HC Deb 20 July 1989 vol 157 cc623-38


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. John Butcher)

I beg to move, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 26th June, be approved. The draft regulations consolidate with certain small amendments, which I will describe, the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1985 as amended in 1986, 1987 and 1988.

The assisted places scheme was established in 1981 for the purpose of widening the educational opportunities of able children from less well-off families. It provides their parents with assistance towards the fees of some of the best independent schools in the country. The assistance is on a sliding scale based on parental income, and the principal changes embodied in the consolidating regulations are concerned with the annual revision of that scale.

In past years there have also been technical amendments to keep the definition of "total parental income" for the purposes of the scheme constant as tax legislation changes. This year, one such amendment takes account of the position of assisted places scheme—APS—parents who either receive or pay maintenance payments. But I venture to suggest that all of the amendments, which I shall describe in a moment, are straightforward.

Part I of the draft regulations deals with citation, commencement, application and interpretation. By virtue of draft regulation 1, the regulations are to come into force on 12 August 1989. Part II of the draft regulations deals with eligibility for assisted places, and is unchanged from earlier years.

Part III deals with remission of fees. Draft regulation 11 of part III has been amended to increase from £950 to £1,000 the amount that may be deducted from the relevant total income of an assisted place holder's parents in respect of each child or dependent relative other than the assisted place holder. Parts IV and V cover administrative arrangements and miscellaneous requirements and are unchanged.

Schedule 1 provides for parents' income for the purposes of the scheme to be computed on the basis of their "total income", as defined with reference to tax legislation in regulation 11. The provisions of paragraph 5 of schedule 1 ensure that, despite changes in the taxable status of maintenance payments introduced in the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988, APS parents making maintenance payments will continue to be able to offset them against their "relevant income". The provisions also ensure that APS parents receiving such payments will continue to count them as part of "relevant income". The provisions, however, only preserve the status quo as far as the assisted places scheme is concerned.

Draft schedule 2 sets out the income scale used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. As usual, this has been uprated to take account of movements in the retail prices index. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £7,258 to £7,584. Draft schedule 3 revokes the 1985 regulations and the regulations amending them The provisions and amendments that I have described will ensure the continued smooth running of the assisted places scheme, and I trust that they will find favour with hon. Members on both sides of the House.

10.15 pm
Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham. North-West)

This debate gives us an opportunity to review the workings of the scheme that the Government brought into effect during the passage of the Education Act 1980. It has given me a chance to read some of the Hansard reports of the time, and very interesting reading they made. I have been able to re-examine the Government's intentions in introducing the scheme. The Secretary of State said in October 1980 that the scheme would lead to a greater social mix within independent schools. I have tried to find evidence of the fulfilment of that criterion, but I have to say that the evidence is very thin. It is true that each year almost exactly 40 per cent. of APS pupils have been entitled to free places, and over half have come from families with incomes below the national average. We must, however, ask ourselves whether that constitutes a social mix.

A research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council showed that over 50 per cent. of pupils had fathers from professional and managerial occupations: only 7 per cent. came from families with manual working backgrounds. The research also found that 68 per cent. of pupils' mothers and 51 per cent. of their fathers had attended selective or independent schools. Very few represented the kind of able working class child whom, according to the initial publicity, the scheme would rescue from inadequate inner city comprehensives.

That is the problem with which we are dealing: those whom the scheme has helped are those who would probably have attended such schools in any case, and whose parents—despite having fallen on hard times, often through divorce—wanted to ensure that their children went to the kind of schools that they had been to.

My predecessor in the constituency of Durham, North-West said in the 1980 debate: It is unique to this country that we seem to believe that our top civil servants, top management, those who are to be leaders of the community have to be educated in separate schools, having been taken away from the rest of society and moved into a secluded quarter. So many people who have aspirations towards independent schools see themselves as separate—and wish to separate their children—from the ordinary, everyday stream of life. That is a sad indictment of our society. The assisted places scheme has not led to a greater social mix in independent schools; it has enabled the existing mix to continue.

