HL Deb 04 November 1980 vol 414 cc933-75

2.59 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1980, which were laid before your Lordships' House on 21st July, be approved. These regulations will provide the detailed framework for the operation of the assisted places scheme which is being established under Section 17 of the Education Act 1980. Your Lordships discussed that provision at some length when we considered the Education Bill in the spring and I remember clearly the points made about the scheme then, even though on one occasion the debate was in the early hours of the morning. But it may be for the convenience of the House to say again why we decided to introduce the scheme and how, in general terms, we see it working.

Our starting point was the decision of the previous Labour Administration to phase out the direct grant scheme which had operated successfully for many years. We determined that the considerable educational opportunities which that scheme had offered to the children of parents from all walks of life should not be destroyed. In particular we recognised that the direct grant schools had, in general, provided a highly disciplined academic environment which was of especial benefit to more able children. With the ending of the direct grant most of these schools decided to go independent and thus, except for a small number of bursaries, to charge full fees to all their pupils. In the last few years the excellent educational opportunities which the schools offered have consequently been denied to pupils from families of limited means who could not afford the fees charged.

We committed ourselves therefore to restoring a system whereby able children could take advantage of the academic kind of education offered by these schools, whatever their parents' level of income. We recognised that the old direct grant scheme had certain weaknesses. It gave an indiscriminate subsidy through completely free places and the capitation grant to some parents who could well have afforded to pay the fee. The schools in the scheme were very unevenly distributed throughout the country. They were neither maintained nor independent, and membership of the scheme was very inflexible. In restoring the opportunities lost with the ending of the direct grant scheme we sought to improve that scheme. The assisted places scheme will only provide a subsidy in accordance with parents' means, and by bringing into the new scheme independent schools which were not part of the direct grant scheme we will be both widening still further the educational opportunities on offer and improving markedly the geographical distribution of those opportunities.

Much has been made in the media and elsewhere about the assisted places scheme providing a subsidy for the public schools. That is quite wrong. The scheme is a scheme to help children; it is not a scheme to help schools. It is not a scheme to help the private sector of education. It is a scheme to allow the private sector to make what they have to offer more widely available, a scheme to help some children to attend good independent schools whose parents might wish them to do so, but who in most cases could not begin to think about affording the fees. This Government believe that that is the right attitude to independent schools: to make the best that they have to offer as widely available as possible. In this country we need the best education we can get for our pupils, to make available as wide a range of opportunities as possible, and to provide as best we can for the educational needs of each child. Maintained schools provide a very great deal, but the private sector can help supplement that provision, and it would be quite wrong to deny those wider opportunities to pupils who could benefit from them but whose parents cannot afford the fees.

Although the resources available for the assisted places scheme are not substantial, we thought it appropriate to make some of them available for the support of pupils attending certain music schools for specialist musicians of high ability and potential. The schools concerned are Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, Wells Cathedral School and the Purcell School in Harrow. This will be an extension of the arrangements instituted in 1973 in respect of the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal Ballet Lower School. The numbers of pupils to be assisted in this way and other details are being discussed with the five schools concerned, and we hope to be able to introduce regulations to deal with these arrangements in the next Session. I would emphasise, however, that although the money for this extension of our support for talented musicians of school age is being found initially from the assisted places scheme at a cost of about £150,000 in the first year, there will be separate schemes operated under separate sets of regulations.

Let me now turn to the schools which we are inviting to participate in the assisted places scheme. There were 470 schools in England and 17 schools in Wales which originally indicated an interest in the scheme. Of those, 290 in England and 11 in Wales were invited to submit formal applications specifying the number of assisted places they would wish to offer and providing details about each school and the academic achievements of its pupils. We considered all these applications carefully, looking in particular for breadth and balance of curriculum to GCE O and A-levels, for a well established sixth form offering a range of A-level subjects with reasonable numbers of candidates obtaining good results in those examinations, appropriately qualified and stable teaching staff and appropriate teaching facilities and accommodation. On that basis, we have now invited 218 schools in England and nine schools in Wales to join the scheme and to sign the necessary participation agreements.

The detailed figures are still subject to agreement with the schools concerned, but in total there will be about 5,500 places in England and 150 places in Wales next year, of which about 900 will be for direct entry into the sixth form.

About 2,440 places will be for boys, 2,240 places for girls and 970 places in mixed schools. Clearly the balance between boys' and girls' places will not be perfect everywhere. It is fairly close overall, but there are a few places where we have not been able to achieve such a close balance. I regret that, but we have done our best and, in the final analysis, we could not of course depart significantly from the balance between boys' and girls' places that already exists in the independent sector as a whole. The geographical distribution of places, too, shows some imbalance in favour of the North-West, Avon and the South-East. To some extent that reflects the old direct grant scheme which was heavily concentrated in those areas, but it also reflects the spread of independent schools generally around the country. In fact, while it is by no means perfect, the distribution of assisted places will represent a marked improvement on the geographical spread of the old direct grant scheme. That improvement has been achieved in large part by the likely involvement in the scheme of 109 independent schools which were not direct grant schools. Those schools will be providing about 37 per cent. of the assisted places on offer, and I find it pleasing that we shall have such a wide cross-section of schools in the scheme substantially enhancing the range of educational opportunities available.

The next steps will be for each of the schools to enter into participation agreements with the Secretary of State, as is required by Section 17 of the 1980 Act. When those have been completed the schools will set about the important task of selecting the pupils who will take up the first assisted places in September next year. All this planning and pre- paration has been going ahead so that the scheme can start in 1981. It is well-advanced and progressing satisfactorily, but it is of course only provisional and is entirely contingent upon the approval of these draft regulations in this debate today.

Section 17(6) of the 1980 Act sets out very clearly the matters which these regulations cover. Briefly they are: first, the conditions of eligibility for selection for an assisted place; second, the arrangements for the remission of fees and the reimbursement of schools for the fees which they remit; third, conditions relating to the selection and admission of pupils, the charging of fees, keeping accounts and providing information; and finally, any other matters the Secretary of State considers appropriate. I shall describe only some of the main provisions contained in these draft regulations and if there are detailed questions which your Lordships wish to raise during the course of the debate, I will try to answer them at the end.

The first part of the regulations deals with matters of definition and interpretation. In particular, it sets out the considerations which will apply if a pupil's parents are separated or divorced. This is always a difficult area, especially where, as in this scheme, the assessment of parental income is involved. We have therefore sought to cover the many possible circumstances fairly comprehensively so that parents and schools will know where they stand and so reduce the scope for disputes.

Your Lordships will notice that the definition of "fees" for the purposes of the scheme specifically excludes boarding fees. This is in line with Section 17 of the Act which restricts assistance under the scheme to tuition and examination fees only. However, a number of schools have offered to provide assistance with boarding fees from their own resources, and as a result it may be possible for perhaps up to 300 pupils gaining assisted places under the scheme to be boarders. I should emphasise, though, that schools will not be able to require assisted place holders to board unless the school is assisting with fees for that purpose.

Part II of the regulations deals with matters of eligibility and selection. Regula- tion 4 specifies that pupils must have been ordinarily resident in this country for three years before becoming eligible for an assisted place, or that they are the children of migrant workers from other states in the European Community. Regulation 5 provides that a child may only be admitted to an assisted place at a normal age of entry to the school and that he or she must be at least 11 when admitted, or reach that age during their first assisted year. Exceptions to the first of these rules will only be permitted if a pupil could be admitted to an assisted place alongside existing assisted placeholders of the same age.

