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Private Education

Volume 972: debated on Thursday 25 October 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I remind the House that we now return to the Adjournment debate that was suspended just before 7 o'clock.

Postponed proceeding on Question, That this House do now adjourn, resumed.

9.51 p.m.

I pay tribute to the Minister for coming at this late hour. Any strictures that I may have made in this House at half-past six this evening do not apply to him. I understand that, at the point at which the House suspended, he was microseconds away from the Chamber. Had I been allowed to continue with what other hon. Members wrongly called a filibustering effort, we might have started the debate a little earlier.

However, I maintain my opinion that it is wrong in the present circumstances for the House to suspend in such circumstances. There are many Ministers in the Government and there should be at least one from each Department available to come to the House at short notice, especially when it is known throughout the Palace that business is on the point of collapse.

The public support of private education is a matter of extreme importance at present. Throughout the election campaign and more recently, the Conservatives have made it clear that they intend to spend what was originally the sum of £50 million on private education. That sum appears to be rising to £70 million and could well reach £90 million if the pace of inflation accelerates. That is at a time when State education is being cut to a level hitherto unknown.

During recent education questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) gave a graphic illustration of the situation in a Southampton State secondary school where his children were having to share one textbook between four pupils. That demonstrates the dire straits of our State schools.

If the Government propose to scoop out between £50 million and £80 million to spend on private education, which is already extremely well endowed, we must examine that proposal carefully and bring it to the attention of the people of Britain.

It is important to get the whole matter in context, since it is wrong to think that this £50 million is the only public expenditure flowing into private education. In May and June last year I tabled a series of questions to the Department of Education and Science, the answers to which showed the extent to which the private sector of education is already subsidised. I refer hon. Members to the Official Report of 25 May 1978, at col. 726, where they will find a graphic illustration of all the schools in which the Foreign Office supports children. The reply runs to many columns of Hansard, starting with Abberley Hall, Worcester, the Abbey school, Malvern Wells, and continuing through the alphabet with the Convent of Jesus and Mary at Milton Keynes, Kings college, Taunton, St. Mary's convent, Shaftesbury and ending with Yardley Court school, Tonbridge.

I have nothing against these schools, but when the State sector is subject to unusual stringency, even under the previous Government, it seems to be a quite extraordinary phenomenon that this degree of money should be poured into the private sector.

Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends exerted great efforts to draw attention to the situation that existed under the previous Government and to try to ensure that this public subsidy of private schools ceased. I do not want to pursue a particularly vindictive policy, but it should be made absolutely clear that those people who want to take up private education should pay for it and should not be able, as the middle class of this country has historically been so skilled at achieving, to bend the taxes they pay back into their own pockets.

The history of State support for private education illustrates this. Quite apart from the £50 million, or whatever the figure is now, that the Government are proposing to pay, probably about £40 million or £50 million is already spent by local authorities on supporting private schools. Some of that goes into educating handicapped children, which everyone in the House will favour. But more than half goes into straight support for private schools.

In addition, £7 million or £8 million goes by way of direct payments from the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Overseas Development into private education. Therefore, the proposal to double the amount must be seen in this context. It is not as though private education is impoverished or desperately needs the money, as it did during the Second World War, when the Fleming report was published and when proposals were made to put a lot of public money into private education. There was a Royal Commission inquiry into the matter.

It is now an extremely affluent sector, and there is no better illustration of the class nature of the Government than their determination to cut State education and subsidise the private sector. If they get away with that and the existing subsidy of about £50 million is enhanced by a further injection of about £70 million that will be a national scandal. On top of that, the effect on the repeal of the 1976 Act has been to give back to local authorities a complete new freedom to pour ratepayers' money back into private education.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Cope.]

This new freedom given to local authorities may induce some Conservative-controlled local authorities, such as Bromley and Bexley—certainly no Labour-controlled authorities will do it—to increase yet again the £50 million that they are already spending on private education to £60 million, £70 million or £80 million.

We are in an extraordinary situation in which youngsters in State schools must share, four to a textbook; where there are not enough pencils, rulers, rubbers and paper with which to work. At the same time, the Government are intent upon using that little bit of float in putting money into private education. It is occassionally said from the Government Benches that the £50 million has nothing to do with the cuts in State education. It is said that it is a bit extra, and is a manifesto commitment.

That it is an easy thing to say from the Government Front Bench, but I am sure that when the bilateral discussions take place between the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Ministers there will be no nonsense like that. The education budget is the education budget, and the Minister knows that. He is an intelligent man and I am sure that he is learning fast. If he has learnt anything, I am sure that he has learnt that. He has a budget, and the idea of the £50 million to £70 million being something extra—icing on the Christmas cake—which has nothing to do with all the cuts in State education, is so much eyewash, and he knows it.