The Government's second intention was that the scheme would increase the number of working-class children going on to higher education. It is well known that I have been a strong advocate of providing such opportunities. However, the figures and what has happened under the scheme show that the take-up of sixth-form places has never risen much above 75 per cent. and some 60 schools have consistently recruited below their quota. Almost two thirds of those taking up places under the scheme for the first time at 16 are already fee-paying pupils in independent schools. The regulations, in spirit if not in letter, provide that more than 60 per cent. of assisted pupils should be recruited from the maintained sector. It is clear from recruitment to sixth forms that assisted pupils are coming from the rest of the independent sector. Those two factors mean that the scheme is not providing access to higher education for working-class young people.

A recently published general household survey carried out in 1986 shows that the daughters of unskilled workers proved to be testimony to the belief. It shows that the number of daughters of unskilled workers going to university was less than 0.5 per cent.

The Government's third aim was that the scheme would not be aimed at sustaining the independent sector. That has made the Labour party somewhat cynical. How can a school continue to call itself independent when 40 per cent. of its pupils are there because of public funding through the assisted places scheme? The estimated cost of the scheme in the current financial year is £59 million. That is a substantial public contribution to the so-called independent sector. Clearly and inevitably many schools would be in great difficulty if that money were withdrawn from them. However, they need to prepare for a Labour Government withdrawing that money from them.

The fourth aim that the Government had in mind was to provide academic training for working-class young people. The implication was that the Government did not believe that such academic training could be provided in the maintained sector. Let us consider the criteria for what is academic. This year, the Government are adding another 52 schools to the list of schools to which the assisted places scheme will apply. That is partly to redress the regional imbalances. Of the 470 schools that made provisional offers of places on the scheme in 1981, its first year, more than 200 were discarded by the Department of Education and Science as unsuitable for such an academic scheme.

The 1989 newcomers to the list include several schools that were accepted by the DES then, but changed their minds about participating in the scheme. Clearly there are others that would have been acceptable had they applied. But the list includes a number that would almost certainly not have met the 1981 criteria. More than half the new schools have fewer than 400 pupils. How can the Government reassure anyone that those schools would be likely to offer the wide range of A-level subjects taught to viable groups in the way that the 1981 criteria required? Some lack any proven record of achievement in sending pupils forward to higher education. The Government have clearly abandoned the initial aims of the scheme as described to us.

I return to the subject of regional inequalities. The Government said that the scheme could be regarded as a national scholarship scheme for bright children from modest backgrounds. Indeed. the measure refers to the desirability of securing an equitable distribution of assisted places throughout the country and between boys and girls.

It does not need great brain power to appreciate that there is an uneven distribution nationally in the independent sector, particularly of schools that are called academically excellent, to which the scheme was supposed to relate. There is certainly an uneven distribution among those willing to offer substantial numbers of assisted places.

In 1988, for example, there were 464 new places available in Greater Manchester, 346 in the Liverpool and Birkenhead area and 225 in Bristol and Bath. By contrast, there were 70 in Nottingham, 55 in Leeds, 16 in Sheffield and none in Leicester. I give those figures simply to demonstrate that the Government have failed, even on their own criteria, to ensure an equal distribution of resources.

As I have shown, the Government have failed to meet the intentions of which they spoke when they introduced the scheme in 1980. In addition, the costings have been startling. We are lectured daily by the Government on the need for economy. We are now being lectured about the need to be careful with public spending because, they say, high public spending is the cause of rocketing inflation.

If that is so, we must look carefully at the rising costs in the assisted places scheme. In 10 years, Government expenditure per pupil has increased by 275 per cent., which is certainly more than the rise in Government expenditure in the maintained sector. Indeed, if public spending in that sector had gone up by 275 per cent., we would probably not be suffering now from some of the problems that exist, but I will not embarrass the Government by dwelling on those problems.

It is clear from the figures that in the last four years 50 additional pupils have been covered by the scheme, for an extra £1,700,000. I appreciate the problems that the Government are facing in relation to inflation, but figures of that sort go beyond reality and sensibility.

