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Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1984

Volume 447: debated on Thursday 2 February 1984

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7.24 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th January be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, these draft regulations amend certain provisions in the regulations governing the detailed operation of the assisted places scheme. This scheme was placed on the statute book with the purpose of widening the educational opportunities available to children from less well-off families. Now in its third year of operation, it is running smoothly and successfully, and apart from the provision to amend the parental income scale, the draft regulations before us tonight are mostly of a procedural rather than a substantive nature.

Regulations 1 and 2 are entirely technical, and I shall not trouble noble Lords with comment upon them here. Regulation 3 is intended to make the administration of the scheme less burdensome for schools. It reduces the two months' notice which schools must give of any intended fee increases to one month, and the month in which the Secretary of State must give directions to a school if he has doubts about the proposal is reduced to one week. The present timetable is often very hard for schools to meet, and in the light of experience in the very occasional use of this power, we see no problems in shortening it.

Turning to Regulation 4, for the current assessment of fee remission, the income of both parents is taken into account—unless the parents are divorced or separated, or one of them cannot be traced, or something of the sort. Under the existing regulations, it is not enough for this purpose for parents to be separated by simple deed: there has to be a formal court order or some such. Separation under a deed is however sufficient for income tax purposes, and draft Regulation 4 will make it sufficient for the purposes of the assisted places scheme as well.

Regulation 5 will relax the conditions under the existing regulations in which a child may take up an assisted place at other than one of the school's normal ages of entry. A child will now be allowed to take up a place at any age above the school's minimum, provided that he (or she) is going to be in a class with other assisted pupils.

Regulation 6 provides for the updating of the income scale used for assessing the amount of parents' contributions towards the fees, in line with increases in earnings. Families with average incomes will be liable to pay just under £500 towards fees in 1984–85, but the three-quarters or so coming forward who have lower incomes than the average will pay less. Those with relevant incomes below £6,046 will enjoy full remission of fees.

Regulation 7 is proposed purely to clarify the application of a regulation which received the assent of this House a year ago, under which a teacher barred from teaching in a maintained school is automatically barred from teaching in an APS school. Regulation 7 simply makes clear, for the avoidance of any possible doubt, that this applies only to those who have been barred on grounds of misconduct.

Finally, Regulation 8 makes three changes of a more or less technical nature to the rules for assessing income. Regulation 8(1) simply updates the reference to relevant income tax legislation in the principal regulations. Regulation 8(2) in effect excludes the first £25,000 of any redundancy payments from the calculation of parental income (in line with Inland Revenue practice) and provides also for the exclusion from the calculation of any adoption allowances.

I have described briefly the purpose of each of the amending regulations. If noble Lords wish further clarification on any point or wish to raise queries on the principal regulations, I shall endeavour to answer them. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th January be approved.—( The Earl of Swinton.)

7.28 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his very brief explanation of the amendments to these regulations. They seem to me perhaps a little more than procedural, as he said at the beginning. The noble Earl well knows the attitude of the Opposition to the assisted places scheme because I think he took part in all stages of the discussion on the Education Act 1980, so it will be no surprise that I do not really receive these amendments very warmly.

The chief effect of these regulations—and perhaps the intention—is to water down the conditions governing applications for assisted places, so that the best pupils in the state schools can be more easily siphoned off to private establishments. In other words, it is yet another example of the Government's underhand practice of loading the dice against the state system.

Gradually since the passing of the Education Act 1980—which under Sections 17 and 18 enabled pupils to take up places at independent schools and have their fees paid by the Secretary of State—the Secretary of State has, with succeeding regulations, made it easier to attract pupils to the independent sector. The assurances given at the time of the passing of the Act and the safeguards in the first regulations, which made the scheme a little more palatable to the doubters, have been whittled away. For instance, last year the provision under Regulation 6(3), that a child registered as a pupil at a school maintained by a local education authority should normally only be eligible for selection for an assisted place at sixth form level if the authority agreed, was revoked. I believe that that condition was originally included because of fears expressed by Lord Butler and by the local authorities that sixth forms in comprehensive schools, which were developing very nicely, might be weakened if some of their brightest pupils were tempted away.