Regulation 6 lays down further considerations that apply to the selection of pupils for direct entry to assisted places at sixth form level. This issue was much debated when the Bill was being considered, both by your Lordships and in another place. After discussions with local authorities and schools, we decided that it would be right to introduce an extra condition for sixth form entry. The regulation before your Lordships provides that transfers from maintained schools will normally take place only with the consent of the local education authority concerned. Thus, where an independent school can widen the educational opportunities available—by, for instance, offering additional subjects or combinations of subjects at A level—an authority would be able to take advantage of this extra provision at no cost to itself. On the other hand, if an authority was already providing the A level opportunities which pupils sought and if it did not wish its sixth forms reduced by transfers to independent schools, it could withhold its consent. We believe that this regulation, used responsibly by authorities, will help to overcome the difficulties which were foreseen about sixth form entries; and indeed that it may serve to encourage fruitful co-operation between maintained and independent schools.

Under Regulation 7, pupils will not be eligible for assisted places unless they qualify for fee remission under the income scale in their first assisted year. There is however provision in Regulations 5(2)(b) and 6(2)(b) for pupils whose parents fall on hard times after entering their children in a school as fee-payers to be eligible to be considered for assistance at that time.

Regulation 8 places the basic responsibility for selecting the pupils on the schools themselves. I am sure that that is right. Judgments about whether or not particular children can benefit from the education offered by a specific school can clearly best be made by that school in the light of the individual circumstances and after the fullest consultation with parents and others involved.

The detailed arrangements for the remission of fees are dealt with in Part III and the schedule to the draft regulations. I do not propose to describe them at length, as the provisions are necessarily complex. Basically, the contribution which parents are required to pay towards school fees will be assessed in relation to their total income and the unearned income of their dependent children in the previous financial year. The only exclusions from that total income figure will be child benefit, certain disability allowances, and £600 for each dependent child (or other dependent relative) except the assisted placeholder.

The means test or income scale against which the figure of the family's relevant income will be set has been designed to be generous to the less well off, so that families at the bottom end of the scale receive free places or make only small contributions to fees. However, once income levels start to exceed the national average, parental contributions will increase more steeply, with parents paying at the margin between 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. of their net income. In practice this means that families with a relevant income of £4,766 or less will have fees remitted completely in 1981–82; those with relevant incomes of £5,500 would pay £99; those with £7,500 would pay £480; and then the scale increases more sharply so that families with relevant incomes of £11,000 would pay fees of up to £1,500 before they received any assistance. We have always made it clear that the scheme is not intended to help those who could afford independent school fees themselves, possibly by making some relatively slight additional sacrifice. Rather we have sought to ensure that the lower and middle income groups who could not otherwise possibly afford independent school fees get sufficient assistance to make it a real possibility that they could take advantage of the scheme.

While I am on the subject of the extent of financial assistance, your Lordships may find it useful to know that, in addition to the remission of tuition fees, the Government intend to help less well off families with the incidential expenses of assisted place holders—that is, with the cost of school meals, uniforms and transport. The Secretary of State will be making regulations under Section 18 of the 1980 Act, covering those expenses, in due course, but I should make it quite clear that these will be met from the resources of the scheme. This will not be an extra provision.

The remaining parts of the draft regulations cover various administrative and miscellaneous requirements. There are two of these to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention. First, Regulation 18 will require the schools to publish information about the scheme and about themselves. In particular, it will place the same requirements on independent schools in the scheme as on maintained schools regarding the publication of the public examination results achieved by their pupils.

Secondly, Regulation 19 will require that at least 60 per cent. of assisted place-holders be drawn from publicly maintained schools. In fact, because the income scale is so strict, it seems unlikely that many pupils whose parents have afforded the fees at independent junior schools would be eligible, on income grounds, for assisted places at secondary level. We therefore fully expect the proportion of assisted placeholders from maintained schools to be higher than 60 per cent., but this regulation will provide a minimum safeguard.

My Lords, I have outlined the major features of these draft regulations. I believe that the regulations will provide a sound administrative framework for the operation of the assisted places scheme and I commend them to your Lordships. I am sure that the scheme which they will regulate will be of great benefit to able children in this country and that the widening of educational opportunities that it will offer from September next year will be a significant step forward in meeting the educational needs of all our children. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) Regulations 1980 be approved.—(Baroness Young.)

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, this is indeed a momentous occasion. The Government are proposing to increase public expenditure and, what is even more remarkable, they are proposing to increase it on education and they have found a new way of doing so because these regulations are a method by which a new channel of transferring public money to private persons may be opened. This is contrary to the Government's general approach. Every day when we open the papers we learn of the state of play inside the Cabinet and exactly which social services are to be hardest hit, in addition to the cuts which have been imposed already. We must therefore presume that with these regulations which provide for increased public expenditure through a new channel we are dealing with something that is absolutely essential to the national survival, because I am sure the noble Baroness would not have proposed anything so irresponsible as an increase in public expenditure unless she was sure that the nation's survival depended upon the speedy introduction of the assisted places scheme. I am afraid there are some of my noble friends who might not share that view; who might consider that to come forward with this proposal, which we are told is going to run up to over £50 million in the end, in the present situation of cuts and economy is little short of grotesque.

The proposed intention of this scheme was to help poor, bright children to get an education, which, it was alleged, they would not be able to get elsewhere. I do not think there is any dispute; that was the argument behind this. As to "poor", like the noble Baroness I do not propose to go through a tedious account of the exact working of the sliding scale, but I think there is just one example that will make clear the general point that many of us on this side of the House have in mind. A family with two dependent children and an income of £4,000 is considered to be too prosperous to be able to get free school meals whereas a family with one child and an income of £8,000 will, if they are lucky, get in effect a gift of £500 under this scheme. It is extremely difficult to defend that or to know exactly what the Government meant when they talked about "poor", bright children.

The noble Baroness is reported as having claimed that expenditure in this way will widen parental choice. Of course, if you take a particular parent and say, "If you fulfil certain conditions and are one of the lucky ones, you will get £500 more to spend on your child's education", you obviously widen the parental choice of that parent. But you do it, as it becoming increasingly apparent, at the expense of other parents who have to send their children to schools that are not being assisted in this fashion, that are indeed being repeatedly cut, partly because of the expenditure under this scheme.

Then they are to be bright children. What do the regulations say about that? This is a very interesting point. The theory behind this business is that you can, when the child is about 11, spot it as bright, a high flyer who ought to receive a special kind of education, and you work also on the assumption that it cannot get that education in the State system of education. But the regulations say no more than that to be a child helped by this scheme it must be capable of benefiting from the education provided by the school. One would hope it was; one would hope the school could at least do that. But what they ought to be demonstrating, and what there is no attempt to demonstrate, is that it could not get the education from which it could benefit in the ordinary state system. How do you prove that?

It has often been asserted in the general argument about comprehensive secondary education that there are children who must be treated in this special manner. There is not a word in the regulations about how they are identified. They are to be chosen; it is not parental choice—by the schools participating in the scheme. There will be no attempt to consider whether or of they could have done at least as well in the state system. This is the shadowy justification advanced for the specialised expenditure of public money on what, I must say I think fortunately, is a very few families. But it is in fact a form of favouritism to those families whose children are approved and chosen by these schools.

We now know, as we did not know when we were discussing the Education Act, that when the Government devised this scheme they had in their possession a fairly extensive report on education in the nation's own schools which disposed of the proposition that bright children cannot get a proper education at comprehensive schools. That is something which has been alleged for a long time. The weight of evidence has been steadily mounting against it; there has been this recent report which went heavily against it, which was in the Government's possession, but not yet published, when we debated the Education Act. It has since been published.

I say, therefore, that this aspect of the scheme is nonsensical. It is based on the propositions, first, that there are these children suffering in the State system, secondly, that they can be adequately identified, and, thirdly, that this justifies an exceptional expenditure of money on them, partly at the expense of all the other children in the country needing education. I would say this is a nonsensical as well as an unjust proposition.

