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Private Schools (Access)

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Tim Loughton.)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea.

Let me begin by welcoming the coalition Government’s work to date on education. I am sure that more freedom for schools, more meaningful accountability, a commitment to driving up teacher quality and new powers for schools to get tough on the blight of poor behaviour will, over time, help to deliver the improvements in pupil attainment across the sector that we all desperately want to see.

The coalition Government are right to be concerned about the educational attainment of the least affluent children in our society and, in that respect, I very much welcome the additional early years provision and the introduction of the pupil premium. Members may not know this, but I was one of the early advocates of the pupil premium and, for some time, convincing my colleagues of its usefulness felt like an uphill task. I was delighted when the pupil premium was adopted, perhaps with a little help from our coalition partners. I strongly suspect that the Minister’s response to my proposals today will be similar to how it felt all those years ago when I started this journey.

This discussion is well worth having; we never know what will happen a couple of years down the line. I propose, as I have in the past, that in order to make the pupil premium successful, we need to do two things. First, we need to direct it at the very poorest children in the education system. Secondly, we need to make it flexible so that it gives those children real choices within the education system.

I fear that our reforms, particularly in relation to the pupil premium and its current structure, will not do enough to bridge this country’s great and growing educational divide between the very rich and the poor. By focusing our attention solely on the state sector, we risk ignoring the fact that some of the very best educational opportunities that this country has to offer in terms of the schools that dominate the top A-level and GCSE results are in schools that are largely reserved for the children of the wealthy and well-connected, and are closed off to a vast majority of the children who live on their doorstep. That is not to say that many middle-class parents do not stretch their household budgets to breaking point to ensure that they get the best educational opportunities for their children.

Although only about half of pupils achieve five good grades at GCSE, and fewer than one in 100 children eligible for free school meals makes it to university, some of the leading private schools routinely send half their pupils to Oxford and Cambridge; Westminster school and St Paul’s girls’ school are good examples. On the rate of low-income attendance at top universities, a recent report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) states:

“The rate of low income attendance at top universities has stagnated at 2 per cent.”

It will therefore come as little surprise that former private school pupils have a disproportionate hold on the leading professions. Social mobility has declined and it has become even harder for the least affluent to make it to the top of the tree.

Despite evidence in a recent report showing that the situation has improved slightly over the past few decades, former private school pupils still account for two thirds of judges, more than 60% of barristers, and more than half of solicitors, chief executive officers and doctors. I also note with a wry smile that the proportion of journalists who attended independent schools has risen in recent years.

If we contrast that with the performance of pupils eligible for free school meals, we see that the difference is very striking. Just 27% of free school meal children get A* to C, including English and maths, at GCSE. That is half the national average, which is already too low. The situation is even worse when evaluated against the English baccalaureate subjects, something the Secretary of State likes to do. The report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk is again relevant, because in many respects, low-income students are being mis-sold the new GCSEs and A-levels on the basis that they are equal according to league tables and UCAS points. The evidence shows, however, that universities and employers value core academic subjects, such as mathematics, English, the sciences and English baccalaureate subjects. The result is poor performance, with only 4% of free school meal pupils achieving five A* to C grades in core academic subjects, compared with the 15% national average.

Research shows that a wealthy child attending an independent school is 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge than a child eligible for free school meals, whose chance of winning a place at one of our ancient universities is less than one in 100.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely and important debate. Is he as concerned as I am about figures showing that in 2009 just 4% of children on free school meals took chemistry or physics, while fewer than one in five took history and less than 15% studied geography or French?

Yes, that concerns me enormously, and that is why the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk is so timely. I hope the Minister will take the issue on board and address it directly later.

I do not say what I have said in order to criticise universities, but I hope that it demonstrates to Members the epic scale of the challenge that we face as a nation. If we are serious about fairness and about unleashing aspiration and opportunity for all, we should take action to make first-rate teaching and the ethos of excellence available to everyone, rich or poor.

Before I give details of what I think should be done to remedy the situation, let me be clear about what I am not calling for and not claiming today. First, I am not making sweeping claims that independent schools are better than state-maintained schools. There are huge variations within the independent sector in terms of standards and pupil attainment. The bottom half of private schools accounted for just 7% of A* A-level grades in the independent sector last year. Moreover, the OECD has argued that on average the difference in attainment between state schools and private schools is largely accounted for by the socio-economic background of the students.

Secondly, as I will explain later, I am not calling for a system-wide educational passport or public subsidy for private schools. Thirdly, I do not wish to re-enter the argument about selection or reintroducing grammar schools. None of the main parties has plans to expand selection in the education system in England, and neither do I. Fourthly and finally, what I shall propose in the next few minutes is not a panacea for improving educational attainment across the whole population of school children, but I stress that it will make an important contribution to social mobility and aspiration in England.

That is not an excuse for ignoring the fact that selective private schools exist and that many of them offer first-rate educational opportunities, with an ethos of excellence. Last summer’s A-level results show that of the top 40 schools in terms of academic A* grades per pupil, three quarters were private schools. Independent school pupils make up 33% of all pupils who get three As at A-level. Despite the fact that the independent sector as a whole educates just 7% of school pupils, students who attended private school still account for more than 45% of places at Oxford and 40% at Cambridge.

Who has the opportunity to attend these schools? The answer is that since the demise of direct grant schools and the assisted places scheme, apart from bursaries and scholarships, admissions are largely restricted to pupils whose families have the ability to pay. Some of the best performing schools in the nation are closed off to a vast majority of the poor children who live on their doorstep.

If we are serious about boosting the life chances of more children from poor homes, and increasing social mobility so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a better chance of making it to the top, something must be done to break down the social apartheid in our schools. I would like the Minister to consider a proposal that could broaden the social base of some of our leading private schools and boost the life chances of many less affluent pupils now, rather than in however many years it takes to dramatically raise teaching quality and tackle issues of poor behaviour across the entire school system.

