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Independent Schools: Free Places

Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Independent Schools Council’s proposal to create 10,000 free places at independent schools funded jointly with the Government.

My Lords, we welcome the positive way in which the Independent Schools Council has responded to the consultation document Schools that Work for Everyone by putting forward a number of proposals for ways in which the independent schools sector can achieve the aim of improving access for families to good school places. The consultation period closed on Monday this week. We are considering all the responses received and will publish our response in due course.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a former general secretary of the Independent Schools Council and current president of the Independent Schools Association, one of the council’s constituent bodies. Has my noble friend the Minister noted that the proposals contain plans that are specifically designed to assist social mobility by providing large numbers of new places across the age range based on need and need alone, at no extra cost to the Government? This is not a repetition of the assisted places scheme. Does my noble friend agree that this new constructive plan for partnership with the state could well represent the best way in which most independent schools can assist the Government’s agenda for education reform, since so many of them are small and lack the financial resources to invest in the academies programme?

I thank my noble friend for pointing out those particular aspects of the ISC’s proposals. I have no doubt that its proposals are extremely well intentioned. We know that many, probably most, independent schools do valuable work with state schools and that is very welcome—87% of ISC members are engaged in some kind of partnership with the state sector. But we believe that many can do more, although we are also clear that the expectations that we place on the sector must be realistic, proportionate and practicable.

My Lords, does the Minister realise how unrealistic this is for areas such as the north-east? That is one of the prime areas where there needs to be improvement in educational outcomes and in social mobility, and it will not have much effect. We have very few independent schools in the north-east for historical reasons, because there has never been enough money around to support them. On that basis, will the Minister ensure that this is not seen as a realistic way of addressing what is a very important issue in our part of the country?

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness’s comment about educational issues in the north-east. Of course, this is not a panacea. Only 7% of the population is educated at private schools, and they are predominantly in the south of England. As I said, our proposals will have to be practicable.

The Minister will be aware that independent schools have the advantage of charitable status, and that advantage brings responsibilities. Is he confident that all independent schools are carrying out their obligations in terms of receiving charitable status? If not, what does he propose to do about it?

The purpose of these proposals is to ensure that the public benefits widely from that charitable status. It is clear that many independent schools are possibly putting back into the system more than they are getting in charitable status, but it is also clear that some are not. As I said, we want to see a bigger effort on a wider front.

Can the Minister say what progress has been made in developing boarding school places for young people in care and on the edge of care? He may wish to write to me. Does he think that this offer from the independent schools sector is a possible opportunity to develop that approach?

The noble Earl makes an extremely good point—one that is very close to my heart. I have initiated a campaign to try to encourage more local authorities to send young children who are on the edge of care to state boarding schools and independent boarding schools. It is an area where there is quite a shortage of information. We have a new project that is providing a website essentially to market to local authorities the opportunities of sending some of their children on the edge of care to state boarding schools and independent schools very cheaply because they may qualify for full bursarships.

My Lords, what this offer reveals is that the cost of educating a pupil in the state sector is around £5,500, while the average level of private school fees is three times that, which is very revealing in terms of the different offers to children in the different sectors. Does the Minister know whether this offer will be conditional on a selection test being operated to see who is able to take up these places? If that happens, does he not agree that what will then occur is not so much that poorer children per se are helped but that already bright children will be helped to achieve what they would very likely have achieved in the state sector anyway? Does he agree that, if selection is to be involved in this offer, the Government should not accept it?

A range of proposals is being submitted under the consultation document, some of which will involve selection and some of which will not. We will look at them all before we design the final proposals more carefully.

My Lords, I too would like to declare an interest as a former general secretary, like my noble friend, of the Independent Schools Council. Will the Minister commit to working with the council perhaps to amend the scheme that it has put on the table to make sure that we take into account all the other issues that have been raised today?

My noble friend is right to say that we may well have to work with a number of groups to amend their proposals before we have a final set of proposals. As I say, we have a wide-ranging group of ideas and we are determined to devise something that will actually work.

Will the Minister give an undertaking to ensure that, whatever happens, he will not take money from other schools’ budgets in order to fund a particular project that is being put forward by a group of people? As the Statement that the Minister is due to repeat later today shows, there is great concern that across the voluntary controlled and voluntary aided sector and local authority schools, money for school budgets is being cut. Projects like this ought not to be robbing children of funding for their schools just because the Government fancy a whim.

This proposal is about encouraging independent schools to help the state sector, and the money will therefore be flowing towards the state sector, not away from it. As the noble Baroness knows, we have protected the core schools budget, but we will be talking about the national funding formula shortly.

My Lords, the Minister will recall conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and myself about encouraging independent schools to demonstrate their public benefit by sharing their facilities for sport, drama, art, music and so on with their local state schools. I understand that a survey is being undertaken to see what the best practice is in the sector. Is his department following that survey, and will he repeat in public his private promise that, when it has been completed, we will have a debate in this Chamber on its results?

We are certainly following these issues, but I cannot promise a debate because it is not in my power to do so. We have encouraged the independent sector to show its good practice and we have helped it to set up an interesting website called Schools Together, which now has more than 1,200 examples of co-operation between the state and the independent sector. Clearly, a lot is happening in this area.