The financial arrangements have always been updated generously. Last year the allowance for dependants was increased from £800 to £850—over 6 per cent., when inflation was 5 per cent. This year the means test for the remission of fees is relaxed, and the level of income at or below which fees are to be wholly remitted is set at £6,046 instead of, at present, £5,616—and that is contained in Regulation 6. That is an increase of 7¾ per cent. The table in Regulation 15 of the principal regulations (scales of remission) is similarly increased all the way up to 7¾ per cent. The official inflation rate for December 1982 to December 1983 is, again, 5 per cent. I hope the Minister will reply to the question: why should this extra advantage be given to these people when the students' grant is to be increased by only 4 per cent., which is 1 per cent. less than the rate of inflation?

Again on the financial side, in the rules for the computation of income in the schedule to the 1980 regulations, the provision in paragraph 5 (under which payments on retirement or removal from office or employment are to be treated as part of a person's total income) is revoked, so that the first £25,000 of any such payment will be excluded from the computation of such income. This astonishes me. The reason the Minister gave was that this brings the regulations into line with the current Inland Revenue practice. But, surely, if the scheme is, as Ministers are so constantly saying, intended for the least well off, those with a nice little capital sum of £25,000 should not be specially kindly treated. What about those on supplementary benefit? It seems hard and unfair that the disregards limit for supplementary benefit is only £3,000. This revocation is another example of easing the conditions.

Then there is the amendment to principal Regulation 5(2). Previously a child could go into an independent school and take up an assisted place only at the normal age of entry to the school. Now the children are to be allowed to go in at any age—11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and, I dare say, 17, too—so long as there is already an assisted pupil in the class. I see this as an added inconvenience and nuisance to the maintained schools, which will have greater difficulty in being sure of their numbers.

There is also the question of the increase of fees at the independent establishment. To date the period of notice which the school is required to give to the Secretary of State is two months, and the Secretary of State has to reply within one month. Now that is to be changed so that only one month's notice from the school is necessary and the Secretary of State has one week in which to respond. I simply cannot understand the reason for this. Can the Minister please enlighten us when he replies? Surely any school has to give the parents at least a term's notice before fees are raised, and that really means three months' notice, so that even the two months in the original regulations was being very co-operative. As for the Secretary of State replying in a week, if it is a matter of school closures or amalgamations, or something like that, of vital consequence to a local authority and its planning, months very often pass. The Secretary of State seems to me to be falling over backwards to be obliging to the private sector.

Can the Minister tell us how much extra cost is involved as a result of these changes in the regulations? I should like to have that question answered. I notice that the cost of the whole scheme nearly doubled between 1982–83, when it was £8,689,942, and 1983–84, when the sum was £16,470,000. I agree that those are provisional figures, but I expect that the outcome will be very close. How much bigger is the subsidy to the private sector to become, and is there to be an upper limit? I gather that 15 per cent. of the total intake of independent schools is now made up with assisted places pupils, so the subsidy to them is really quite considerable.

It seems very hard that at the very same time as the Education (Grants and Awards) Bill is going through Parliament—the Bill which, if passed, will take some £50 million from the educational part of the rate support grant—the Secretary of State can find the money to increase the spending on those pupils gaining assisted places, and thus subsidising even more the independent sector. One cannot wonder at local education authorities feeling resentful and angry about the way in which central government are treating local government. At a time of shortage of funds, it is surely fairer for what money there is to be spent for the benefit of all children and to raise the standards in the state schools, which the majority of children in this country attend. It was for the raising of standards that the Secretary of State pleaded in his Sheffield speech at the North of England conference. The assisted places scheme received no mention there.

I end by wondering just why it is that there is such a relaxation of the conditions at this moment. I do not agree with what the Minister, Mr. Dunn, said in another place when he referred to the amendments as "ironing out some minor wrinkles". I think they are a good deal more than that. Is the answer that fewer people are applying than was hoped? What are the Government's estimates of the numbers gaining assisted places in the next two or three years, and what will the cost be by then?

