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Education (Assisted Places)

Volume 15: debated on Wednesday 16 December 1981

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10.30 pm

I beg to move, That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1981, which were laid before this House on 2 December, be approved.

It is just over two years since this House first debated the provisions which were placed on the statute book in the Education Act 1980 for the establishment of the assisted places scheme. That scheme is now fully operational and is already benefiting the first year's intake of over 4,000 pupils. Tonight we are debating various amendments to the principal regulations governing the scheme, mainly in preparation for next year's intake. As we agreed during the passage of the Education Act 1980, these regulations have been laid in draft and need the approval of this and the other House before they can be made.

Before turning to some details of the scheme as it now stands, I should like to remind the House of the scheme's purpose. It is to give able children from less well-off families the opportunity of attending good independent schools with distinguished sixth forms and to widen the educational opportunities available to those children by helping with the cost of tuition fees where parents cannot afford the full cost.

After the regulations governing the scheme were approved by Parliament last November, participation agreements were negotiated with 220 schools in England and nine schools in Wales. The English schools contracted to offer 4,455 places for pupils aged between 11 and 13, and 984 places for sixth formers. Welsh schools offered 116 places at 11 to 13, and 34 sixth form places. Overall, 46 per cent. of the places offered were for boys, 40 per cent. for girls and 14 per cent. at mixed schools taking both boys and girls. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was concerned in Committee to secure that there should be a balance between boys and girls and an even distribution.

In England, schools received on average between four and five applications for each of the assisted places offered for 11 to 13-year-olds—a total of roughly 17,000 applications. Disappointingly, however, there were only about 1,000 applications for sixth form places, that is, roughly one for each of the places available. I shall comment later on why that happened.

The individual schools considered those applications and, by their usual means, selected those pupils whom they considered most likely to benefit from the education available. The parents of those pupils were required to declare their income in the previous year and to provide documentary evidence of that. Pupils who were considered academically suitable and whose parents' income was below the appropriate threshold were offered assisted places.

In September this year 4,185 pupils took up assisted places in England. A total of 3,660 of assisted pupils were aged between 11 and 13. The remaining 525 assisted pupils were sixth formers.

Against the background of what I have said so far I should like to report on an area which has been of much concern to Labour Members. In earlier debates they stated at some length that the scheme was really intended to help fairly well-off families who would send their children to independent schools anyway. We refuted that view then and I am pleased to report that, in the event, we have been able to achieve what we have always said was the scheme's objective—to help the less well-off. In the first year of the scheme, one-third of the places were awarded entirely free because of the low income of families. Two-thirds of the assisted places went to pupils from families with incomes below the national average. Only 6 per cent. of the assisted pupils are from families whose income exceeds one-and-a-half times the national average family income. This is a major achievement. Despite the doubts of Opposition Members, we have shown that with a properly designed scheme it is quite possible to help the less well-off benefit from the education provided at good independent schools.

I have looked at the list of applications. The parents come from all walks of life—shop assistants, bus drivers, agricultural workers, postal workers, nurses, one-parent families and the unemployed. I do not think that the rich—such as Members of Parliament—are included in that list. I am sure that that will win approval from both sides of the House.

Another matter which exercised Opposition Members was the proportion of assisted pupils who would be drawn from maintained schools. I am pleased to say that of the first year's intake of assisted pupils, more than two-thirds had spent at least the previous two years in maintained schools. Again, the facts show that the scheme has achieved what we intended. It has widened the range of educational opportunities open to less well-off families who could not previously have contemplated sending their sons or daughters to the independent school of their choice.

'Before turning to the amending regulations before the House, I must say that most of the figures I have mentioned relate to England only. The out-turn in Wales was, however, remarkably similar—the same proportion of places filled, the same shortage of sixth form applicants, the same proportion of pupils drawn from maintained schools, but an even higher proportion of pupils from low income families who have received entirely free places. The proportion of free places differs from one area to another.

The amending regulations before us tonight draw largely on our experience of the first year of the scheme, on which I have just reported. I shall describe the main provisions of the draft regulations, and if there are detailed queries which hon. Members wish to raise during the course of the debate, I shall attempt to answer them at the end.

The main provision in the draft amendment regulations is the revaluation of the income scale on which parental contributions are assessed. That takes account of inflation. Regulation 10 increases the income disregard in respect of dependent relatives to £800. That is a proportionately larger increase than inflation during the past year and reflects our concern that the assessment of parents' income should make proper allowance for the number of dependants in each family. Because of that increase, the revised threshold levels for the income assessment scale which we propose in regulation 12 are correspondingly lower than if they had been revalued directly in line with inflation. The shape of the assessment scale, however, remains the same, with a very steep gradient once income levels rise above the national average. Had there been a slower rise, people with higher incomes would have been advantaged. We want assistance to go to those who need it.

Taken together, the increase in the dependants' allowance and the revaluation of the income scale fully reflect the increase in average incomes since the previous regulations were made. That will ensure that parents' contributions to tuition fees remain the same in real terms.

The second amendment which I should draw to the attention of the House is regulation 4. That corrects a technical error in the original regulations. It has always been the Government's intention that parents' income should be assessed gross, without deductions for superannuation contributions, mortgage interest and the other allowances made for tax purposes. The original regulations were drawn up with that objective in view. However, it has recently come to light that the regulations' reference to tax law concerning superannuation contributions was incomplete. Regulation 4 remedies the omission from 1 January. For the school term just ending, parents' income was assessed on the basis that the regulations achieved the objective. Consequently, some parents will be entitled to a small refund so that their contributions for that period are in line with what the regulations actually said. The Department will be arranging for those refunds to be paid through the individual schools as soon as possible.

The only other significant amendment is to the residence requirement for assisted pupils. Regulation 7 will reduce the period of ordinary residence normally required from three to two years. Because the length of residence is measured on 1 January preceding the September in which the assisted places would be taken up, that reduces the period of residence effectively required from three and three-quarter to two and three-quarter years, which is more in line with residence requirements for other purposes. Residence has to be proved before the date of entry to the school. Regulation 7 also exempts refugee children from the residence requirement in line with a similar concession made in respect of eligibility for student maintenance awards.

