HC Deb 09 March 1916 vol 80 cc1816-27

I had given notice of an Amendment to reduce this Vote, but I have no intention of making any general charge against the whole administration of the Board of Education. I intend only to refer to one comparatively small point which was raised on questions I put to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education yesterday. I asked him whether notice had been given to our local authority and to our technical schools that the Grants made for technical instruction would be decreased this year and that the schools could not expect that the Grants should be made the same as were made last year. The Parliamentary Secretary admitted that that was the case. He said that the Board have informed certain schools that where the number of students has diminished that they must not assume that the Grant for the coming Session will be as much as that for the preceding Session. This was not altogether a satisfactory statement of the case, and I desire to obtain from him more definite information as to the intentions of the Board. In answer to a further question which I put to him, he stated that the Board fully appreciated the importance of maintaining the efficiency of technical instruction, and that since the War broke out they had done their best to meet the various difficulties experienced in carrying on the schools. That was entirely a sympathetic reply to my question, but at the same time these important schools in all parts of the country cannot be carried on by any mere sympathetic reply. What we want instead of that is a promise for adequate funds to meet the requirements of these schools. I have no right to address the House on this question unless I recognise, as I am sure everyone does, the importance of exercising in all our services the greatest possible economy under present conditions. But even in the matter of education, which I think is one of the last of the subjects on which economy should be exercised, I would point out that we are endeavouring to do all we can to practice economy. I myself am a member of one of the largest local education authorities, and I know that much of the business of nearly all our committees and sub-committees consists in seeing in what way we can reduce the expenditure on education without interfering too much with the education of the children and students committed to our care. But even in devising means of economy a certain amount of discretion ought to be exercised, and technical instruction is the last form of instruction on which the hand of the economist should be placed.