In making my case I must say something about the completely phoney arguments that will be used to justify this public support of private education. One of those arguments is that the support is for the benefit of poor clever kids from the inner city areas. I go back a bit. Every area of privileged education which has developed in the English education system—even more in the Scottish education system; I know something about that since I married a Scotswoman—has been that we are concerned not with the 90 per cent. of privileged children but with the few poor bright kids. That has always been the justification for the creation of many of our public schools and grammar schools.

When I was the deputy chairman of Sheffield education committee I did a survey of that city's primary schools that sent youngsters to ordinary State grammar schools. I found that three or four smart suburban primary schools were sending up to 70 per cent. of their children to grammar school and half a dozen of the inner city primary schools, did not send a single child to grammar schools for five or six years.

This situation existed also under the direct grant system, which we very sensibly got rid of. Indeed, we got rid of it on the recommendation of the Fleming committee, which reported in 1943. If the Minister cares to do a little research he could go back and read that report. It was a split recommendation, though G. D. H. Cole and one or two other people voted the right way. I think that the voting was 13 to seven in favour of making the direct grant system free. Everyone said that the justification for the direct grant schools was the three or four, or the half dozen of two dozen, bright poor youngsters who went to those schools.

Many studies have been made of, and books been written about, the direct grant schools. They have shown that their prime purpose was to give the middle class a privileged education, and that is what they did. The scheme proposed by the Government bids fair to do exactly the same thing. We have heard something so far of the Government's assisted places scheme. I am not straying into legislation here, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One would not know that there was a Bill before the House. Indeed, there is not, for it has not been printed yet. I know nothing of what might be in legislation, but there are rumours, and there have been interviews with a character called Stuart Sexton in the newspapers, and again I do not know who he is. But it all seems to indicate that there may be proposals, legislative or otherwise—

It has not been published, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and therefore none of us in the House knows what is in it. However, I shall not pursue the point. I go back to the question of the directed grant schools, which is safer ground. If there should be any connection between direct grant schools and the assisted places scheme, it might illustrate a point.

It was claimed for the direct grant schools that because half the youngsters were meant to go to primary schools for a couple of years they would have so many working-class children. It did not work that way. Far too many of the publicly subsidised youngsters who went to direct grant schools would have been paid for in private education anyway and had been fiddled through the system by people who knew how to work it. I do not blame them for working the system. It is a fact of human life that if there is a system to be worked, one works it.

The Labour Government ended this piece of privilege and attempted to put our dwindling resources of public money where it was desperately needed—into those deprived youngsters who needed the money more than anyone else. But now we have the Tory manifesto proposals to turn the whole thing round again. Everything that we have experienced in the past shows that any scheme of this kind, whatever rules may be drawn up, will be subverted by those middle-class people who wish to bend a few more of their taxes back into their own pockets. It is a form of selection by the back door. It is a quite dreadful prospect for our State schools, which are being held back so much, and I hope that it does not happen.

As a Londoner, I knew why it was necessary in London to say "We must get rid of the 11-plus and end the system whereby London is subsidising some of the public schools." Just after the war, there was every justification for the LCC, as it was, sending youngsters to Dulwich college, the City of London school and elsewhere, because it simply did not have enough school places. There were not enough desks to sit kids in.

There were enormous classes—of 60 or 70 pupils in some cases, but with the population dropping fast, if we had kept the 11-plus and continued our support of youngsters in private schools, half the London kids would have been in grammar schools or private schools in some of our deprived areas, and the other schools, the so-called comprehensives, would have been worse than the "sink" secondary modern schools in the worst period of any of our cities. It was quite proper to get rid of the 11-plus as the only hope of building up these comprehensives. I do not know whether the stories now in the air have anything to do with proposed legislation.

London's comprehensive schools have, against all the odds, built up sixth forms with not nearly enough resources. What worries me about the proposals in the Conservative manifesto is that the Government intend to turn London's comprehensive schools back into the sort of elementary schools that they were in the 1920s and 1930s. By creaming off the top pupils they will not leave enough youngsters to run a coherent sixth form. If there is no sixth form, the staff to teach those subjects cannot be recruited and the whole school becomes a declining and depressed institution. It is for that reason that I believe it proper to raise these issues in an Adjournment debate.

We have a slightly extended Adjournment this evening, and it may be that one or two of my hon. Friends have examples of similar problems in other areas. I would appreciate an opportunity for my hon. Friends to intervene.

