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Assisted Places

Volume 282: debated on Wednesday 24 July 1996

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what recent consultations she has had with independent schools concerning the assisted places scheme. [37265]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Mrs. Cheryl Gillan)

I regularly discuss the assisted places scheme with representatives of independent schools.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the importance of the assisted places scheme to many children and their parents in Batley and Spen? Is she also aware that many people consider the scheme to be good value for money? It would be abolished by the Opposition, who cannot even get their own sums right.

I am well aware of the value of the assisted places scheme to many families and children throughout the country, including, in my hon. Friend's constituency, those who attend Batley grammar school. My hon. Friend is right: assisted pupils obtain good results—better results than similar maintained school pupils. Assisted pupils obtain up to three A-level grades over all subjects. The Labour party is completely wrong—at best, it has got its mathematics wrong and at worst, it is playing a con trick. Completely phasing out the assisted places scheme would still save only about £24 million a year, provide fewer than 1,000 extra teachers and reduce average infant class sizes by less than half a pupil. It is still nowhere near the Opposition's pledge to eliminate classes of more than 30 pupils.

Does the hon. Lady know that, since its inception, the scheme has taken approximately £20 million in Wales? Does she accept that it would have been far better to have spent that sum on modernising, extending and refurbishing the older schools? Why not ditch the assisted places scheme, and the wretched voucher scheme?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The average cost of an assisted place is somewhat higher, but of the same order as an average maintained pupil place. The hon. Gentleman should be well aware that 80 per cent. of the assisted pupils come from socio-economic groups C1 and E—the lower-middle and working classes. The scheme is of great value to parents and pupils throughout the country.

I endorse everything that my hon. Friend says about the scheme, but may I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider reintroducing in the next Parliament the direct grant scheme, which was infinitely better than the assisted places scheme?

I will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend says about the direct grant scheme but, as we all know, many of the direct grant schools were forced to become independent schools by the policies of the last Labour Government, if anyone can remember them.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on obtaining extra money for the assisted places scheme, thus enabling the imminent Labour Government to reduce class sizes more quickly. Will she now fight for equivalent funding for the 86,000 extra children who are to be in the system this year and the 60,000 who are to be in it next year on the same basis as she proposes to subsidise the independent schools under the assisted places scheme?

The hon. Gentleman is up to his old tricks. He knows that the cost of the scheme is £114 million this year, rising to £118 million next year. He also knows that he could not phase out the scheme immediately as, under present legislation, it would take three years to phase it out. He has repeatedly asserted that the money would be used to reduce class sizes, but in the first year of phasing out, he would save no more than £5 million. However, if those children were educated back in the maintained sector at the cost per head of educating a child at Hackney Downs, there would be no change from the money that we put into the assisted places scheme.

Does my hon. Friend find it extraordinary that the Labour party is against assisted places in schools but in favour of assisted places in the shadow Cabinet?

If the Labour party is so keen to abolish assisted places, it had better start at home first.