8.0 P.M.

We all hope that when this War is over we may be able not only to retain the industries which we at present possess, but also to develop other industries equally essential to this country either in peace or in war. We have heard, in the course of an earlier discussion to-day, the rumblings of the old controversy with regard to Tariff Reform and Protection. I am not going to enter upon that subject, but it is generally admitted that if we are to acquire certain new industries it may be necessary to put protective duties upon some imports. What I particularly want to urge is that neither Protection nor prohibitive duties upon our imports will en- able us to retain our present industries, or to acquire new ones, unless we are competent to train an adequate army of skilled artisans to carry out the important work connected with those industries. It is for that reason that I think our technical institutions have the first call on our educational Grants. Even now these technical institutions are rendering very great service to the country. Many of them are training the very skilled artisans who are required for the production of munitions, and others are placing their workshops and laboratories at the disposal of the Government for the absolute production of some of those munitions. Only recently, when the Munitions Department commandeered all the optical instruments in the hands of wholesale or retail dealers, many of the optical instruments were sent to our technical institutions in order that they might be scientifically tested as to their fitness before being acquired by the Government. In a matter of national importance such as this, technical classes should, I think, be adequately maintained and the instruction continued even if the number of students has been reduced, as undoubtedly it must have been by the absence of so many of them at the War. The Board of Education, foreseeing this possible depletion of classes, and recognising the urgent importance of giving adequate training to students in technical subjects, issued in December, 1914, a statement in which they distinctly said: So long as a class is serving a valuable educational function, even though for a reduced number of students, the Board would regard it as regrettable that it should be closed merely for the want of adequate financial support. Our local authorities and technical institutions have kept in mind that statement of the Board of Education which, they regarded as a promise, and have consequently retained a number of teachers and kept up a certain number of classes, even although the number of students in those classes was much smaller than previously. The Board of Education, in order to carry out this desire on their part, further amended their own regulations by substituting for payment on student hours—that is to say, the number of students in attendance multiplied by the number of hours they had attended—payment by class hours—that is, the amount of provision made by the local authorities. This means that so long as the local authorities think it important to maintain a class, even although there be few students in that class, so as to provide for the future the Grant will not be reduced, notwithstanding the fact that the number of students has fallen off so much, and payment will be made on the class hours rather than on the student hours. This is exactly what the Board have said in their circular, for after stating the change they have made in their regulations they say: Consequently where an authority has maintained its normal provision of evening class work, in spite of the shrinking in attendance, this Article gives the Board power to avoid any reduction in the Grant. Notwithstanding that statement, the Board have intimated to local authorities and technical institutions that they cannot expect the same Grant this year as they received last. In a letter sent by the Board to many of the local authorities as recently as the 11th of last month, with respect to the proposed Grant, they state: It is observed, however, that there was a considerable decline in the number and attendances of students, and if that is continued during the current year, it must not be assumed that the Grant for 1915-16 will be as high as in 1914–15. It will be seen that a statement of this kind is in direct contradiction to the circular previously issued, in which it was pointed out that the Grant would not depend on the number of students. Several letters, in which a statement of this kind is made, have been written to local authorities and classes. In another letter, dated the 19th January, it is said: It is observed that there was a great decline in the number of students. If that decline continues during the current year, the authority must not expect that the Grant for 1915-16 will be as high as for 1914–15. The worst of it is that these schools, with many of which I am familiar, have already made up their estimates for this year, and many of their commitments cannot possibly be changed. Yet they are told, notwithstanding what is stated in a previous circular, that if, as must be the case, the attendance of students has fallen off, the institutions cannot expect the same Grant as they had in previous years. I would not have brought this matter under the notice of the House, but for the fact that considerable anxiety has been expressed by numbers of these classes. I have recently had placed in my hands the answers to a circular letter which was sent out to a large number of schools by the Secretary of the Association of Technical Institutions. For the information of the House I will read one or two of those replies. One school says: It should be represented to the Board that the revision of the block Grant on the basis of student hours would be manifestly unfair. and it points out that the following charges cannot be reduced and that some of them would even be increased, namely, interest and sinking fund, buildings, fuel-light, cleaning, rates and taxes, expenses of maintenance and administration, and salaries of officers; while, on the other hand, the income which these classes receive from fees is very much reduced by the very absence of the students. Another states: A communication from the Board has been received, notifying a possible reduction of Grant for this session The professor points out that in view of the fact that the Board sanctioned the scheme of classes on the recognition form, it would appear that the Board have a responsibility for the scheme being carried out. In face of this, it hardly seems honourable that they should decrease the Grant. Another school says: The committee have written to the Board saying that all possible curtailment of expenditure on such things as repairs, prizes. and even new apparatus, has already been made, and that it is impossible to reduce the expenditure in proportion to the decrease in attendance, and expressing the hope that this will be taken into account and that the Grant will be decreased very slightly, if at all. I do not propose to read any more letters, though I have some dozens of them. I understand that the Board have not written to all the schools, but have selected a certain number only. In their letter they refer only to the decrease in the number of students as the reason for diminishing the Grant, forgetting that these classes are being kept up for the students who remain, and that the Grants should consequently be assessed on what is known as class hours instead of student hours. All I wish to do is to express the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to allay the fear which is at present felt in a large number of schools that they will be unable to maintain their technical classes. I should like to make the right hon. Gentleman clearly realise what I know he understands, that it is extremely necessary, if we are to be able to train skilled artisans in the future, that those who being under military age are left here and attend our classes, even in small numbers, should receive a training so that they may be able after the War to take their place in our skilled industries. This matter, to my mind, is of real national importance, and I do sincerely trust that the Parliamentary Secretary in reply will be able to give such an answer as will satisfy the schools throughout the country, from whom many letters have been received, that they will not be required to close their classes altogether because the number of students has fallen off, but that they may expect, having regard to their commitments, that during the present Session at least they will receive Grants equal to those of the past.