The remainder of the regulations are tidying-up amendments that one would expect in the first year of the operation of a new scheme.

The actual regulations are necessarily rather technical but cover issues which are straight forward and are difficult to see as controversial. I would like, however, to return to an issue not covered in the regulations before the House tonight and which arouses a little more passion. Hon. Members would be disappointed if some passion was not aroused. I speak about the question of local authorities' power to veto the transfer of pupils from maintained schools to assisted sixth form places at independent schools in the scheme.

Hon. Members will recall that my right hon. and learned Friend the then Secretary of State, who is present for the debate, included that power of veto in the regulations governing the scheme following strong representations by local authorities that sixth forms in some maintained schools might be rendered unviable if there were unrestricted transfers to assisted sixth form places. In the event, authorities' fears were proved to be unjustified. This was partly because we limited to a maximum of five the number of assisted sixth form places at individual schools in the scheme. Nevertheless, even in these changed circumstances, authorities collectively vetoed something like 100 potential sixth-form transfers. Many other applications were never made because of statements by local education authorities that opposed, except in the most exceptional circumstances, the acceptance into the assisted places scheme of sixth formers transfering from lower forms outside.

The requirement in the regulations that authorities approve sixth form transfers necessarily gives them the right to say "No" as well as "Yes". In particular circumstances, I accept that a negative decision could be justified if it affected the viability of courses taking place in local maintained schools. It was for that reason that these arrangements were made. However, it seems that a number of authorities refused most, if not all, applications for sixth form transfers, even though those transfers would not have rendered any of their own sixth forms unviable. Many of these authorities made their hostile attitude well known locally at an early stage to deter parents; and the threat of a blanket veto must have had an inhibiting effect on parents and thus been a contributing factor to the disappointing number of applicants at sixth form level. My right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State has considered very carefully the use of the veto for purposes other than that for which it was intended. In particular, he has considered the strong arguments put forward by some that the local authorities' power of veto should, in consequence, be withdrawn.

My right hon. Friend has concluded, however, that it would not be right at this stage to penalise, because of the behaviour of a few authorities, the many by which the veto is valued as a power of last resort and which have used the veto responsibly. It is, therefore, proposed that the veto be retained for the second year of the scheme.

My right hon. Friend nevertheless remains concerned that, in a few areas, children have been denied reasonable access to assisted sixth form places by their authorities' use of the veto. He hopes that in the light of their experience this year, those authorities will use the veto with rather more restraint in 1982. The Department will be monitoring the situation closely and will be ready to look at individual cases. Unless it appears that those few authorities' practices in this matter have changed significantly for the better, I think it most unlikely that my right hon. Friend would be prepared to propose the retention of authorities' power of veto on transfers to assisted sixth form place for the third year, notwithstanding its value as a safeguard in particular cases for the generality of authorities.

The question of costs is regularly raised. There is sometimes argument about the recoupment figures. I have been supplied today with figures in relation to secondary schools in one authority and another when a pupil transfers. Up to the age of 16, the cost in secondary schools is £1,004. Over the age of 16, basically at sixth form level, the cost is £1,623. I have made inquiries today about fees for Manchester grammar school where a large proportion of the pupils are in the sixth form because of the method of recruitment. The fees are between £1,300 and £1,400. The idea that more money is being spent because more pupils have assisted places does not stand up. I have given those figures before.

Right hon. and hon. Friends and I have always supported the assisted places scheme. If someone on this side of the House disagrees with that view, we tolerate him. We may even buy him a drink and encourage him. We do not indulge in diatribes against each other, as happens with the Opposition. We are concerned about the fact that in many inner cities the opportunities for working class children are not as they used to be or what most hon. Members would wish. That is a fact that Opposition Members have refused to accept, and the emperor's clothes have never been seen to be withdrawn.

It must be realised that no two comprehensive schools are identical. Each comprehensive school reflects its catchment area and its staff. The gap between the best and worst schools academically is very often as wide as the gap that used to exist between grammar and secondary modern schools. That is also a reality that Opposition Members will not face. It is a painful reality, but it is always a good thing to face up to it and decide what one must do about it.

The gap could be widened by setting up centres of excellence in the maintained sector. It is logical that some people should oppose the assisted places scheme by saying that centres of excellence should be introduced. But to say that we should continue with an ever-widening gap between the poorer and the better comprehensive schools, where able children may not be given the opportunity to continue their education, would deprive the poorer child of opportunities which all hon. Members would wish him to have.

To clarify the matter and to save time later, will the hon. Gentleman state whether, when talking about the possibility of centres of excellence within the maintained sector, he is advocating a return to selection at 11-plus?

I am sorry that people are stuck in their train at the 11-plus. There are hundreds of ways in which we can introduce centres of excellence. One must consider other countries. I returned yesterday from India, where I saw what they were doing in schools. Centres of excellence have been introduced all around the world. Only in Britain do we have parties such as the Social Democratic Party and the Alliance, which oppose the assisted places scheme. All around the world people are realising that able children or those with special or less talents often need special tuition if they are to give their best to society afterwards.

I am not talking about a return to the position as it was before. We should never say that we have reached the buffers at the station and that there will be no change. Obviously, if we have compulsory housing and people are sorted out so that catchment areas are the same everywhere—as suggested by the Labour Party—that is one solution. However, if that is what Labour Members wish to say, they should do so during an election campaign. Otherwise, there will not be equal intakes at neighbourhood comprehensive schools.

I refer in conclusion to the unity of the Labour Party and the Social Democratic Party on the issue. The old and the new Labour Parties do not seem to differ. I have some evidence here from the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Williams)—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is she?"] Far be it from me to say that she is absent. She said that she opposed the assisted places scheme, as does the SDP. Also, from what I believe to be SDP policy—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"]—It is rather tame, but it certainly exists.

The Minister should put his glasses on.

Stronger glasses may be necessary, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras South (Mr. Dobson) says. May I say that we are pleased to see him on the Opposition Front Bench.