Where is the public accountability in those rising costs? Who is in control of the expenditure? Who are, and where are, those publicly elected people who are determining fees? We are witnessing inefficiency. How can the Government guarantee value for money when they do not know what is happening and when they have no involvement in the setting of fees or in the development of the nature of schools? They have even opted out of any responsibility for the curriculum. We return to a point that we have talked about before. When the House was considering the Education Reform Bill, the Opposition were bemused that the Government could talk about a national curriculum yet exclude independent schools. Are they saying that people in independent schools are not part of the British nation?

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

The hon. Lady does not understand how the system works. In the independent sector, parents vote with their feet and, if the curriculum is inadequate, they take their children away. In the maintained sector, until the reforms introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, people had no choice. No choice is the Labour party's policy.

Ms. Armstrong

It is late at night, so I will forgive the hon. Gentleman for his inaccuracies. We are talking about public money. It is not a matter of parents making an automatic choice. All they can do is send their child to a school that is part of the assisted places scheme. Conservative Members know that parents do not move kids around as though they were pounds of butter and that they have consideration for their children, even if Conservative Members have not. Whatever the arguments about choice, this is public money and there should be public accountability. Those young people have the right to be treated as part of the national curriculum.

It is interesting that this legislation comes at the end of a week in which hon. Members and people outside the House have been much concerned about the Government's education policy and where it has taken children. People have talked about the massive problems for children who cannot get a place in any school because there is no teacher. When will the Government take the education of all Britain's children seriously? When will they take their commitment to children in Tower Hamlets, who have no access to school because there is no teacher, as seriously as they take throwing money at the independent sector?

This week, there has been public criticism of the money that the Government have thrown at city technology colleges, a system which is meant to create different groups of children. The Government are doing that with public money. It is used to justify the Government's ideological dogma. The Government are denying opportunities to children and know that they cannot deliver the national curriculum to some children this September.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)


Ms. Armstrong

They are making families pay for children—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman


Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. It is clear that the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) is not giving way.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman


Ms. Armstrong

The hon. Lady was not present at the beginning of my speech. Therefore, I am not prepared to give way.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is clear that the hon. Member for Durham, North-West is not giving way.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not asking the hon. Lady to give way; I was raising a point of order. Is it in order for her to say that this is public money, when it is money raised from industry?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is a matter for debate, not a point of order.

Ms. Armstrong

The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) should examine the amount of capital investment that the Department of Education and Science puts into city technology colleges.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

When the hon. Lady was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), who asked her whether Labour was in favour of the assisted places scheme, she did not answer the question. Will she not come clean and admit that the Labour party intends to get rid of choice altogether? The Labour party does not believe in the assisted places scheme. It has said that it will remove the charitable status of the independent sector, and that it will get rid of the city technology colleges and the grant-maintained schools. The Labour party proposes a statist education system with no choice at all, in which everyone has to be educated under the control of the state. Why does she not come clean on that and admit that the consumerism in which the Labour party pretends to believe does not really exist?

Ms. Armstrong

I know that it is late. The hon. Gentleman understands what I am saying, although he pretends to misunderstand. I am in favour of choice, but I am as much in favour of choice for those kids in Tower Hamlets as I am for those who get into Cheltenham ladies college. Those children in Tower Hamlets, who are going into primary schools in which teachers have had no opportunity to update themselves in science, deserve choice as much as children whose parents decide that they want an independent education for them. I am not against people having choice, but I want choice for all people and not just some.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Armstrong

No. I promised the Minister that I would speak for only 15 minutes.

Mr. Jack

Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?

Ms. Armstrong

No, because the hon. Gentleman was not here at the beginning of the debate.

The Government are denying opportunity to the majority of children. They are demonstrating that they care about the few and that they believe that one can give a good education only to a few. We do not believe that, and we are not prepared to accept that. As a result, we will oppose the regulations.

10.37 pm
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I am delighted to take part in this short debate, and I welcome the Government's determination to continue to support and extend the assisted places scheme. I recollect that the last occasion on which I spoke as a Minister, on 5 July 1988, was in support of changes in the regulations on assisted places. I remember quoting the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and I think that it is worth repeating his words today. He said in The Guardian on 23 March: First, we must recognise that a nation of consumers enjoying relatively high living standards becomes literally much more choosy, much more interested in choice and variety. He said that then, and as far as I know, for he is an honourable man, he has not rescinded that comment or changed the interpretation I chose to give those words at the time.