There is no one in this House who is better entitled to speak on questions relating to technical education than the hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London (Sir P. Magnus) and the question he has raised is certainly technical in more senses than one. The presence of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General (Mr. Pease), a former President of the Board of Education, reminds me that just before the War he foreshadowed a great scheme for the improvement of technical education, and but for the unfortunate intervention of the War that scheme might by this time have been in progress. There was one point I think I ought to clear up at the very outset of my remarks upon this very question. The hon. Gentleman read a letter which he applied to Clause 5 of the Memorandum of the 11th December, 1914. As a matter of fact that letter has no reference whatever to the Grants which are given for courses under what is known as Article 34 of the Technical Instruction Grants. I think he has rather misunderstood the position on that point. So far as the Grants given under Article 34 arc concerned, there will, as I understand, be no difference this year, and if there is any reduction at all in respect of those Grants it will only be a reduction in respect of the class hours and not of the student hours. That is to say, if the classes are held, those classes will be paid for, unless, of course, they should be classes so extremely small in number that it would be unreasonable to hold them. I therefore hope my hon. Friend will understand that so far as his quotation from paragraph (5) of the Circular of 11th December, 1914, is concerned, he was under some misapprehension. I understood that his point really related to the large technical schools, of which there are 130 in this country, which receive Grants for the greater part of their work under an emergency Regulation, which was made at the beginning of the War, in the form of a block Grant, or a round sum, assessed by the Board under what is known as Article 33 of the Regulations for Technical Schools, That assessment is made after a consideration of the character and the efficiency of the work of the school, as it is known to the inspectors, of the volume of the work, that is to say the number of attendances, the number of students, and the number of hours spent by teachers in giving instruction, as shown by the annual returns, and of the cost of the work as shown by the annual accounts rendered by the school. The schools also get some smaller Grants of a per capita kind for particular courses, mainly for day students, varying according, to the number of students, and are outside the block Grant. I understand, however, that the hon. Gentleman's question really refers to the block Grants. Before the emergency Regulation to which I have already referred, Article 33, was introduced, these schools received Grants based upon what are called student hours, and they were paid according to a very complicated system which was an inheritance of the Board from the old Science and Art Department, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the system was a very unsatisfactory one. The amounts to be paid were calculated in each autumn upon the returns of the amount of work done in a school year, ending on the previous 31st July, and the Grants were ordinarily paid towards the end of the financial year ending on the following 31st March. It is obvious, therefore, that as the number of student hours fluctuated considerably from year to year, no school was at any time in a position to say at the beginning of any financial year, when it was preparing its estimate, what amount of Grant it would receive during that financial year, although it is probable that as the rates of Grant became in the course of time more or less stereotyped, the schools could, so long as the number of students was fairly stable, form a fair guess of what they might expect.

In the autumn of 1914, after the War had broken out, the Board were faced with two new facts. The first was that their staff had been very considerably depleted, and would no longer be able to carry out properly the calculations upon which the Grants were based. The second was that as the old Grants depended very largely upon the number of students, and the regularity of their attendance, the schools were becoming alarmed at the probable loss of Grants, which would be caused by a loss of students owing to the War, The Board, therefore, obtained authority from the Treasury to substitute block Grants, and on the 11th December, 1914, issued a Circular, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, in explanation of their action. That Circular deals also with the small Grants for evening schools, but these Grants, as I have already explained, are not at the present time in question. The hon. Gentleman has quoted already the main points in that Circular. He has mentioned one point referred to in it, namely, that so long as the class is serving a valuable education function, even though for a reduced number of students, the Board would regard it as regrettable that it should be closed merely for the want of the necessary financial support. Further, it went on to say that it was hoped the Board would be able to deal in a comprehensive and equitable way with the evening class work in the larger and more stable institutions in which much of the work is generally done by a permanent staff who receive fixed salaries, so that even the closure of classes could not be relied upon to restore a financial equilibrium. May I point out, however, that that Circular, which the hon. Gentleman has just quoted, did not contain any promise that the Board in exercising their discretion under this particular Regulation, would in no case reduce the existing Grant to any school during the War. The first Grants under the new Regulation were assessed on the Returns for the last school year before the War, that is to say, the school year ending the 31st July, 1914, and this may roughly be taken as equivalent to the Grants which the school would have got for the same work under the old Regulations. This assessment was completed, and the Grants were paid in January, February and March, 1915, and they, therefore, fell within the financial year 1914–15. During the last few months the Board have been assessing and paying the second series of Grants under the new Regulation, after consideration of the volume and cost of the work during the school year ending 31st July, 1915. In practically every case the same Grant was paid as in the previous year, but the Board have been faced by a new factor, to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded, a factor which has certainly become more material since the Circular of December, 1914, was issued.

I am, of course, alluding to the urgent need for economy which has been pressed upon the Department. There is a distinction, between economy and retrenchment. By economy I mean good and thrifty management. I do not mean by economy cutting down education in any vital department, and upon that point I am in absolute sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, and in the remarks he made upon that question he was simply preaching to the converted. The attitude of the Board is this: They were anxious that in spite of the difficult circumstances the technical schools should maintain, and if possible increase, their efficiency, and should not be obliged to retrench valuable courses of instruction for which there were a reasonable number of students available merely and simply because the number of students was less than in earlier years. At the same time they knew that the Schools were familiar, when they began their session's work in the. autumn of 1915, with the need for economy which had been pressed upon the authorities responsible for them by a circular from the Local Government Board, and the Board thought it incumbent upon all schools to do whatever was within their power, subject to what I have already-said, to reduce expenses wherever this could be done without really affecting efficiency. In examining the returns of the schools for 1914–15 they found that while in some cases the attendance of the students had fallen off by from 10 to 12 per cent., in other cases they had fallen off by 30, 40, and as much as 50 per cent. Where the falling-off was small they did not suppose that it would leave them much opportunity for economy in the schools which had permanent staffs, and in these cases they simply paid the Grant at its former amount without any comment whatever. The hon. Gentleman said that the letter had not gone to all the schools. As a matter of fact it only went to fifty out of 130 schools in the country. As regards thirty they simply paid the Grant, whatever the reduction had been, without any comment whatever. But in cases where the falling-off had been heavy they considered there was a primâ facie ground for supposing that economies could and ought to have been effected for the year 1915–16. Besides that, they considered that where economies were possible the advantage of them should be divided between the Exchequer and the rates, the two main sources of revenue for the schools. Any other view than that would hardly have been fair to the Treasury, because Grant has grown in the past as the work of the school has grown, and it must be expected to fall as the work becomes less expensive. I say this entirely without prejudice to the general question as to whether the proportion of the cost of advanced technical work, which has hitherto been met out of national as distinct from local funds, has been an adequate one.