The paper states:
"In view of all this there should clearly be no element of public support for these institutions and existing support should be withdrawn."
Presumably that would mean the end of assisted places.

The assisted places scheme is not to prop up independent schools. Because compulsory comprehensive schools have not worked so well in some areas, the queue for independent school places is probably longer than it has ever been. Labour Members have done the recruiting. Sixth forms in the old direct-grant schools were the most distinguished that we had. Overall, their results were better than those of the public schools. However, the Labour Party made sure that only children of parents who could afford to pay had the advantage. It was selection by the purse. Now others can at least be offered the same opportunities, although the Labour Party tried to destroy the social and economic opportunity. It has often done similar things. The people whom it represents believe that it is on their side, but in fact it holds them down, and we are rectifying that situation.

What part of education, or what individual, school, parent or teacher does the hon. Gentleman believe that he is helping by his constant denigration of the schools that serve the community? If the hon. Gentleman's criterion for success is examination results, year on year in CSE and GCE O- and A-level results continue to improve, which utterly contradict his view of our schooling system.

We have many good maintained schools. I and my wife went to such schools, as did my children. Primary schools have improved, but a large number of secondary schools do not give the ultimate opportunity to the academic child.

The hon. Gentleman talks of results, but the Labour Party stopped parents from learning the results of individual schools. They kept them blindfold for fear of what they may find out in certain cases. They voted against the measure time and again.

It may hurt, but the hon. Gentleman cannot defend himself by one word cries in the night.

No. I am still replying to the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock).

We have many good schools, but they should not blind us to the fact that in certain areas—certainly in some inner city areas—the opportunities are not what we would wish.

Let me illustrate my point by quoting an area less prejudiced than Britain. Last week I was in Rajkot in Gujerat. India has a long Socialist tradition, which is one reason why I chose the example. At Rajkumar college, a big residential school, 10 per cent. of the intake—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South may laugh. The Gujeratis who live in his constituency will know where the college is.

Ten per cent. of the intake are being paid for by the Government as merit scholarships, because they believe that the opportunities there should be available to children from poorer homes.

The Minister castigates us about the publication of examination results. Will every school participating in the assisted places scheme be compelled to publish its examination results in full?

Yes. They are bound by the same publication regulations as State schools. I believe that they will have to provide parents with the same information as the State sector.

We see this scheme not as replacing in any way the maintained sector and the academic standards within it, but as a scheme that gives opportunities to certain children, who will not otherwise have them, to join distinguished academic schools and sixth forms so that they can develop themselves to the full, which I believe should be the desire of all hon. Members.

10.55 pm

When the assisted places scheme was introduced it was opposed by the Labour Party and by practically every respectable, responsible educational organisation. It remains opposed by those organisations and by the Labour Party. It was opposed because, by siphoning off a limited number of children, it was a threat to the standard of maintained schools. It was also believed that it would be socially divisive and that ultimately the better-off, not the poorest, would benefit.

Anyone who wishes to cast any doubts on that should bear in mind that it was intended from the outset that about 40 per cent. of the pupils making use of the assisted places scheme should have attended fee-paying schools. The Minister confirmed that about 30 per cent. of the children benefiting from the scheme—if they are benefiting—have come from fee-paying schools. There are not many poor people who manage to send their children to fee-paying preparatory schools.

The Minister said earlier this month that the overall cost of the scheme would be £3·2 million this year, despite the fact that he said on 13 January that there would be a cash limit of £3 million on the scheme. He has already exceeded his cash limit. The Opposition find it ironic that ever more severe cash limits should be imposed on the maintained sector of education while the Minister is allowed to get away with adding another £200,000 to the cost of the scheme, though he made his estimates only a few months' ago.

The excess over the cash limit is greater than it first appears. It was originally intended that £3 million should fund the State's contribution to no fewer than 5,500 assisted places, but it is now funding only 4,185 places. We need an explanation from the Minister. One possible explanation is that private school fees have increased and that that has taken away a chunk of his budget and has led him to exceed his cash limit.

The Minister tries to tell us that the £3·2 million is not extra education spending, because when the children concerned move out of the maintained sector into the private sector, in some way the maintained sector will save £3·2 million. That is nonsense. On his own admission, one-third of the children are already in fee-paying schools and are therefore likely to continue their education in fee-paying schools whether or not the assisted places scheme is operating. That is no saving for the maintained sector.

Even more important is the fact that there will be no savings to local education authorities when children move into the assisted places scheme, because they will be taken out of the schools in ones and twos and, at most, five pupils will move out. As far as we know, no local education authority will sack teachers or close classrooms on the basis that it has moved one, two, three or four children to schools in the assisted places scheme. Consequently, there will be no savings. We are getting double expenditure, because local education authorities are not able to save anything but a few pounds worth of books from any of the children who are being shifted to assisted places in the private sector. That is a further misleading aspect of the Minister's view that we need to expose.

The regulations deal with various legal technicalities that have shown up to be wrong in the scheme, but their real intention is to maintain the real value to parents of the fee remission arrangements. What curious priorities the Government have. The real value of unemployment benefit has not been maintained. The real value of supplementary benefit has been reduced. The real value of retirement pensions, despite the Prime Minister's promises, has been cut, and deliberately cut. Student grants are to be held to an increase of 4 per cent. Government fundings of local authorities in the forthcoming year will be reduced from 59 to 56 per cent. They are not keeping up with the rate of inflation. Indeed, they are deliberately being brought down below it.

We understand that teachers in the maintained sector are faced with a pay increase maximum—it has been laid down by the self-same Government—of 4 per cent. What sort of priorities do the Government have when they are prepared to maintain the real value of the remission arrangements for a privileged group of parents while everybody else can just get knotted?

What are the Government's education priorities? They can find £3·2 million to assist a limited number of pupils but they have said—apparently quite proudly—that they will not find a penny to fund any extra spending by local education authorities on the special needs of the handicapped. The result is that the aspects of the Education Act 1981 that refer to the specialised needs of handicapped children are just dead letters on the statute book. That is because there are no resources to put them into operation.