Specifically, I would like a number of the leading private day schools to consider offering a number of free places to pupils in their surrounding area who are eligible for free school meals. The Government could support them by meeting some of the cost, but by no means all of it. It would be entirely up to the children and their families whether they applied for a place at participating schools. The pupils would have to demonstrate their aptitude and potential through a competitive admissions process. As the Sutton Trust has noted, tests these days are far more sophisticated than the old 11-plus. For example, many independent schools have developed tests around verbal reasoning, which test the child’s aptitude rather than how well they have been tutored or taught at school. My proposal is not an exercise in social engineering, so all those who take the test—rich or poor—should have the same chance of success.

My proposal is completely cost-neutral to the Government and therefore to the taxpayer. All that changes is that the per pupil funding and the pupil premium shift to another school. The remainder of the cost of the fees is met by the independent school itself or its supporters. Many such schools have alumni who are willing to step in. It is interesting to note that the Government will provide £150 million for a national scholarship scheme for disadvantaged young people attending our universities. Those resources are devoted to creating a more balanced intake for our elite universities, which, after all, are independent, selective, fee-charging educational institutions. Will the Minister explain where the difference lies in relation to independent schools?

It is important that the proposal is evidence based, and the evidence suggests that opening up access works. Between 2000 and 2006, the Sutton Trust joined forces with the Girls’ Day School Trust to sponsor an open access scheme at the then fee-paying Belvedere school in Toxteth, a very deprived part of Liverpool. With the support of both organisations, every place at the school was allocated on the basis of merit alone, not ability to pay; the way the scheme operated was almost needs-blind. A five-year evaluation of the Belvedere school scheme was conducted by the Centre for Education and Employment Research. It found that open access could lead to a broader social mix of pupils at some of our very best schools and that it could raise aspiration among pupils to go on to university and improve the exam results achieved by the participating school.

In the first three years of the Belvedere scheme, the school attracted an average of 366 applications for just 65 places, with applications from three quarters of primary schools across the Liverpool area. During the five years of the scheme, entries from middle and lower income postcodes increased considerably. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals over the five years was 32.8%, which is more than double the national average for girls aged 11 to 15 in the maintained secondary sector. Far from the scheme’s threatening academic standards at the school, Belvedere went on to achieve its best ever results in 2005. Some 99% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs, compared with an average of 49% across the rest of the local education authority. Survey evidence showed that the school was a happy place, and that 95% of the pupils were hoping to go to university.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the pioneering charity the Sutton Trust, told me that he regards the open access scheme as the most important project that the trust has undertaken. He sought to persuade the previous Government to take up open access and expand it, initially to 12 schools, but ultimately to 100 or more top independent schools. Unfortunately, despite a broad base of support and great willingness from schools in the independent sector, the previous Government failed to take forward the programme.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Charity Commission and its esteemed head, Dame Suzi Leather, would be better off supporting similar initiatives to that pursued by the Sutton Trust in Liverpool, rather than hounding small private schools on the spurious basis that they are not opening their rolls to children across the community?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. My experience of dealing with the independent sector is that, perhaps more than any other sector, it is focused on trying to do all it can to help children from poorer backgrounds. A number of schools have contacted me about the subject during the past few days and they are very keen to get involved, and to do more of this type of work and give more opportunities to poor children. I find it hard to know where the Charity Commission is coming from, when those independent schools are doing such a wonderful job trying to help the life chances of children from poorer families.

Since I wrote an article on the issue that appeared The Daily Telegraph last Friday, I have received an e-mail from John Claughton who is chief master of King Edward’s school, Birmingham. He told me that

“our central purpose at the moment is to extend accessibility: we would love to become needs blind. We certainly have the demand for places from low-income families. We would respond positively to any government initiative to encourage attendance of such pupils in our schools.”

King Edward’s, the former school of the Minister for Universities and Science , already has a hugely impressive record in making places available to less affluent pupils. More than 30% of its pupils get some kind of financial support and more than 15% attend for free. For the coming academic year, the school is offering a quarter of its places for free—30 free places in an intake of 120. Mr Claughton believes that if the Government could meet half the cost of providing more places to free school meals pupils, the school’s alumni would be in there like a shot to support that initiative.

Mr Kevin Fear, the headmaster of Nottingham high school—attended by the Secretary of State for Justice and none other than the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls)—wrote to me over the weekend fully endorsing the proposals to expand open access:

“I welcome these proposals to support the most needy in our society to access the great independent day schools. As a school, we already support as many pupils on bursaries as we are able to, but with support of this kind, we would be able to support many more and greatly assist social mobility, particularly in our inner cities.”

Independent schools are already making a strong contribution to the educational success of pupils from poorer homes. Nearly a third of the students admitted to Oxford in 2010 from households with an income below £16,000 had been in the independent sector. The head teachers and organisations I have spoken to believe that the kind of Government support I am advocating would allow them to double the number of bursaries they can offer. The message from the independent sector is clear: schools are keen to do what they can to offer real chances to some of the poorest children in their areas. Only yesterday, private schools belonging to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference created 60 extra bursaries to sponsor sixth-form school pupils from the state sector to study physics, chemistry and languages.

David Levin, chairman of the HMC, has made it clear that he wants private schools to offer even more bursaries, but the difficulty is obviously raising the funds. However, as the schools have indicated to me, Government support would have the added advantage of leveraging and unleashing philanthropic contributions from alumni, business and charitable communities.

As I have already said, what I ask from the Minister is unlikely to be forthcoming today, but we can but try. I am aware that the resources of the Department for Education are extremely tight. We have been left with a very difficult economic inheritance and we have to deal with the situation as it is. I am also aware that any move by the Government to get involved with, let alone support, independent selective schools is fraught with political difficulty. I realise that the Government may be reluctant to reallocate money from the state sector to the independent sector on the basis of a single study, but does the Minister agree that the open access scheme sponsored by the Sutton Trust shows exceptional promise? Does he agree that the idea should be explored further? If he does, how will that initiative be taken forward, and will he ask the Secretary of State to meet a delegation of those interested in pursuing it?

