HC Deb 15 July 1992 vol 211 cc1174-90 5.55 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I beg to move, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 3rd July, be approved. The draft regulations are quite specific in their purpose in that they amend the principal regulations, which are the Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1989. The amending regulations provide for the uprating of the parental contribution tables which set out how much parents must pay towards their child's assisted place, together with certain other technical amendments.

As hon. Members will know, the assisted places scheme was established in 1981 for the prime purpose of opening up educational opportunities for able children from less well-off families. It provides their parents with assistance towards the fees at some of the best independent schools in the country. That assistance is on a sliding scale based on gross parental income, and the principal changes embodied in the amending regulations are concerned with the routine revision of those scales.

There are, of necessity, several other technical amendments in order to keep the definition of "total parental income" for the purposes of the scheme in line with tax legislation and to update the working of the regulations to reflect current practice and circumstances. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will find that the amendments that I shall describe are quite straightforward.

Regulation 1 of the draft regulations deals with citation, commencement, application and interpretation. The regulations are to come into force on 28 August 1992. Regulation 2 is a technical amendment, necessary to ensure that the assisted places regulations remain up to date in relation to those with refugee status.

Regulations 3 and 5 update the provisions of regulations 7 and 12 of the principal regulations. A school is prohibited from awarding an assisted place if the whole of the child's first year fees are required to be paid under a court order. Schools must also take into account fees required to be paid under a court order when assessing the amount of fee remission for existing assisted place pupils. The amendments will require the schools in such circumstances also to take into account fees required to be paid by virtue of a deed of separation and corrects an existing anomaly.

Regulation 4 increases the allowance made when calculating parents' total relevant income for each dependent child, other than the assisted place holder. The amount is raised from £1,065 to £1,105—by the same percentage which applies to the uprating of the parental contribution scales, to which I shall address myself in a moment. This allowance is helpful to parents with large families, and uprating it will ensure that their position is not worsened.

Regulation 6 is consequential on the Finance Act 1991. Relevant parental income for the purposes of the assisted places scheme is total taxable income, gross of all allowances. Each year we make any necessary amendments to nullify the effects of specific new allowances introduced in tax legislation to keep the definition of income constant for the purposes of determining income under the scheme. This year the Inland Revenue has confirmed that sections 32 and 33 of the Finance Act 1991 provide for tax relief on the costs of vocational training. Therefore, a small technical amendment to remove the effect of such allowances is required.

I now come to the main purpose of setting the regulations before the House today. Regulation 7 sets out the income bands used for assessing parents' contributions towards fees. These bands have been uprated to take account of the movement in the retail price index to April this year—that is, by 4 per cent. The threshold at or below which parents pay nothing towards fees is raised from £8,714 to £9,056, with corresponding increases in the thresholds for higher percentage contributions from income. The effect of this amendment is that parents will not be asked to increase contributions above the rate of inflation; they will continue to contribute roughly the same proportion of their income as they did last year. I believe that the House will find this an equitable measure, taking into account the fact that, on average, parents in the scheme earn considerably less than the national average income.

Assistance under the scheme follows the principle that the lower the income is, the greater Government assistance should be. The threshold for full remission of fees, to which I have just referred, is set deliberately low so that the least well-off families benefit most. The scale then rises sharply so that better-off families get reduced assistance and finally no assistance. I believe that to be right and in keeping with the aims of the scheme; to open doors of opportunity to those who would otherwise never be able to contemplate paying fees.

Even so, participating schools have made representations to us that they should be allowed greater freedom in the use of their own scholarship and bursary funds for the benefit of assisted pupils. Under existing regulations, schools are effectively prohibited from using such funds to reduce the parental contribution to fees—for example, in cases of sudden hardship or where the school wishes to give a merit award or to retain a particularly promising pupil. Regulation 7 provides for parents' residual liability for fees to be reduced or extinguished by a bursary or scholarship awarded by the school in such cases, and we hope that this small amendment will enable schools to use scholarship funds in the most beneficial way and to have flexibility to assist those in most need of help if and when the need arises.

As we reiterated in our election manifesto, the Government believe firmly in the principle that parents in every part of the country should have access to the opportunities offered by a scheme such as this. The assisted places scheme is now in its 11th year. The Government have supported and will continue to support the scheme as part of our policy of widening educational choice and opportunity. With many parents throughout the country, we are immensely encouraged to see the successes—in music, the arts and sport, as well as in academic subjects—which assisted pupils have recorded. Over the years since this excellent scheme was introduced, more than 55,000 children have benefited from education at some of the best independent schools in the country. There are now more than 27,600 pupils in the scheme, well over a third of whom are enjoying totally free education at those schools.