It was clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong)—and I welcomed her comments about her distinguished predecessor, thereby reminding us of her commitment to the hereditary principle—that we have been debating over some eight years this scheme which gives many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to seek and benefit from an education in good schools in the independent sector.

When the education spokesmen of the Labour party, starting with the hon. Member for Blackburn and going on to the hon. Members for Durham, North-West and for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), talk about the needs of working class children, I want to reach for my political gun. There they sit, products of the British middle class, trying to dictate to the House what they believe are the needs and aspirations of working class children. The truth is that the Labour party has always regarded members of the alleged working class as political pawns in the sense of being members of the tied cottage culture. When we decide to extend the chance to create a ladder of opportunity, for children who in themselves——

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dunn

I will give way in time, but not in the middle of my best point. I will determine the debate when I have the floor. I certainly do not intend to give way to the middle class Members of Parliament sitting on the Opposition Front Bench who tell the House what needs to be done for children who, until now, had access only to that neighbourhood school that their local authority had dictated that they should attend.

The hon. Member for Durham, North-West asked why the Conservative party believed in the principle of the assisted places scheme.

Mr. Haynes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dunn

I will give way in time, but the hon. Gentleman must learn to be patient. Patience is a virtue seldom exercised by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and, in the dying time that he is in the House, he should learn it. He has become an institute—the parliamentary foghorn of the Labour party—but he is now to hand in his bell and retire to Derbyshire, or some place like that.

The hon. Member for Durham, North-West asked why we were in favour of the scheme. The answer is simply because it provides a ladder of opportunity that was destroyed by the consensus of both Governments in the past, which destroyed many excellent schools in pursuit of the peculiar notion of egalitarianism.

The hon. Member for Ashfield has been extremely virtuous, so I shall now give way to him, but let me remind him that I am not deaf.

Mr. Haynes

Earlier today I told Mr. Speaker that he called me last in business questions because I am the most patient of hon. Members. I have a thick skin, and the hon. Gentleman can throw whatever he likes at me. He spoke about the middle class Members on the Opposition Front Bench, but I was born in poverty and worked for 35 years in the pit before I came to this place. He can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Mr. Dunn

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is not a Labour party spokesman on education. I was referring to those who exercise that peculiar privilege at the moment.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Had the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) lived in Lancaster, whatever background he came from, he could have gone to the Lancaster Royal grammar school, had he the ability, which many of my hon. Friends have. The Labour party destroyed the chances of people like the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Dunn

There is no doubt that my hon. Friend has made an important point.

I was speaking about the logic behind setting up the scheme in 1981. I welcome the extension of choice, and I welcome the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to extend into the list a further 52 schools. I also welcome regulation 18 in part V, which deals with the publication of information. I hope that in time the Government will give us some idea of how those children who started off in the scheme in the early 1980s and who must now be entering higher and continuing education have been performing, given the good start that they received.

The point of the debate is simply to remind the House that the scheme exists and that the scheme is working. Of course, I believe that we should do more to make it more accessible to many more children in other parts of the country. I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West, implicit in what she said about the denial of places in the city of Leicester. If the hon. Lady asks us for assisted places in Leicester, who are we to deny that opportunity to the people of Leicester?

I will say to the hon. Lady that it was a good try, but that she has remained wholly unconvincing in the case that she has set out. She has continued to be an ideologue I—think that it is an insult to be called an ideologue—in what she seeks to achieve. Self-congratulation is the prerogative of the Labour party, and every July when we debate the assisted places regulations Labour Members prove that they know nothing about working class aspirations and that they care even less.

10.46 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) was on his best form, berating the Labour party from a position of small influence, just as he used to do as a former member of Southwark council—a council of 64 on which the Tories have but seven members.

I want to say two main things about the regulations, as the latest in a succession of my hon. Friends who have spoken in these debates since 1980. The first is that the Government's scheme is unprincipled and the second is that it is inconsistent.

The assisted places scheme is unprincipled because it denies the proper priorities that there should be in the education of our young people.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

What about John Stuart Mill?