In time, I hope that the Government will take another look at opening access in a number of leading private schools, perhaps beginning with a pilot of up to 12 schools, as envisaged by Sir Peter Lampl. That would give a broader and stronger evidence base from which to evaluate open access policies. At the very least, I hope that the Government will look at what leading independent schools are doing to broaden access, and will do what it can to support them and encourage best practice. Opening up access would send a powerful message that none of the nation’s best educational opportunities is out of reach of children solely on the basis of their family’s resources. What I ask for today is a very small change, but it could have huge implications for social mobility in this country.

Thank you, Dr McCrea, for the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing the debate. I know that he cares passionately about this important subject, in which he is deeply involved, and that he is far more knowledgeable than I would claim to be. I want to take this opportunity to make a short contribution and to discuss my experience of some of the excellent independent schools in my constituency of Stockton South. We have two independent schools: Teesside High, which was founded in 1833 and, until recently, was an all-girls school; and Yarm, which was founded in 1978. It is the experience of Yarm school that I want to relate today.

Yarm school rose from the ashes of Yarm grammar school, which had closed. It was brought about by a group of determined parents, who decided that they wanted alternative educational provision for children from the Cleveland area, as it then was. Much as free schools today will be started in small numbers by dedicated parents and then grow, hopefully, into successful educational institutions, Yarm school started in an old, dilapidated building. Parents and supporters gave up their own time, donated materials, found funds, painted, renovated and taught.

The founding headmaster, Neville Tate—a great man who has made a significant difference to the education of many thousands of children who have passed through the school, and who will do so for many years to come—used to go in at weekends, paint the lines on the rugby pitch and drive the school minibus to the train station. It was a hands-on endeavour, to which many people, who cared passionately about what the school wanted to achieve, contributed.

In the early years, the school found things quite difficult and challenging because, unlike a modern free school, the parents who wanted to send their children there also had to pay. The offer that it put on the table was limited, as it did not have modern classrooms and facilities. All it had was the right attitude, the right atmosphere and a dedication and will to get things done.

That school has now moved. It bought the location across the road and expanded. It has built countless new buildings and offered educational opportunities to countless more children. I should, of course, declare that I had the privilege of going to that school in my constituency when I was younger. Now that the school is expanding and doing very well, it also makes a greater contribution to the local community, and not just in the education of its pupils or the local economy, of which it is a significant feature. It also works with local state schools. It had an excellent partnership with Grangefield school, which is in the southern Stockton part of my constituency, sharing services and working together to ensure that pupils at both schools had better access to facilities and a better quality of education.

Yarm school has a track record of delivering locally, not just for itself, but for others in the community that it serves and represents. It also serves another purpose. It relieves pressure on some of the excellent nearby state schools, which are currently overcrowded and oversubscribed; for example, Egglescliffe school and Conyers school. Egglescliffe school, in particular, which is a superb high-quality secondary school in my constituency, is on a relatively small site that was designed for many fewer children than it currently accommodates. With the growing population of Stockton, it has seen more and more people applying for fewer and fewer available places. It also serves a large and growing housing estate in Ingleby Barwick, which I believe is one of the largest private housing estates in western Europe and has grown exponentially in the past two decades. That housing estate has one secondary school, All Saints, a 600-place Church of England school, which is a very good local secondary school, but not sufficient in size to serve local needs. Hundreds upon hundreds of children are bussed off the estate to nearby Egglescliffe and Conyers every morning. Some also go to Yarm, because they have not been able to secure places at the secondary schools of their choice.

That brings me to the exciting new prospect that is on the horizon for the people of Ingleby Barwick, who are now progressing with their own bid for a free school. I have certainly done what I can to make representations to the Secretary of State to support the bid for a free school in Ingleby Barwick. We will hopefully see a new school in the next few years that will deliver diversity of choice and more school places, so that children from that community can choose which school they wish to apply to and parents which school they want to send their children to. It will also allow local children to go to a school in their own community. That will relieve pressure on other schools in the area, so that they can better manage the facilities that they already have. We want to secure the future of all of the schools in the south of the Stockton borough—the school in Ingleby Barwick itself and Egglescliffe, Conyers and Yarm schools.

That exciting new project is one step in the direction in which we need to go, opening up choice, diversity, access and possibilities in our education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East spoke passionately about how he would like to see access opened, so that those who are not necessarily from the most affluent backgrounds are able to get into those schools that have perhaps been seen as not within their reach in the past. I would like to add my voice to his call that the Government should look to do everything they can to ensure that every child, no matter what their financial or social background, has access to the highest possible quality of education, in the way that they and their parents believe it should be best delivered to suit their individual needs.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and make a small contribution, and to comment on a number of the excellent local schools that serve my constituency. I look forward to what the Minister has to say in response to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea. May I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) for securing this excellent debate on a very important subject? His great knowledge, expertise—from his time on the Front Bench, and from his own research—and commitment, especially to social mobility, shines through in his passionate remarks. He is a little more shy than I am at ascribing fault in the existing system. We inherit not only a significant debt—to the extent that we are paying £120 million a year in debt interest as a result of the financial mismanagement and incompetence of the previous Government—but, to be charitable, a mixed picture in terms of educational attainment.

I believe that this is an existential debate—a philosophical debate—about the future of our children’s education. We are debating that age-old struggle between whether we commit ourselves to equality of outcome, which I think is difficult if not impossible, or whether we commit ourselves to strive for equality of opportunity. If we move towards the initiatives that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East has spoken about, we will be paying due regard to a progressive, Conservative tradition that goes back many years. Disraeli would have called it the enervation of the condition of the working classes. I would not be so pompous as to compare myself with Disraeli, but it is about a one nation tradition of saying that whatever the household income or background, whatever one’s parents have done and whatever their attainment, a child has as much right as any other to be educated to the best of their ability, and to achieve the maximum attainment possible.