The provisions and amendments that I have described are necessary technicalities to ensure the continued smooth running of the assisted places scheme and to continue to provide for a realistic contribution both from the Government and from parents. I trust that they will find favour with hon. Members.

6.1 pm

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

This is the fourth year in which I, on behalf of the official Opposition, have opposed such an order. In that spirit, I welcome the Minister to the debate. On each occasion, I have faced a different Minister, which says something about the short time that they have spent in education. I hope that the present Minister and other Education Ministers will stay longer, and that that will show the Government's determination to take education seriously and to recognise that it needs a little continuity and stability.

Mr. Forth

Perhaps the hon. Lady should tell the Prime Minister that.

Ms. Armstrong

I shall come to the Prime Minister later.

We oppose the order, once again, because it fails to meet the objectives that Ministers set when they introduced the scheme under the Education Act 1980. We oppose it because it does not ensure value for money and because it fails to apply the criteria established in the citizens and parents charter for this aspect of public spending. We oppose it because it prevents attention from being focused on improving the overall quality of work and on raising standards generally. And we oppose it mainly because it puts ideological dogma before educational opportunity and achievement.

In the parents charter, the Government state that standards will be raised by improving information on and inspection of schools. We had many debates on the philosophy which underlies that when we considered the Education (Amendment) Bill earlier this year, but, remarkably, the assumptions which underlie the order are that the brightest children, whom the scheme is supposed to support, will be excluded from those aims.

Unless the independent sector deals with special needs, it is excluded from the provisions of the parents charter. Despite the increasing amount of public money spent on the scheme, on which the Government based their education philosophy in their election manifesto, that sector is excluded. During the passage of the Education (Amendment) Bill, we moved amendments to make the inspection of and information on schools in the independent sector——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Lady is straying rather wide of the regulations, which apply to the financing of the scheme, as I am sure that she appreciates. It would be helpful if she would keep her remarks to the financing of the scheme.

Ms. Armstrong

I am trying to relate the principle of the assisted places scheme to expenditure. The order specifically increases expenditure, but I will try to ensure that I do not stray outside your instructions. You know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I would be the last person to seek to do that.

It is important that the Government's aims are examined by the Opposition. The Government are trying to get away with double standards, and it is the job of the Opposition to point out where double standards apply.

There is no accountability for expenditure on the assisted places scheme. There is no inspection of or information about independent schools and whether they provide the most effective education opportunities for children who benefit from or participate in the scheme. I am sure that the Minister would not expect me to speak without mentioning the inspectors' report on the education of very able children in maintained schools. The report says: It should be possible to cater for the majority of very able pupils within the context of the normal school curriculum if proper consideration is given to their particular special needs and some flexibility is introduced into both organisational and teaching strategies … Evidence suggests that those schools which focus sharply on what very able pupils might reasonably achieve are likely to be more successful in improving the overall quality and raising standards generally. We have contended for many years that it is the responsibility of the education system to raise standards generally and to open up opportunity for all children. The report makes it clear that one of the most effective ways of doing so is to teach very able children in normal schools. The Government are rejecting that idea through the underlying philosophy of the order and of the scheme to which the order grants money. The programme carries with it the assumption that adequate education for very able children can be achieved only by taking them out of the maintained system and putting them into the private sector. Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools does not agree, and nor do we: not only can the needs of the very able be catered for within the maintained sector, but the overall quality of work is thereby improved and standards generally are raised. That is what we are supposed to be trying to achieve.

The scheme also fails to secure value for money. There was something of a crisis following the order last year. A sum of money was granted and the Audit Commission was called in to examine how the money was being spent by the Department of Education and Science. In preparation for the citizens charter—which is why I consider this point to be relevant—the Audit Commission discovered that the assisted places scheme was about £3 million overspent, even though it was not achieving its target in terms of the numbers that the House had intended the money to cover. There was an overspend of about £3 million, and the Minister had to cap the amount of money that public or private schools were able to claim through the order.

Schools had been able to set their own fee limits and increase their fees without reference to Government. In the middle of last year, the Minister had to state that fees could be increased only by 12 per cent. I need hardly remind the House that the cap set for the maintained sector was substantially lower, at 7 per cent. Even though the cap was set at 12 per cent. in the independent sector—substantially higher than in the maintained sector—it had great difficulty in keeping to it and, indeed, some girls' public schools were increasing their fees by up to 15 per cent. or 18 per cent. and boys' schools by as much as 30 per cent. It is clear that the scheme does not offer value for money. What does the Minister intend to do this year to ensure that the scheme does not run into similar problems? What level of increase will he set for fees?