Mr. Hughes

John Stuart Mill would be completely at one with my argument.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

No, he would not.

Mr. Hughes

Yes, he would. I shall deal with that point and a point made earlier by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) in a moment.

The Conservative party's analysis is flawed for one obvious reason. The lack of principle manifests itself in the evidence that it is a greater Government priority to spend public money on supporting a few—in a system in which it is hoped they will become privileged—than it is to spend more on the public sector, in which lack of funding results in many children's education not moving from the bottom rung. [Interruption.] I stress—to the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and others—that those of us in whose constituencies education is most in crisis as a result of Government policy and failure to fund see the results clearly. The money is not being spent where it should be spent—to assist needy schools, children and teachers. If it were not spent on the assisted places scheme, there might be more money available out of the public purse to help more people.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

I shall give way in a second. The hon. Lady's belated arrival was compounded by——

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I arrived later than I intended.

Mr. Hughes

Yes, I know. The hon. Lady's late arrival was compounded by the ignorance displayed in her intervention.

On CTCs, the Government declared that they wished the majority of money to come from industry and the minority from the Department or the Treasury. That has not happened. The Government did not find more than a few people in industry who were prepared to fund CTCs.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Oh yes, they did.

Mr. Hughes

No, what I have said is factually correct, and Ministers would be unable to deny it.

The majority of money has come from the Department of Education and Science—80 per cent. to 20 per cent., the exact opposite of what was the original Government plan. There are two reasons for that. First, much of industry—I have spoken to several people—is not supportive of what they see as a divisive scheme. Secondly, this latest Government initiative that seeks to fund other things rather than the general education system is perceived to be what it is—a tokenist attempt, which, in its tokenism, deprives others of considerable resources where the greater priorities are and the greater money should be spent.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Having been a social worker in the east end of London, I was well aware of the ability of youngsters who really tried in those areas to get away from their schools and have wider educational opportunities in grammar schools. It is a tragedy that those youngsters are now denied that chance. I believe firmly that the assisted places scheme is giving back to those youngsters from disadvantaged homes the chance of which the Labour party, with the connivance of the Liberal party, deprived them.

Mr. Hughes

Last night I was at a farewell party for the head teacher of a primary school in my constituency, where the children speak at home 28 different mother languages. One of the former pupils of that primary school is now at Cambridge, having gone entirely through the county sector, and is expected to get a first-class honours science degree. There is no reason why to have excellence in education one has to perpetuate a system which divided children at 11 years on the basis of a single test which was shown academically to be often inaccurate in assessing people's ability, and cast children into two groups—the sheep and the goats—for good, to the great detriment of many of those who went into the secondary modern as opposed to the grammar school sector.

It is also inconsistent, this year above all, for Government Ministers to argue in favour of a continuation of the assisted places scheme. It is inconsistent because, if the Government are to be believed, their education policy over the past 10 years has been successful—by their argument, the standards have gone up and good reforms have been made. If the county system is so much better now than it was 10 years ago, so much less is there a case for paying people to leave it to go into the independent sector. Even less so for the reason that this year, as a result of the Education Reform Act 1988, we will see the national curriculum in place. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I agree entirely—hear, hear—and I am supportive of the objectives of a national curriculum. However, I hope that the Minister of State at the Home Office who assented to the support for the national curriculum will agree with the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) and me that it is entirely inconsistent that it should not also apply to certain schools—those very schools to which the Government fund children to go. The private sector, which is free from any national curriculum and which can sometimes teach very poorly, is funded by the taxpayer and the public purse to ensure that certain children get on to what clearly is a ladder, not necessarily of opportunity for academic excellence, but of opportunity to become more privileged because of the result that the private education system often produces.

The inconsistency is that in the year when we have the introduction of the national curriculum, instead of saying, "Our education reforms have been so good and we now have the national curriculum which will be so much better, so we do not need the assisted places scheme any more", the Government are saying, "We still need and we still want to encourage more and more people to leave the public sector and to go into the private sector of education, funded by the public purse".