Where are we now? We have a ghettoised situation in which 7% of children go to independent schools, but, for the other 93% of children, there are mixed results. It so often comes down to where one lives and their household income, because if a parent cannot afford to provide for their children by buying a house and sending them to a good school in a good neighbourhood—this particularly applies in London but also in many other parts of the country, whether Bristol, Manchester or Cambridge—their children will often be confined to schools where attainment is poor, and that is not acceptable.

We are also in a position where, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment survey, the United Kingdom has slipped since 2000 from 7th to 25th in reading, 8th to 28th in mathematics, and 4th to 16th in science. Only 15.6% of pupils in England achieve A* to C GCSE grades in English, maths, sciences, a modern or ancient language, history and geography—one in six children.

The previous Labour Government offered some powerful symbols to people. It seems beyond belief that their first priority on being elected in 1997 was the completely unnecessary, gratuitous and spiteful decision to scrap the assisted places scheme for purely ideological reasons. One of the leading lights of that party dedicated himself to destroying grammar schools. I shall not add the epithet that he used. That was what he believed in. To quote Abraham Lincoln:

“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”

The decision to destroy the grammar schools was, in fact, a calamity in terms of social mobility, education and political policies.

That set the tone, as did the idea, which has been tested to destruction, that throwing money at a problem is a solution, and that it will of necessity deliver better educational attainment. I do not believe that that is the case. Whether we like it or not, parents choose to send their children to independent schools for a number of reasons, but it is as much as anything else about discipline, ethos, culture and philosophy. Why should children from poorer backgrounds be excluded from the opportunity to partake of that culture, and to achieve what they are capable of achieving?

My constituency is a proud, blue-collar, engineering centre. The city has gone through great change over the past 50 years. Its population was less than 50,000 after the war; it is now 170,000. We have significant pockets of deprivation, but we also have in the immediate travel-to-work area some of the finest independent schools in the country: Stamford, Uppingham, Oundle and, of course, the excellent Peterborough school, headed by Adrian Meadows. We have significant levels of poor attainment and underachievement in the state sector in Peterborough, yet we also have excellent schools with enormously good results of more than 85%—often 90%—attainment of GCSE A* to E.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East is right in saying that, at present, children from families with more modest incomes are precluded from being able to attend such schools. There must be a way for the most gifted children—not necessarily on the basis of academic results or setting, but intelligence and other criteria—to go forward to achieve their potential.

I pay tribute to the Sutton Trust and Sir Peter Lampl, who is passionate about social mobility, which, if I may be partisan again, ossified under the Labour Government over 13 years. The gap between the richest 10% and the poorest 10% grew. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) might not like to hear it, but his party is represented by the noble Lord Mandelson, who said that he was

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

Fair enough, but he did not at the same time endeavour to drag up the educational attainment of the people in the bottom 10%.

We really need to think about supporting, with the limited resources that we have, initiatives such as those at the Belvedere school in Liverpool. It is a superb example—in fact, it is the opposite of what normally happens. With the best will in the world, Toxteth, where the school is based, may have been a salubrious neighbourhood many years ago, but it is not now. Middle-class parents would not necessarily have moved to Toxteth so that their children could go to that school. In fact, I imagine that parents from all over Merseyside, Lancashire and even Greater Manchester are sending their children to that school, while children in the poorer neighbourhoods around Scotland Road, Toxteth, West Derby and Walton are excluded from it. With the proposed initiative, those local children in Liverpool could go to their local school and receive an exemplary and superb education into the bargain.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the excellent initiatives being pursued by this Government, and I have no doubt that the Minister would remind me of them if I did that. I agree that the English baccalaureate is an enormously important qualification to be pushing forward into secondary schools. It speaks to a mature debate about a division in society and, in particular, in education, which we have shied away from for too long. I give as an example the well known book written by Melanie Phillips, “All Must Have Prizes”. All must be academic, all must go to university. We have ignored, to our economic disadvantage, the fact that technical and vocational education can be and is just as important.

The economic success of countries such as Sweden, Germany, Italy and France is the result of their taking a mature, long-term approach and disregarding the apartheid between academic, and technical and vocational. This Government understand that and are moving forward by replacing Train to Gain with an apprenticeships programme and saying that engineering and manual trades are as important for growing our economy as the knowledge economy, the environment, tourism, leisure, finance and banking. That is important.

The pupil premium is the right way forward. I had a debate in this place a month or so ago with the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who brings to his role enormous commitment and diligence, and a passion for driving up educational standards in primary and secondary schools. He is the epitome of a square peg in a square hole, and is doing a fantastic job.

However, the pupil premium could be construed as a blunt instrument. There are issues other than free school meals that should inform the review of the dedicated schools grant. In my own constituency—I shall not rehearse the arguments—31% of primary school children do not speak English as their first language. If we ignore such factors, we blind ourselves to their importance in informing the results in primary and secondary schools.

I am delighted with the agreement that £430 per pupil for the pupil premium is a good start, and with the broad consensus across the House, but other factors need to be taken into account. One of them is social deprivation in particular wards and super-output areas. That may need to be looked at in consultation with the Treasury, but I know that dealing with it could be very resource-intensive and that the Department has only limited means.

This debate is about obtaining from the Minister at least an indication that he is receptive to the eloquent arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East. The independent sector would then begin to feel that it can use the mechanism of Government support to develop a much more thorough and comprehensive scheme of bursaries and scholarships, and take a much more altruistic and charitable approach. If the Government are supportive, it will introduce outreach programmes and recruit children from poorer families because that will deliver the goods for the school and attract kudos and support. It is a circular argument. To say that we must have nothing to do with the independent sector, and that it is an iron curtain through which we cannot tread is short-sighted and foolhardy. We need more open access policies, such as those at the Bluecoat school.

The best independent schools can impart lessons to the state sector—that works both ways—on tackling ill discipline. They can impart lessons on special educational needs. Some independent schools have a number of children with special educational needs, and provide special help for children on the autism spectrum, with dyspraxia or dyslexia, and so on. They have expertise that they can share with the state sector, and there should be more dialogue.

