Skip to main content

Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1986

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 5 June 1986

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

7 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st May be approved. [24th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, these draft regulations amend certain provisions in the regulations governing the detailed operation of the assisted places scheme. The scheme was established for the purpose of widening the educational opportunities available to children from less well-off families. Now in its fifth year, the scheme is running smoothly and successfully and, apart from the provision to amend the parental income scale, which is done on an annual basis, these draft amending regulations are mostly of a procedural rather than a substantive nature.

Draft Regulations 1 and 2 are concerned with nomenclature and I have no need to trouble your Lordships with comment upon them. Regulation 3 has two effects. It inserts a missing preposition in Regulation 21 of the principal regulations which escaped our scrutiny last year. More notably, it increases the period allowed to the respective Secretaries of State to respond to requests from the participating schools for increases in their fees. At present the schools must give the Secretary of State one month's notice of intended fee increases and the Secretary of State has only seven days in which to query the increase. Administratively, the response time has proved too short and so the amendment extends the period to 14 days.

Regulation 4 is put forward to close a legal loophole which was brought to our attention by a few of the participating schools. The principal regulations are designed essentially to treat the assisted placeholder's current family as the family unit for the purposes of assessing income and therefore the appropriate level of fee remission in individual cases. However, the principal regulations do not at present cover the circumstances whereby an unmarried mother subsequently marries a man who is not the father of the child. Regulation 4 amends this anomaly and allows that husband's income to be taken into account in determining eligibility for, and level of assistance under, the scheme. I am sure this is sensible, since it places all family units on the same footing.

Regulation 4(2) is also an addition to the definition of "parent" for the purposes of the scheme which takes account of the new legal definition of "custodian" introduced under sections of the Children Act 1975 which were implemented earlier this year. The principal APS regulations are being amended so that children who are the subject of custodianship orders and their legal custodians are placed on exactly the same footing as adopted children and their adoptive parents.

Regulation 5, which covers the rules for assessing income, permits allowances paid by local authorities to the family of an assisted pupil to be ignored when fee remission is calculated. I am sure that your Lordships will welcome this. Regulation 5 also updates the relevant income tax legislation in the existing regulations.

Finally, Regulation 6 provides for the appropriate updating of the income scale used for assessing the amount of parents' contributions towards the fees. Those parents with relevant incomes below £6,806 will qualify for full remission of fees. Your Lordships may be interested to know that in the current school year over 39 per cent. of all assisted pupils enjoyed full fee remission. This is, I believe, a firm indication that the scheme is attracting in large measure those pupils for whom it was intended whose families are at the lower end of the income scale.

I have described briefly the purpose of each of the proposed amendments. If noble Lords require further clarification on any point I shall seek to answer them in closing. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 21st May be approved. [ 24th Report from the Joint Committee.]—( Baroness Hooper.)

My Lords, the House must be grateful to the Minister for her lucid introduction of these amendments. As she says, they are largely procedural rather than substantive, but of course they are a further step along a road of which we on these Benches profoundly disapprove.

The assisted places scheme was originally introduced following the Education Act 1980, and after considerable pressure, particularly in this House, a number of qualifications and restrictions were placed on the scheme. After six years almost all of those restrictions have been removed, and every time an amendment comes before Parliament for consideration further restrictions and safeguards are removed from the scheme and the scheme is encouraged to go further in stripping our state schools of the academically most able pupils.

We consider these regulations at a time when we have a new Secretary of State for Education. He has been in his job for less than a month and, if he is to turn around the deep public suspicion of the Government's education policy, he has to show rapidly that his concern is for the public education system. I suggest to the House that these regulations and the continuation and expansion of the assisted places scheme are no way to show that concern. On the contrary, they show that the Government are continuing in their ideological support for the private education system—I shall not call it the independent sector—as against the interests of the whole community and of our virtually universal state education system.

In detail the new regulations cannot be deeply faulted. It is plainly reasonable for there to be a suitable administrative time for the Secretary of State to consider proposed increases in fees, and it is certainly reasonable that the anomaly about the family unit on which the income is calculated should be made more rational. I query the proposal for the increase in the baseline income for the calculation of fees. We appear to have an increase of 7 per cent. when inflation has risen by less than 5 per cent. Surely it cannot be right that the increase should exceed the retail price index.

The great socialist thinker, R. H. Tawney, said that that which the wise parent would wish for his own child the state should wish for all children. This is a denial of that fundamental principle. It is spending public money on a privileged sector and in doing so taking away from the state schools the full range of academic ability that they can effectively use. On those grounds we are opposed to the fundamental scheme to which the regulations make amendment. Nevertheless, in following the convention of the House we shall not seek to oppose the regulations.