The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood said that the merit of the market place was that the parents, in choosing independent schools, vote with their feet. They do not—they vote with their wallets. The difference is that many people do not have anything in their wallets with which to vote. By picking just a few of the many hundreds of thousands of children whose parents do not have anything in their wallets, one is not changing the fundamental inequality that exists. One is not changing that inequality if some people can buy their way into the private sector and if the private sector is supported by a few others who have their places provided out of public funds when that is not an option for the majority of people in this country.

I am not in favour of a monopoly of county or state education; I am in favour of independent schools—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—but I am not in favour of independent fee-paying schools in which some people have the right to buy their way into a position of advantage for their child when another child has no such advantage.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

The hon. Gentleman must realise that the downward pressure on fees in the independent sector is due to the fact that parents do not have unlimited wallets. If the hon. Gentleman took the time to study the parents who send their children to independent schools, he would find that they are not often "rich"; they are simply parents who are making the most enormous sacrifices to send their children to such schools because they believe them to be better. The fact that it is their money—and that they are careful about how they spend their money—means that they do vote with their feet. If a school is inadequate they will not send their child to that school, they will withdraw the child and send him or her somewhere else. It is wholly untrue that independent schools are acting in a vacuum; they are subject to the schools inspectorate like the whole of the maintained sector, so there is some kind of supervision.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Of course, there is some kind of supervision. However, I am very aware that, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, it is not the same kind of supervision. I am also aware of the pattern of and the trends in the people who send their children to private schools. In constituencies such as mine where, in general, the secondary education provided by the local authority is poor, some parents make great sacrifices to buy their children out of that system—and I understand that. Often those parents do so because they think that it will give their children an advantage. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it does not. However, those parents do not do so necessarily or normally because the private system provides better educational standards, but because they believe that, all things taken together, it will give their children an advantage at the end of their schooling.

A far better system would be to ensure that there is indeed choice, but choice that is not determined by whether one can pay to exercise it and that is not precluded from those who cannot pay but still wish to exercise it, and choice across a whole range of options in which money is not the object.

I had hoped that when introducing the debate the Minister would say how the assisted places scheme was achieving the objectives that he and his predecessors had set for it. He explained the changes in the regulations, but, as the hon. Member for Durham, North-West said at the beginning of her speech, over the eight or nine years that the system has been operating, there is no evidence that it has achieved the objectives originally set for it. The only evidence that exists is that the Government have continued to spend a proportion of taxpayers' money when increasingly over that time the greater priorities have been elsewhere. When a Government do not have the courage to put their money where their priorities should be, it is a sad day for education.

10.58 pm
Mr. Butcher

First, I give my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) the assurance that we shall be looking at the outcome of the scheme. It is right that we should follow up and examine the achievements of those who pass through the assisted places scheme as they move into higher education or careers.

The speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was pretty mixed up. There was a time when the Liberal party was committed to pluralism and believed in choice, but the moment the hon. Gentleman was tested on that point, he implied that he believed in independent schools, but not in fee-paying independent schools. If that is his position, I assume that he really means that he likes independent schools which have free places. Therefore, can I assume that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of grant-maintained schools?

Mr. Simon Hughes

There should be plurality and diversity in education in all sorts of schools, but the criteria for getting there should not be the ability to pay.

Mr. Butcher

That is, I think, an interesting commitment from the Liberal party to grant-maintained schools, and I am grateful for that. If the hon. Gentleman is to stay true to his logic, I hope that he will declare his commitment to city technology colleges. I understand that he runs with both the hare and the hounds in his constituency on that matter.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I am a governor of a school in Southwark that is going through the process of deciding whether it should be a CTC. I voted against the proposal because for the Government to refuse that school £1.5 million to be relocated and rebuilt on a different site and then to bribe the school by offering it £10 million to become a CTC was completely inappropriate and against the wishes of the community, the parents and all locally-elected representatives. I do not believe in that sort of selective pressure on the local education system.

Mr. Butcher

The Liberal party is clearly all over the place and that explains why it is no longer concerned about policy formation and is descending into the sort of agitprop irrelevancies which now pose as policy in that party.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Let me provide the Minister with some information because he did not take part in the debates last year on the Education Reform Bill and he will have missed the strong and fundamental opposition to grant-maintained schools offered by the then education spokesperson for what was then the Liberal party who is now the leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats. When the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) says that the SLD believes in pluralism, he really means that he has one policy and his leader has another.