What is going to be the effect on the nation's own schools? I repeat that for my part I am at any rate glad that the scheme is limited in scope. But so far as it has an effect on the nation's own schools it will be what is called a "creaming off" effect. It is intended to be. The scheme will be considered to be working at its best if the really most gifted children are taken out of the nation's own schools. And—this has been added since the debate on the Bill—this is to be done in the sixth form as well.

What is one of the criticisms often levelled against comprehensive schools? That they could not build up an adequate and viable sixth form. Very tiresomely from the point of view of the pundits, they began to disprove this in practice. Then the Government come along and say, "You are building up viable sixth forms. Well, we are going to try and encourage your most gifted children in the sixth forms to shunt somewhere else". We are told that the sixth form part of the scheme can operate only with the consent of the local education authority. So far so good. But the Secretary of State for Education is on record as saying quite recently that if local authorities behaved in a way that he would consider unreasonable he would take steps to ensure that they could not do so. This is the story of the Local Government Planning and Land Bill all over again. Things are what the Secretary of State considers they ought to be. If the local authorities use the power that these regulations give them in a way that the Secretary of State does not like, the power is to be taken away from them.

This is tied up with the recent requirement that schools should publish examination results. I have never minded that so much, but I think that if schools are to publish examination results local authorities ought also to publish how much they spend per child on each of the schools for which they are responsible. In both those cases they are an interesting set of facts, from which people can draw their deductions. But what the Government have done here is to say, "The schools must publish examination results, and we are taking steps to shift some of the brightest children from the nations' schools to private schools and thus to tilt the examination results, if we can, in favour of the private sector. Then we shall be able to turn round and say, ' These comprehensive schools are not doing so well. Look at the exam results!'".

The noble Baroness said this was not a scheme to help the private schools, but does she suggest that an arrangement the whole purpose of which is to attract the abler pupils out of the nation's schools into the private schools is not a scheme to help the private schools? If it is not, the whole argument for the proposal falls down. I must mention that the noble Baroness brought into her speech, although, as she said, it is not actually in the regulations, the additional provision of grants for clothing, meals and transport for children affected by the scheme. It is worthwhile noticing, again as a measure of the Government's sense of priorities, that the grants to be made, if what the Secretary of State has so far said is to be believed, are substantially more generous than the clothing, meals and transport provisions made for children in the public sector, even where such grants exist, because they are discretionary and in some cases do not exist at all.

What is the justification for this, for picking out a small particular group of children and saying, "We are going to treat you better than the rest, at the public expense, in the matter not only of education, but your clothes, your meals and your way of getting to school". I would warn the noble Baroness of this: even so, the grants proposed to be made will in many cases fall far short of what the parents will find they are expected to spend on clothing when their children go to one of these schools. They will find that, although they get the assistance under the scheme, although they get the clothing grant, there is a considerable gap between the clothing grant provided and what the school will require them to spend over and above what they would have spent if the child had been at home in the ordinary way.

This means that it will be much harder for really poor parents to benefit under this scheme than for those who are approaching a middle class level of expenditure and income. That, I may say, was one of the features of the old direct grant schools scheme, and one of the features that made it unattractive, that all too often it was extra help to those who did not really need it in comparison with the needs of education as a whole and of the children of the whole nation.

All these matters are, in a sense, matters of detail—exactly what children, how much, and so on. Of course, our objection goes a great deal deeper, and we ought not, I think, to allow the argument to trail away merely into the details of the financial scheme, or which schools or where the schools are. Indeed, the whole thing reminds me very much of an argument put forward by G. K. Chesterton; I am afraid I cannot quote it exactly but I have the sense correctly. He was criticising a particular form of argument and he did it with the following example: While there may be two opinions about the desirability of injecting gin into the veins of babies, everyone will agree that if it is done at all it should be done by a qualified medical practitioner". We might all agree that if we are to have this sort of thing, this may be as good a way or as bad a way as any other of doing it, but we ought not to avert our eyes from the main question of what it is we are doing.

This is a piece of favouritism based on nonsensical ideas about how one chooses the exceptionally bright children and treating the nation's own schools with something that is unpleasantly like malice by putting them in a position in which they are always in danger of having unfavourable comparisons made between them and the private schools and producing that result by expenditure from public funds in, as I say, a form of legalised favouritism. We must put this against the background of what is being done elsewhere in education. The nation's own schools are being hit with regard to the size of their classes, their equipment, their books; and not only the ordinary schools but the reduction of nursery provision, and now pressing on us the alarming reductions that are going to have to be made in the provisions for adult education. Up to now we have been told, "Oh, but this scheme is not coming out of the education budget; this is something quite separate." Can the Government say that now?

They are considering further cuts in education. If they make any further cuts affecting the ordinary schools, instead of scrapping this scheme, they are undoubtedly preferring this scheme to the needs of the rest of the education service. Even if it were not the rest of the education service it is at the expense of something, and the newspapers are full of agreeable suggestions as to what the Government will cut next. Are old-age pensioners going to have to pay prescription charges in order to find the money for this kind of thing? If it is not that, it will be something else of that kind. The thing itself is a piece of malicious nonsense, and for the Government to bring it forward in this present atmosphere of economy and cuts is astounding. We are told it is to cost £3 million this year and when it is full grown it will rise to £55 million. I have a strong feeling that before it is full grown that figure will have grown as well. Whether it is £55 million, £50 million, £5 million, £5 or 5p, it is too much to pay for this piece of malicious nonsense.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I am overcome by a sense of déjà vu. It brings me back to the days of the last Conservative Government. Your Lordships may remember noble Lords rising in their places opposite, on the Government Front Bench, and ticking off the election manifesto pledges one by one just for the sake of it, no matter how irrelevant or silly the promise might seem in the light of the cold post-election dawn. When the champagne of coming electoral victory is bubbling in the veins, how many rash commitments are made! It is understandable. But how raddled the object of our attentions looks the next morning when the champagne has given way to a hangover. And for this Government, what a hangover!

A close perusal of the scheme before us shows that it falls firmly into this category: at first glimpse, an attractive election promise. Every child has in his knapsack, if not a field marshal's baton with which to win the Battle of Waterloo at least a cricket bat to triumph on the playing fields of Eton. At first glance, it is an attractive election promise, but now it looks very threadbare indeed. Looking round the educational world one can see only two bodies who are in favour—the independent schools, who are to get more paying customers together with a few tattered figleaves to cover the nakedness of their social conscience, and the Conservative Education Ministers. Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that my speech will be even shorter than is usually my wont, since a certain portion of any normal speech in opposition to a Government measure is given to refuting the arguments put forward in its favour by the Government. But in this particular case there are hardly any Government arguments to refute.

Last week the Secretary of State said, at column 625 on 29th October: All I will say now about the principle of the scheme is that it is not for the benefit of the schools or the teachers or even the parents". He can say that again! Since he is not here, I will. It is not for the benefit of the schools or the teachers or even the parents. Such an admission certainly sweeps the ground from under our feet. Such modesty in Ministers is unusual. But the Secretary of State did make one claim—that the measure is: … first and foremost for the benefit of the children". That is a splendid claim and if it were true maybe we could discard the schools, the teachers and the parents as unimportant, as the Secretary of State for Education does. But it is not true. First, it is not true because it is impossible for us to disentangle what is good for the child from what is good for the parents, the teachers and the schools. The whole interacts: it is all part not just of the education scheme but of the pattern of bringing up children; and if it is not for the benefit of the schools, the parents and the teachers, it is hard to see that it can possibly be good for the children. It is a very simplistic view of the education scene which could isolate one factor like that; but simplistic views of education are the kind that we are used to over the last few years from the Conservative Party.

