HC Deb 25 March 1960 vol 620 cc909-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

4.17 p.m.

Mr. James Boyden (Bishop Auckland)

One of the most distasteful duties of the governors of a grammar school is to consider cases of premature leavers. In speaking about maintenance allowances in secondary schools, which would do something to ease the situation, I must pay a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King), who has both in and outside the House persistently advocated the cause of the secondary school leaver who leaves because of poverty.

In 1954, the Central Advisory Committee for Education (England)—which we know as the Gurney-Dixon Committee—reporting on early leaving, recommended that Local education authorities should immediately review, in consultation with the heads of the schools affected, the circumstances in which boys and girls leave school early for financial reasons, and adjust their schemes of aid accordingly. The Gurney-Dixon Committee said also —this is a very significant point—that it was essential that the Minister should agree to the extra expenditure. This was, of course, before the days of the general grant, and it was quite implicit in the Gurney-Dixon Committee's recommendations that the Ministry of Education should stand its full share of the extra cost involved in raising maintenance allowances. The Committee was very concerned with the general problem of wastage of talent from our schools.

The Gurney-Dixon Committee estimated that 10,000 boys and girls could have taken their advanced level G.C.E. but did not. It estimated, also, that 4,200 boys and girls could have been taking mathematics and science but were not doing so. This is one of the problems which I wish to put very forcibly to the Parliamentary Secretary in relation to the present need for teachers, the need for scientists, and so forth.

There are many bright working-class boys and girls leaving school often, though not entirely, for reasons of poverty, who would, if they were staying on at school until they could take their advanced courses, do a great deal to close the gaps in our scheme of things which requires so many more scientists and trained people. It is not only the shortage of scientists which worries me.

After the war, there was a variety of committees which looked into the need for trained people of one kind and another. There was the Clapham Committee which dealt with social and economic workers. There was the Scarborough Committee which dealt with deficiencies in oriental languages. I have always thought that we must in this country be extraordinarily deficient in the number of people who know Russian and who can use it for our advantage. There is undoubtedly a general deficiency of bright, well educated people to do the jobs we so badly require to have done in our complicated modern world.

The Gurney-Dixon Committee, in assessing the position in which there is a wastage of 10,000 children a year and 4,200 scientists, if it had been able to recommend suggestions to be carried out by the Minister would have prevented this paragraph being written in the 1959 Report of the Scientific Manpower Committee of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, which reads as follows: The forecast of requirements by 1962 for technical colleges, teacher training colleges, and schools shows a net increase of 5.300. which include about 1,000 current vacancies, nearly half of which are in Scotland. The Scottish and English figures of vacancies are based on different standards and there is no doubt that the figure for England and Wales greatly under-estimates the number of additional teachers who will be needed to restore 1953 staffing ratios and to meet all the new demands in secondary schools. To achieve the latter objective might require a further 4,000 to 5,000 science teachers. If one puts that along with the recommendation in 1954, we see that if the Gurney-Dixon Committee and the Government had been determined about it—and I would suggest that the raising of maintenance allowances would have been one of the most striking ways of achieving the objective—by this date of 1962 these children would be on their advanced level courses in schools and going to the universities and have solved our problem in this way.

In the same way the Todd Committee, reporting on Scientific Policy, 1958-59, Command Paper 893, gave the figures for the increasing number of graduates who were going through the universities, and they were very small indeed.

The number of science and mathematics graduates in all grant-aided schools in 1956 showed an increase of 257 on some 13,200. In 1957 there was an increase of 472 on a total of nearly 13,500. In 1958 there was an increase of 315 on nearly 14,000. I say at once that that was a slight increase. It was, in fact, just over 1,000 in three years, or about 2 per cent. But it is nothing like enough for the needs of the schools, let alone the needs of the nation. Meanwhile, during that time the wastage from grammar schools on 31st July for the year ending 1959 was 10,800 children who left before reaching the age of 16.