Mr. Butcher

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is at this point that the cross-party consensus comes into question.

The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) began by talking about the social mix in independent schools which take pupils under the approved places scheme. I thought that she was leaning towards the proposition that in order to improve the social mix in her terms, and even in the Government's terms, to get more young people from low-income families into those schools, we should increase the number of assisted places available. If she is true to her logic she should support us in increasing the number of places and we shall then only have to agree by how many the current number of 35,000 places must be increased. Then we would get the sort of social mix for which I thought that she was arguing.

But matters get much worse. We are fortunate tonight in having all the members of the Labour party's education team on parade on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) went to Reading grammar school, a selective school. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) went to Lincoln school, a selective school in his time. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West is the only one, consistent with her principles, who went to a non-selective school. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) attended Brentwood school, now in the assisted places scheme. So far so good. In his time it was a direct grant school, which he attended from 1957 to 1964. I wish that I had had that advantage. I went to a common or garden grammar school.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

It shows.

Mr. Butcher

Under the direct grant arrangements a capitation fee was paid by the DES on behalf of every pupil. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman, laugh as he may at the moment, was the beneficiary of state assistance to attend a selective school. Why is it that tonight he and his privileged team of colleagues, who are perched on the Opposition Front Bench like starlings, wish to say to Brentwood school, the old school of the hon. Member for Blackburn, "You can't do it under the APS"? Why is the hon. Gentleman saying that parents on low incomes should not have the same opportunities that his parents had? It seems that they are not to have that choice if he has his way. If he is to be consistent with his philosophy, he should support the Government.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for informing the House of what could be read in any of the reference works of the past 15 years. I am not in the least ashamed of where my parents happened to arrange for me to go to school. None of us is responsible for where we went to school. Instead we are responsible for where our children go to school. When we went to school, there were no comprehensive schools. All schools were selective. As the Minister wishes to trade family histories, he should be made aware that my youngest sister failed the 11-plus. It was only because comprehensive education was available in the adjoining education division that she had the chance to take advantage of higher education. The Labour party is concerned that there should be real choice for everyone and not merely for a privileged few. That is why we have pushed for the comprehensive principle throughout the country.

Mr. Butcher

The hon. Gentleman has done nothing to persuade me or, I think, the House that the inconsistency embodied in his own career does not remain strong. The privileged bunch on the Opposition Front Bench is saying that it will deny opportunities to children of poor and less well-off families through the APS. It is a scheme which benefited one of the bunch directly. Two more of its members enjoyed privilege with state funding in a selective system. I find its position difficult to contemplate.

Why do we help children whose parents are on low incomes? I shall use some real examples. The Labour party has been pretty good of late—let us pay it the compliment—of taking individual cases and making general points from them. I shall take the opportunity of taking some individual cases and making general points from them. I shall present real examples of pupils who have done well against the odds through the APS. There was the girl suffering from cystic fibrosis whose widowed mother put her through an APS school in Surrey. Last year, she left that school with one A and two B grades at A-level and she is now studying law at university.

Ms. Armstrong

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Butcher

Let me finish.

There was the Coventry boy whose four A grades and one B at A-level won him a place at Oxford, where he is now reading mathematics. I am sure that his father, an unemployed labourer, is rightly proud. There was the London assisted pupil who achieved two As and a C at A-level last year. Both parents are blind. I am sure that with that handicap bringing up children can be a monumental struggle. If the assisted place gave those parents the reassurance that their child was being educated according to their wishes, who would begrudge them that? We believe that they should have that choice. If the local neighbourhood comprehensive school is not to their choice, they should have the opportunity to send their child elsewhere.

Ms. Armstrong

Is the Minister really saying that that opportunity should be available only to those on the assisted places scheme? Is he saying that such an opportunity could not be made available in the local comprehensive? Is he saying that he is not committed to ensuring that that opportunity is available in every comprehensive school in the country, for every child?