We are faced with severe cuts in the maintained school sector, and some higher education establishments and universities are facing the closure of individual departments. For example, Aberdeen university is contemplating having to sell off—no doubt to some fancy millionaire in the United States—valuable parts of its library collection, which it has built up over several hundred years, to get itself out of the temporary problem that has been imposed by the Minister and his colleagues. If there is no cash limit on fee remission, why should there be a cash limit on other aspects of education?

We have heard a great deal from the Minister about those on average pay and below average incomes, but it must be said—I must be careful, because I am not accusing any school of not doing its job properly—that the vetting of the applications and the declarations of income is done by the schools that are involved. I wonder now many of them are geared properly to vet someone's complicated statement of family income. All that we were told by the former Secretary of State for Education and Science, the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), was that the running of the scheme is left basically to the integrity of the schools that are involved. I am not casting any doubts on their integrity, but it seems that some doubts might be cast on the integrity of some of the applicants, although I am not suggesting that we should cast doubt on the integrity of all of them.

It would be interesting to know how many assisted places have gone to children of people who are self-employed and allegedly on low incomes. I acknowledge that many of the self-employed are badly off, but it is a notorious fact of our society that a considerable number of the self-employed somehow manage to reduce their taxable incomes to levels that are difficult to reconcile with their personal standards of living. There must therefore be problems for schools in carrying out the vetting process.

It would be interesting to have these figures from the Government, because many of the self-employed do not agree a figure for a particular year's income until two, three or even four years later. Will the schools be allowed to accept estimated figures that have not been approved by the Inland Revenue? If so, what arrangements are being made to recoup money if it is subsequently found that the estimate was wrong in a direction advantageous to the parent?

No doubt the Minister will attempt to deal with that when he replies, or he may say that he needs notice of the question.

Some of the other changes show how irrelevant the regulations are to the educational problems of the majority of our children and schools. Why is the length of residence requirement reduced from three years to two? Have the Government received numerous representations from EEC nationals or EEC bureaucrats saying that they cannot get their children into the scheme because they are not here for long enough? The Minister owes the House some explantion of that.

Why does the same not apply to students? Why will they still have to be in this country for three years before they acquire residential qualifications for university and grant purposes, when people sending their children to private schools under this scheme have to wait a shorter time?

Another factor likely to present considerable problems for schools involved in the scheme is the vetting of applications from some of the strange-status foreign applicants who come forward. It is difficult enough to sort out the British taxation system. The Saudi taxation system or the total non-taxation system for people employed by the EEC would almost certainly be beyond the comprehension of the bursars of most of the schools involved.

To show the irrelevance of the regulations to the needs of the country, I recommend to the Minister regulation 13(2), which reads:
"After sub-paragraph (f) of the said paragraph 3 there shall be inserted the following provisions:—
'(g) in pursuance of section 37 of the Finance Act 1980(a) (relief for losses on unquoted shares in trading companies), or
(h) in pursuance of Chapter II of Part IV of the Finance Act 1981(b) (relief for investment in new corporate trades),'."
Having read that about 15 times and sought advice on it, I discovered that it was actually a tightening-up of the scheme and not a relaxation. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine that the children of any poor families in Toxteth or Brixton who want a better education are likely to be affected by absurd taxation technicalities of the kind contained in the regulations. It is absolute lunacy.

The Minister says that he is concerned about the future of ordinary children in inner cities. I spent about an hour and a half this evening in my constituency at the Christmas show of a mixed comprehensive school—mixed in sex and mixed in race. That school is full of teachers who are doing their level best to provide a decent education for the children for whom they are responsible. There are parents living near the school and farther away from the school who are desperate to help those teachers to improve the standards in the school and to make sure that all the children in the school—not just the high-fliers—get a better start in life than our education system has been providing. I then come back here and I am faced with the absurdity of these minor changes to the squalid scheme which the Minister has supported all along and still supports.

The real intention of the scheme is to offer a limited number of children the opportunity to join what the Minister sees as the elite. The history of our country in the twentieth century shows that that elite has been useless, incompetent and irrelevant to the needs of the nation that it was allegedly leading. If the Minister wants the scheme to add to the numbers in that elite group, he ought to do something about improving its performance. The sort of people that he is trying to creaste by the scheme have let this country down at every turn and have led us into the position that we are in today. It is for that reason that the Labour Party is pledged to abolish the scheme at the first opportunity as a first step towards the elimination of the private sector in British education.

11.12 pm

I can think of no better way of starting a speech on education than by recalling the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) when the Education (No. 2) Bill was being considered. He said that our concern was to make the assisted places scheme liberal, to ensure that it would help children who would not otherwise have an opportunity of attending that school. As usual, my hon. Friend has tonight summed matters up in a nutshell. It means that at least 60 per cent. of the assisted places being offered by a school must go to children who have spent at least two years in the maintained sector.

It is also important to remember that the assisted places scheme directs help to children, as distinct from the school, which was certainly not the case under the old direct grant system.

I was a little concerned about the Minister's remarks this evening about the veto. When he refers to 100 places being vetoed, he is really talking about 100 children being deprived of an opportunity that is almost unequalled. I do not necessarily share his sense of contentment about that. To let things continue in the present fashion, even for another year, is a little hard, to say the least.

It is right to examine the scheme in the light of the Labour Party's doctrinaire proposals for education. For example, the Labour Party argues the case for the total abolition of private education, and goes as far as to say that independent school fees should be made illegal. That is spiteful and dogmatic, and I do not see why parents should not be allowed to spend their money as they wish.

The assisted places scheme will provide a great deal of additional freedom of choice and opportunity. The added choice that is provided by the scheme will ensure much greater opportunity for children. I am convinced that that is a positive benefit and is in no way divisive.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) said that the scheme would be divisive. I cannot see it, indeed quite the reverse. I believe that it will act as almost a form of cement in bringing together people from different groups and backgrounds. To that extent, it will be very worth while.

As for some of the hon. Gentleman's scathing remarks about the public school system, many other hon. Members, on this side of the Chamber at least, are not products of that system, but we recognise that it has value. It is wrong to dismiss the public schools in one cavalier sentence as the hon. Gentleman did.