It is most significant that the requirement of science graduates and the estimate of the Gurney-Dixon Committee of a wastage of 10,000 a year is still continuing. I suggest that although there has been some rise in the number of children staying on at school, the Government have utterly failed to arrest this wastage. There is no question that children leaving a grammar school at the age of 15 have done two things. They have cut off their education at a critical stage—I shall not say wasted their education—but have done severe harm to themselves, and they have kept out of the grammar schools the same number of children who might very well have benefited more by that education.

Indeed, the National Council on Educational Research, reporting on the number of children miscast for secondary education in 1955, gave a figure of some 78,000 children who were receiving a wrong form of secondary education. Naturally enough, one deplores this wastage. I say very emphatically that the Government should have done something about it in those years.

The Government appointed the Weaver Committee in January, 1956, to consider maintenance allowances, and that Committee, as indeed the Gurney-Dixon Committee, did an extremely good job. I suggest that it set the pattern for the Crowther Committee. Its line of investigation and the methods which it pursued were in line with the excellent Crowther Committee Report in regard to the investigation of the problem, and I do not criticise it in any way.

When the Minister of Education set up the Weaver Committee he was very mean in the terms of reference. He hoped that: while individual allowances might be increased, some of them possibly substantially, the total expenditure … could possibly be diminished … In view of the somewhat restrictive terms of reference, it is remarkable that the Weaver Committee, reporting in 1957, although it made a concession to the Minister's meanness in saying: … we have been unable to establish any direct relationship between the amounts paid in maintenance allowances and the incidence of early leaving. We have, however, found cases where premature withdrawal from school is the result of financial hardship … and in that sense to some extent justified the Minister's meanness, recommended that if the grants were payable the country would be spending £3½ million a year.

The Minister, in welcoming some part of the Weaver Committee's recommendations, estimated that £2½ million would be required. The fact is that in the year ending April, 1959, only £735,000 was expended. It would seem as though here, in trying to do something about maintenance allowances, the Government have failed miserably. The Weaver Committee, thinking in 1956 of 1955 prices, considered that £3½ million would be required, the Parliamentary Secretary of those days thought £2½ million was required, and in point of fact £750.000 has been spent. This is very much a comment on the power of the Government and their determination in trying to do something about this problem.

I would dissent from the Weaver Committee in this particular. Although it said that there seemed to be no direct connection between maintenance allowances and early leaving, if one looks at Table III of the Appendix, which deals with sample cases which it investigated, one sees that of the fifty-seven cases of premature leaving only four were due to indifference to education. Twenty-two cases were specifically attributed to low income. I should have thought that many of the other cases dealt with tended to indicate that the cause of early leaving was directly associated with poverty and could, therefore, have been prevented by better maintenance allowances.

When the Committee came to its specific proposals, it said that recognisable hardship existed. It said that it occurred most frequently when family income was less than about £500 per annum. It went on to say: We also noted, and wish to draw attention to, the number of hardship cases where the mother was widowed or the parents were divorced or separated. The Committee also said that inadequate family incomes often hindered the education of those children who stayed on at school and were not premature leavers because of financial difficulties.

The Parliamentary Secretary knows that the Weaver Committee's recommendations were that at the age of 15 the maximum grant should be £55 per annum on a net income of £300, to be scaled down until it disappeared at about £440; at 16 the grant was to be £65 on £300, scaling down to disappear at £495; and at 17 it was to be £75 per annum on an income of £300, scaling down to disappear at £530. In 1957, the then Parliamentary Secretary, when discussing these recommendations in the House said: … it is nice to be able to stand at this Dispatch Box and describe something which will help us to go still further along that road."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd December, 1957; Vol. 579, c. 180.] The hon. Gentleman meant the road of progress.

What had the Government done at that time? They had already clipped £15 off the allowance for the 15-year-olds and £10 off the allowance for the 16- and 17-year-olds. I say that he was trying to save £1 million—in fact, he saved far more—at the expense of the intelligent children of the widowed, the sick, the unemployed, the farm workers with large families and other workers with small incomes.

