HC Deb 24 April 1963 vol 676 cc377-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

10.33 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I want to raise one aspect of our provisions in respect of teacher training grants. I am anxious to bring home to the House the fact that some of these provisions make nonsense of the Government's claim that they want to increase the supply of teachers as quickly as possible. I never realised how absurd some of these provisions were until a case arose in my constituency. Like everyone else, I thought that we were short of about 100,000 teachers, and that the Government were leaving no stone unturned to increase the supply as quickly as possible.

Then, a short while ago—last January, to be exact—I received a letter from a young Blackburn mother, Mrs. Dinnis, who wrote to me without her husband's knowledge to say that her husband, at the age of 21, had embarked on a three-year teachers' training course last September, and that as a result she, her husband, and a small baby were having to live on £6 10s. a week, and would have to go on doing so for the next three years.

This grant is appropriate to a student who is considered to be not a married man with a family but someone still dependent on his parents. Mrs. Dinnis wrote to the Blackburn education officer, Mr. Hartley, and asked whether this provision was in order. He replied pointing out that her husband was not over 25 years of age and had not been supporting himself for more than 21 months before he decided to take up his teacher's training. He was classed as dependent upon his parents for the purposes of grant and was not eligible for a grant for his wife and child, even though his parents are not contributing anything to his support, even though he has been earning his own living for nearly two years, and even though he has a wife and young baby.

When Mrs. Dinnis wrote to me I just could not believe that these facts could be correct. She puts a point of view very simply and movingly which I believe is echoed by hundreds of students in similar circumstances: We are repeatedly being told in advertisements etc. put out by the Government"— she wrote— that teachers are urgently required, but I am very much afraid that my husband will not be able to complete his training as I cannot possibly see how we can manage to live off this grant. I ask for no luxuries, only that we should have enough money for the bare necessities and to give our 11-month old baby a good start in life in the way of nourishing food and warm clothes. If it were possible, I myself would go to work, although I dearly want to took after my baby and myself, but both my own and my husband's parents and relatives live some distance from Blackburn, so this is impossible. To add to our pecuniary plight, my husband received a letter from Blackburn education authority last week informing him that he would have to pay the first £10 of his travelling expenses, which amount to 18s. 4d. per week. It was with considerable confidence, therefore, that I wrote to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education, who I am glad to see here tonight, and put his case before him. I asked whether he would see that Mr. Dinnis was able to maintain his wife and child. But the Parliamentary Secretary, in his letter to me on 22nd January, merely confirmed that many students may only be regarded as independent of their parents if they are over 25 years of age when they begin their studies or if they have supported themselves for at least three years out of their earnings. A married student who does not satisfy one or other of these conditions is not regarded as independent and no grants are payable on behalf of his wife or children. … We do our best to make clear to all students before they begin their training the conditions under which they receive assistance during their courses and there is nothing to prevent a student like Mr. Dinnis who does not qualify for independent status and grants for his wife and child from postponing entry to college until such time as he is able to meet the requirements. That is an absolutely astonishing attitude of the Ministry to take at the very time when every independent body, every Government report, every Royal Commission and Committee is stressing the need for us to have rapid and immediate expansion in our educational provision. Only last week we had another one in the second report of the N.E.D.C. stressing the value of education as part of the policy of growth economically, let alone as part of the cultural life of the community.

We know that we are desperately short of teachers. That is the argument used by the Government as to why they cannot reduce the size of classes and make other improvements. Yet I am solemnly told, when there is a capable and eligible young man in my constituency, who has been selected by the Charley Day Training College for a three-year training course, that he should be advised to give up his teacher's training and to do some other job for four years in the calm assumption that at the end of that time he will be willing to start again as a student, possibly with a reduction in his standard of life which that might entail. The Parliamentary Secretary surely does not for a moment believe that that is the answer to the problem of such people. I know that he does not believe it; he is far too intelligent and too interested in education to believe it. Such an attitude, in fact, indicates a remoteness by the Ministry from the realities of current social life.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will quote the Anderson Committee, but he cannot shelter behind that Committee, because the Government have carefully picked and chosen what they will take from that Committee's Report. They have accepted some recommendations and have not accepted others. I believe that the Anderson Committee recommended the abolition of means tests for students, but the Government turned that down. They used their own judgment in taking from the Anderson Committee's Report what they wanted. I therefore hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not give me that answer, because it is not an honest answer, as he knows.

The Government must take responsibility for a situation in which the Ministry say to a young man who is keen to take up teaching as a career, "If you want to qualify for independent status you must leave school early enough to support yourself for three years before taking up teacher training"—in other words, encouraging young men to leave school early, "or you must not marry while you are in training or you must not start training until you are over 25." None of these facts is compatible with the present situation or with a policy of the expansion of our teaching services.

