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Baroness David: I should like to say a word as someone very involved with admissions and appeals systems when I was on Cambridgeshire education committee. Siblings did not have an automatic right to go to their brothers' or sisters' schools. We tried hard, if there was a good case, to allow it but it was not necessary and direct grant schools most certainly did not accept siblings automatically. They had each to go through the very tough entrance examination. So it was not automatic at all, and I do not see why this scheme should be different.
Lord Tope: I am a little relieved to find myself back in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, in much of what he said and certainly in relation to the concern he expressed about the effect of this amendment, were it to be passed, in extending the life of the assisted places scheme. It would be extended not just beyond the seven years which is currently envisaged. There could be considerable gaps in age between siblings who would be eligible should the amendment be passed.
I have much sympathy with the noble Lord's comment about what is best for the siblings. In my experience of a local education authority, as often as not the consideration about where the sibling goes to school is not so much about what is good for the sibling but what is most convenient for the parent. There may be good reasons sometimes for siblings to go to the same school, but not automatically so. I believe the real intention of the amendment is to prolong the life of the assisted places scheme and on that ground alone there is good reason to oppose it.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question to which I genuinely do not know the answer. In the present scheme, is priority given in any way to siblings when awarding assisted places? I should be surprised if that were the case. If it is not the case, and has not been during the 18 years that the Conservative government operated the scheme, I fail to see why they should be trying to impose such a requirement while the scheme is being phased out. If it is the case, the Conservatives answer their own question and destroy their own amendment. On this occasion at least, I am with the Government and would not support the amendment.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I think I am right in welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to the Opposition Dispatch Box when dealing with legislation. If so, I do that with great sincerity. She made a speech which was effective because of the examples that she gave. It was less effective in the logic, and I shall come to that in a few moments.
Baroness Byford: My first example was of someone affected by the closure of a direct grant school. The other example related to someone in Hampshire. They are two separate matters. I believe that the same lady wrote also to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am sorry to have misunderstood the Baroness but I believe that the answer is the same in either case. Under the Bill, the Secretary of State has discretion. I can confirm that we shall consider the exercise of discretion in such a case.
I am afraid that the logic of the argument is less sound because the presumption behind the amendment is that it is essential, or at any rate very desirable, that siblings should be educated in the same school. That has never been a principle on which any education authority has operated nor is it the principle on which the assisted places scheme has operated. Indeed, the only way to be sure that siblings will be educated in the same school is by adopting the system of local comprehensive schools.
I had three sons who went to the same local comprehensive school in Haringey. I was very glad that they did because I am fairly sure that two of them would have passed the 11-plus and would have gone, in former days, to a grammar school while the third, lovely though he is, might not have passed and would have been sent to a secondary modern school. I believe they have all benefited from the fact they went to the same school. But that cannot be achieved by a selective system which in other circumstances is the aim of the Conservative Party.
The Conservatives have always defended the virtues of selection. They want to see it extended to 50 per cent. in grant-maintained schools. Therefore, it seems puzzling and to conflict with the belief now expressed that siblings should be in the same school. But it is selection by academic ability which separates brother from sister, sister from sister and sister from brother. It is not the phasing out of the assisted places scheme.
Assisted places schools select pupils by ability, so siblings do not automatically gain a place. If a child fails the entrance examination, he would not join his sibling at the school. That has always been the case. If we accept the amendment, we should be placing a requirement on the scheme as it is phased out which goes far further than the scheme has ever gone. Where would it stop? That is a massive extension to an existing scheme which we are committed to phasing out. My noble friend Lord Morris gave an example of a one year-old and a 17 year-old. Some Members of the Committee may say that that is an extreme and unusual
I must make it clear that the seven-year time frame for phasing out was a manifesto commitment. We have always stuck to that and we were elected on that basis. Therefore, in the example that I have given, there could be more children coming along and they would be entitled to an assisted place at the age of 11. The scheme could extend for 20 years or more.
I am afraid that it is not an issue of principle or even of compassion that has been presented. It is just a tactic to delay phasing out the scheme. It would hamper our work on class sizes and would tie up money for a longer period of time in subsidies to private schools.
Children have different talents and different needs. In the case of my own family, it was desirable that they should all go to the same school. In many families, that is not the case. Some children benefit from being in different schools. There are already instances of assisted place holders being educated in different schools from their siblings by choice.
We have demonstrated already that there will be places in the state sector for children who would otherwise have an assisted place. It can be seen from the White Paper that we intend to ensure that the state sector is equipped to provide a first-rate education for all children, including the most able. It is unnecessary and it would be undesirable to extend the scheme beyond the existing scheme at a time when it is being phased out. I hope that the noble Baroness will see fit to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Byford: I thank the noble Lord for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box. Indeed, it is the first occasion. Because of that, I may have unwittingly misled him. I had not intended to convey that it is the right of siblings to follow automatically in an assisted place. It should only be if the child passes the necessary examination. Therefore, I do not seek to change the ground rules.
Baroness Byford: There is an error in the amendment, in which case I apologise to noble Lords. However, the fact remains that there are many families which make the choice. I would be grateful if the Minister will respond to queries that I have raised. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Henley: The noble Lord has missed the point that my noble friend made. It might be that the amendment is defective. We were not trying to give an automatic right to any sibling to go on; but, because the scheme is in existence, we want to allow the sibling the right to go on in due course. In future that sibling will not have that opportunity unless an amendment of this kind is included in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has pointed out that the amendment does not do that and gives priority to siblings. That is not what we are trying to achieve. We apologise for getting that wrong. We are trying to ensure that those siblings have that opportunity.
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