All the research and HM inspectorate's report show that the assisted places scheme plays no part in raising overall standards or ensuring that the system for which the House is responsible is able to provide improvements. Research into the programme has shown forcefully that the scheme fails to secure the number of children from poor schools whom it was originally established to recruit. Yet, despite all the evidence from HM inspectorate and others, the Government continue and expand the scheme and put more money into it. One can only conclude that the Government do so because of ideological dogma.

These days, expert opinion in education does not seem to mean anything to the Government. Indeed, the Government seem to think that flying in the face of such opinion is somehow clever, and that the less anyone knows about education the better. I am afraid that we have seen some evidence of that from the Prime Minister in recent days.

I hope that Ministers will begin to deal with the facts, with the need to raise standards and to ensure that all our energy is committed to that aim rather than to narrow, divisive schemes fuelled only by ideological dogma.

6.14 pm
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I shall be brief. I enjoyed the style and elegance of the speech of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), but it contained very little with which I could agree.

The Minister said that this is the 11th year of uprating under the regulations. For five of those years, I performed the ritual that he has performed so ably today. I do not accept the notions advanced by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West, for reasons that I have already stated. I welcome the changes in the regulations relating to the use of scholarships and bursaries because it is wise to enable schools to have greater flexibility in the application of their funds.

I listened with some interest to the hon. Lady's reference to Her Majesty's inspectorate's advice and its comments on the passage and work of the scheme. I have always disregarded that advice. I always thought that Her Majesty's inspectorate was a creature of the 1960s and, indeed, of the Labour party. Nothing it has ever said has given me any reason to change my mind.

The hon. Lady talked about children being "put into schools", as if there were a mechanism by which the state took hold of children from a variety of backgrounds and forced 55,000 people and the 27,000 currently benefiting from the scheme to enter good, well-respected private schools. In fact, it is the parents themselves who, for their children, elect to take advantage of the opportunities available in the private sector through the agency of the regulations.

I also welcome the uprating details, as they relate to the numbers of parents on low or benefit-related income. The scheme always aimed to give an opportunity to parents for whom the state and local comprehensive school were the only available choice. For that reason, the House should support the proposals.

The hon. Lady referred to an issue of which the Minister could perhaps take note for the future. Under the regulations, there is a strong case in time for widening the application of choice to parents whose children perhaps do not have the same academic ability as their peers. The hon. Lady's point about special needs children should be considered. Why should the parents of special needs children be denied the same opportunity as parents with normal, mainstream, high calibre children? In that sense, the hon. Lady has a point. If her argument were accepted, perhaps her objection to the regulations would diminish.

The regulations are worthy of consideration on an annual basis because that gives us the opportunity to emphasise the philosophical divide between the Conservative and Labour Benches. The hon. Lady talked about compulsion, ideology and doctrinaire stances. I have never adopted a stance that was not ideological or doctrinaire because I pursue my beliefs. I share a philosophy. If I did not folow my philosophy, I would be on the Labour Benches, where philosophy, ideology and doctrine are now things of the past, according to the new-style Labour party.

I firmly believe in parental choice. I believe that parents who do not have the financial means of richer parents should have the same opportunities as richer parents to exercise choice for their children if they so desire. The point of the regulations is that they give parents the opportunity to choose. It is not an enforced choice—parents elect to send their children to private sector schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his delivery today, and I wholly support the regulations, as amended.

6.19 pm
Mr. Stephen Byers (Wallsend)

I wish, first, to reply very quickly to the points that were made by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). This scheme is not about parental choice; it is about schools choosing their pupils, which is exactly what happens when an application is made under the assisted places scheme. Often, a pupil has to sit an examination set by the school that his parents wish him to attend; thus it is the school that does the selecting. There is a political and philosophical difference between the Opposition and the Government. We believe that high-quality education opportunities should be available to all children, not just a minority. The regulations are another example of the way in which a minority of schoolchildren are given an advantage over the majority. It is for that very basic reason that we shall oppose the regulations.

The assisted places scheme has been in operation for more than a decade. Since 1981, £500 million of public money has been spent on it. At the time of its introduction, the Government's stated aim was very clear—to assist children from less well-off backgrounds to attend high-quality independent schools. I submit that, even in the Government's own terms, the scheme has been a failure. Do the children come from less well-off backgrounds? The Minister said that only one third qualified for full remission of fees. He could have gone further and told the House that more than one third of the parents receiving support under the regulations are on incomes above the national average. This is not a scheme that benefits the less well-off but one that benefits people on incomes above the national average.