Secondly, it is not true because if the sixth forms of schools are going to be drained of their best pupils, especially at a time of falling rolls, it will be very bad indeed for the children. It is true that the Government have laid down that a child may not take advantage of this scheme at 16 without the permission of the local education authority. So far as it goes, that is a good thing; and there are other good things in these regulations. For one, I welcome the commitment to helping children to music schools and to ballet schools, which was a commitment given at a previous stage by the Government. But this is about the permission of the local education authority.

On the face of it, it looks just an invitation to educational chaos throughout the country. As the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, said, it is true that the Government now say, "Well, maybe the agreement of the local education authority won't be necessary if we don't agree with it". Let us see. It seems almost impossible that the Government could behave like that, but after the Local Government Bill I suppose they could behave in any dictatorial way they want to local authorities. But if it goes on the way it is meant to, it will certainly cause chaos. Some Labour-controlled councils will refuse all applications; some Conservative ones presumably will accept as many as possible, for exactly the opposite reason. In fact only the quite fast-growing number of Liberal local education authorities look as though they will be treating the matter on its merits—although that, of course, should occasion no surprise.

That we should be seriously contemplating such a dog's dinner shows how absurd are the efforts to use education as a counter in the ideological game. And I may say that the Government are not the only guilty ones. The destruction of the direct grant schools was just as ideological and, in addition, it widened and deepened the chasm between the independent and the state sectors. There was a time when the education of this country was, if not a seamless garment, at least a coherent spectrum and there were people of goodwill of all parties prepared and able to work together across that spectrum. We had a couple of very good Government reports—the Donaldson Reports—at that time, which spelt out ways in which we could have gone forward, and the Liberal Party for one was prepared to do so.

But, the divisive policies of the adversary politics of this country, the pandering to the extremes of the supporters of each party, and the successive reigns of Secretaries of State—some of whom, with honourable exceptions, knew nothing about the subject—have widened a crack between the two sectors into a chasm so that it has now become literally impossible to see how that chasm can be bridged. However, this is not the way to bridge it, because this is a way which is harmful to schools and to the morale of teachers, parents and children, harmful to the morale of all who are trying to make the state sector work. It is, without any doubt, divisive. It may be of worth to some children, but it will be harmful to many more. It is a misuse of money in a field which needs much more, particularly when it has to prepare children for the type of world that they will go out to in the next few years. It is a folly and I invite your Lordships to reject it.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I have said so much about this subject at various hours of the day and night that I am reluctant to say any more. Indeed, I did not think that it would really be necessary because I thought that, after reflection and when seeing what in fact was actually proposed by this measure, a larger number of noble Lords than seems to be the case would have come to the conclusion that, although it was not perfect, this proposal did at any rate go some way towards meeting what so many of us have as a great objective—and that is, the enlargement of opportunity. I took the view that, by this time and with thought one would see—even if one was not going all the way, even if one did not like it as well as the direct grant system which unfortunately was so ruthlessly butchered—that there was something to be said for it in spite of the objections. I think that I was over-optimistic in believing that rationality would triumph over doctrinaire belief to that extent.

Some of the objections have been answered by simply looking at the list of schools. The first objection has been dealt with by the noble Baroness and that was that the distribution of schools was too uneven. That criticism was indeed one of the weaknesses of the direct grant system. If we look at the list of schools and examine it we find that, so far as possible, that weakness has been overcome. A second objection—and it has been brought up this afternoon, although not quite in the same words—is that these are measures to bolster ailing independent schools. If we look at the list we find, as the noble Baroness said, that the greater part consists of the former direct grant schools enriched by some voluntary aided schools that had been forced into unwilling independence. But we also see that they have been enriched by some schools that have always been independent and which, so far from being ailing, are acknowledged as being among the great schools of this country.

But, of course, those are not the fundamental objections, they are not the weighty ones. The weighty objections have been put forward with great force, at any rate by implication, by the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, as one would expect. Is not this scheme an admission of failure as regards the maintained sector? Will it not lead to loss of morale in the schools within that sector? Is not the answer to make all our schools capable of educating the ablest children? The answer to the last question is quite bluntly, no, it is not, because it is impossible and it is disingenuous to pretend that it is anything else but impossible.

We all know only too well that in some subjects there is such a shortage of properly qualified teachers that it is difficult to teach up to O-level, let alone to stretch the abilities of the minority. We know, too, that this situation is likely to persist for the foreseeable future. We also know that there is insufficient demand for some valuable subjects, so that it is simply economic nonsense to provide them everywhere. There is a point where idealism simply becomes wishful thinking, where admirable aspirations degenerate into disingenuity, and that point has been passed when we speak as if by waving a wand we should enable every school to teach advanced mathematics or advanced physics or Greek. Teachers capable of teaching those things are so limited in numbers that the only sensible course is to take the children to them, and that is what this scheme proposes.

However, the difficult question is why they must go to independent schools. Here, of course, there is great confusion. The schools on the list of participating schools are not there primarily because they are independent: they are there because they are academically very good. The tragic aspect is that until the last few years the majority of those schools were not on a list of independent schools at all—they were not independent, they were driven into independence.

I hold no brief for independent schools as such. I was educated in the maintained sector. One of the bitterest days in my life was when Manchester Grammar School, after I had ceased to be headmaster of it but with my knowledge and approval, had to go independent. I do not defend the independent schools because they are independent, but if we destroy the direct grant system, if we actually make it illegal to choose children on grounds of intellectual ability, then we make it inevitable that it will be more difficult for the state sector to acquire the staffs and the expertise to educate the most able children. But, in any case, if a maintained school can educate those children in any field, then there is absolutely nothing in these measures to stop it. Indeed, if transfer occurs at the sixth form stage the permission of the local authority, as we have been told, is required.

I could justify these proposals in terms of national need and economic necessity. Great fun was made of the idea that this was a national necessity and so on. By gum! it is. If we believe in education, if we believe in the future of this country depending on the abilities of our citizens, then something like this is a question of national necessity and this is not an occasion for making slightly facetious remarks about it. We could justify it in terms of economic and national necessity, and we must, for we dare not neglect the development of the abilities of our most able and gifted children.

However, I would not ask noble Lords to justify the scheme simply on those grounds. I would ask them to think, not of economies and still less of this kind of school or that kind of school—of labels—but rather of the individual child and his or her development. I still have sufficient faith in the profession to which I once belonged to believe that most heads will not think in terms of prestige or whether the transfer of a child is a reflection on their school; but, rather, they will try to give an honest answer to the question: "Has this school—if you like, my school—the teaching capacity to give that particular child the intellectual stimulus that he or she needs and deserves?". If the answer is "yes" and there are a number of maintained schools where this will still be true—well and good. But if the answer is "no", then these proposals are a way—perhaps not the best way, but a way—to provide those opportunities, whatever may be the social or the economic circumstances of the parents.

These regulations may not be the perfect answer. They may well be modified in the light of experience. But I am sure that the principle that they embody, the principle of finding the appropriate education for each child, is the right one. In the name of national need, of educational common sense, but above all of social justice, I hope that your Lordships will welcome them.

3.52 p.m.

Baroness BACON

My Lords, after the brilliantly devastating speech made by my noble friend Lord Stewart of Fulham there is very little left to add from these Benches. I have listened with interest to the speech which we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord James, whom on most subjects other than education I can call my noble friend Lord James. He reminded us, if we needed any reminding, that he was headmaster of Manchester Grammar School, and he also reminded us that it was a very good school; and it was a very good school. But we must remember that Manchester Grammar School has the cream of practically every school in the county of Lancashire, so it ought to have been a very good school, and it was. All the best children from practically every school, not only in Manchester but in the surrounding area of Lancashire, went to Manchester Grammar School.

