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Earl Russell: My Lords, if I may paraphrase Nell Gwyn, I am a Liberal Democrat cigarette paper. It is a well-known principle that changes in educational policy, good or bad, are brought in with respect to commitments to existing students. That is a good and important principle. It is very rarely broken. I recall it being broken once, by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, in her first week in office. The noble Baroness was persuaded to think better of it. For the first time, and possibly for the last, I urge the Government to follow the example of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it may be helpful to the House if I start by addressing the participation of preparatory schools in the assisted places scheme before turning to address the detail of the amendment before us.
As I explained in Committee, the admission of free-standing preparatory schools into the assisted places scheme formed part of the previous Government's expansion policy. The first phase of the expansion led to the creation of nearly 5,000 new entry places in senior schools, some in integral junior departments for children below the age of 11 with effect from September 1996. But it was only under the second phase of the expansion that preparatory schools were invited to bid to join the scheme.
Some 70 free-standing preparatory schools in England were notified as recently as February 1997 that they would be admitted to the scheme from September 1997. There are already a dozen preparatory schools in Scotland in the scheme, but there are none in Wales. In total, there could be some 400 pupils in preparatory schools which take pupils up to the age of 13 in the scheme from September 1997. I hope that that clarifies the position so far as the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, are concerned.
There are at present no pupils yet admitted to nine-to-13 preparatory schools in England and Wales under the scheme. So we are talking about very recent developments, all of which have taken place in the knowledge that the Labour Party's clear policy was firmly established on the phasing out of the scheme.
As I made clear in Committee, when a child in a preparatory school has been given a clear promise that he or she can keep the place through to the age of 13 in the belief that the new Government had given such an undertaking, we shall honour that commitment. In Committee, I set out why this commitment is being met through the use of the discretionary power rather than an express provision in the Bill. However, I appreciate that this remains a matter of concern to some noble Lords opposite. Therefore I want to go a little further to address those concerns so that noble Lords opposite will, I hope, feel able to accept that there is nothing between us in substance.
When introducing his amendment in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, sought an assurance that the presumption would be that pupils in preparatory schools would be able to continue with their assisted place through to age 13 if their parents wished them to do so. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, also expressed the view that the decision should ultimately rest with parents; and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has just repeated that view. Both those points are helpful to me in dealing with the concerns raised. I hope that I shall now be able to provide the assurances sought.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, cited a number of examples of children who had received assurances that they would be able to keep their place. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, queried whether a commitment given in the light of the letter from Peter Kilfoyle would meet the conditions for the exercise of the discretion. The presumption will be that any parent who has accepted an assisted place running through to age 13 in a free-standing preparatory school on the basis of the Kilfoyle letter will have that place honoured. I can confirm that in such circumstances the commitment will be honoured through the use of the discretionary power.
Noble Lords opposite seem to believe that all preparatory schools will have made offers of places through to the age of 13 on the understanding that these would be honoured. If it can be demonstrated that the offers were made on the strength of the Kilfoyle letter, then, yes, we shall exercise discretion so that those pupils will be able to keep their places through to the age of 13. Our policy will be to accede to applications
Perhaps I may give the undertaking that noble Lords opposite have sought that there will be a presumption that support will be extended in the circumstances I have just described. Subject to a check of the commitment given to the parents, and provided the parents want the child to continue through to age 13, then we shall provide support through to age 13.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will accept that I am giving him the assurance which he sought in Committee that the spirit of the Kilfoyle letter is being honoured through the use of the discretionary power. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will also accept that.
My difficulty is that I do not share the certainty of noble Lords opposite over the way that commitments have been given. I believe there may well be cases where parents were not given a clear commitment. I know it to be the case that some schools did not make firm offers of assisted places until after the Bill was published. In those cases, schools should only have made offers through to the age of 11. Others may not have made a clear promise of the duration of the place. That is why we want an arrangement where individual cases can be checked.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, pressed me in Committee and has done so again today on the meaning of "open to abuse". We are in agreement that the right age for children to transfer to state secondary schools is 11. That is the sensible solution for parents and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, would also accept that that must be right in the vast majority of cases.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, rightly stressed that parents will have a view about whether transfer at a different age would be better, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. I am sure that the vast majority of schools will act honourably and seek to do the right thing by the pupils in their charge. But I am afraid that we cannot rule out the possibility that a school--perhaps giving prominence to its own interests--may not ensure that parents consider all the available options. I am not saying that I in any way believe that they would coerce parents; rather that they might not ensure that parents were in a position to take a balanced view about the opportunities available in the state sector and what might be in the child's best interests long term.
For those reasons, we continue to take the view that the use of the discretionary power which allows the details of individual cases to be checked is the right way forward. I hope that in the light of the further assurances that I have given noble Lords opposite--
Lord Tope: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me for intervening. However, before she sits down I wish to thank her for the statement, which has been extremely helpful. Obviously it is for the movers of the amendment to decide what they do next.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for accepting the assurances. I hope that, in the light of the further assurances I have given, noble Lords who put the amendment today will accept that our plans address the concerns that they have raised, while also providing a necessary check to ensure that the additional public resources are made available only to honour commitments properly given. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before the Minister sits down and with the leave of the House, she mentioned children in schools in Scotland on the assisted places scheme. I am sure that she appreciates that the normal time for children to move to secondary education in Scotland is not 11-plus but 12-plus, so that those children will all be involved. The amendment would apply to them all, it seems to me. Does the Minister therefore feel that the discretion would have to be exercised in Scotland for all those pupils when there is no possibility of any other leaving age for them?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I made absolutely clear at the Committee stage that we would exercise the discretion in relation to all those children where the age of transfer from primary to secondary school was higher than the age of 11. If it is the age of 12, of course, we shall exercise our discretion in relation to all those pupils.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I have listened with great care to the noble Baroness's words. I do not wish in any way to suggest that I do not believe that she would honour the commitment she makes. She is an honourable person and I am sure that she would. I also heard and understood what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, that he wanted to withdraw his support for the amendment. However, I go back to my original comment: a promise was given and I think that it should be honoured. I do not feel that it has been honoured in the way that it should be. The use is still discretionary, however much and however widely it is looked at. I am not satisfied with the Minister's reply. A promise was made and a promise is now to be broken. I beg leave to ask the opinion of the House.
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