Mr. Forth

I am no statistician, but I should point out that if one third of those parents are on incomes above the national average, two thirds are on incomes below the national average. Inexorably the scheme benefits the less well-off.

Mr. Byers

The Minister leads me to my next point. I want to look at the backgrounds of those parents who are less well-off. The assisted places scheme is helping people from middle-class backgrounds who have fallen on hard times as a result of the Government's recession. The figures show clearly that 61 per cent. of the mothers and more than half the fathers of children who receive assisted places were themselves at either independent schools or selective schools. That is the reality. The Independent Schools Information Service has itself admitted that only 16 per cent. of people whose children receive assisted places are from unskilled or semi-skilled backgrounds.

The Government's stated aim—that those from less well-off backgrounds should be helped—is not being fulfilled. The Government intend, under the regulations, to spend slightly more than £70 million on the assisted places scheme in the coming academic year. Will that public money buy high-quality education? In many respects it is difficult to judge.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) said, these schools are not subject to inspection. We do not have the right to inspect the quality of education that the young people in them receive. They do not have to follow the national curriculum, and there are no league tables of comparative examination results in the independent sector. Indeed, the independent sector heads have expressed strong resistance to the establishment of such league tables. But this autumn the Department of Education, at a cost of more than £650,000, will publish league tables for the state schools.

It is interesting to note which schools have opted out of the assisted places scheme or have never opted in—schools like Eton and Harrow. There is no evidence that a child who has been given an assisted place does any better than he would have done had he gone to a state school. The Audit Commission, which looked into this issue, has said that the evidence suggests that the children who are assisted into the private sector do not receive a measurably greater added value from their schooling as a result.

The message is quite clear. The regulations throw a financial lifeline to the private schools that are suffering because of the recession. The independent sector itself recognises that at present there is a record number of bankruptcies among private schools. It is for that reason that we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the fees charged under the assisted places scheme. In 1989, the average was £2,364; just two years later it went up to £3,100—an increase of more than 30 per cent. in an amount coming out of the public purse.

The right hon.Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) said that in his view the scheme was a rescue operation for distressed gentlefolk. I agree, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is also a rescue operation for the financially distressed and failing private schools. The regulations represent a misuse of public money to subsidise a private industry. It is a public subsidy on a massive scale. If the regulations are approved, at least one school will receive more than £1.5 million of public money in the next academic year through the assisted places scheme, and many will receive more than £1 million. They call themselves independent schools. What an absolute misnomer. Those schools are totally dependent on state subsidies for their very survival.

There has been no attempt to see whether we are getting value for the expenditure of public money. Some schools charge fees of more than £7,000 a year, others less than £2,000. Is any attempt made to see whether schools that charge more than three times as much as others in the independent sector provide real value for money? Will the Minister say that he intends to cap fee increases that can be charged to the public purse? If so, will the capping be at the current inflation rate of 3.9 per cent.? The House deserves answers to those questions.

The regulations will commit about £70 million of public money under the assisted places scheme. With a view to identifying the Government's priorities, it is worth reflecting on where else the Department is spending money. During the period to which the £70 million relates, only £14 million will be spent on teacher appraisal, although that is a vital initiative to improve the quality of the teaching force; reading recovery, which was announced in the full glare of publicity earlier this year, will get a grand total of £3 million to assist primary schoolchildren; governor training—so vital at present—will get the grand sum of £10 million. That is a clear sign of the Government's priorities. The sum to be spent on the assisted places scheme could employ an additional 3,500 teachers in the maintained sector. That could be a vital first step in reducing the ever-increasing class sizes in our schools. But, instead, the money is being used for the assisted places scheme.

The regulations are deeply damaging to the Government. They are an admission that, after 13 years of Tory rule, the condition of our public sector education is so poor that 30,000 of our most able pupils must be given an escape route. There can be no clearer condemnation of the failure of the Government's education policies than the fact that we are debating the regulations this evening.

The assisted places scheme is deeply flawed and divisive. It was born of dogma and it continues through prejudice. Even at this late stage, the Government should think again and redirect resources to benefit all our children.

6.30 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) started in fine style. I assumed that I would be able to agree with him because he said that the objective was to obtain high-quality education for every child. The trouble was that he seemed to assume that he and his party colleagues should define high-quality education. The point is that the definition is surely open to discussion. As there is no agreement between us on what sort of education is most suited to each child, it is a case for parental choice.