These regulations deal with details; but, as usual, when we pass Acts of Parliament we pass principles, and then we are asked to leave the details to orders which will come at some subsequent time. Then we receive a booklet of orders which we cannot amend in any way. We cannot amend any of the details; we have either to take the whole thing as it stands or reject it as it stands. I hope that we shall reject these regulations as they stand.

Today, what we are discussing must, in effect, be the principle because we have to vote on these regulations and not on each particular detail within them. I find these regulations most objectionable, and that view is shared by practically every educational body in this country, by nearly every teachers' organisation and every educational organisation. Very often educational bodies are at daggers drawn on many matters, but I think that they are more united on this than I have known them to be on any other educational subject.

By these regulations we are ensuring that public money is to be spent on selected children—and I underline "selected" children—in so-called superior schools. What will this do? First, the idea that there are some superior schools devalues state education. Secondly, it will cream off some of the most able children from our state schools, and will institute a very superior selective system at a time when most educational authorities either have got rid of or are in the process of getting rid of the iniquitous 11-plus selection. But we are to have some super-selection, and although the 11-plus was never fair, this will be even less fair because this selection will be carried out, not by the schools which the children are leaving, but by the schools to which they are going. Also, it will be very uneven throughout the country.

It may be that among your Lordships there are many who agree with this, but even those who agree with it would surely not say that this is the time to bring in such regulations. We are told that even at this very moment the Cabinet is sitting in order to try to find new economies; and we were told by Mr. Carlisle, the Secretary of State for Education, at the weekend that education must take its share of these economies. At a time of cuts in education surely we should not be spending millions of pounds to put these regulations into operation. The Cabinet is looking round desperately for economies and savings, so if we do not pass these regulations their deliberations might not take so long.

It has been said that these regulations will benefit the poorer children, but if we look at the scales that are set down in the regulations we see that a man with a wife and two children, earning about £11,000 a year, can still be helped to send his children to private schools. As I say, we are concerned with all the regulations, but I want to pinpoint just one part of them, for I am particularly concerned about what will happen to the sixth forms in maintained schools. The Government say that many sixth forms in local authority schools are not viable or cannot provide certain subjects; they do not have the staff to provide certain subjects.

The Government say that the solution is to transfer some children from the maintained schools to the independent schools at the age of 16. Surely this will make the sixth forms in the state schools less viable and smaller. Surely that is what will happen—they wilt be much less viable if these children are creamed off into the independent sector. We must remember that by creaming off children at the age of 11 from the state schools into the independent schools, we are taking potential sixth formers into the independent schools at the age of 11. Thus, the state schools will be robbed of the kind of pupils who will go into the sixth forms. How much better it would be to spend this money on local authority sixth forms in order to make them more viable.

We are told that this will cost between £50 million and £60 million in a few years' time. Let us think what could be done in the state system in the sixth forms with that £50 million or £60 million. The part of the regulations that deals with sixth forms is rather vague. I am not sure how they will be chosen. I am not sure what the financial arrangements will be. Is it going to be left to the parent to say, "I wish my child in the sixth form to go to an independent school and I am willing to pay whatever it is I have to pay", or will they just be chosen by ability, or what? We have not been told many details about this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, when she moved this order this afternoon, stressed that the local education authority can withhold consent; but in another place, on 29th October, her right honourable friend Mr. Carlisle made a veiled threat to local authorities if they did withhold consent for sixth formers to go from the state schools to independent schools. He said: I have taken no reserve powers but if local education authorities choose irrespective of the educational merit of individual children, to take a blanket decision to refuse to allow children to move, even though the authorities are unable to provide opportunities … I may have to consider taking reserve powers".—[Official Report, Commons, col. 629.] Now I am not sure quite how far the local authorities are going to have the right to refuse the transfer of their sixth formers from their schools to the independent schools.

I am absolutely against this order as it stands, not just the details of the order. I believe it is wrong in principle, and I believe that at this time the money could be better spent on equipment and staff to provide viable sixth forms in local authorities' schools; and if the Cabinet is this week seeking to find more economies then I suggest that the No. 1 economy that they could make is to take this order back and scrap the whole thing.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, it is tempting to go back to the debate on the Education Act 1980. I do not propose to do so, although I gather that that is the trend of the present debate. In my simplicity, I thought the issue of principle as to whether there was to be a scheme of this kind had been settled when the Education Act was passed by your Lordships' House. I would therefore merely like to ask one question. As I understood the noble Minister, she said there would be a requirement of three years' residence in the case of normal residents, but not in the case of the children of migrant workers. If I understood correctly, this would seem to suggest that the children of migrantworkers from Europe are in a more favourable position than children normally resident in this country. I should be very grateful if that could be clarified later.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I could not let these regulations go without expressing my disgust at them. This scheme at any time would be educationally indefensible and socially divisive, but coming as it does in present circumstances it is a monstrous misdirection of valuable scarce resources, and it is on those three points that I want to say a brief word. First, I call attention to the circumstances in which the regulations are being introduced. The Government have been in office for a year and a half. By their rigid adherence to an untenable economic policy they are slowly strangling British industry.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear.


The manufacturing base of our industry is contracting at an alarming rate. Unemployment is over 2 million and on the way up to 3 million. There are widespread closures of factories and plant, very often in our most efficient, biggest industries. And for good measure the Government are flogging—and that is the right word—valuable national assets. They are eating the seed corn. If this Government left office today, I believe it would take a decade for the economy to recover. If they stay in office for their full term, the economy may well never recover.

Not content with strangling the economy, this Government are also inflicting great damage on the social services, and probably most of all on the education system. Tens of thousands of teachers are unemployed, after a long and expensive training, and others are being put out of work every month. Schools are denuded of teaching material, especially books. The most mean, petty, contemptible cuts are being made in meals, milk and school transport. Now we are told that even more horrific cuts are being planned.

My Lords, it is in the context of what is being done to the economy and the social services that this squalid little scheme is being introduced. It is a scheme to give assisted places in private schools—as I prefer to call them, not independent schools—for initially 5,500 children, building up to 35,000 children, of parents whose incomes go up to £11,000, although there is some help above that, with provision for giving assistance with meals, uniform and transport, as my noble friend on the Front Bench has said, on more generous terms than for children in the maintained schools. This is to cost £3 million this year, rising to something like £50 million in six or seven years' time. So the most mean, miserable, degrading cuts are being made in the education system in the year in which this scheme is being introduced. My Lords, it would be difficult to find a more inappropriate scheme to introduce in the conditions created by the Government's policy. So that is the context.

Secondly, it is socially divisive. May I say that I started my career teaching in a primary school in a mining village in the North-East of England, so I know about the 11-plus and the effect that that had on communities. Most local education authorities, whatever their politics, over the last few years have got rid of the 11-plus by introducing the common secondary school; but, of course, this is a device that well-to-do people have always had—Eton and Harrow are two of the best comprehensive schools in the country. Here are this Government bringing it back again, only in a worse form than it was previously, because this time it is voluntary.

In Newcastle, a small city, the city which I represented for 25 years in another place, five independent schools are going to participate. Apart from the shadow that this is going to cast over the primary school teaching, way back to the infant school—and it will do that—it is going to divide 11-year-olds once more into passes and failures. Of course they are nothing of the sort, but that is how they will come to be regarded in the community, in the streets from which the children go to school. If British society is ever to lose the snobbish divisiveness which defaces it at present, it must end the divisiveness in the education system. There are two major causes of this divisiveness. The 11-plus was one of them, which we all hoped and believed we had got rid of. So this scheme is socially divisive.

Thirdly, my Lords, it is educationally indefensible. There are so many reasons for saying this. Let me mention one or two. First, it is based on the utterly false assumption that education in the private schools is better than that in the maintained schools; that it is more academic, whatever that may mean. Anybody who has looked at the recent statistical evidence on examination results will know that this assumption is utter nonsense. It does not bear examination now. It may have done at one time; it certainly does not today.