It has been argued that the national contribution has not hitherto been adequate and, so far as the Board of Education are concerned, they entirely agree with that view, and they hope that when the War is over the Treasury will confirm them in that view. But it would obviously be quite wrong for the Board of Education to use an emergency regulation for the purpose of prejudicing a question of that kind. The announcement the Board of Education made to the schools was that where the falling-off in attendance had been anything from 20 to 30, 40, or 50 per cent., it must not be taken for granted that, if this falling-off was again apparent during the current session, the Grant payable after consideration of the returns for that session—that is to say, the Grant which will fall due for payment towards the end of the financial year 1916–17—will be as high as the one just paid; and they warned the responsible authority that, if they had not already done so, they should, as soon as possible, take steps to reduce the annual maintenance expenditure upon the institution. The letters that the hon. Gentleman quoted—and I draw attention to this point—did not convey a final decision of the Board that the Grant to a school will be reduced next year. Further investigation may show that the prima facie grounds for supposing that economies were possible were not in fact justified.

The hon. Gentleman has just read some letters to the House from representatives of authorities who say, so far as they are concerned, they have done their utmost to effect economies wherever economies have been possible. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, so far as economies of that class are concerned, the representations that they make to the Board will be most carefully considered and taken into account. If an authority can show that all reasonable attempts have been made to effect economy, then the Board will give the fullest attention to the representations. I would add, if it is necessary to do so, that the Board are strongly convinced of the importance of maintaining the standard of technical instruction, even under war con- ditions, and of developing that instruction to the highest possible point as soon as the pressure of external circumstances is reduced. But I want to say one thing in conclusion that may reassure the hon. Gentleman and other Members who take, as I know they do take, a keen interest in this matter, and it is this, that the total amount taken by the Board in their own Estimates for 1916–17, out of which to pay Grants to the large technical schools to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, shows no reduction upon the amount which is being expended in the current financial year, and those interested in the technical schools will perhaps be able to infer from this fact that they are not faced with any prospect whatever of any sweeping reduction.


Is my right hon. Friend referring to the Estimate for a special branch of education—the technical schools;—or to the total Estimate for the whole educational service?


No, I was referring to the estimate of the particular matter raised now.


The general Estimate shows reduction.


I said nothing with regard to the general Estimate at all. I was confining myself purely to this particular question.


The right hon. Gentleman's remarks, I take it, only refer to the large schools, and not to the large number of small schools, which are doing excellent work and which feel the pinch perhaps?


With regard to these particular schools, as I have already explained, the only possible reduction of Grant that will take place will be in respect of the number of class hours. For instance, if a teacher has gone to the War and the class is not held, naturally there would be no Grant made in respect of that particular class not held. But so long as the class hours—and this, of course, is a very much better system, as I think everyone will agree, than the application of student hours—are maintained, the Grant will also be maintained. I give that assurance, and I think my hon. Friends need feel no apprehension that the Board of Education desire in any way to fetter the working of these admirable institutions. They desire to maintain the spirit of the policy that they have already announced. They are bound, at the same time, to see that in cases where there have been large reductions in the number of students, every proper precaution has been taken that the work is carried on as economically as possible. It is possible that in certain cases amalgamation of classes can be economically effected. It is to considerations of that kind that the Board of Education are addressing themselves. They feel bound to warn the schools, in 'order that, as far as possible, this absolutely essential work in this time of war may be as thriftily done as possible, and that the money allotted for this purpose may be made to go as far as possible under the circumstances.