Mr. Butcher

No, I am not saying any of those things. The hon. Lady has just dug herself a very deep hole. If she examines the Education Reform Act 1988, which she opposed root and branch, she will find that a theme runs through it. It will be seen that in the case both of grant-maintained schools and CTCs the Government will be giving the independent sector real competition and a real run for its money—because we have expectations of the state's free system that are the same as those that we have in respect of the independent system. The Government are giving real choice in those terms.

The examples I gave related to people who opted for a certain ethos. We say that that same ethos can come through in our state systems, through the grant-maintained schools and through the CTCs. We are the friends of the underprivileged in that regard.

Mr. Dunn

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition's contribution is quite bizarre? They are saying that because something cannot be available to all, it should not be available to anyone. Presumably the same applies, in the Opposition's view, to those people who cannot afford to buy their own house—and the Opposition would argue also that because some people cannot afford to buy a car, no one should own a car. That is the logic of the politics of envy.

Mr. Butcher

My hon. Friend the Whip advised me not to prolong the debate, and in order to put Labour out of its misery we should not do so. We have been given enough material tonight to keep us going until the next general election.

Labour has been exposed as the party not of equality and opportunity but of dull uniformity and mediocrity. That is Labour's game. It believes in equality—full stop. We believe in true equality of opportunity. I shall sit down and challenge the Opposition to undertake a little research. They have not done much, and they ought to do more.

We know which schools the members of the Shadow Cabinet attended. My estimate is that one third of them attended independent schools. I say to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that they are a tough bunch, are they not? They are a privileged lot. One third of their number attended independent schools, and another third attended selective schools—and only one third of them shared the hon. Lady's lonely new tradition of attending a comprehensive school.

Ms. Armstrong

I am amazed at the Minister's ignorance of educational history. It took Labour Governments to introduce comprehensive education. I confess to attending a selective school after I took the 11 plus. My predecessor as Member of Parliament for my constituency was chairman of the education committee and took that school out of selectivity and made it a comprehensive school, which was an enlightening and uplifting experience for me.

The Minister should know and understand that it took legislation in this House to move towards non-selective education, and that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when Education Secretary, took more schools out of selection than any previous Secretary of State for Education.

Mr. Butcher

I have had quite enough fun tonight, and I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 93, Noes 17.

Division No. 314] [11.14 pm
Amess, David Couchman, James
Amos, Alan Currie, Mrs Edwina
Arbuthnot, James Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Day, Stephen
Aspinwall, Jack Dover, Den
Baldry, Tony Dunn, Bob
Bellingham, Henry Durant, Tony
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Fallon, Michael
Boswell, Tim Forman, Nigel
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n) Fox, Sir Marcus
Bowis, John Garel-Jones, Tristan
Burt, Alistair Gill, Christopher
Butcher, John Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Butterfill, John Gregory, Conal
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hampson, Dr Keith
Carrington, Matthew Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Cash, William Harris, David
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda Hawkins, Christopher
Chapman, Sydney Hind, Kenneth
Chope, Christopher Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Cope, Rt Hon John Irvine, Michael
Jack, Michael Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Steen, Anthony
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield) Stern, Michael
Knapman, Roger Stevens, Lewis
Knowles, Michael Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Lawrence, Ivan Summerson, Hugo
Lightbown, David Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Lilley, Peter Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Tracey, Richard
Lord, Michael Twinn, Dr Ian
Maclean, David Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Mans, Keith Waddington, Rt Hon David
Miller, Sir Hal Waller, Gary
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Mitchell, Sir David Warren, Kenneth
Neubert, Michael Widdecombe, Ann
Nicholls, Patrick Wilkinson, John
Norris, Steve Wilshire, David
Patten, John (Oxford W) Winterton, Nicholas
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Wood, Timothy
Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Shaw, David (Dover) Tellers for the Ayes:
Shelton, Sir William Mr. David Heathcote-Amory and Mr. John M. Taylor.
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Armstrong, Hilary McWilliam, John
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Pike, Peter L.
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Straw, Jack
Fatchett, Derek Wallace, James
Foster, Derek Wise, Mrs Audrey
Hood, Jimmy
Howells, Geraint Tellers for the Noes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Dennis Skinner.
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved That the draft Education (Assisted Placed) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.