The Opposition would apparently deny parental choice of an independent school to those who could not afford the full fees. But some parents who are not well off wish to choose the independent sector. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman did not wish to help those who had fallen on harder times during the recession. In my view, they are particularly worthy of assistance. Some parents cannot afford to take the choices that are available to those with higher incomes.

It is essential that parents who are convinced that their child would be best educated in an independent school have an opportunity to take that route. After all, as the hon. Members for Wallsend and for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) said, although one third of the parents of children on the scheme receive full remission of fees, the parents of the remaining two thirds make contributions out of their own pockets to the fees of the school that they have chosen. There is no need for the hon. Member for Wallsend to decide whether the school that costs £7,000 or the one that costs £2,000 a year is better. The parents should choose.

Ms. Armstrong

Does the hon. Gentleman support our call for more information about what is happening in the independent schools? If the Education (Schools) Act 1992 is to mean anything in the maintained sector, it should also apply in the independent sector.

Mr. Griffiths

My answer to the hon. Lady's first question is yes, but my answer to her second question is no. Certainly, information should be available so that parents can make informed choices.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Griffiths

Let me finish the paragraph. Information should be available. I have not yet heard of an independent school which hides its light under a bushel. Equally, in legislation we have ensured that the state schools provide information so that parents can make an informed choice.

Mr. Stern

Does my hon. Friend agree that organisations such as the Independent Schools Information Service have set standards in the provision of full, comprehensible, comprehensive information about independent schools which we have wished for many years the state sector would match?

Mr. Griffiths

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. There is a mechanism whereby independent schools make information available. They are open to questions and visits long before parents decide to invest their own funds in the education of their children, having already paid for the education of those same children within the state system; so the information that the hon. Member for Durham, North-West wants is definitely made available.

I take issue with my hon. Friend the Minister, if he will not be unhappy at my doing that. Towards the end of his speech, he said that the regulations were technicalities. I am aware that he means that they are technical changes to an existing structure, but the fact that the regulations have been introduced, changes have been made and we are having this debate will be an encouragement and comfort to many parents.

During the events just before 9 April, the same comment was made to me time and time again in Portsmouth, which is not a city marked by individual wealth—it is a working-class city like any other great city in Britain. People said that they were worried about the effect of a change of political control on education opportunities for children whose parents could not afford full fees in independent schools. That was a genuine and serious worry.

If the hon. Member for Durham, North-West is keen to know about independent schools, she should visit some in places such as Portsmouth. Some of the parents are bus drivers. A nurse who is a single parent provides for her daughter in an independent school. We should encourage such parents. They make an investment and decide for themselves.

When one comments on previous speeches in the debate, one often feels constrained to say that misleading points were made. I hope that the hon. Member for Wallsend accepts that his comments about Eton and Harrow showed an utter lack of knowledge about those schools. He is surely aware that, for at least the whole of this century, both schools have sought gradually to widen the range of the backgrounds from which their pupils come. Bursaries and scholarships are available to children who need them.

Eton and Harrow reject the Government's assisted places scheme, not because they do not want a wide social background of parents but because they are sufficiently well endowed from the past to offer those facilities themselves, but schools in cities such as Portsmouth need Government assistance.

Mr. Byers

I welcome the fact that Eton and Harrow make their own arrangements and do not rely on public subsidy. My point was that those schools are well known for the quality of education that they deliver. We cannot say the same for the 295 schools that are part of the assisted places scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) said, there is no way of judging the performance of the schools which are part of the assisted places scheme.

Mr. Dunn

Is that a reason to abolish the lot?

Mr. Griffiths

Of course it is not a reason to abolish the lot. It is not possible to say that every independent school is a perfect educational institution. Four institutions in the city of Portsmouth receive assistance under the Government's scheme. They are all first class, and the parents who send their children there are grateful for the opportunity that they have been given.

I realise that this is a short debate and I shall merely mention a few further matters to my hon. Friend the Minister. I am sure that parents will welcome the flexibility allowed by the regulations. From time to time, it is essential for us to ensure that we relate our assistance to new problems that may emerge. If schools offer small bursaries and scholarships to children with ability in certain subjects—for example, the arts—it is important that the receipt of such a small sum does not prevent the parents of a child on the assisted places scheme from receiving any financial benefit. The advantage of the amendment to the regulations is that if children on the assisted places scheme receive a small financial award from a school, they will benefit from it, as will children whose parents can afford the full fees. Surely the Opposition will welcome that and will want less well-off children to be able to take advantage of such awards.

The Opposition have made much play of the fact that not as many children benefit from the assisted places scheme as we should like. If the Government return to the House to seek further funds to ensure that that target is met, I shall certainly give them my enthusiastic support.