It is worth recalling that, if those children who are taking advantage of the scheme were not in the scheme, they would require educating and would be a direct charge on the education budget. People talk about money being made available to a privileged group, but that same group would in any case be a direct charge on the educational budget.

The costs are not excessive. They start at about £3½ million and rise to a maximum of about £12 million in the third year, which covers the lifetime of this Parliament.

Those children who otherwise could not have attended assisted places schools will derive substantial benefit from the scheme. As I have said, it will ensure that there is a much better social mix in those schools. I should have thought that that would receive favourable comments from Opposition Members. So often they argue the case for social engineering—the term they use so much. Here is a perfect example of social engineering in practice. At least they should commend the scheme for that, if for nothing else.

My hon. Friend the Minister referred to helping children in inner city areas. I support his view. Parents who wish to opt out of the local neighbourhood comprehensive school should have an opportunity of so doing. This system will allow them to move to another type of education.

The scheme is safeguarded by a means test. Despite the scathing remarks of Opposition Members, a means test is a means test, and it works efficiently. Criticism has been directed at means tests in other areas, particularly in relation to social security benefits. When we argue about a means test for social security benefits, some members may say that means tests are appalling and should be withdrawn. Yet when a means test is introduced in this sector, we are told that it is worthless. Hon. Members may not be two-faced, but this is clearly another example of some of them facing two ways. They should make up their minds. Is a means test what it says, or is it something that can be dismissed? They cannot have it both ways.

If the hon. Member listens a little more closely, he will find that the Labour Party is against regressive means tests. Regressive means tests are those that if, applied to people who are already poor, further impoverish them, which is a regression, and if applied to people who have no need of assistance, further advantage them, which is regressive. That is why we are against those means tests.

I am grateful for the hon. Member's intervention. Normally his interventions are useful to the House, but in this instance I do think that he is telling us anything that we do not know. None the less, as a point of clarification for his hon. Friends, it may be useful.

It is worth remembering that, although places have been made available at boarding schools, there is no provision for the payment of boarding fees, although certain schools have elected to pay the cost of boarding.

The scheme adds a new dimension to the education scene. It will help those who are able to derive benefit from the type of education that is offered at certain schools. The scheme should by applauded and welcomed. It should not be denigrated as many Opposition Members are endeavouring to do.

Many parents will make sacrifices for their children—as parents have done from time immemorial—some seeing the assisted places scheme as a means of obtaining a different form of education for their children. They see it not as elitist but as different and as providing their children with a form of education that will suit them. That should be encouraged.

My hon. Friends and I believe that the greater choice that we can give parents, the better. That is part of the parents' charter introduced by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. The Government's efforts in education should be applauded and it is small-minded and spiteful of the Opposition not to recognise the worth of the scheme. The Opposition Benches are now sparsely populated and perhaps we can see what real importance they attach to education.

11.20 pm

It is probably appropriate that the public school system is defended by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey), but he should bear in mind that, in many ways, Dr. Arnold was a wise and far-seeing man who would be appalled at the prospect of British education which calls on his name in vain.

I remind the hon. Member that the people of his town turned on the good doctor in his younger days as a dangerous revolutionary. He was regarded in the way that some have recently regarded A. S. Neill. He was an innovator who, I believe, would be appalled by what is happening today.

The assisted places scheme is an effort to perpetuate the academic, social and establishment elite. The Government propose bad amendments to a bad order, which arose from a bad scheme contained in a bad Act. The Under-Secretary is attempting to put back a clock that has not advanced far enough.

The hon. Gentleman referred in passing to regional distribution. I suggested in Committee that that distribution of places was likely to be uneven and would probably be concentrated in the North-West. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how it has worked out? The schools that have opted for the scheme are mostly not the so-called public schools of myth and fiction, but the direct grant schools that have gone independent. The scheme applies less to the "top 50 public schools" than to those of the day grammar school variety which were common in the 1930s.

Has the Under-Secretary conducted any survey of how schools select pupils for places? What sort of examinations are they setting? What sort of curriculum is demanded and to what extent does entry depend on interview, either of the pupil or the parents? There is a possibility that it is selection at least as much of the parents as of the pupils.

The hon. Gentleman referred to recruitment and quoted figures for the sixth form of Manchester grammar school. It would be more appropriate if he mentioned figures for secondary school third and fourth years. Presumably there are many more pupils in that age group than in the sixth forms. As the hon. Gentleman chose to use the sixth form figures, the House may have reason to ask for more general figures.

The Under-Secretary made a remark that reveals some of the reasons and the poverty of thinking behind the scheme. No one in the House would deny that there is such poverty. It is something that all of us would like to see eliminated, and it is the right hon. Gentleman's duty to see that it is eliminated. Unless he does so, he is not doing his duty by the House, by the country, or—more particularly—by the pupils who, he believes, are missing out.

The hon. Gentleman said that it is the right of every pupil to have the opportunity to experience "the ultimate academic opportunity". What is "the ultimate academic opportunity"? Is it the opportunity to become a PhD? I suppose that some people would say so; I would not. In any case, education is surely not about "the ultimate academic opportunity", although it may include that as one of the factors.

When the right hon. Gentleman speaks about centres of excellence, suggesting that we have a few chosen centres in the inner cities, he is turning his back on what should be the principle of any Minister of Education in any Government—that every school in the land is a centre of excellence, and that every pupil who goes to that school has the opportunity of having an education which is. geared to his or her unique needs. Those needs are partly academic and partly scholastic. However, that is only part of the story. It is the obsession of the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends with academic excellence alone, withdrawn and separated from much other experience of life, that has caused the gaps in society and some of the difficulties that we are facing today.

The education philosopher, Professor Tawney—I know that the Minister does not dismiss him entirely—summed it up when he said in the 1920s that what a wise parent would wish for his children so the nation should have for all its children. The right hon. Gentleman's scheme goes nowhere towards that. Indeed, it suggests that the solutions lie in opposite directions. Labour Members disagree, and that is why we oppose these bad amendments to a bad scheme by a bad Administration who do not believe in education for all.