Then comes a change. The block grant is introduced and the Minister changes his tune. He now says that local education authorities can go as far as they like so long as they meet the bill. Now the circumstances are that local authorities can go higher than the Weaver scale. Some of them have. They can spend what they like. But I should say from 1954 until the present day, Gurney-Dixon, T. R. Weaver and many Ministers of Education have utterly failed to get into the pockets of parents with bright children enough grants to meet the minimal pay to prevent hardship in a considerable number of cases. There has been discrimination against a section of the population which should have been encouraged.

I wish to ask the Minister whether he can produce a change of heart and do two or three things. He still has power to enforce minimum standards. Will he enforce the standard of the Weaver recommendation on those five authorities which at present do not even reach his own recommendations? In asking that, I wish also to ask whether the five authorities still below the Government's own miserable standards of 1957 are the same authorities which do not make adequate university grants. I should like to know the names of the authorities and to see them brought up to more reasonable standards.

The next part of my request the Parliamentary Secretary may find more difficult. Can he guarantee that adequate finance in the general grant will be made available on the same terms as the previous percentage grant, and insist that the 94 authorities—or whatever is the figure; he will have the exact figure— now paying below the Weaver recommendations can be brought up to the level of those recommendations? In other words, I am asking that all local authorities in England and Wales should adopt the scale recommended by the Weaver Committee.

I realise the dilemma of the hon. Gentleman. Those of us who are keen on a particular piece of educational reform are always anxious about the money side. The Albemarle Committee was particularly concerned about it and tried to persuade the Minister to depart from the principle of block grants. In page 92 of its Report the Committee stated: If it is decided that they ought to undertake more expenditure on this branch of further education or in respect of those facilities, it will be essential for this additional expenditure to be matched by additional general grants. It will be for the Minister to see that this is done, and we should expect the Development Council to advise him about it. If it is found that the development of youth work is being hindered because the general grants cannot be increased during the period for which they operate, we suggest that some separate percentage grants should be introduced in respect of Youth Service expenditure, at least during the ten-year period of development we have recommended. This would not create a precedent, but we realise that it might involve legislation to amend the First Schedule to the Local Government Act, 1958. I ask for the same consideration to be shown to the very bright children who are specially selected and go into grammar schools and who, under the present Regulations, are not getting what is due to them.

During the war we had a lot of wastage in the training of pilots. The "boffins" were put to work and speedily devised methods which eliminated wastage in the training of pilots. Surely we can do the same thing here. Surely we should encourage maintenance allowances on a much more generous scale on the part of local authorities. The Parliamentary Secretary will have a note of a particular case from my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Sylvester), and I hope that he will deal with it this evening. I rather hope also that the parents of children suffering in this way will get on to him if he does not give me a satisfactory answer.

4.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) that I do not dissent from the implication in all his remarks that it is not only desirable in the interests of the child who is a capable scholar that he should stay on at school, but that it is also in the national interest that we design our policies so that children with those qualities should be encouraged and enabled to take advantage of further education.

I pay tribute to the work which, I know, the hon. Gentleman himself has done in this sphere of public service over a long period in very significant ways, and I endorse what he said about his hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King), whose views on this matter are well known and which, very largely, I am very happy and proud to share.

The remarks that the hon. Gentleman has made about the desirability of having adequate maintenance grants are mostly quite capable of being endorsed from this side of the House and from this Dispatch Box, except that I find it rather difficult to associate myself with him when he puts what seems to me to be a party or at any rate a Parliamentary twist to them. This is not at all a case of the Government being reluctant to discharge their duty in this matter. It is not a question of the Government dragging their feet and being unwilling to stand their corner about what they know to be necessary to achieve the desired and agreed national objective; very far from it.

For a very long time there have been various systems of assistance to parents of children who are capable of benefiting from further education, and, as the hon. Gentleman himself reminded the House, they were, I suppose, brought to a head by the Committee which he describes as the Weaver Committee, which considered this matter most recently. It based its recommendations, in its Report of 1956, on the conditions as they were in 1954-55 and it estimated then that, if all the children who ought to have secondary education were to have it made possible for them to enjoy it by maintenance grants of one kind or another, it would cost, on the basis of scales of incomes then being considered, about £3½ million.