Freedom and autonomy are the templates for the free schools, and I am delighted that there will be an announcement this week in my constituency that the former Hereward community college will become a free school. I do not often say this, but Peterborough city council has done a fantastic job in pushing the proposals forward, and inviting bids from five extremely good providers in a competitive bid process in an area where attainment at primary and secondary schools has not been good. We look forward to the revolutionary zeal of the free school movement in driving up standards, involving the community, valuing professionals at senior management, teaching and teaching assistant levels, and providing autonomy. We should have more free schools in my constituency.

I conclude by inviting the Minister to respond positively. The issue is not about assisted places two, or about the debate on grammar schools. In some respects, I was on the wrong side of that debate in my party in 2007, because I said that it was better to take a holistic approach to academies, instead of fixating on a relatively small number of grammar schools—there were then 164. I speak as an alumnus of a grammar school—Chatham House grammar school, Ramsgate—the other alumnus of note being our former right hon. Friend and Prime Minister Ted Heath, although he and I did not have closely shared political views.

The issue is about how to enable children from families with modest incomes to achieve their full potential. Today is the beginning of the debate. I know that the Secretary of State is absolutely committed to using education as a catalyst to tackle lack of social mobility, so that we deal with the underlying endemic social problems of welfare dependency, worklessness, and lack of competitiveness in our economy. Education is the most powerful tool for doing that, and I fully commend and welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to starting that debate. I hope that we have a positive response, not only from the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Chesterfield, but from the Minister. I am sure that we will.

It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship, Dr McCrea. You seem to have controlled the debate very well, despite all the heckling. We have had a good debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing it, and on his thoughtful contribution. I thank him for taking the time yesterday to notify me in more detail about the subjects that he wanted to cover. That was helpful to my contribution, and I hope that it will add to its quality, at least at some small level. His valuable experience before coming to this place brings to the debate knowledge, passion and well intentioned motives, in his case, towards the Government.

Before commenting on the hon. Gentleman’s points, I want to touch briefly on the other contributions that we have heard today. The hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) spoke about his experience with two local schools in his constituency, and the extent to which access has been opened up. One independent school was set up with, perhaps, similar intentions to the free school model, and it was interesting to hear about that. He referred to the freeing up of spaces in other schools, and to creating the best for every child. The test of any education policy should be whether it delivers for every child and enables every child and every school to improve, or whether it increases educational disparity. That is one of my tests for the proposal of the hon. Member for Reading East.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) gave what may have been a less measured contribution. At least, he warned us that he did not intend to be shy, and he stuck to his word. When describing his contribution as partisan, he was, if anything, understating it. I started to write down the areas I disagreed with, but I filled a full side of A4, so I shall touch on a couple of areas where there was agreement, which may save time.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of discipline. He is of course right that the independent sector takes discipline very seriously, but he does a great disservice to the state school sector if he is suggesting that that is not also the case there. We welcome some of the measures in the Education Bill to clarify the role of teachers and the possibilities for discipline. The Bill contains some welcome moves.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the importance of technical and vocational education, and said that it is as important as academic education. I entirely welcome that sentiment, which I fear is missing from the Government’s move towards the EBacc, but very much drove some of the previous Labour Government’s policies.

I do not intend to cover every area in the hon. Gentleman’s contribution with which I disagreed, but I will touch on a couple. He started by rehashing the financial mismanagement line, completely overlooking, of course, the fact that his party supported the previous Government’s spending plans right up to 2008. He should not rehash that line if he was not speaking out against the policies pursued by his party at that time.

The hon. Gentleman claimed, perhaps rightly, that the policies suggested by the hon. Member for Reading East fit into a progressive Conservative tradition; I think he described it as a one-nation approach. That brought to mind the drama “Cranford”, which the hon. Member for Peterborough may have had the opportunity to watch. In one scene, the lady in charge of the grand manor house was shown as a firm disciple of the idea that the working classes should work in the fields, and that there should be different jobs for different types of people in different environments. She also had a clear idea that she wanted to help the poor by employing them in her fields, but that they should never move beyond that. The idea that on one level we help the poor as a way of assuaging our conscience, while fundamentally nothing is changed, lay behind a lot of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

I have never before been compared to a mid-Victorian matriarch in her mansion. The hon. Gentleman is a passionate and articulate spokesman for his party, but he should not believe its class war rhetoric and propaganda. My party is proud to have been responsible for an enormous amount of progressive social change through Housing Acts and through civic renewal, education and health over many years. He suggests that my point was “You stay in your place while I stay in mine”, but perhaps he is referring to some of his esteemed parliamentary colleagues who had a good grammar school or independent sector education, but chose to kick the ladder away for those who followed.

I do not know whether that was an intervention or a second speech, but I thank the hon. Gentleman either way. Without delving deep into history, he should do his research before he refers to the gap between rich and poor. If he listens to people such as Wilkinson and Pickett, who influence the policies of the Prime Minister, they will tell him that the huge gap between rich and poor occurred under the previous Conservative Government. Policies introduced by the previous Labour Government such as tax credits, attempts to improve the education of people from the lowest demographics, and the reform of the welfare system were designed to close the gap between rich and poor, and they made positive steps towards that.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is what he will be told. He said that the previous Government were supremely relaxed about people getting rich and did not care as much about the bottom 10%, but that disgraceful comment bears no relationship to what actually happened over the past 13 years. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution said much about his values, and the values that have always informed sections of his party. I recognise, however, that there are good motives behind contributions from Conservative Members.

I turn to the more thoughtful contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading East. He spoke first about the academic disparity that still exists in our system, and which has challenged politicians from both parties for a long time. The original academies programme was introduced precisely to combat that disparity, and the previous Government set out specific attainment levels that they expected every school to achieve, with 30% of all pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE as an absolute minimum. That academic disparity lay behind the massive investment in Sure Start, which has been welcomed across the House, and it is why we welcome some of the sentiments behind the early intervention policies pursued by this Government. It is also why the education maintenance allowance was introduced, to assist pupils from more deprived backgrounds to continue their education past age 16.