11.27 pm

I shall follow the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) in what he said about wanting every school to be a centre of excellence. I have spent a lifetime in the maintained sector teaching children from the age of 5 up to students on honours degree courses. What is important in education is not just the academic opportunity that is offered by an institution but the opportunity to mingle with people outside the social and economic group to which the parents belong and to get away from the geographical location where the parents are settled. It is the intermingling of people that is important. That is the greatest weakness of the neighbourhood school, and it was the greatest strength of the old grammar school, even though it had other weaknesses.

It was for that reason that I welcomed the original legislation which provided for the assisted places scheme. I welcome the amending regulations tonight, because the fact that they are brought forward is evidence that the Government are determined to take a scheme which, although controversial, is supported by many people. As long as we have a scheme, we want it to work as efficiently and as successfully as possible. No one wants a failed system of education. I am glad that the Government are proposing these amendments to ensure that the scheme operates as fairly and as efficiently as possible.

I have a number of points to make about the scheme as it will be amended. One, which I raised on Second Reading, relates to the age of operation of the scheme. I note that it will apply not only to pupils who have reached 11 years of age but pupils who may not have reached that age but would be educated with pupils of 11 years of age.

That is still a rigid age distinction. Many independent schools do not have a natural break in their intakes at 11 years of age. Their natural breaks occur at 8 and 13 years of age. The present system tends to disadvantage children who have gone through the maintained sector and who seek to come in at 11 years of age, whereas children who have gone into the independent sector at 8 years of age, or earlier, have the advantage of being geared to the school's requirements.

I think that there is a strong argument for the introduction of legislation to permit pupils to be recruited into the independent school system at 8 years of age, and above, because they would then come in at a point at which the courses naturally begin. That would be a marked advantage.

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to see the social mix about which he is talking, surely he would ban entrants from private schools at preparatory school age from coming into the school at 11 years of age.

No. That is not a logical conclusion from what I said, although it may be a conclusion. The logical conclusion is that the independent schools, by virtue of the geographical range from which they draw their pupils, create the social mix that I am seeking. There is great competition for the limited number of places in independent schools. I suggest that those who have not been in the independent school sector before the age of 11 will not have followed the curriculum directly related to that sector because there is no natural break at 11 years of age. The hon. Gentleman must accept that on this occasion he is wrong.

My second point relates to parental contributions. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) used the phrase "privileged parents". I hope that I have not misquoted him. I take strong exception to that phrase. The only privilege that such parents have is that of paying on average between £5 and £6 a week for their children's education in addition to their contributions to rates and taxes. It is grossly misleading to suggest that parents who can benefit under this scheme can be wealthy. A wealthy parent cannot benefit under this scheme. Some parents make no contributions; others make sizeable contributions. Anyone who can remotely be described as being wealthy cannot be included in the scheme.

I have the honour to represent a great naval port, but it is a centre of low wages because it has been dependent on the Royal Navy and the dockyard for many years. It is not an area of great wealth, but, within Portsmouth, there are three excellent independent schools, and those schools are heavily over-subscribed from a basically working class population. Parents make sacrifices to send their children to the schools of their choice. In addition to paying all or part of their fees, they have to bear the expense for travelling to more distant schools.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of those parents, without putting an exact percentage on it, do not pay the fees of these schools at all? They are paid by myself and himself, and the taxpayers at large, in the sense that those parents are members of the Royal Navy and they get allowances from the public purse to enable their children to attend these independent schools?

This is certainly so. The majority of parents, however, are sending their children to independent schools at their own expense. My point is that while it may be true that some parents send their children to school at no great sacrifice, in cities such as Portsmouth virtually every parent who sends his or her child to an independent school is making a sacrifice. These parents have to accept the full burden of paying for the rates and taxes that provide the educaton system in the maintained sector.

As one who has spent a long time as a practising teacher I take exception to comments from the opposition Benches to the effect that in some way, if children are taken out of the maintained sector, it is in no way a benefit. I have heard a great deal about the rising numbers in classes being a great burden upon teachers. If a class is reduced, however, this is said to make no difference. I suggest that the removal of pupils from a class must undoubtedly ease the burdens on the teacher, if it is only by way of the level of marking or by reducing the range of ability in the class. It must mean that there is less pressure on school libraries and the laboratories in those schools, and on those practical subjects that benefit from having reduced numbers. It must be directly advantageous. There is no doubt that parents are making a sacrifice and a contribution to reducing demands within the maintained sector.

I give the fullest welcome to the regulations and ask the Minister to take on board the idea that perhaps the requirements for entry might in future, when funds are more generously available, be made much more flexible.

11.37 pm

I want to make a comparatively boring speech——

—about some of the details in these regulations. This scheme is a dog's breakfast. It was introduced with a great fanfare and prepared by highly paid civil servants with enormous expertise, yet within a year the Government have to bring acres and acres of small print back to us, changing all the rules that they had worked out. That does not say very much for the preparation of the scheme in the first place.

I am not the expert on the scheme that the Minister is. I can never remember whether it is the English system that is cash-limited or the Scottish one. What are the Government doing running two completely different schemes, one cash-limited and the other not? May we have some explanation of this and of what led the Government to decide to run two wholly different financial structures for the schemes in Scotland and England?

Earlier, I intervened on the subject of examination results. I may be wrong and the Minister may be right, but I ask him to assure me that this year all the examination results of the schools in the assisted places scheme are available to parents who want to apply to those schools. If the Minister says "Yes" I shall be interested. If that is not so, when will the examination results of all the schools in the scheme be available? What action does the Minister intend to take if the schools decide, as the headmasters' conference decided, not to publish examination results as a general rule? That matter should be cleared up, although I might be wrong about it.

The nub of the issue is the Government's desire to have centres of excellence because the State system is not good enough. By questioning Ministers in the Select Committee we discovered that one of the reasons why the State system is in difficulties is that first the Labour Government and then the Conservative Government agreed with the local authorities in the 1970s that if rolls were falling it was unreasonable to reduce funds pari passu, exactly at the same rate as the falling rolls and that some cushion was needed. Otherwise, as the inspectors' report made clear, standards would fall because a smaller plant, as it were, has greater difficulties with which to contend.