We ought to be doing the opposite of all these things. We ought to encourage these students to stay at school before going into teacher-training. Surely we should allow them to try another career first, if they want to do so, until they make up their minds that teaching is the vocation for them and the vocation for which they are most fitted and on which they are mast keen. Finally, we should recognise that today people marry very early. They marry as students. Certainly, many of them marry before they are 21. Therefore, we should not penalise them in any way for having married at that age. Many times from this side of the House we have pointed out the folly of such regulations as these. We have urged the Government to change it. The National Union of Students has made strong representations to us and, I believe, to the Ministry.

When I raised this matter at Question Time on 14th February the Parliamentary Secretary said that he would certainly undertake to look at the subject again. I hope that tonight he will say that he has done so and that good potential teaching material of this sort will no longer be discouraged in this way. It is not humane to face this young family with the choice of either the young mother having to go on struggling to bring up one child on less than £6 10s. a week, when travelling expenses are deducted, or being prevented from having more children because of the smallness of the income.

It is grossly inhumane to expect her to struggle on in this way or for her husband, who has set his heart on a teaching career, to have to give up that career because the Ministry insists that he must live like a single man. I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will give me and Mr. Dinnis some hope tonight.

11.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

I welcome this opportunity which the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) has offered tonight briefly to consider some of the implications of our present regulations as they concern grants to students at teacher training colleges.

I share the hon. Lady's enthusiasm to see as many students as possible coming into the teacher training colleges. She will know that my right hon. Friend is at the moment in the middle of an ex- pansion of these colleges, an expansion that will, in the space of twelve years, effect a trebling of the numbers in training. At present there are more applications for teacher training colleges than we have places, but I entirely agree with her that we want to ensure that these colleges are as attractive to young people as we can make them; and we must treat most seriously a case such as that of Mr. Dinnis which she has drawn to the attention of the House.

I readily appreciate the anxiety and concern the hon. Lady feels for this couple and the situation in which they find themselves. It was never considered that the recently issued Awards Regulations should embody the Minister's final word on this subject. It was always the intention that these arrangements should be reconsidered at the end of one full year's experience.

Teacher training grants form part of the much wider system of grants and awards as a whole and the arrangements approved by the Minister in the main circular, No. 7/62, are closely linked with the Awards Regulations. They cannot, therefore, be dealt with in isolation. The arrangements, which were introduced with effect from September, 1962, represented a considerable improvement in students' grants and were estimated to cost an additional £5 million in the first year. It has become clear, both in the course of administering the arrangements and in the debate on the Awards Regulations which took place in November last year that the general level of grants is now fairly widely considered to be reasonably generous.

The criticisms have been on certain particular aspects of the arrangements as they affect limited groups of students, and the criticism that the hon. Lady makes tonight is clearly in that category. It is in just such cases that I hope the review we are to hold this autumn will be helpful. We have always considered that a general review of the new arrangements should be undertaken after they have been in operation for a complete year and we propose to do this in consultation with the local authority associations.

I informed the hon. Lady in the House that I would very carefully consider the narrow point she put to me then and which she has repeated tonight. This has been given careful consideration. We cannot change the regulations in advance of the promised review, but I undertake that if this is considered by the local authority associations to be an amendment that is required in the light of the experience they have had we would be prepared very carefully to consider it.

Letters are, in fact, going out this week to all the local authority associations inviting comments and proposals about the working of the grant arrangements and suggesting a meeting later this year. Already, a number of points have been raised, which will be considered at that stage, and it may also, as I have said, be appropriate then to consider the situation of students who, though technically dependent on their parents, themselves have dependants.

May I briefly outline the present arrangements by which my right hon. Friend and the local education authorities are bound? Students attending training colleges receive free tuition and maintenance grants during each academic year. For resident students there are free board and lodgings during term time and a grant of £133; day students not living in their parents' home receive £355 in London and £325 elsewhere. These figures are directly related to the amounts payable to university students and take into account the longer training college year. They include various sums for necessary travel, books and equipment, and towards the cost of maintenance during vacations.

A parental contribution is payable on the basis of an income scale except in the case of independent students, who are, as the hon. Lady has reminded the House, those who are over the age of 25 on 31st August of the year in which they begin their course, or those who have regularly supported themselves out of their earnings for three years before that date, or thirdly, in the case of women students, those who are over 21 and were married before application for admission to a course of training.

Dependants' grants are payable to independent students thus defined, and there are a number of other grants, including grants for those who live in two homes, and additional grants to students over the age of 25, to which I need not draw attention tonight.