If projected plans go through, it seems that about £150 million year by year will be put into private education just at the time when our youngesters in primary and secondary State schools cannot be taught properly—quite apart from being deprived of proper school meals and decent school transport. I am convinced that when parents realise that for every book, piece of paper and pencil their youngsters are being deprived of there is a privileged youngster having money put into a private school education for him, they will rise up in revolt. Parents will force the Government to pull back from that commitment, and I believe that many members of the Government would love to wriggle out of the idiotic manifesto commitment.

10.13 p.m.

It gives me great pleasure to support my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price). The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Pollock) said earlier, in the debate on cystic fibrosis, that that disease knows no boundaries. Unfortunately, as we do not have an Assembly in Scotland legislating on these matters, the Government's policy spreads like a disease across the boundary into Scotland.

Public support for private education is already far too high. Private schools have teachers who have been trained at public expense at training colleges and universities. That is public support for private education. It already has charitable status, which means that through exemption from value added tax and through rate relief there is public support for private education. Through the tax system there are benefits to help parents and grandparents pay school fees. That is public support for private education.

It is my hope that when we next have a Labour Government—that will not be too far away—we shall see an end to all the support which exists for private education, as well as anything that the present Government may be proposing to add to it. As my hon. Friend said, not only is it wrong to support this area at the same time as cutting back on public education, but the very existence of suggestions such as the parents' charter and support for individual pupils to leave the State system to go into the private system mean that there will be a distortion of the curriculum within the local authority schools. There is an undue concentration by the teacher on the education of the academically gifted pupil at the expense of pupils who are gifted in other ways, and that will be harmful indeed.

All this is taking place at a time when the Government are suggesting that there should be a major reduction in the provision of school milk, school meals and school transport. It is alleged that the Government are having consultations with the local authorities in my county. It seems that there is no discussion on principles and the harmful effects of the reduction of the provision of meals, milk and transport. It seems that there is discussion only on marginal matters. For example, the suggestion has been made that the authority provide luncheon vouchers to pupils from poor families. Luncheon vouchers are not much good in the rural areas of Ayrshire, on the Western Isles or on Orkney and Shetland. In those areas there is nowhere for them to be used even if they are worth anything, or even if the local authorities are given money by the Government to enable them to provide vouchers.

We are in a sorry state. We see the Government moving towards two nations in education. We see the sector that is already far too privileged receiving additional support while the sector that desperately requires extra resources is being starved. I hope that it is not long before we see the return of a Government pledged to the support of education for all and not merely for the privileged few.

10.17 p.m.

If I may refer to the hon. Member for South Ayrside (Mr. Foulkes) first, I must disabuse him of one thing—he will have to wait a considerable time before there is the return of a Labour Administration.

I express my appreciation to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) for giving my Department as much time as possible by telephoning at six o'clock this evening and allowing it to have the opportunity to respond to a debate. I entirely share his opinion that the opportunity should not be lost. It is a valuable use of parliamentary time.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to me as an intelligent lad. I have a feeling that he has already written the first paragraph of my next election address. I shall send a copy of it to the Labour candidate, whoever that might be on the next occasion.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject now before the House. Over the past years he has had a consistent record on education and science. His background lies in local government and he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to a former Secretary of State for Education and Science. The hon. Gentleman's knowledge is legion. It surprises many of my hon. Friends that his talents have not been recognised. I hope that one day he will move one Bench forward, thereby bringing to education some of the talent that is now lacking on the Opposition Front Bench. I do not mean that disparagingly to the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor).

The hon. Gentleman is aware of the efficiency of the Department of Education and Science. That is why it was able to respond so speedily to his request earlier this evening. I am grateful to him for acknowledging my presence behind Mr. Speaker's chair as soon as I could be in the House.

It is well known to the hon. Gentleman that the new Education Bill was presented to the House this afternoon at about half-past four. Publication will take place tomorrow. There will be a press announcement at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning. All will then be revealed to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, and I shall not run the risk, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of incurring your displeasure by encroaching upon the rules of procedure. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend can contain themselves until tomorrow, they will have a good opportunity of reading the Bill for at least two long weekends before Second Reading on 5 November. When they have done so, they will know what is planned for the assisted places scheme. They will have the opportunity to develop their arguments on Second Reading or in Committee.

Many of the arguments have been rehearsed at Question Time over the past few months and during the election campaign. The hon. Gentleman will not doubt have an opportunity, should he catch the eye of whoever is in the Chair, to say a few more words on the subject. I acknowledge that it is an important subject and I know that the hon. Gentleman is deeply concerned about it. He referred in the early part of his speech to some of the financial problems facing the United Kingdom now. It must have grieved him deeply, after the better part of 15 years of Labour administration from 1964, to cite the sad case of Southampton, where four pupils were sharing one book. That happens in many areas. In view of the hon. Gentleman's consistency and concern over education and other matters of welfare, and in view of his record in Sheffield and as a representative of Birmingham, Perry Barr some years ago, it must grieve him that this still exists. Even more so, it must grieve him that for the past four or five years that situation was allowed to get out of control—even more so because it was a Labour-controlled authority at that time.