When Labour came to power, half of all schools failed the basic minimum standard. The figure is now fewer than one in 12, which is one of the ways that the attainment of pupils right across the financial spectrum improved under the previous Government. Of course, that is not the same as saying that we have arrived at some promised land and things are now good enough. Clearly, they are not and I recognise that the contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading East is an attempt to make things better.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the most elite private schools are currently only for the wealthy and the well connected. He hit on a key point in terms of those connections and the idea that, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” which I hope hon. Members across the House would be against. The hon. Gentleman made another key point about Oxbridge entrance, and I would like to hear more about that from the Minister and the Government. As the hon. Gentleman explained, although 50% of children from elite public schools go to Oxbridge, only 2% of those from the most deprived backgrounds do so.

Last Friday a young lady, Charlotte Crossley, came to see me. She qualified for free school meals and came from a home in a deprived part of Chesterfield. Her first secondary school fell well below the national challenge level of 30% of pupils achieving five GCSEs. However, she studied fantastically and got excellent GCSE results. She subsequently went to another state school to do her A-levels, and finally achieved three A*s and one A—a fantastic achievement. At that time, children in her cohort were the first group to achieve a 30% pass rate at GCSE. Charlotte Crossley was an exceptional student, but when she applied to Oxford she was not even given an interview.

Alongside removing the academic disparity between children in secondary schools, pressure must be put on elite institutions. The hon. Member for Reading East explained that the ratio of passing core subjects is 1:4 for children on free school meals against those from elite public schools. The ratio between those two groups in terms of Oxbridge entrance is 1:25. There are two sides to the equation and more pressure needs to be applied.

Selection was mentioned, and the hon. Gentleman claimed that he did not see how a return to the grammar school system would be helpful. Fundamentally, however, his proposal would continue to weaken schools that are left behind. If we cream off the best pupils from the more deprived communities, we perpetuate the idea that to get the best pupils, we must look at the schools they come from. The best schools will already have the highest levels of attainment because of their pupils’ privileged and advantageous backgrounds, but such a proposal would mean that those schools can also cream off the best of the pupils who have not had an advantage due to the financial well-being of their parents. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is not a panacea. He is right; potentially, it is positively unhelpful in terms of social mobility.

The hon. Gentleman also claimed that private schools do more to help poorer pupils. In response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Peterborough, he questioned the effectiveness of what the Charity Commission wanted. It was interesting that in the initial move towards that, two independent schools had to open up the availability of bursaries. It could be argued that if they were already doing everything that the Charity Commission wanted, that would not make any difference to them.

For the reasons that I have given, we do not agree with the proposals that the hon. Member for Reading East has put forward, although we recognise that they are well intentioned. From the Labour party’s point of view, the first thing to say is that we do not wish to interfere with the freedom of independent schools to develop a distinctive curriculum and to manage the day-to-day operation of their schools. However, the standards that all independent schools must meet ensure that pupils are able to learn in a safe and secure environment and to have suitable learning opportunities, which match their age, aptitudes and needs. We will continue to insist on those basic safeguards, which protect pupils’ interests, while recognising the freedoms of independent schools.

We abolished the assisted places scheme. Looking back, I would say that we put unprecedented amounts of investment into education in the state sector. We dramatically improved the standard of the state school estate, by which I mean the quality of buildings. As I have outlined, we also made a dramatic difference to attainment in those schools. The percentage of people going to university from more deprived communities has dramatically increased, far outpacing the increase in access among people from more privileged areas.

Labour has always argued that approaches such as those that we are discussing today represent a narrow ladder of opportunity for a few bright but disadvantaged children, with the side-effect of creaming off the most able pupils from state schools.

The hon. Gentleman has nothing to fear. I thank him for his generosity in giving way again. I am struggling to follow his argument because he uses the traditional Labour argument that if we elevate a small group of children, we “cream off” those children and the rest are subject to very poor educational attainment, yet his party spent an enormous amount of money over 13 years. He seems to be saying that it did not do any good, because those schools, if the best pupils are taken out of them, are still not very good schools, with not very good educational attainment and perhaps not very good staff. Where did the money go? Why are all schools not at an internationally recognised, demonstrably good standard?

Just before the hon. Gentleman intervened, I had said almost entirely the opposite to what he has said about the improvement in school performance under the Labour Government, so it is hard to understand why he thinks that I was saying the opposite of that—perhaps it is my accent.

In relation to the improvement in our schools, I have already referred to the massive improvement in the number of schools in which 30% of pupils get five GCSEs at grades A* to C. The figure has gone from 49% to 88%, so that is one massive step forward. I have also referred to the massive improvement in the number of people from more deprived schools going to university. Therefore, I do not accept at all that people are set up to fail if they go to the wrong school.

However, I do say that the proposals that we are debating today are sticking-plaster. They do not address the fundamental issue of improving the education of every child and every school, but are about creaming off a small number of the most talented pupils. Yes, that will inevitably leave a weaker school behind, albeit at a small level. More important, it will perpetuate the idea that if an organisation wants a talented employee, or a university wants a talented student, it needs to look at the school the person went to. That is what I am saying. It is not to say that the education system that we left behind was not giving our schools value for the massive investment in them.

Just last week I visited Milton Keynes academy, which was one of Labour’s newest academies. The pride that people in that school have in the new school building and the investment that has been made in them was heart-warming. To a school such as that, where I believe more than 70 languages are spoken as a first language and which is working so hard to improve its standards, it is a savage blow when the English baccalaureate is introduced retrospectively and the school is judged and told that it is failing because no one is achieving a standard that the school was not even aware that it was working to.

Today’s debate cannot be taken out of the entire context of education spending. That context includes a dramatic 60% cut in capital funding and the fact that schools that already educate the most deprived pupils are convinced that after the advent of the pupil premium, alongside all the other changes that will be made to their financial systems and budgets, they will end up worse off. That is the context into which this debate has been plunged. To say that we need to give extra money to independent schools to take away the best pupils seems absolutely the wrong priority.

