprehensive school education makes private education a waste of money.
The Labour Party's position and policy on the assisted places scheme are transpicuously clear, and I can offer the honourable Member for Leominster and former pupil of Malvern College no crumb of comfort. The assisted places scheme is no part of our policy, and we shall abolish it. I refer noble Lords to our recent publication, New Labour, New Life for Britain, obtainable from Walworth Road at the bargain price of £10, where, on page 40, the first of Labour's early pledges is to,
Lord Tope: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris, began by referring to the annual "ritual dance". Last year was the first year that I joined the dance. As a new boy, somewhat naively, I looked back at the previous 14 years of annual debates on this subject. I have to say that I did not feel greatly edified as a result of that research and I have not bothered with such detailed research this year. The noble Lord concluded by saying that next year's debate on this subject may be--just may be--a little different. I hope so, for many reasons--not least a degree of boredom in having to say the same things over and over again.
I need to put on record again this year that the Liberal Democrats continue to oppose the assisted places scheme. It continues to be our policy that we would phase it out. We would of course honour existing commitments, but it would be phased out over a period of time.
Before I go on to state the reasons for that, I must again put on record--as continually seems necessary--that we have no problem at all with, and no opposition to, independent schools. Indeed, our party conference in September will debate an even better education paper, available from our party headquarters. (I do not know the price). One proposal among many others will be the retention of charitable status for independent schools. It will also propose to extend charitable status to all schools. It will oppose any suggestion as to the imposition of VAT on school fees. Even more importantly, we shall be encouraging independent schools to work in partnership
So why do we oppose the assisted places scheme? We oppose it first and foremost because it is a wrong use of public funds. As was stated earlier this evening, scarce public resources need to be targeted where they are most needed. In my submission, they are most needed in the provision of teachers, books and equipment, and long-overdue repairs to buildings. The Minister in his concluding remarks, which were intended, I think, more to rubbish the Labour Party's scheme than otherwise--stated that abolition of the assisted places scheme would save only £24 million; that would provide only 1,000 teachers. That is only a small drop of what is needed, but it is a very important drop. It is a much better use of those resources than the assisted places scheme.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, said that the principal purpose of the scheme is to prop up the independent schools. I believe that to be the case. I suspect it is no coincidence that, as pupil numbers in independent schools are declining, so we are seeing an extension of this scheme.
As I said, I have no problem with independent schools. I wish them well. I hope they succeed. My problem is that I do not believe that the scheme is a proper use of scarce public funds at a time when I know only too well that education budgets, funded publicly, are being cut, and cut, and cut. The need is enormous. Abolition of the scheme will not begin to solve the problem, but it is a step in the right direction. At the moment we are taking another, slightly larger step in the wrong direction.
The next question that we have to ask is whether the scheme achieves what it is intended to achieve. In his opening speech the Minister gave some very impressive figures and statements of achievement by pupils on assisted places. I do not for a moment want to belittle that achievement. But these are children who have been chosen specifically for their academic ability. They have been put in smaller classes than would have been the case if they had stayed at an LEA school. They have been better resourced with books and equipment and undoubtedly they have been taught in better premises and better buildings. It would be remarkable indeed if they were not achieving better results. I do not believe that that proves that the scheme is working. It simply proves that it would be remarkable if it were otherwise.
I turn next to inspection, which we touched on last year. In his reply to last year's debate the Minister said that there would be appropriate inspection. I wonder whether in his reply the Minister would tell us what he considers to be "appropriate inspection". Is it correct that only three independent schools this year are likely to be inspected by Ofsted? Is that adequate? Is it appropriate? He said last
There seems to be much conflicting evidence about who exactly are the parental beneficiaries from this scheme. The Minister quoted figures that suited his case. I shall quote some that suit mine. Two years ago research showed that 50 per cent. of parents benefiting from the scheme themselves had been to independent schools. That may have changed but I doubt whether it has changed significantly in two years. The research showed that only 10 per cent. of those parents were in manual work. It showed that a very much smaller percentage even than that came from ethnic minority backgrounds. There is evidence to suggest--I choose my words carefully--that many, not all but many, of the parents who benefit through the assisted places scheme could and would afford to pay for a place at an independent school if they were not fortunate enough to benefit through this scheme.
I conclude by stressing, as I did earlier, that my party is keen to co-operate with the independent sector and support it in that way, but we do not believe that a scheme which applies to less than 1 per cent. of school-age children is the right or appropriate way to widen that co-operation with the independent sector. The assisted places scheme is simply not the way to forge wider and better co-operation with the independent sector. Above all, it is not the best use of public funds. That money is small compared with what is needed. The "only £24 million" to which the Minister referred goes only a little way towards solving the problems that we have debated before in your Lordships' Chamber. But that sum of money is much needed and it is much better and more effectively targeted as public funds to support publicly funded schools. We oppose the order.
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