6.41 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

In view of the way in which the debate has ranged widely, it is important to state that Liberal Democrats have no antipathy per se to the independent sector. We are more than willing to discuss ways in which the state and independent sectors could work together. I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) said about the possibility of the independent sector making a contribution by providing support for children with special educational needs. Those issues could be debated.

Today we are debating the assisted places scheme, and it is vital to find out what the order will do. Figures which show how much the assisted places scheme is costing have been mentioned. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm in his winding-up speech the information that I have obtained from his Department, which suggests that in the current financial year approximately £76 million will be spent on the assisted places scheme, but it is estimated that next year, in 1992–93, spending will rise to £87 million. That is an increase of £11 million which, by my calculations, is 15 per cent. in cash terms and 10 per cent. in real terms. I should be grateful for confirmation of those figures.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the Minister. We have heard it already.

In view of the fact that we are expected to support the large real terms increase contained in the order, it seems perfectly proper before we do so to question whether the scheme has been successful, according to the conditions originally laid down for it, and whether it has provided value for money.

As other hon. Members have said, when the scheme was initiated in 1980, it was clearly stated that the aim was to provide assisted places to bright children from less well-off backgrounds at high-quality independent schools. In last year's debate on the order, the then Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Fallon, said that the scheme was for "parents of humble means". Since the scheme's inception, there has been much research on the matter, and some hon. Members have referred to it. About a year ago, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) quoted research suggesting that only about 10 per cent. of children on the assisted places scheme were from families of manual workers. That was contradicted by research for the Independent Schools Information Service, conducted by MORI, which suggested that 38 per cent. of children helped were from working-class backgrounds.

As I was confused by that conflicting research, I asked the research division of the House of Commons Library for its opinion, having collated all the relevant information on such research, and was told: Much of the research on the operation of the scheme has suggested that it has failed in its prime aim of giving good education to children from relatively poor backgrounds and is mainly subsidising middle class parents. I should be interested to hear whether the Minister agrees with that assessment and, if not, what evidence he has to substantiate his claim that the scheme is a success.

Secondly, there is the question whether the scheme is providing value for money. Other hon. Members have referred to that, but I hope that when the Minister responds we shall find out how he believes that it is providing value for money and value for the increase that he is asking us to support through the order.

The question of value for money was raised last year, when the then Under-Secretary of State said: The value for money that is obtained from expenditure on the assisted places scheme is beyond question."—[Official Report, 17 July 1991; Vol. 195, c. 459.] He justified that value for money in two ways: first, because of what he described as the "breadth and quality" of the curriculum offered within the independent schools. Presumably that was something of a slap in the face for state schools, which are constrained by the national curriculum, unlike independent schools which are allowed to do things better and to produce a "breadth and quality" not allowed to state schools.

Examination results were the only other justification that the Under-Secretary of State could find, and he quoted some figures for pupils on assisted places schemes. One would certainly expect such pupils to get good examination results. After all, they have been selected for their high level of ability, so that can hardly be a justification in its own right. We need clear evidence that the scheme is giving added value for pupils who take up the places offered. As hon. Members have already said, there is no evidence that the scheme is giving value for money, or to justify our support for the increased money in the order.

Mr. Stern

If the hon. Gentleman is looking for added value for the money being spent, why does he not consider every parent who, by choice and without constraint, sends his or her child to such a school on an assisted place basis? Why does he think that they do it if they do not think that they are getting added value?

Mr. Foster

I am grateful for the intervention because it suggests that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) does not support many of the detailed schemes that the Government have introduced. The Government have told us that the only way to assess success in schools is through a complex testing and reporting of results procedure. Clearly the hon. Gentleman does not support his Front-Bench colleagues in that respect.

I was referring to added value. I suggest that no one has given—I hope that the Minister will in his winding-up speech—any evidence of added value being provided by the scheme. There is no evidence of value for money.

Other hon. Members have referred to the Audit Commission having suggested that no added value was being provided. On 28 February, The Times—hardly a supporter of the Opposition—went further in its comments on the Audit Commission report and said: The Assisted Places Scheme is a misuse of public money to subsidise a private industry. In seeking more money for a scheme that neither meets its own criteria nor provides value for money, the Minister will have to put forward some very convincing arguments.

The Liberal Democrats do not seek to damage the education of pupils who are already on the assisted places scheme. However, we see no justification for continuing the scheme. It provides no value for money and it is not beneficial to the education of the 93 per cent. of children who are in the state sector about whom we should be concerned. We should far prefer the energy of the Minister and of the Secretary of State, whom I see in his place, being directed to providing improvements in the state education system which has been so badly neglected in recent years. There are crumbling schools and teacher morale is low. Many concerns have been expressed not only by members of the teaching profession, by governors and by parents, but by Opposition Members. We will not support the regulations.