I will conclude by adding a few questions for the Minister. At a time when hundreds of schools have seen their desperately needed capital rebuilding projects scrapped, will he really support a scheme that perpetuates and increases the educational dominance of the elite public schools? What steps are the Government taking to get Oxbridge to be more open-minded about their intake to ensure that the Charlotte Crossleys of tomorrow are not denied those opportunities? Why are so many schools that take a high number of children from poorer backgrounds convinced that they will be worse off in real terms when they receive this year’s budget? Does he think that increasing privilege and the disparity between different educational establishments will assist, in the Prime Minister’s words, every child to have the chances he had?

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea. Perhaps in contrast to the last speaker, I shall address the subject of the debate, but before doing so, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), and not only on securing the debate. As anyone who knows him will testify, he is uncompromising in his belief that all children should have access to the best possible education, as well as passionate about speaking up on behalf of the most disadvantaged children. Those are the only motives behind his bringing this subject to the Chamber, and he articulated them typically well in his comments. The sentiments that he expressed are wholly admirable, well founded and respected by hon. Members on both sides of the House. He has great experience and knowledge in this area, and he made a typically well informed speech.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling us what the debate was not going to be about, because we would have needed longer than the time allotted to us to cover all those interesting and often contentious areas. I congratulate him also on something that I had not realised—that he was one of the pioneers of the idea of the pupil premium. He was advocating that in the wilderness for many years and then the rest of us caught up with him. As he said, this discussion is well worth having. The subject perhaps has not been aired as much in this Chamber as it might be. Some of the figures that he cited for the decline in social mobility, which is the real problem behind the whole subject, are very stark and were repeated by a number of hon. Members who spoke after him.

My hon. Friend said he was not overly optimistic about what I might say, but I aim to give him as many grounds for optimism as possible. I do not want to undermine in any way what he is trying to do, and I am more than happy—particularly as I am not one of the Schools Ministers, who I am standing in for—to help facilitate a meeting between my hon. Friend and ministerial colleagues in the Department.

We have had a real glitterati of talent and knowledge, given the contributions from my Back-Bench colleagues. It took my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) some time to declare his interest in what was one of the original free schools, which was in his constituency. I should perhaps call him the child of the free school in Yarm. I do not have to declare an interest, as the 100% product of a state primary school and a state comprehensive school. None the less, my hon. Friend repeated the sentiments and the aim that we all share—that children should have the best possible chances of accessing the best possible education.

I do not agree with the accusation that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was not measured; I thought he was considered and forthright, as one would expect. I certainly would not put him down as a Victorian matriarch, even though he embellished the debate with the quote from Disraeli about the elevation of the condition of the working class. He speaks with great knowledge, given the various social deprivation challenges in his constituency, which are greater than those faced by many hon. Members.

The response to my hon. Friend and to the debate from the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) gave us something of a treble whammy. He did not seem to deal with the subject in hand; indeed, I do not think he talked at all about access to private schools for children on free school meals, which is the nub of the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East. Instead, his speech gave us a return to deficit denial; indeed, we had deficit denial in the context of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Although the capital programme has nothing to do with the scheme we are debating and is entirely irrelevant, there would be rather more money to go round for schools that are still in a parlous state if money had been spent more efficiently under the BSF programme.

In addition to deficit denial, we had the usual class warrior clap-trap on this subject, which is not about class war, but about giving equality of opportunity to as many children as possible in the education system. I mentioned a treble whammy—we also had social mobility gap denial. Social mobility has never been in a more parlous state. The gap between those who are privileged in terms of finance, education and opportunities and those who are not has widened enormously, and the Government are now trying to pick up the challenges in education after 13 years in which social mobility absolutely ground to a halt.

The Minister said that he would like to see educational equality “as far as possible”—I think that that was his phrase. Perhaps he could explain what he means by that. Will he also confirm that when he was in opposition, he argued against the then Leader of the Opposition—now the Prime Minister—who was saying that the Conservative party should maintain the Labour Government’s level of public spending right up to 2008? Was the Minister arguing against the now Prime Minister at that point?

I am not entirely sure about the relevance of that question. What I do know is that we argued for 13 years in opposition that the Labour Government were spending money like it was going out of fashion. The efficiency of that spending was enormously compromised, as we have seen. Anybody who comes to the Department for Education will throw their hands up in horror at the amount that was wasted. I am afraid that deficit denial will not butter any parsnips in this debate.

Does the Minister not think that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) and the Labour party have a cheek lecturing us about social mobility when, after 14 years of economic growth, they have bequeathed us a situation in which 5.2 million people are on out-of-work benefits and we have the highest number of young unemployed ever, as well as the highest number of young people not in education, employment or training? Is that not the tragic legacy of the previous Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and all Government Members know that.

I want to get on to my substantive comments. Before I do, however, I should say that it was slightly worrying that the hon. Member for Chesterfield started by saying that his party did not want to interfere with independent schools, but then listed a whole area where they had better watch out—I think that that is what he was telling them. The Labour party still cannot stop meddling. It was also rather patronising of him to say so many times that Government Members have well-intentioned motives, even if he did not agree with any of us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East referred to the excellent work of the Sutton Trust, to which I pay tribute, and that is particularly true of its head, Sir Peter Lampl. For more than a decade, the trust’s work to promote social mobility has played an important role in all debates covering the early years, schools and higher education.

It is important to recognise at the outset of any debate about the quality of education that we have many great schools in the state and independent sectors, where the hard work and commitment of superb head teachers and inspirational teachers enable pupils to achieve good qualifications. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that all children have access to the best possible education. The challenge facing us is to ensure that there are more of these great schools so that all children can get the best possible education.

Over the past decade, we have slipped down the international league tables for school performance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said. What makes that so much worse is that we also have one of the most stratified and segregated school systems in the developed world. Studies such as those undertaken by UNICEF and the OECD underline the fact that we have one of the most unequal educational systems in the world, coming near bottom out of 57 countries for educational equity.

