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Schools: Independent Schools

Volume 751: debated on Thursday 16 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the level of public support for an open access scheme to independent schools.

My Lords, we have made no assessment of public support for the open access scheme. We want all pupils, regardless of the type of school they attend or their background, to receive a high-quality education. We are delighted that the independent sector is so willing to engage with the state sector, as it does on a number of fronts such as independent state school partnerships and bursaryships, but we want to spend taxpayers’ money in the state school sector. With that money, through our education reforms, we are transforming the state school system to ensure that every pupil has the opportunity they deserve.

I thank my noble friend and, in doing so, declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association and of the Council for Independent Education. Does my noble friend not agree that wider access to independent schools could make a powerful contribution to the greater social mobility that we all want? Has he noted that within the independent sector itself, where more than a third of families now pay reduced fees, among heads and teachers there is considerable enthusiasm for more open access, which need involve no increase in public spending? In 1940, Churchill said that the advantages of the public schools should be extended on a far broader basis. Is it not time that we got on with it?

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is passionate about social mobility through education and I look forward to the Independent State Schools Partnerships conference next Monday, at which we are both speaking—a conference designed to promote partnerships between independent and state schools. As he said, the independent sector has a long history of increasing social mobility through bursaryships, scholarships and collaboration. In 2013, it provided more than £300 million worth of assistance, benefiting 40,000 children, and we absolutely applaud this. However, our priority is to invest our resources in making sure that all state schools provide an excellent education for their pupils, which in the end will be the greatest means of achieving much higher levels of social mobility, which I know all noble Lords wish to see. Our reforms are particularly focused on poorer children through, for instance, our pupil premium and Ofsted’s focus on the progress that pupil premium pupils make.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw that private schools should be doing much more to collaborate with, and support, the state school sector, rather than, as he described it, being guilty of just giving the “crumbs off their tables”?

As the noble Baroness says, I would like to see private schools doing more, but I think the way to encourage them to do more is to engage with them in a collaborative way. That is what we intend to do.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear the Minister agree that we are all anxious to improve the social mobility of pupils. Indeed, the open access scheme purports to do that, but it is a heavily means-tested scheme, which relies on taking the very brightest pupils and the funding that comes with them into the private sector. Does the Minister not agree that this could be a scheme that is tantamount to providing public funding for the independent sector?

If one had such a scheme, I think there might be ways of avoiding that. I agree entirely that we should be increasing social mobility for all pupils. Although the independent sector does a fantastic job, according to the Sutton Trust, which promotes the open access scheme, its 7% of pupils get 50% of the top jobs. Pupils from grammar schools, which educate 5% of the population, get more than 20% of the top jobs. We are focused on ensuring that the 90% of children who go to other schools, who currently get only somewhere between 25% and 30% of those jobs, get a much higher share of that take in the future.

Does the noble Lord agree that, if the parents of the 7% of the nation’s children who attend independent schools were to apply their zeal for educational excellence to the maintained sector, we would see a vast improvement in social cohesion and educational performance?

The noble Lord makes a very good point; that may be the case. If the Labour Party had abolished state education, that would have happened, but we are where we are. We have an excellent independent sector and we should learn from it and collaborate with it.

Will my noble friend explain why, if the Government are in favour of the money following the pupil and in favour of extending choice, they are not in favour of getting the best value for money and of ensuring that people get the best possible education by making resources available to those who cannot afford to go to independent schools so that they can do so?

There are plenty of schemes, such as the Buttle UK springboard, which encourage pupils to go to independent schools. Even if we got a third of independent school places occupied by poorer pupils, we would still be dealing with only 2% of the population. We believe that our money is better spent trying to improve the educational chances of the majority of children.

My Lords, where do the figures that the noble Lord referred to come from? On what basis was the valuation made, and what was it of?

They come from the subsidy that independent schools give on fees that would otherwise be paid by parents, which they find from their own resources or from charitable raising activities.

Does my noble friend agree that, if children from poorer families go to rather grand private schools, they can sometimes have a rather rough time when they first arrive and so on? What measures can the Government encourage those schools to take to make it socially easier for them to integrate?

I was a trustee of Eastside Young Leaders Academy, which focuses on improving the life chances of black boys in the East End. It has already sent 21 pupils to private schools under full bursaryships. One of our concerns was integration and we spent a lot of time working on that. I know that schools that take pupils from diverse backgrounds work very hard to make sure that the transition works.

My Lords, did not the previous Conservative Government introduce the assisted places scheme and would it not be a very positive thing to reintroduce something similar?

The assisted places scheme provided valuable support for pupils, who benefited from a place at an independent school, which their parents might not otherwise have been able to afford. The scheme was abolished by the Labour Party in 1998 so that that money could be spent in the state sector. We agree with that sentiment. Our policy is that resources should be targeted at improving state funding for all pupils rather than supporting a minority.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the abolition of the assisted places scheme so that its money could be used in providing free nursery school education was one of five pledges in the 1997 manifesto of the Labour Party—a small number of pledges—and that partly as a result of those pledges, the Labour Party won the general election with a majority of nearly 200.