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to thank the Minister for her clear exposition of the regulations. The substantial change is in the table contained in Regulation 6 with the updating of the bands of income. I too should like to draw attention to the fact that they are between 6 and 7 per cent. which seems to us to be on the generous side. It is presumably intended to be in line with the increased average earning rate rather than the rate of inflation, but this does not seem to us to be the right time to be generous, even to that comparatively small extent, in a venture that affects less than 1 per cent. of children in the maintained sector.

The latest HMI report published last month shows that parents are making substantial contributions towards the cost of educational visits and the purchase of computers, audio-visual equipment, library and reference books, PE and games equipment, school minibuses, musical instruments, textbooks and reprographic equipment. More notably, parental contributions have been used to an increased extent to improve school premises, for example, the rewiring of an entire first floor, not to mention much redecoration. Parents have also been giving much personal help with activities such as reading, library work and cookery. Your Lordships will probably realise that that has varied greatly according to the socio-economic status of the cachment area so that schools in well-to-do areas have fared much better than schools in deprived areas. Social differences have thus become accentuated.

With the assisted places scheme we have the absurd situation of the state subsidising the private sector while parents subsidise the state. There is something wrong there. Surely this would have been a time to consider whether a rather generous gesture towards those benefiting from the assisted places scheme was not inappropriate.

Our basic objections to the scheme remain as before. We feel that it undermines the state system which is in desperate need of assistance both in material resources and morale building. It is, in effect, saying to parents, "Look, if you want a better option for your child than the run-down state system, we shall finance it." The scheme devalues the state system and those who are in it—children and teachers.

We feel that the scheme accentuates social and academic differences when really we should be doing what we can to diminish them. I have spoken before in the House of the effect on the children who remain in a class when others are taken out of it. It is disastrous. There is a sudden, total collapse of confidence. I cannot help but feel that that tends to happen in schools. We feel that it is a particularly inappropriate time to be making generous gestures towards a small section of the school population.

I should like to ask the Minister some questions. Can she give us any idea of the estimated number of children likely to benefit from the scheme in 1986–87? Secondly, can she give us an idea of the net cost of the scheme in 1985–86? When I say "net cost" I mean the cost over and above the capitation costs of educating the same children to secondary age in the maintained sector. Thirdly, can she give us any information as to the socio-economic groups which are benefiting from the scheme? I took on board the figure of 39 per cent. that she gave us as coming from the lowest income band. One wonders whether the scheme is reaching the type of families that it was originally intended to reach—that is to say, disadvantaged, deprived or working class people—or is it mainly reaching those who would probably, by hook or by crook and by scraping the barrel, have educated their children privately anyhow? If the noble Baroness will be kind enough to tell me what she can about those matters. I should be grateful.

My Lords, I regret the fact that neither the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, nor the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, felt able to congratulate the Government on the success of the scheme, as it is plainly achieving its objective by opening up the best independent schools to children who almost certainly would not otherwise have been able to look at them as an option. I feel that can only be to the advantage of those children and the nation.

My Lords, how does the noble Baroness define "best" when she talks about those schools?

My Lords, as the scheme opens up the option to all, it must include the best. I shall endeavour to respond to the detailed questions asked by the two noble Lords. The increase is in line with the increase in average earnings, as the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, suggested. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, suggested that the regulations were expanding the scheme. I am not sure how he figures that as there are currently no resources available for any expansion of the scheme. If additional resources were available, more assisted places would obviously be a happy option, but there would also be many competing claims.

I am not sure that I can precisely quote the figures for 1986–87. All that I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, is that there are now over 21,000 pupils benefiting from the assisted places scheme of whom nearly 47 per cent. come from families whose gross combined income is less than £7,300 a year. The scale for determining the amount of fee remission is intentionally a stiff one and only those families with incomes currently below £6,376—as I said in my introduction that is the figure which is being increased—qualify for completely free places.

We believe that the scheme reaches the targeted families that it intended to reach. We therefore feel that the scheme is a great success. If I have not answered all the points raised by the noble Lords. I hope that I may be permitted, after looking at Hansard, to follow up any of the queries in writing.

My Lords, the only question I should be interested in the answer to is the net overall cost of the scheme. I hope that the noble Baroness understands what I mean.

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord means but I cannot give him the exact figure now. I hope to be able to do so.

On Question, Motion agreed to.