I was interested in one statistic which I collected from my own local authority. In Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire there is a collegiate board to which all pupils at the age of 16 apply for a place in one of the 16-plus establishments, and the board allocates the places. In 1981, 151 young people transferred from the private to the maintained sector—9 per cent. of the total enrolment; in 1982, 181 transferred—10 per cent. of the total enrolment; and in 1983, 186 transferred—12 per cent. of the total enrolment. I am told that all these pupils were of very high quality indeed. Is the Cambridge experience evidence that the natural tide is flowing in a direction against the Government's wishes? Is this the reason why in these regulations they are busy digging little artificial trenches to make the water go the other way?

7.38 p.m.

My Lords, we on these Benches are also grateful to the noble Earl for explaining—I was about to say "whisking through"—these regulations. We are not, of course, discussing the substantive legislation, but from the outset we on these Benches have had very serious reservations about this scheme. We appreciate, of course, that it is popular with families that are benefiting from it, and we understand that there are now some 13,000 children in assisted places—that is to say, real children in real schools—whose education obviously should not and cannot be disrupted.

However, we are very far from convinced that this is the best use that £16.5 million of public money can be put to, especially at a time when financial pressure on local education authorities is very great. According to the Secretary of State on 17th November, a net reduction of £2 million in Vote expenditure on education is predicted for 1983–84. This net reduction is taking place at a time when there is insufficient money for new reading schemes in primary schools, insufficient money for the maintenance of buildings, insufficient money for remedial teachers in primary schools, and insufficient money for much needed promotion of the languishing adult and continuing education in this country. In these circumstances, it is hard to be sympathetic towards the diversion of £16.5 million of public money for the assisted places scheme.

Therefore, I should like to ask the noble Earl one or two questions. Can he tell us what effect the scheme has had on the sixth forms of maintained schools? Can he confirm that early returns in the 1982–83 school-leavers' survey indicate that the proportion of pupils in England reaching minimum school-leaving age and staying on in the first year sixth forms this autumn was 31½ per cent., which is a fall of 1½ per cent. on the previous year? Does he not think that this fall could be attributable to the assisted places scheme through the removal of the LEA veto on sixth form transfers which the noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to? And would he not agree that shrinkage of sixth forms in this way will be self-perpetuating, as reduced classes will lose their entitlements to teachers and resources?

Next, will the noble Earl say whether there is any truth in the report that schools operating assisted places schemes have been lobbying against the setting up of sixth form colleges by two local education authorities, on the grounds that such colleges would attract pupils away from the independent sector?

What of the future? We understand from the Under-Secretary of State in another place on 6th December last year, that the scheme is intended to reach 40,000 children when fully implemented, and that this will not fall far short of 15 per cent. of all the pupils of the 223 schools in the scheme. If I am correct, I think the noble Baroness, Lady David, was slightly incorrect. I do not think the figure has reached 15 per cent. yet; but I think we would reach that 15 per cent. if and when we come to the full implementation of the assisted places scheme.

If the noble Lord would allow me to interrupt, I obtained my figure of 15 per cent. from the speech of the Minister when he was introducing the regulations in another place, so if I am incorrect it is because he was incorrect.

I apologise to the noble Baroness. We certainly will not enter into a passage of arms on a statistical detail because I think basically we are both saying the same thing.

Can the noble Earl tell us what the eventual resource implication of the expansion of this scheme to 40,000 pupils is? What will the cost of the scheme be when it is in full flower? Where is that money to be found? What other parts of the maintained sector are the Government planning to cut back in order to provide the money for this expansion of the assisted places scheme?

Finally, I am slightly confused as to the intention of Regulation 5. I should like to have confirmation from the noble Earl the Minister as to whether Lady David's interpretation is correct. Is it the fact that rather than restricting a transfer at 11, 12, 13 or 16-plus, that Regulation 5 will enable transfer at any age from the maintained sector to an independent school? Is this designed to speed up the rate of transfer from the maintained to the private sector?

7.45 p.m.