The gap in attainment between rich and poor remains persistently stubborn, as my hon. Friend recognised. It opens even before children get to school. We know from Leon Feinstein’s research that the highest early achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds are overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds by the age of five. The achievement gap between rich and poor then widens at the beginning of primary school. By the end of key stage 1, a child eligible for free school meals is a third as likely as other pupils to reach the expected level in reading, writing and maths.

The gap then widens further still. A child eligible for free school meals is less than a third as likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, including in English and maths, than a child from a less deprived background. By 18, the gap is vast. In the most recent year for which we have data, of 80,000 young people eligible for free school meals, just 40 made it to Oxbridge— less than some independent schools manage in a single year. Our schools should be engines of social mobility, offering a route to liberation from the constraints imposed by accidents of birth and background. At the moment, however, that just is not the case.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East, I am a big fan of independent schools; like him, I want the advantages of the independent sector to be available to a great many more of our children. Independent schools have a proven track record of success. Children who attend private schools are three times more likely to achieve three A-grade A-levels than those who attend state-funded schools. The coalition Government believe independent schools have a vital role to play in our education system in ensuring that more children achieve such excellence.

In the past, access to independent schools was provided to disadvantaged pupils. During the 1980s and 1990s, as we have heard, the previous Conservative Government’s assisted places scheme provided means-tested Government-supported places at leading independent schools. In fact, I made my maiden speech on the very Bill that did away with the scheme—the first piece of legislation from the previous Labour Government to do away with something.

The scheme followed the principle that the lower a family’s income, the more support the state should provide. I am pleased to say that the coalition Government are following the same principle today with our pupil premium. As I said, the previous Government phased the assisted place scheme out. That is not to say that no disadvantaged pupils are educated in the independent sector, because they are. Independent schools cater for about 7% of pupils. Of those pupils, more than 160,000—about a third—receive support to help cover the cost of their fees. That support is worth more than £660 million every year.

Around 80% of that support comes as bursaries or scholarships provided by the schools themselves. I welcome that and hope that it continues. Access to an independent education can also be supported by local authorities; for instance, where a vulnerable child is at risk of being taken into care and where it may be in the interests of the child to attend a boarding school, or where support needs to be provided to a child with a special educational need that cannot be met in the state sector. Again, that support is welcome and it is right that it continues. Indeed, independent schools can approach local authorities that can come up with arrangements of their own. In Cheshire, I gather the local authority already buys in places at the boys’ independent grammar, Sandbach school, for example. Many local authorities also place pupils with special educational needs in independent mainstream and special schools. I have already mentioned children in the care system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East specifically mentioned the open access project run by the Sutton Trust to support access to the Belvedere school. It is an impressive project, and I would naturally be fascinated by any proposal that my hon. Friend might put forward that would enable more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to access independent education. However, I regret to say that it is neither practicable nor affordable for the state to fund a similar project today. Instead, our priority must be to improve the state school system and to close the gap between rich and poor for all.

Those were the twin goals of our recent White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, which set out a comprehensive programme of reform, based on evidence of what has worked for nations with the best-performing education systems in the world. While they have taken their own unique approach to education reform, all successful systems share certain common features. They have prioritised plans to improve teacher quality, for example, granted greater autonomy to the front line, made schools more accountable to their communities, modernised curricula and qualifications, and encouraged more professional collaboration.

We are enacting the same kind of whole-system reform here in this country, with both profound structural change and rigorous attention to standards. We have also taken steps to support the education of the most disadvantaged pupils. Our pupil premium, as I mentioned earlier, will see schools receive additional money—starting at £430 per pupil but rising in total from £625 million this year to £2.5 billion per year by 2015—that will provide an incentive for them to take pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, I hope, give them a better education than they are able to access at the moment.

On top of that, we have created a new education endowment fund worth £110 million, which provides a further incentive for schools and local authorities to work together to bring forward innovative projects that will raise attainment of disadvantaged children in under-performing schools. Because nothing matters more than giving more of the poorest children access to the best teaching, we are more than doubling the size of Teach First, so more of the best young graduates are able to teach in more of our most challenging schools, including primary schools. We have appointed Dr Liz Sidwell, herself an inspirational head, to use her experience and knowledge to work with local authorities to identify those schools most in need of support and help them develop plans for their improvement.

Once again, the independent sector has an important role to play. At the heart of our approach to school improvement is a belief that the best way to help schools improve is to encourage other schools with great head teachers and impressive track records to collaborate with them. There are already many examples of successful partnerships between schools in the independent and state sectors. The Independent Schools Council survey showed that more than four in five independent schools are now working with local state schools, to mutual benefit. I am very keen that that continues. Indeed, an independent school has sponsored an academy in my constituency. Beyond the financial and direct assistance given to the academy, there is shared teaching, use of resources and a greater integration between those two sets of pupils, to the benefit of both schools.

One way to build on that is for independent schools to become academy sponsors, as I have said. As outstanding schools in their own right, they can share their expertise and set a clear ethos that together help to transform state schools that are under-performing. More than 30 independent schools are already sponsoring academies, and I hope many more will do so in future, again, as I say, for the mutual benefit of both the independent and maintained sectors.

Another way that independent schools can play a wider role in the school system is by proposing a new free school, and we have already heard examples of that. We have already received applications from independent schools and I hope that others will join them in the months and years ahead.

Let me end by thanking my right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend, rather—once again.

Exactly. I thank my hon. Friend for calling the debate. He is right to draw attention to the vital role that independent schools have to play in supporting the education of disadvantaged children in our country. While I might not have given him the full response he was looking for, I empathise with the intentions and motives behind the points he made. I encourage him to continue pursuing practical ways that we can get more children from maintained sectors integrating better with children from other backgrounds from the private sector. I look forward to continuing to work together, with him and other Ministers, to help all children access the best possible education, which it is their absolute right to want and our duty to provide.