Again, this is going to do very great harm, I believe, to the county schools. Let us please remember that we have no state schools in this country; they are all county schools. I repeat, it will do great harm to the county schools. Imagine the effect in Newcastle, which I have mentioned, where five private schools are going to cream off the most able children from the county schools.

Of course the private schools want this scheme because in recent years, with the present inflation rate, the main criterion for admission to a private school is the length of the parents' purse. For some time it has had little to do with ability. The influx of abler children into private schools of course will boost their examination results and boost their university admissions, but the converse is that in all the county schools in Newcastle and elsewhere where this scheme operates the examination results will be depressed, and university admissions will be depressed. That will be the effect on the county schools.

Again, a major part of the case for the comprehensive school is that it is big enough in size and ability range to provide a wide variety of courses—indeed, a course tailor-made to suit each child. If its most able children are removed it may not in many cases be able to do this. I can well imagine that many minority interest subjects will disappear from the curricula of the comprehensive schools.

In addition to the effect on the viability of courses, it is a well known principle of education that children learn a great deal from each other; in fact, I sometimes think more than they do from their teachers. Just imagine the effects, again in Newcastle: the demoralising, deadening, depressed effect of siphoning off all the really bright children from those forms in those county secondary schools. For all these reasons this is a thoroughly had scheme. It is socially regressive; it is educationally indefensible. But to introduce it at this point in time displays elitism and an insensitivity which, my Lords, beggars description.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, at the outset perhaps I should declare an interest because I happen to be chairman of the governing body of one of the independent schools which has been invited to participate in the scheme. The school has been independent since 1565, and, since the point has been raised, we see no particular benefit from our own purely selfish point of view in participating in the scheme, and I shall have no axe to grind on behalf of the school in what I say this afternoon. I merely want to make two points about the regulations under the scheme. First, independent schools are being put on the spot, for reasons which I shall mention, by being invited to participate; secondly, if these regulations are approved and the scheme comes about, I hope that it may be only the beginning and that it will be developed in ways that will make it more generally acceptable.

I say that independent schools are being put in an unfair position, because it seems to me that education has for far too long been the plaything of politics, with most harmful results. It seems, especially following the lines of the debate this afternoon, that this was never more so than with the scheme in front of us today. Whatever its merits—and indeed there are many—the fact is that it is resisted by the Opposition and has become a subject of controvery. Therefore, the independent schools which have been invited to participate run the risk of being regarded as supporters of one political party if they participate, or supporters of another political party if they refuse to participate.

Like many of us on the Cross-Benches, independent schools on the whole prefer not to be put in such an embarrassing position. I think that both parties are responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs. The Government scheme in front of us today, as speakers from the Oppostion Benches have not hesitated to point out with some colour, is largely irrelevant to the current needs of the day and is particularly difficult at a time when so many sacrifices are being called for in the rest of the educational sphere.

The main need today is to bring about closer collaboration and understanding between the two sectors in our educational world. They should complement each other and not confront each other. The present scheme, far from achieving that at present, although it is my hope that it will be able to do so eventually, is in fact widening the gap because it is leading to the complaints that we have heard this afternoon that it tends to regard public education as a second-class citizen and may lead to creaming off the best students for the independent schools.

That is on the one side, but none of this seems to me to excuse the attitude of the Labour Party towards this problem. They have always expressed a degree of hostility towards the independent schools, and I think by their destruction of the direct grant system were largely responsible for the scheme that has been put before us today. They have now, in what to me seems rather an extraordinary action, informed independent schools who have been invited to participate that if a Labour Government are returned to power they will end the scheme within the same academic year in which that Government are returned to power. I find it difficult to believe this because it would leave the children high and dry in the middle of their course, but nevertheless the financial consequences are obviously a factor which schools have to weigh very seriously in considering their participation.

So much for the general background. On the regulations themselves, I would not wish in any way to oppose them. I am concerned at some of them. Some of them seem to contain pretty wide powers; notably paragraphs 22, 23, and 24 dealing with the returns, accounts, and employment of teachers. I know we have received assurances that they would be interpreted reasonably, and no doubt this will be so, but of course one can never count on the unforeseen Secretary of State in several years' time who may not be so reasonable. I am also a little worried by what I would call the bureaucratisation of this scheme. No doubt that is inevitable, but it is a complicated scheme and will throw a heavy burden of extra work on the Government, on officialdom, on local authorities, and of course on all participating schools.

In conclusion, I would simply say that the scheme could serve some important aims: first, of providing a wider range of opportunities for able children; secondly, of assisting the independent schools in their perfectly genuine and often expressed wish to broaden socially their intake; and thirdly, of bringing about a greater degree of co-operation between the two systems operating in the country. The aim must surely he to find ways for children to benefit in the independent schools from those parts of life which genuinely complement opportunities in the maintained schools, so that the children can enjoy those opportunities regardless of parental income.

I would end with two suggestions which, if they could be developed in future, would help to make the scheme more acceptable. The first is that the scheme should enable education to be provided which is demonstrably not available in the maintained sector. There are various ways in which this could be done. The most important one I think is in boarding, which at the moment, as has been explained, is excluded from Government aid, although a number of independent schools if they accept pupils under the scheme and take them in as boarders would themselves make the necessary contribution for the boarding side. If boarding could be included it would help not only those families—and there are genuine cases—where children need to be kept away from home, possibly because the parents are serving abroad or for other reasons, but also those families in remote areas where no schools of comparable quality are available. Opportunities for the brighter child could be provided which could not otherwise be provided.

Further, I should have thought that wider opportunities might be given for the sixth form entry. At present, although provision is made for it, it is quite strictly limited, although it is perhaps the most fruitful area for future co-operation between the maintained and independent sector. If the scheme can be developed along these lines and in other ways, I shall then be more hopeful that it can play a constructive part and perhaps help to lessen the divide which unfortunately exists between the two nations at present in our country.


My Lords, it is amazing to think that at this moment in history one can drive a motor-car through a city and see an advertisement for baked beans which is half the size of the area of the Throne, suggesting that kids collect the labels and so forth to help their school get books. What a wonderful comment on the sort of civilisation in which we are beginning to live! For the life of me, I cannot understand why all this nonsense is being introduced; it is reactionary, astounding, and is trying to put the clock back. What is more, this measure is badly put together, and therefore I want an explanation of paragraph 4.—(2), which says: The child referred to in paragraph 1(b) is one who is resident in the British Islands on the relevant date and is the child of a national of a member state of the European Community who"— here comes the vagueness—

  1. (a) where he is employed on the relevant date, is then in employment in the British Islands, or
  2. (b) where he is not employed on that date (by reason of retirement or otherwise), was last employed in such employment".
Are we opening this avenue for nationals of a member state of the European Community? That is not clear and I want to know what that provision means. I may be completely wrong in my interpretation of it, but we and the public are entitled to know precisely what it means.

I hate snobbery. I spent many years of my life teaching every type, including the children of miners, and let us not forget that many judges, surgeons and even Members of your Lordships' House can say their fathers were miners. Many of them were taught in ordinary schools. Many people who talk about teaching do not understand the magnificent tool that education is in the hands of a great teacher. Teaching is one of the greatest professions, especially when one considers what a teacher can do for a child. A poem was once written about it which went someting like this: Raise your derricks, then harvest the fen; But God in mercy be kind to me, for I made men". When teaching a child of, say, 11 one need not be able to do calculus and tricky mathematical problems or analyse or talk about nuclear physics. One must build in that child a spiritual purpose and eminence and fill it with the mystery of existence and the joy of achievement. A lot of snobbish background is not required.