We must clear up one misunderstanding.

I do not think that I can give way. I certainly shall in Committee. I promise to do so as frequently as I can if I have the opportunity. That is a pledge. However, on this occasion, as she did not take part in the debate, I hope that the hon. Lady will not mind if I do not give way. I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentlemen who spoke.

I refer to the assisted places scheme which was mentioned in the Conservative Party manifesto which was presented to the country and resulted in a healthy Conservative majority. I think that I should quote the passage. I know that the hon. Gentleman always considers these matters fully and fairly, even if he does not agree. On page 25 of the manifesto we said, under "Parents' Rights and Responsibilities":
"The direct grant schools, abolished by Labour,"—
I was glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to that—
"gave wider opportunities for bright children from modest backgrounds. The direct grant principle will therefore be restored with an assisted places scheme. Less well-off parents will be able to claim part or all of the fees at certain schools from a special government fund."
We went to the country with that passage in our manifesto. The former Shadow spokesman on education, when the Conservatives were in opposition—now the Leader of the House of Commons—made it quite clear in opposition that we would introduce this scheme. It has had much widespread support from many quarters of the country. Probably the parents in Lewisham will benefit as a result. Better still, children's education will also benefit.

I was interested in the quotation. The hon. Gentleman is almost a member of the manifesto group of the Conservative Party in his reliance on these matters. Will he say by what unique method—it has never been done before—he intends to guarantee that the youngsters benefiting from the scheme are poor children?

I shall not go into the details tonight. Obviously I should not be allowed to do so. The hon. Member must contain himself for another 12 or 13 hours. He will be able to read the Bill over the weekend and subsequently discuss it fully on the Floor of the House and in Committee.

It is our intention to help poor children. That is a laudable aim. I should have thought that the Opposition would have seen a great deal of social merit in that exercise.

I must disabuse the hon. Gentleman of another matter. This is a scheme of assistance to children. It is not a scheme of assistance to schools. During Question Time on Tuesday we found an exaggeration entering into some of our exchanges. On Question No. 1, I responded to the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) when he gave a figure. He said that the scheme would cost £70 million in bolstering the private education system. During the afternoon, the figures rose. Another hon. Gentleman quoted the figure of £90 million. The figure is rising all the time in the eyes of the Opposition.

It is intended that the scheme be set up by the early 1980s. One cannot hope to start it until the year 1981–82. There will be a slow build-up of expenditure to about £50 million. That is the figure. The finance will not be obtained as a result of the expenditure cuts now being made. It will come out of a totally separate fund, as was made clear in the manifesto.

The hon. Gentleman may well [Interruption.]—I am delighted to have attracted a troika of protest on that subject. No doubt it is an appropriate use of the generic on the other side of the House. It is certainly not intended to cost more than £55 million.

This is the first time that the House has been informed about this totally separate fund. What is the fons et origo? Where does this totally separate fund come from? How shall we find it in the Estimates placed before the House?

Order. Before the Minister replies, I remind him that he also must not get involved in forthcoming legislation.

I am grateful to you Mr. Deputy Speaker, for restoring me to the correct tracks. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West will, in the fulness of time, see the detailed answer to his questions, and all will be revealed. However, it is wrong to say that the scheme will cost a great deal of money in terms of Government expenditure. The earliest possible date for the start of the scheme will be revealed to the hon. Gentleman tomorrow.

Opposition Members will have to wait for the Second Reading debate which has been logged for 5 November. No doubt the Committee stage will start shortly after that. We shall then be able to get into the minutiae of the legislation. We shall be able to dot the i's and cross the t's. I am sure that the Opposition will be looking forward eagerly to the passage of that Bill just as much as we are. It is an important step in education. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I say nothing more on this occasion, because it is difficult to forecast and talk about forthcoming legislation in any greater detail.

I hope that hon. Members will read the papers on Saturday, will read the Bill tomorrow morning and read what is said by my right hon. and learned Friend at the press conference tomorrow morning. We attach great importance to this scheme. I hope that in the fulness of time the hon. Members for Lewisham, West and for Bolton, West and their hon. Friends will recognise that this measure will make a great contribution to poor young children who will have an opportunity of achieving the kind of education which perhaps otherwise would be denied them. I hope that in time we shall have their support.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven Minutes past Ten o'clock.