Of course, events overtook the Report. From 1954 to 1958–59, the latest figures we have available, incomes have increased enormously, and have thrown out of balance altogether any conception of poverty based on incomes which were defined in 1954–55. The earnings index has increased by 39 points in that period. So, naturally, those who would have come within the scale of incomes fixed in 1954–55 are now well removed from that bracket and cannot benefit and do not need to benefit. I think that we ought, as a House, to be very glad that is so.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the cost of living has gone up in that period, as well.

Mr. Thompson

Yes, of course, but all these factors, both the cost of living and the index of earnings, have moved in a way which has always left the advantage on the side of the earnings index, so that there is bound to be a wasting away of the proportion and the numbers of those who would have qualified for maintenance allowances under any scale at any time previously. That has resulted in the kind of figures which the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has brought to the attention of the House today.

The hon. Member referred the House to a figure of 10,000 for those who have left grammar school education before the age of 16. I do not quarrel with his figures. As far as my information goes, they are approximately right, but he is quite wrong, I am sure, to assume that all or even the majority of those 10,000 left because their parents found it financially difficult or inconvenient to keep them there. There are thousands of reasons why people decide why their children should be withdrawn from further education—removals, internal family considerations of all kinds.

I am sure that there may be some who have been withdrawn from school because the parents feel that they are not prepared to make whatever sacrifices are involved in keeping them there. I am sure that they are wrong in those cases to take them away from school and the nation as a whole is the poorer for that mistaken decision.

I am equally sure, however, that whatever scale of allowances the State were to devise or the local authorities were to agree to pay, there would be still parents who would make that kind of decision. But what we have to do, and what is the duty of those who are interested in education, is to try to create a climate of opinion in which people no longer want to take their children away from school, because the advantages of further education are clear to them all.

I come now to a point where the hon. Member was rather unkind, ungenerous and unfair to the Government. Whether we like the general grant system or not, as opposed to the system of percentage grant that applied before, it is the law of the land and it tosses responsibility firmly Into the court of the local education authorities. It is up to them today to decide whether or not they will pay maintenance grants and the scale at which they will pay them.

I am happy to inform the House that most of the local authorities are either paying the scale recommended in the Report of the Working Party or better. The hon. Member referred to five authorities who fell below that level for reasons that appeared good to them, but the hon. Member is himself a local authority man and I hope that he will not feel that local authorities are not to be trusted to discharge their responsibilities in the way that appears best to them.

But of these, two—Pembrokeshire and Cornwall—are now either improving their scales or have already done so, and in the Scilly Isles, which was one of the five, the pupils there over compulsory school age are boarders and, therefore, the problem does not arise. I understand that Caernarvonshire is also likely to bring this matter under consideration before very long. Therefore, as this is a local authority matter, and the local authorities are quite the best people to know how the shoe pinches in their own areas and with their own people, I am sure that it is best to leave the matter to them.

If any of them behave badly my right hon. Friend has the responsibility to see that the Act is applied and proper educational standards are maintained. I believe that what has been said in the debate will draw attention to this matter, and I very much hope that any authorities who feel that they have pupils who need help will adjust the scales so that they get the kind of extent of help appropriate in their cases.

4.44 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

In the remaining minutes it is quite impossible to pursue this matter very far, but I cannot believe that the Parliamentary Secretary would expect to get away with the proposition that this national responsibility, which the Ministry and the House recognise, of getting the maximum number of children enjoying the full fruits of secondary education is now a local authority responsibility because the House has made it the law.

The Government, who changed the law, are equally able to change it back. This is one aspect of education, among others, that will never be properly dealt with, simply because local authorities with only their rate resources are unable to provide the finance that education demands.

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Member should not let it go from the debate that local education authorities have only their rate resources. That is not so.

Mr. Mulley

It is a fixed grant. If a local authority wants to extend beyond the level of the general grant, the amount in excess has to come wholly from its rate resources. If the hon. Member says that the general grant will be increased for that purpose, that is precisely the proposition that my hon. Friend put to him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Five o'clock.