6.50 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few remarks in support of the regulations. I confess that I was not surprised to hear the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) attack the assisted places scheme and the regulations. The continuing hostility of his party is not a cause for amazement. I had the opportunity of a council free place at a direct grant school. I remember that Mrs. Shirley Williams, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science and the spiritual and philosophical grandmother of the Front-Bench spokesmen of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, put the knife into the direct grant scheme in the 1970s. As with so many of the education reforms introduced by the Labour Government, she kicked away the ladders of opportunity up which so many Opposition Members had managed to ascend.

I am delighted to speak in support of the order. There are three reasons why the House should give the order its wholehearted support. First, as my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, the assisted places scheme increases the choice of education available to parents on middling and low incomes. As has been mentioned, approximately one third of parents whose children receive assisted places get those places free. MORI research shows that the average income of the typical family benefiting from the assisted places scheme is about £10,000 per year. The average family benefiting from the scheme gains about two thirds of the average national household income. There is firm evidence that the scheme benefits the families and children for whom it was designed.

Secondly, in the context of the Government's broader schools policy, the assisted places scheme adds to the diversity of educational provision within the state sector. It provides an element of competition which we should welcome and not condemn. When Opposition Members complain because parents choose to send their children to independent schools through the assisted places scheme, they ask the wrong questions.

The question that the House should ask and the question which should be posed to local education authorities, to head teachers and to other members of the teaching profession, is why individual parents opt for places under the scheme rather than for the places available to them in neighbourhood schools.

I have the good fortune to live in and to represent part of Buckinghamshire. I know that our system, in which we still have both grammar and upper schools, formerly secondary modern schools—[Laughter.]—is such that on the whole we produce schools of fine quality to which parents wish to send their children. In response to the laughter from Opposition Members, I should point out that I meet parents who explain to me that not only the grammar schools in Buckinghamshire, but the good upper schools are over-subscribed and have a queue of parents waiting to send their children to them. If one has a good, dedicated teaching force and a supportive local education authority rather than one which seeks to import once modish and now outdated education philosophies, one can produce in grammar and upper schools alike a quality of education from which parents will be pleased for their children to benefit.

Thirdly, the assisted places scheme helps to break down the barriers of class and social background. I should have thought that all hon. Members would have that objective in common. I am especially pleased that regulation 7 improves and strengthens the scheme to make it easier for schools to give help to parents of relatively modest means so that the independent schools taking part in the scheme can continue their work of reaching out beyond the category of parents who can afford to pay the full fees.

I find it surprising that the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats continually snipe at the independent sector for its alleged exclusivity.

Mr. Don Foster

indicated dissent.

Mr. Lidington

I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Bath shaking his head. I should be delighted if the Liberal Democrats are gradually coming towards the Conservative party's position. Only a short time ago, the Liberal Democrats said that the charitable status of independent schools needed to be thoroughly and critically reviewed. In my constituency, the Liberal Democrats at local level still display hostility not only to the assisted places scheme, but to any selection within the state system of secondary education, even if their national spokespeople now choose to keep quiet about that objective.

The assisted places scheme promotes opportunity. I hope that the Government will take on board the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) about encouraging public schools further to get involved in the provision of education opportunities for people other than the academically gifted. My hon. Friend's suggestion about children with special educational needs was valuable and I trust that the Government will take it on board.

I do not pretend that the scheme of itself provides a complete or anywhere near complete answer to the challenges facing our education sytem. However, I believe that it is a valuable contribution to the promotion of excellence and quality in our system of state education. The regulations will have my wholehearted support.

6.58 pm
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

Many hon. Members have spoken with great knowledge of the education system. Many hon. Members have been teachers or administrators of the education system. I will turn to the parents' viewpoint of education. I do not pretend to be an expert on education, but I know quite a lot about being a parent. Many jibes are thrown at the Opposition about the Labour party being opposed to the independent sector, but it is not true. The Labour party is opposed to the subsidisation of the independent sector, whether through favourable taxation or the assisted places scheme.

It is all very well the Government talking about choice, free enterprise and competition. I had no choice as a parent in 1983 when my 13-year-old daughter was prevented from going to the split-site comprehensive school that she was attending because it had to close due to lack of resources. At a time when school governors have to decide whether to replace a teacher or repair the fabric of the building, it does not bode well to be told that the Government can spare £80 million to prop up the private sector.