It is not true that standards improve when the number in a class is reduced. Problems are caused by a reduction in the number of teachers and sometimes no teacher is available to teach a particular subject. There was full agreement between the Government and local authorities in 1979 that a cushion was needed. In their election manifesto and in their Green Paper the Government stated that their policy was to improve education standards. Their policy is no longer in that form, because they know that they are no longer improving standards because they have taken away the cushion that used to be available to help State schools with falling rolls.

A contributing factor to falling rolls is the assisted places scheme. If it did not exist, more youngsters would be in State schools. I do not say that that is the biggest reason, but it is an element. The Government are operating a self-fulfilling prophecy. They admit that they are imposing a real cut in standards in the State sector, and then they say that because they have imposed that cut they must take some of the children out and put them in private schools, which will result in a further cut in standards in the State sector.

Much is made of the 4,000 children who have moved from maintained schools to independent schools under the scheme. Does the hon. Gentleman or my hon. Friend know the overall figure for children in maintained schools? Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of schools publishing examination results? I thought that he used to be against it.

I have never been against schools publishing examination results, but I think that they should do it in the same form and in the context of everything that goes on in the school. The publication of the bare examination results sometimes gives a false picture.

Can the Minister escape from the charge of creating the situation which he says the assisted places scheme is meant to remedy? That is a major charge against him.

Everyone knows that fiddling takes place with both student grants and assisted places scheme grants. Usually, if Parliament votes money, it is—[Interruption.] Much as I am interested in what the Government Whip has to say, I want the Under-Secretary's attention, because I shall ask him a specific question. Indeed, it would be nice to have his attention. If public funds are voted, there should be accountability. To whom are the private schools accountable? Does the Public Accounts Committee have the right to examine the matter? Does the Comptroller and Auditor General have the right to walk into the bursars' offices of schools and check, on a random basis, whether the income of parents has been properly calculated? That is important. Student grants are assessed by Local education authorities, which are public bodies subject to the district auditor. Public accountability is built into that system. Under the Industry Act, when private firms receive public money there is a system of accountability. The Department concerned sends its accountants in to examine the books.

The assisted places scheme represents the only arrangement under which taxpayers' money is flowing into private institutions, with no system of accountability. Does the district auditor have any standing? I am sure that the principle of Parliament voting money is that it should be accountable. I heard nothing on Second Reading, in Committee, on Third Reading or during debates on the first and second sets of regulations to show that the Government are even remotely interested in accounting for that public money. I want to hear the Under-Secretary reply to that point.

When the Under-Secretary revs up from 10 mph to 100 mph, it is a good sign that he is hiding something. He did that with a rapid statement that the ordinary residence qualification is being reduced—for no good reason—from three years to two years. We went through that whole rigmarole with student grants for further and higher education, which brought great hardship to overseas students. The Government imposed the ordinary residence test, as opposed to the residence test, which has now been tested twice in the courts. It may have to be tested again to determine the meaning of "ordinary residence".

The position for further and higher education is clear. I thought that the Government were lining up the qualifications for the assisted places scheme grants with those for further and higher education. Why have they suddenly introduced a different qualification'' Is it something to do with a single child of a Eurocrat in Brussels? I am deeply suspicious that it is something to do with some EEC mobility promise. I want an explanation of the reduction from three years to two years for the ordinary residence qualification.

It is suggested that the State saves the money spent on this scheme and that there is therefore no extra cost. A third of these youngsters are children who would not have gone to State schools. We are paying parents who would have paid anyway. That is the whole object of the private education exercise. Parents who pay want to buy three or four years of university education, amounting to £6,000 to £10,000-worth of public money that is provided by the poor who do not send their children to university.

The motive is the same in the assisted places scheme. At least one-third of the money flowing into the scheme is not money that would have fallen on the public purse. It is simply a subvention to the middle class. At a time when cuts are taking place right across the board, this is the least defensible and the most absurd piece of public expenditure.

11.51 pm

In the three minutes available to me I should like to inform the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) that I have heard his speech before. I have heard it from many members of the Labour Party in an education committee not 110 miles from this Chamber, at public meetings and on university campuses. I have listened to the verbal knee-jerk reflexes of those, like the hon. Gentleman, who utter words such as "elitism" and "envy". It is the usual terminology that surrounds the language of class warfare. It is encountered head-on in education debates.

I suppose that education debates reflect the clash between those who are the behavioural scientists of this world and those who believe in individualism, corresponding to the political philosophies of our two parties. The hon. Gentleman took matters too far when he described how teachers were doing their level best within the system in spite of the assisted places scheme.

The hon. Gentleman reduced still further the level of his contribution when he cast aspersions on the integrity of parents who may fill in forms. He even managed a crack about foreigners that included the Saudi Arabians.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr.Price) posed a question about examination results. If he wants an answer, he should perhaps consult his hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) who will no doubt be familiar with the controversy in Wales, where there is some concern about the decline in the standards of O and A-level passes.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West referred to falling rolls in the State sector and claimed that the scheme threatened the integrity of some schools. If any school is threatened by the tiny reduction in numbers caused by the transfer of pupils between schemes, as outlined by the Minister, the school must have considerable difficulties. It may be a school, if I dare say this, that is looking for excuses.

The debate has shown again the Labour Party playing snakes and ladders with education policy. The problem is that Opposition Members seem always intent to kick away the ladders.

11.55 pm

I shall answer as many questions as possible during the time available. I shall read those questions that I cannot answer and send a note later to those who asked them. Many of the questions were interesting.

The first question was in an intervention by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price). He asked about the publication of examination results in the assisted places schemes compared with the State sector.

That is what I understood, but we must not quibble now or there will not be time for more answers.

Part V of the miscellaneous requirements, which have not changed in the order this year, state quite clearly:
"Information as to the public examinations for which pupils at the school are entered and as to the results obtained by such pupils being information which is required to be published, in the case of a school maintained by a local education authority, by section 8(5) of the Education Act 1980".
So the publication is exactly the same as that for maintained schools. Parents can request and will get the results as before. That is a very fair way in which to do it.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) mentioned cash limits in his reasonable and interesting speech. He mentioned the figure of £3·2 million, which was originally £3 million. The upgrading to £3·2 million is much less than inflation would demand. It was caused because more parents on low incomes have joined the scheme. That should be welcomed by Opposition Members. I would have expected great cheers from Opposition Members when they heard that.