I should like to begin by asking one question which has not been raised at all so far, concerning Regulation 7. I put my question as simply as possible. What kind of teacher is it who is barred under Regulation 24 as it now stands but will not be barred when Regulation 24 is altered as is proposed in these amendments? There is nothing in the Explanatory Memorandum, and by reference to the principal regulations I could not understand what is meant. But there may be a quite simple explanation.

In general, I will not attempt to repeat the arguments which have been set out very powerfully by my noble friend Lady David, but simply say in general that there is no doubt at all that the effect of these amendments is to enlarge and strengthen the assisted places scheme. The effect of the assisted places scheme is to try to take more able children—so far as they can be defined at an early age (and that has always been a matter in dispute)—from the public sector of education, and put them in the private sector where it is assumed they will get a better education. That is the philosophy behind it. This has always been of course the Conservative view of education.

The right honourable Lady, the Prime Minister, said once when she was Minister of Education, that she considered it her duty to look after remarkable people. One would have thought that to a Secretary of State for Education all children ought to be remarkable: that, at any rate, is how their parents always do and always will quite properly regard them.

There is this philosophy that certain children ought to be specially looked after and given indisputably a better education: in the sense of enabling them to get on in later life better than the rest. That is one effect of the assisted places scheme; or will be if it does at all what it is intended to do.

The other effect, of course, is to damage the state system of education: partly by the fact that it spends money which we could do with very badly indeed for ordinary educational purposes in the state system; and it can sometimes of course upset the organisation of a school and a number of its teachers. A comprehensive school may find, as a result of the assisted places working, particularly with the alterations made here, that it gets a certain number of children taken away from it, and that may reduce the number of teachers to which it is entitled. It will become a less efficient school on that ground.

We have to decide, I think, what our philosophy of education is. Do you assume—as we do on this side of the House—that the object of the whole thing is to provide for all children the best education possible? Some will make more use of it than others (that is unavoidable); but you should do the best you can for all of them. Alternatively, do you take the view that there are some children who are definitely better than the rest and who will profit from a better education, and that your job is to spot them in advance and make provision for them? That is what the argument is about, and I think all the evidence is that the second choice, (the second philosophy) is the wrong philosophy.

The Secretary of State himself recently, was, somewhat grudgingly, admitting that there had been a general improvement in educational standards in recent years. It came out rather cautiously and unwillingly but indisputably, and that is all the more important, of course, because it is in recent years that our philosophy on education has been prevailing more. It has been prevailing so much that the Conservative party has never wanted to make a frontal attack on it (at least, not any longer), but has sought various ways round it, and this I am afraid is one of them. That is why the Minister cannot expect from this side of the House any great enthusiasm for these amended regulations.

My Lords, something I must admit straight away is that it comes as no surprise to me whatsoever that these regulations have been received quite as they have by noble Lords opposite. I am rather surprised though that they persist in their opposition to this scheme. It is now into its third year, and its success and popularity are transparent. Noble Lords opposite have often enough complained about the exclusivity of public schools. The assisted places scheme has changed all that. On average, about one-third of each intake in a high proportion of the best independent schools in the country now come from low or very low income families. That is all thanks to the assisted places scheme.

There are now over 13,000 pupils benefiting from the scheme and nearly three-quarters of them are from families with below average income Forty per cent. of them come from families whose gross combined income is less than £6,000. Those who complained that the scheme would be little more than a subsidy for the rich have long since lost that argument. I must admit here—as I think the noble Baroness, Lady David, said in her opening speech—that I was one of those who thought this would be the result of the scheme; but I am very glad to say that I have been proved wrong along with a lot of other people.

Neither is the scheme a means of sustaining those, albeit of a lower income, who would somehow have their children in independent schools anyway. Schools are asked, under the principal regulations, to ensure that at least 60 per cent. of their assisted pupils attended maintained schools immediately before taking up the places. Most schools have not the slightest difficulty in meeting this and frequently attain a much higher figure, especially at 11 to 13 entrance. The pattern at sixth form level has been distorted by the power which local authorities had until last year to veto transfers from maintained schools; but I am pleased to say that with the veto removed, things are quickly settling down. Sixth form recruitment is well up this year, and at the same time I can assure noble Lords that there has been no evidence of the sort of jeopardy to maintained sixth forms that caused us to adopt the veto provision in the first place.