I am a great believer in parents being able to choose to send their children to a private school if they can afford it. That applies to only a small percentage of the population. What I find objectionable is that those who are less well off have to subsidise the better-off through taxation so that they latter can send their children to private schools.

If we are to talk about competition and free market forces, let us see independent schools operate under that stricture. Let us see the end of tax relief and of the assisted places scheme. If there is money to spare, I assure everyone concerned that it is badly needed in the state sector. If the Government do not believe that, they should get out and talk to some of the poorer parents who do not want to send their children to private schools but to decent state schools. It is the Government's duty to provide the greatest good for the greatest number and to start putting resources into those schools.

7.2 pm

Mr. Forth

Listening to this brief debate, one would have thought that we had not just had a general election in which page 18 of the Conservative manifesto said: We will maintain the assisted places scheme, which gives access to independent education to many families who could not otherwise afford it. That was a clear statement by the party that won the election.

It is sad that so many hon. Members should have taken this occasion to re-run the tired Opposition arguments to which we have had to listen and to which, no doubt, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) had to listen in the distinguished years in which he occupied my present position.

The assisted places scheme is now established. As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) pointed out, many parents of modest means throughout the land, in his constituency and others, look to such a scheme to give their children opportunities that would otherwise be denied to them. The whole spirit in which Conservative Members have approached the debate is so different from that of the Opposition that it epitomises the differences in attitude. The Opposition's attitude is carping and bitter whereas we constantly emphasise choice and diversity and the desire, through a relatively modest scheme, to give the maximum number of parents an opportunity to have access to schools to which they would like their children to go.

The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) seemed to be mystified about how any sensible parents would want their child to go to such a school or how they could make that choice without information. He then answered his own question by revealing that a large proportion of parents whose children go to assisted places scheme schools had gone to schools in the independent sector. What better recommendation could there be than that people with first-hand experience of the benefits of the independent sector should want their children to go—in this case, through the assisted places scheme—to similar schools? The hon. Gentleman provided the answer to his own question. If he studies his speech in Hansard tomorrow, as is traditional, he will see that what I say is correct.

Two or three Opposition Members asked me what limit we have set on the fees increase for this year. The figure is 7.5 per cent., which is based on the increase that the maintained sector will receive this year. We want parity of treatment and I hope that that meets with the approval of the Opposition. It is straightforward.

I was asked several times how we can ensure quality in that sector. There are a number of ways of doing so. I have already suggested endorsement by parents. Others might be the examination results that those schools achieve, despite the fact that—I do not conceal it or dissent from it—the schools select in any case. Nevertheless, they then produce such consistently good and outstanding examination results that that in itself shows the sector's success.

Ms Armstrong

indicated dissent.

Mr. Forth

If the hon. Lady does not believe me, I shall send her some figures that will illustrate the point extremely well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford asked an important question about children with special educational needs. There are encouraging signs that many independent schools are now providing facilities for children with dyslexia or other special educational needs. Provision is growing. That shows that the independent sector is keen to play a full and rounded part in our education system and that it does not wish to be perceived as elitist, as many Opposition Members still portray it. The sector still has not gone far enough, but it is showing good signs, which we wish to encourage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North asked whether we expected to give further funds to the scheme. It is true that we are already making further funds available. We must strike a balance, as must any Government Department in that matter. Part of the increase is accounted for by the fees increase to which I referred, although we have effectively capped that. An important element of the increase is our desire to see more and more children having access, through the scheme, to the independent education of their choice. That was endorsed in the election on the basis of our manifesto, and it is enjoying increasing support through parents' choice.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) cannot have it both ways. I should think that his constituents will be interested to hear his apparent opposition to and doubts about the scheme. I suspect that they may also be interested in his views about grant-maintained schools, to which I gather he is also hostile. How he squares that with the great former Liberal principles of maximum choice for the individual in society is for him to answer. Somehow, the move from Liberal to Liberal Democrat seems to have removed almost all the classical elements of liberalism at its best and introduced something more akin to latter-day socialism, which we used to associate with the good old Labour party. That, too, seems to have got lost, but I shall leave it to Opposition Members to sort it out among themselves.

This is an important annual occasion for the House to consider whether this well established scheme, so recently endorsed by the electorate again, and explicitly so, as a result of our manifesto commitment, should be given modest but realistic additional resources to enable an increasing number of parents and children to have the choice and diversity that it provides. We are convinced that it was right to introduce the scheme, that it is well founded and properly funded. We are pledged to continue that. The regulations endorse that, and I ask the House to support them.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 3rd July, be approved.