My fear is that the purpose of this measure is to maintain the division of society into two classes. This is a system for the well-to-do. Any true Conservatives who in the early days had to fight some of their own people to get a decent education system should agree to send the measure back to be improved. I am not objecting to better opportunities, but let us be realistic at this point in history when kids are collecting scrap paper to help their schools. In my district I have them knocking at my door asking, "Do you have any old newspapers?" and when I ask, "What for?" they answer, "To sell so the school can get books". Look what has happened to a nation whose workers and children of workers fought in two world wars. Considering all the wonderful verbiage about education, look what we have descended to. This scheme is a disgrace to the Conservative Party.

4.25 p.m.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, I had not intended to speak because I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, that the principle of this was decided when the Bill was before us and I did not have any useful comments to make on the details of the order which is before the House. However, it seems to me that the arguments of the Opposition on the financial side need answering.

Twenty-five years ago when I became responsible for education there were a great many children who did not have a secondary school, and therefore we undertook a large rural secondary school building programme, and, little by little, every child in the country had a secondary school place. At that time we really believed—and all the teachers were with us—that it was only a matter of going along that road and we should be able to raise the standards of the maintained system so close to at least the average of the independent system that on educational grounds parents would not be tempted to find the fees for the independent system. That was our objective and we honestly thought we could achieve it, but it has been defeated for two reasons.

The first and foremost reason is money. We had no conception of the way in which the cost of the maintained system would rise. I remember being told by Sir Otto Clarke, a senior Treasury official, that he would cut his, and possibly my, throat if the education budget passed £1,000 million. It is now almost £9,000 million and if noble Lords care to make some calculation of what it would cost—I only wish we could do it—to improve the sixth forms of all the maintained schools in the country so that the problem with which we are trying to deal in the Bill did not exist, they would find that it ran into thousands of millions of pounds. That is the first reason why our hopes were defeated.

The second reason is the competition for graduate manpower. We thought we would be able to recruit all the graduate teachers who would be needed to cater for the considerable number of children; I am not sure of the exact figure, but it is something like 800,000 in sixth forms today. That prospect appeared fairly good in the early 'fifties, but, as noble Lords know, all kinds of other forms of employment have attracted male and female graduates, and it has not been possible, for one reason or another, to recruit and keep the required number of teachers capable of teaching to A-level.

In those two circumstances, where there is nothing like enough money quickly to bring the maintained system to where we all want it to be and where there are nothing like enough graduates willing to enter the maintained system as teachers, what do we do? Do we do nothing on ideological grounds that it would be wrong to select a few and give them an additional advantage? Let us consider the figures again. Anyone listening to noble Lords opposite would think that this was an enormous slice of the education budget.

First, let us take the numbers—I think that 5,000 boys and girls was the number mentioned. Well, how many children are there in sixth forms in Newcastle? The noble Lord opposite will correct me if I am wrong, since he knows the real figures, but let us suppose that Newcastle represents one per cent. of the United Kingdom. That would mean that 50 children in Newcastle would be creamed off if they had their share, which I hope they will. Does the noble Lord really think, bearing in mind all the secondary schools in Newcastle and district, that creaming off 50 children would demoralise the hundreds and hundreds who would be left? I doubt that.

However, in my opinion, the Government would be wise to ask the local authorities—and this is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Garner—to be very sure that the children who are selected have need of a kind of education that they really cannot get anywhere near their home. The obvious example is music, and I imagine that all noble Lords are happy that there is going to be a wider selection for the five music colleges and colleges of dancing. Obviously one could not have high grade music and dancing instruction in all the comprehensive schools; everybody would agree about that.

When one goes on from music as a special subject and asks what other special subjects there are for which it is impossible to have adequate teachers in all the sixth forms, one comes to many subjects, especially difficult languages and so on. Of course I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Garner, about the point regarding boarding. I asked Mr. Khruschev why they have boarding schools in Soviet Russia. He made rather a silly answer, but he was a very funny man. He said, "Because we want to get rid of the little dears for nine months in the year"—


My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for giving way. He is making out a case, is he not? for the élite school, such as the école normale in France, or similar institutions in Soviet Russia, presumably—I am not familiar with their system. But surely our private schools are not élite schools. If your parents are rich enough, you can be as dud-ish as you like; and they are full of rich duds. I am sorry, I must not interrupt the noble Viscount for too long. I want to say just one more thing. It shows a certain lack of confidence on the part of the ruling classes of this country if they feel that the only way that they can prevent this decadence from being progressive is by ensuring, as the Turks did, that the élite class, the top class, is constantly renewed in this sort of way.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, I think I am right in saying—the noble Lord will quickly correct me if I am wrong—that the noble Lord, Lord Kaldor, has not read the list of the independent schools that have been selected for the places. Had he read the list, he would have seen that some of the élite schools popping out of his head are not on it, and that in fact that list, which represents only a fraction of all the independent schools, has been carefully drawn for the reason that the examination record of the schools is far better than the average of the maintained system.

The noble Baroness opposite was quite right in saying that some comprehensive schools have the most admirable examination record. But we are not talking about that. We are talking about the list of schools that are to receive the pupils in question—and there are not very many, only 5,000 in the whole country—and about whether we could draw up a list of schools where the present prospects of attaining O- and A-levels are much better than the average in the system as a whole. And of course that is what is being done.

Now I come back to the main question. If we are in overall financial difficulty let us consider what this £3 million represents. It represents 0.003 per cent of the budget. Is that very alarming? That is all it is. Is it worth spending that small amount of money to do a little—far less than we ought to do—to take certain children whose needs differ from the average and place them where those needs can be met? I regret that we have to do it. If your Lordships can find £5,000 million more a year for the education budget, you will not have to do it, but if you cannot, you must do something for some of those whose need is very obvious.

4.36 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, as always we have had a very strenuous and interesting debate on this scheme. It has reminded me very much of the hours and the days that we spent in discussing the 1980 Education Act. First, I should like to thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord James of Rusholme, for, as always, a most thoughtful speech, based on a lifetime of experience of teaching in the type of school that we are talking about. I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Eccles for his most helpful remarks, based on his long experience of education and in particular on the fact that he is a former Minister of Education. I wish to thank, too, the noble Lord, Lord Garner, who spoke most thoughtfully and referred to some of the hesitations felt by those schools that have decided to join the scheme.

I do not intend to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, nor indeed his noble friend Lord Glenamara, entirely down the path of party politics, on which they opened the debate from their side. I am in the happy position of being able to be very generous today. After all, it must be such a change for noble Lords opposite to be able to take their minds off the problems of the Labour Party leadership, and so I can give them a little bit of fun at my expense—

Several noble Lords


Baroness YOUNG

I am sure that noble Lords are not really going to be upset by remarks of this nature, and, as I say, I am in a very forgiving mood this afternoon. I shall of course return later in my remarks to the detailed points made by the noble Lords. As for the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, I must say to him that I really was surprised that he should have made such an illiberal speech. I should have thought that above all the Liberal Party recognises the right of parents, having paid their rates and taxes, to pay for their children's education should they so wish. The implication that there was something wrong with independent schools was, I thought, rather unusual coming from a Liberal speaker. But in the course of his remarks the noble Lord said that he had supported the direct grant schools, and of course the fact that they were wound up provided the reason why we felt it necessary to introduce the assisted places scheme at this point. I regretted that the noble Lord took the particular view that he mentioned.

However, on two general points I would say that, whatever may or may not be said about selection in education, it is worth bearing in mind as a very serious point that the great debate in education which was raised by the last Labour Prime Minister, Mr. Callaghan, came about not when there was selection, but when selection had ceased. It arose not from some dyed-in-the-wool old Tory, who might well have complained about comprehensive schools, but from the Labour Party itself. That fact at least must cause someone to ask some questions about what is happening in some schools today.