I was asked a number of questions, and I shall do my best to answer them. If I find at the end that I have missed any, I hope that noble Lords will not mind if I write to them when I have studied Hansard. I think both the noble Baroness, Lady David, and the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, made a special point about the removal of the sixth form veto. The Government concluded a year ago that there was no justification for keeping this veto. A lot of authorities themselves saw no need for it and never used it. Of those that did, it is clear that some abused it. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State undertook to the Select Committee on Education, Science and the Arts last February that he would keep the matter under review. This he has done. On the latest evidence there seems to be little ground for any fear that assisted places schools would damage maintained sixth forms by poaching large numbers of pupils from them.

Across the whole country less than 200 pupils transferred at sixth form level last September from maintained schools to assisted places in independent schools. That, if you like, is a measure of the strength of the maintained sixth form market; and I am delighted to say that. It seems to me quite sufficient that we limit assisted place admissions to sixth forms to five a year at any school, as we do now.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, also asked about the cost of the scheme. The cost of the scheme in the current financial year is likely to be about £16,500,000. The cost to the Government for an assisted pupil is not very different from the average cost of equivalent provision in the maintained sector. The cost is more than justified by the significant increase in opportunities for able children from less well off families which this has brought about.

I think perhaps noble Lords on our side of the House would perhaps regret this, but this may cheer up some of the noble Lords opposite. There are no resources currently available to expand the scheme. Certainly if resources became available we should see merit in some expansion, though we should not want to do so to the point where we diluted its scholarship character. In the meantime, we have to concentrate on improving the match of supply to demand, as we have been doing this year, with a marginal redistribution of places to strongly recruiting schools already in the scheme and a handful of new ones.

The noble Baroness asked about the 7¾ per cent. increase in the income scale. This is directly in line with the average increase in earnings, seasonally adjusted, between June 1982 and June 1983. She also asked about the cost of the revisions of these regulations. The cost will be negligible. Disregard of redundancy payments is a simple substitute for what is a common practice now under which parents in these circumstances offer a current year assessment of income and achieve much the same effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, asked about lobbying against sixth form colleges. I personally have absolutely no knowledge of this taking place, but I shall look into it. If there is any truth in it I shall be delighted to write to the noble Lord. He asked about the effect of removing the LEAs' power of veto on sixth form transfers from maintained schools, and I have already answered that. The noble Lord also asked about Regulation 5. The purpose of this is simply to remove an obstacle to transfer in the rare cases where a child wants to move to a school at other than the normal age of entry.

I think I must remind the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, in view of the rather powerful speech he made against the scheme, that one of the reasons why the Government brought it in was that the party opposite did away with direct grant schools. The noble Lord, Lord Stewart, asked me about the meaning of Regulation 7. This is intended purely to underline that the earlier regulation does not apply to anyone other than a teacher barred for misconduct. It does not apply, for example, to unqualified teachers.

I hope I have answered as many of the questions as I can. If I have missed any I shall write to noble Lords. I am not going to be taken up on the education support grants Bill. It is appropriate that that is coming to a Committee of this House on St. Valentine's Day. I hope that then all will be sweetness and light across the Chamber with the noble Baronesses opposite.

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, in view of his remarks that there are no new resources for the moment—I think I heard him correctly—for this scheme, what is one to make of the remarks of the Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Bob Dunn, of 6th December, that when the scheme becomes fully implemented, with children progressing right through the schools, the total number will grow to nearly 40,000. Is that no longer the Government's objective?

My Lords, that is the objective in the long run. There was always meant to be a gentle build-up of this scheme. The build-up is going on as was envisaged but there are no extra resources to give it a boost, as it were.

My Lords, may I follow that up and ask whether that means that the money for the scheme in the next year, that is 1984–85, or in 1985–86, will still be £16,500,000?

No, my Lords, I think as envisaged originally there will be an additional £7 million next year. If I am wrong, I will write to the noble Baroness.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until ten minutes past eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[ The Sitting was suspended from 7.57 until 8.10 p.m.]