If the hon. Gentleman knows anyone on supplementary benefit whose children wish to apply, I can assure him that it will be free. I wish to put hon. Members fears at rest about that matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) raised the question of the sixth form veto. Some authorities decided from the beginning that they would create a climate of opinion that would deter parents from applying for sixth form assisted places. That goes against the moral agreement that we made with the local authorities, where they said that a veto would be imposed only where it affects the viability of sixth forms inside those schools. We shall consider the matter at the end of next year. If we find that there has been abuse we must consider seriously the withdrawal of the right of veto from local authorities.

The money that must be paid is calculated on the previous year's gross income. Parents must provide a tax return. That applies also to the self-employed, who have no tax returns so that they cannot join the scheme with the remissions.

I cannot satisfy the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—although I always try to do so—about regional distribution. The figures that I have here are not the ones that he would wish, but we shall consider providing those figures because all hon. Members will be interested. I have the percentages for various areas but not the overall figures broken down for the population. However, we have tried to spread assisted places more evenly than on the direct grant schools system. I told the hon. Gentleman in Committee that there is a much better balance of boys and girls than in the previous system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) raised the question of the age of transfer. If the age of transfer in the assisted places scheme to independent schools is different from the normal transfer within the State sector, it can handicap certain pupils. I shall inquire into that because it is certainly worth considering. We are open-minded, as I said to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South. If someone suggests something, even if it comes from the Opposition, we shall consider it to see whether it will improve matters.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West asked why there was an alteration in the period of residency. That is because it is now three and three-quarter years and we wish to bring it down to two and three-quarter years. I shall talk to the hon. Gentleman about the matter. The period is based on a September date of entry, but I shall consider the dates. Accountability applies——

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of Proceedings on the motion, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3 (Exempted Business).

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 109, Noes 48.

Division No. 33]

[12 midnight

AYES

Ancram, MichaelDykes, Hugh
Atkins,Robert(PrestonN)Elliottk,SirWilliam
Beaumont-Dark,AnthonyFairgrieve,SirRussell
Benyon,Thomas(A'don)Faith, MrsSheila
Bevan, David GilroyFletcher-Cooke,SirCharles
Biggs-Davison,SirJohnFraser, Peter (South Angus)
Blackburn,JohnGarel-Jones,Tristan
Boscawen,HonRobertGlyn, DrAlan
Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W)Goodlad,Alastair
Bowden,AndrewGrant, Anthony (HarrowC)
Boyson,DrRhodesGreenway, Harry
Brinton,TimGriffiths, Peter Portsm'thN)
Brooke, Hon PeterGummer,JohnSelwyn
Brotherton, MichaelHampson,Dr Keith
Brown,Michael (Brigg&Sc'n)Hawkins,Paul
Bruce-Gardyne,JohnHawksley,Warren
Buck,AntonyHeddle,John
Budgen,NickHogg,HonDouglas(Gr'th'm)
Bulmer,EsmondHunt,John(Ravensbourne)
Butcher,JohnJopling,RtHonMichael
Cadbury,jocelynKershaw,SirAnthony
Carlisle, John (Luton West)King, Rt Hon Tom
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Lang, Ian
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)Latham,Michael
Cockeram,EricLester, Jim (Beeston)
Cope,JohnLloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Cranborne,ViscountLyell,Nicholas
Dorrell, StephenMacfarlane,Neil
Dover,DenshoreMcNair-Wilson,M. (N'bury)
du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardMajor,John
Dunn, Robert (Dartford)Marlow,Antony

Mather,CarolSquire,Robin
Maude, Rt Hon Sir AngusStanbrook,Ivor
Maxwell-Hyslop,RobinStevens,Martin
Mellor,DavidStradling Thomas,J.
Meyer, Sir AnthonyTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Mills.Iain(Meriden)Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Moate, RogerThompson,Donald
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)Thorne, Neil(IlfordSouth)
Murphy,ChristopherThornton, Malcolm
Myles, DavidViggers, Peter
Nelson,AnthonyWaddington,David
Neubert,MichaelWaller, Gary
Osborn,JohnWard,John
Page, Richard (SW Herts)Watson,John
Parkinson, Rt Hon CecilWells, Bowen
Patten,Christopher(Bath)Wheeler,John
Proctor, K. HarveyWickenden,Keith
Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)Wilkinson,John
Rossi, HughWilliams,D.(Montgomery)
Sainsbury,HonTimothyWolfson,Mark
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)Young, SirGeorge(Acton)
Shelton,William (Streatham)
Shepherd,Colin(Hereford)Tellers for the Ayes:
Sims, RogerMr. Tony Newton and Mr. David Hunt.
Skeet, T. H. H.
Speller,Tony

NOES

Atkinson,N. .(H'gey,)Millan,RtHonBruce
Beith, A.J.Morton,George
Bennett, Andrew(St'kp'tN)O'Neill,Martin
Brown, Ronald W. (H'ckn'yS)Parry,Robert
Campbell-Savours,DalePenhaligon,David
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stolS)Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Cowans, HarryPrescott,John
Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill)Rooker, J. W.
Cryer,BobSkinner,Dennis
Cunliffe,LawrenceSpearing,Nigel
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd)Stott, Roger
Dempsey, JamesTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Dixon, DonaldThomas,Dafydd(Merioneth)
Dobson,FrankTinn,James
Dormand,JackWatkins, David
Evans, John (Newton)Welsh,Michael
Foulkes, GeorgeWhite, Frank R.
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterWhitehead,Phillip
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyWigley,Dafydd
HomeRobertson,JohnWright,Sheila
Homewood,William
Hooley, FrankTellers for the Noes:
Hoyle,DouglasMr. Frank Haines and Mr. Allen McKay.
Kinnock.Neil

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1981, which were laid before this House on 2 December, be approved.