This is a very serious point. We need to consider the position of the type of able children, especially those from inner city areas, who benefited so much from the direct grant schools and former grammar schools, and who are now obliged to be in the neighbourhood comprehensive, which might not be as good as comprehensives in other areas, in particular some comprehensives in the shire counties. Those children are therefore at a disadvantage, and I believe that we need to ponder very deeply this important educational point.

I would say to the House that when the direct grant schools scheme was phased out almost every Peer who spoke on that occasion in your Lordships' House regretted this action. They were excellent schools, and they served a number of children who do not get the same kind of education today. I think it is an ironic fact that in winding up the direct grant schools the former Labour Government succeeded in creating, in the space of a few years, more independent schools than had been created at any stage, almost, in our educational system.

A number of quite specific points have been made, and I shall now try to answer them. The first one was the great point about creaming off. Perhaps it would be as well to remind the House what I said about entry into sixth forms. We have said that because there was—and we appreciate it—a real fear on the part of local education authorities that maintained schools sixth forms would be denuded of their most able pupils, the numbers eligible for entry into the sixth form would be 900 in the first year. That is a total of 900 pupils from 104 local education authorities. I think it will be seen that that works out at approximately nine pupils per local education authority, and under those circumstances I think it is very difficult to argue that this will be a creaming off. I feel confident myself that as the scheme comes into operation there will be the professional co-operation among the schools and the assisted places scheme themselves, those responsible in local education authorities and teachers about the working of the scheme; because, after all, the scheme—and it is worth repeating this—is about children.

Perhaps I could make one other point in that connection. I forget which noble Lord it was (I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont) who said that when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was speaking he said the scheme was not to support the schools or the teachers. That, of course, is perfectly true; it is to support the pupils. One of the most extraordinary facts in the educational world today is that although the total school population is falling, and falling rapidly, there has been an increase of 10 per cent. in the number of pupils going to independent schools. If there is one thing which is quite clear, it is that the schools do not need the assisted places scheme—they will get on perfectly well, thank you very much. The scheme, therefore, is designed to help the pupils, not the other way round, and I think it is very important for everybody to recognise that fact. The noble Baroness, Lady Bacon, asked how the pupils will be selected. The pupils will in fact be selected by the schools themselves.

Baroness BACON

My Lords, I asked particularly about the 16-year-olds.

Baroness YOUNG

Yes, my Lords; it will apply both at 11 years old and at 16 years old. The schools will select the pupils, and it will be done in this way. The parents will apply to the school for admission, and the schools will set an examination, or whatever is their appropriate test, for admission to it. We feel that this is the right way to go about the scheme because, after all, the schools know what they can provide, they know what their teaching staff is suited for and they know what will be the appropriate way of choosing.

What we have said—and it is something to which I myself and my colleagues attach very great importance—is that we hope that the schools themselves (and, I hope, the noble Lord, Lord Garner, and his colleagues who are perhaps connected with schools in the assisted places scheme) will make every effort to make the scheme known in their area, I think by way of local advertising and local radio, so that we do not get coming to the schools only those parents who would perhaps have thought of an independent education for their children and who may be just pleased to have this, but so that we widen the catchment area to include those who would not have thought of it at all. Of course, we have undertaken to print an enormous amount of literature about the scheme, which has been sent to local education authorities and to schools, and I hope very much that the schools selected for the assisted places scheme will make known the scheme as widely as possible in the areas in which their schools are situated.

The noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, asked me a specific question about the residence qualification; and so, indeed, did the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek. Regulation 4 provides that to be eligible for the scheme pupils must have been resident in this country for three years; or, if they are the children of EEC nationals employed in this country, they must have been resident in a member state of the European Community for three years. The latter requirement is in conformity with Article 12 of EEC Regulation 1612/68, which requires the same treatment for children of migrant workers from member states as for children born in the United Kingdom.


My Lords, perhaps the Minister would be kind enough to forgive me for interrupting her. Is this not more than satisfying the requirement of the EEC, as I understand it? The requirement for our children is three years' residence here. Why should it not be three years' residence here for EEC members?

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, my understanding of the position is that the requirement for our children, of course, is that they should have been born to United Kingdom nationals; and in the case of people who come to this country they must be resident here for three years before they qualify, either for this scheme or for student awards, as the noble Lord will be aware. We are bringing our scheme very much into line with the award scheme for higher education.


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness—

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, may I answer the second point about that? The position about EEC nationals is that this comes under the Treaty of Rome and they automatically qualify immediately for the same kind of treatment as those born here. There is this distinction between the children of EEC nationals employed here and those coming in from other parts of the world. If I have not made myself quite clear I shall be very happy to write to the noble Lord, but I can assure him that we are not doing more than we should for the EEC. We are bringing our law into line with what is required by the Treaty of Rome, and the general principle in the scheme is the same as that which applies to student awards.


Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister. It is because T doubt whether the provision has not gone beyond that requirement that I raise the question. As I understand it, the requirement of the Treaty of Rome is that the children of EEC nationals coming here should be treated the same as our children, and that, to me, would mean that they were required to be in residence for three years before they qualified for the scheme, which is the requirement for our own children. But I should be perfectly happy to leave it to be looked at again.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I will certainly write to the noble Lord once again setting out the position, and if I have in any way misinformed him, of course I shall let him know—but I believe the position to be as I have stated it.


My Lords, I am so grateful to the noble Baroness, and I apologise for interrupting and thank her for her trouble. I think my interpretation was right, because the net has been spread. I did not know that this question would be raised from another part of the Chamber, but, at the same time as she writes to the noble Lord, would the Minister be kind enough to let me know, after she has had the opportunity and time to look at it carefully? Could I, too, have a letter from her about it?

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I will cretainly copy the letter to the noble Lord. Lord Davies; there is no question about that. I can assure him that we are bringing our legislation into line with the requirements of Article 12 of the EEC regulations, which covers this matter, as we must do.

The noble Lord, Lord Garner, said that it was a complicated scheme, which he regretted. It does, of course—and I recognise this—put quite a responsibility on the schools themselves for the selection of pupils, but I think this is right. I think it would not be right for the Government to do this. They cannot possibly make a judgment from the centre about the needs of the individual pupil and what the schools have to offer, so I think that this is appropriate. I hope very much that the scheme will have the effect that the noble Lord has said he hopes for over the whole question of giving and enlarging opportunities for certain children in our country today.

My Lords, at the end of this debate, I am aware that there is, on a much more serious note, worry and concern about this scheme, and I was asked whether I thought it right to introduce it at this particular moment. The Government believe that it is an important scheme. It raises, I think, very important matters of principle. It is of course true that these are principles on which we are divided; but as long as we have a democratic country we will have independent schools and we will have maintained schools. Whereas it is the job of Ministers—I accept this absolutely—to do the best they can for every child in the maintained system, there are inevitably going to be some gaps in it, and I think it is right that we should look for the maximum amount of co-operation and collaboration from the two systems of education. I myself deeply regret that the educational world should be in a kind of state of civil war over children. That is not desirable. It is not good for the children. It is not good for education; it is not good for any of us. We are trying in this way to make it possible for there to be collaboration between the two sectors. The scheme will depend upon the schools talking to the head primary teachers, talking to the local education authorities and, at the professional level, working together in the best interests of the children. I hope that, if we can take as

our stand the need to have a professional look at what is in the best interests of all the nation's children, this scheme will get off to a good start and that, at the end of the day, we shall all agree that it will have helped a large number of the nation's children and thereby enable them to make the best possible contribution they can to our country.

4.51 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Motion be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 135; Not-Contents, 79.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.