I think that the hon. Lady will agree that it is desirable to make regulations, and that this is not a matter that should be left to the totally free discretion of local education authorities because that means a difference in arrangements between the different areas, which probably is not acceptable. But if we have regulations, then, clearly, we have got to draw the line somewhere. It is quite apparent that for Mr. Dinnis the line is drawn in an unhappy place, but, wherever it is drawn, somebody is going to fall just outside. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will be prepared to concede at least that regulations of some kind are needed and that these regulations are by their very nature bound to cause anxiety to some.

This age limit of 25 which has been considered very carefully—it has been attacked from time to time in the House—is one of long standing. I do not shelter behind the Anderson Committee. Of course, it is the Government's responsibility. But the Anderson Committee, composed of people with experience, did consider this matter very carefully in 1960 and came to the conclusion that there was no reason to change this age of 25. The Standing Advisory Committee, in its review of grants, did not question it, nor did the local authority associations when the award regulations, circulars, and so on, were being discussed with them. It applies to all students except postgraduate students on courses of advanced studies who have been awarded State studentships or D.S.I.R. studentships. These are automatically accorded independent status.

If it were decided to lower the age limit for independent status, the most obvious age to adopt would be 21 and there have been a good many requests for this. I am not entirely sure whether even so large an alteration as that would help Mr. Dinnis. If the age were lowered to 21, the cost would be £½ million over the field of grants as a whole, about £350,000 of it in training colleges alone. It would, of course, benefit a comparatively small sector of the student population. It is questionable whether, if this additional money were available, it should be spent in this way.

A compromise solution, which has been put forward by a number of people, would be to reduce the age limit to 23. This would cost only £150,000, but it would help an even smaller number of students and would almost certainly be followed by pressure to make a further reduction to 21. The qualifications for independent status below the age of 25 were slightly amended by the Anderson Committee and those amendments were accepted by the Government. Previously, a student who had supported himself for two years could qualify provided that he were over the age of 21. The Committee thought that the lower age limit should be removed, but that two years was an insufficient period, and substituted three years.

The dependants' grants are restricted to independent students. There is at least some clear logic in this, since one person can hardly be dependent on another who is himself dependent upon a third. It was argued in the debate on the awards regulations that grants for dependent wives and children should be payable to dependent students, but the Minister repeated the view, which had been advanced by a number of his predecessors, that a student should not, as it were, be able to marry during his course at the taxpayer's expense. One may argue about this. The Anderson Committee also considered that marriage in itself was not a ground for waiving the parental contribution.

As to students who marry after the beginning of their course, we have always made it clear to them beforehand that they cannot expect help from public funds. Hardship may, possibly, arise in cases where a student is already married and his wife is able to work but subsequently has to give up work when she is having a child. This may be the case in this instance.

Possibly, some discretionary power might be conferred upon authorities to pay a dependant's grant up to an agreed limit in cases of that kind where hardship is proved. This, also, is a point which will be considered in the course of the review to which I have referred. Alternatively, it might be argued that dependants' grants should be payable as soon as there is a dependant to be provided for whether or not the marriage takes place before the beginning of the course.

There may be merit in such proposals provided, perhaps, that dependants' grants continue to be tied to indepependent status. It is already the practice to pay wives' and children's grants to State students as soon as they reach the age of 25. It is estimated that the cost of this latter suggestion might be approximately £110,000. I hope that from what I have said, the hon. Lady will appreciate that there are quite substantial sums involved in any of these amendments, small as they may seem. Under the present regulations I cannot, therefore, I regret, hold out any hope of a dependant's grant for the hon. Lady's constituent at this moment.

All I can do is point, first, to one rather small discretionary power which is given to local education authorities and which enables them to pay to any student an extra grant of £2 a week for up to 12 weeks of the vacation period if he can show financial hardship. Secondly, I would repeat the assurance which I have given that these arrangements are to be the subject of a review, and that the points which the hon. Lady has made will be taken into careful consideration. If local education authorities have found that during the preceding twelve months the circular and the Regulations have proved defective either in this respect or in any way we shall be willing then to study very carefully their representations.

Mrs. Castle

While thanking the hon. Gentleman for the promised review, and hoping that it will help to solve the particular problem I have brought to his attention, may I ask him whether, in the interim period, the local authorities could be authorised, and advised by the Minister that they are so authorised, to make discretionary payments of the kind he has mentioned in cases of hardship over a rather wider field?

Mr. Chataway

I am not able to give that undertaking to the hon. Lady. The grants which are at present payable and the powers given to local education authorities stem from regulations which are less than a year old. It was made clear at that time that they would have to run a year before they could be properly reviewed, and I think that that was a reasonable provision, because one can hardly judge how the regulations are likely to work in under twelve months, in which one has three terms and three whole vacations. I regret, therefore, that I think it unlikely that my right lion. Friend would be able to make any dispensation of that kind at this time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Twelve o'clock.