HC Deb 31 May 1968 vol 765 cc2414-26

3.45 p.m.

Mr. John Hunt (Bromley)

At the end of this rather chaotic and hectic parliamentary week, it is a relief to turn from talk of the Guillotine and filibustering to the more rarefied atmosphere of computers and computer programming schools. I am, therefore, grateful for this opportunity of raising a subject which I have already raised on two previous occasions by means of Questions.

On 1st February this year I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether schools of computer programming are subject to registration or approval by his department ".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st February 1968; Vol. 745, c. 1536.] On 9th May, I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will seek powers to recommend a standard syllabus for computer programming schools with the object of establishing a nationally recognised examination."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th May, 1968; Vol. 764, c. 600.] The hon. Lady the Minister of State, who answered both Questions, and who, I am pleased to see, will reply to the debate this afternoon, failed on both occasions to express herself with her customary clarity. I hope that she will make amends for that when she replies today. In February she told me that her Department had a system of recognition as efficient, and any student has a right to inquire whether an institution is so recognised. In order to be so recognised, institutions must fulfil fairly stringent conditions about the nature of their courses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st February, 1968; Vol. 757, c. 1536.] This gave the impression to me—no doubt inadvertently—that this system of recognition applied to private programming schools as well as to colleges run by local education authorities. This, of course, is not so. But one of the things that I want to know this afternoon is why it cannot be so. Why cannot these independent computer schools be subjected to the same kind of inspection and control as private schools operating in other spheres of education?

Following my Question earlier this month on the possibility of a syllabus and nationally recognised examination for computer schools, the hon. Lady was kind enough to send me the bulletin on computer education which has been prepared jointly by the Department of Education and Science and the Central Office of Information. This contains, as she knows, details of examinations set and administered by such bodies as the City and Guilds Institute and the British Computer Society.

Another question I ask this afternoon is whether these examinations are open to students from the private schools and, if not, why not? Surely nothing would weed out the incompetent and disreputable schools more effectively than an examination which it was subsequently found their students were unable to pass.

Since I first raised this subject earlier in the year, I have received a number of letters from students in various parts of the country who feel—rightly or wrongly —that they have been hoodwinked by some of the less reputable private schools. In many cases they are sad and pathetic letters from men and women who have invested all their savings in these courses, only to find that the certificate which they obtain at the end was virtually worthless to them in securing employment.

Yet the advertisements of some of these schools offer the prospect of jobs at £2,000 a year almost overnight. I have here a copy of one such advertisement issued recently by an American institute which has opened a computer centre in London. It reads: Ninety per cent. of graduates of"— the institute's— ninety colleges in the U.S. and Canada are snapped up on completion of their course". Anybody who knows anything about this knows that that is a grotesque exaggeration. The percentage of placings of most private schools is in the region of 5 or 10 per cent. at the most. Yet this is the sort of misleading advertisement which is appearing ever more frequently in our newspapers and other forms of publicity. It is this sort of misleading advertisement being peddled by certain schools to which I take strong objection.

The brochure of one college states: It is the clerk, school leaver, shop assistant and secretary who train now to become the programmers of tomorrow. There is no mention of the desirability of having at least an A level qualification or similar qualification which many companies, when recruiting, require. I am told that I.C.T. requires at least three A levels or a degree of their trainee programmers.

I believe that private computer school advertising is a growing racket and that the more naive and gullible of our fellow citizens must be protected from the slick operators in this field. We should remember that big money is involved. Most of the schools charge between £100 and £150 for a six-weeks course. Taking as an example a class of 20, this means an income of at least £2,000 from every class every six weeks. Therefore, very substantial sums of money are involved. It is not surprising, with this sort of money at stake, that the aptitude test set by most of the private schools is an utter farce.

Last year, a computer service bureau, Indata Limited, interviewed applicants for posts as trainee programmers, of which 84 were so-called graduates of a number of programming schools. All these applicants were asked to take the I.B.M. programmers' aptitude test. Of the 84 given the test, only one passed. Most of the so-called graduates secured worse marks than the untrained applicants who were also given the test.

In an article in the Financial Times on 24th January, Mr. Jack Amos revealed that he had taken the aptitude test set by two London schools and had passed in the highest category as a person definitely likely to succeed in computer programming. But on subsequently taking the I.B.M. test, he scored only 34 marks out of a possible 88 and was told, "You will never make a computer programmer". Writing in the Daily Telegraph in April, Miss Victoria Brit-tain related a similar experience.

This discloses a most disturbing state of affairs. It shows that students are in many cases being enrolled for courses which are far beyond their capabilities merely for the financial benefit of the schools concerned. By the very nature of their advertisements, promising, as they do, a quick road to top salaries, these schools are often attracting the failures and drop-outs from other walks of life who clutch at a computer course as a way out of their current frustrations. Commonwealth students appear to be another category who are very vulnerable to the advertising blandishments of these schools.

I do not wish for a moment to pretend that all the private computer programming schools are grasping and unscrupulous. That certainly is not so. The tragedy of the present situation is that because of the bad reputation of a number of the schools all are being tarred with the same brush and even students of the reputable schools are finding it increasingly difficult to get jobs on the conclusion of their courses. This is one of the strongest arguments in favour of the proper registration and control of these private schools.

I want to impress upon the Minister the urgency of this problem. The Department of Education and Science has been caught unawares by the tremendous advances in computers in the past five years. It has been slow to respond to the challenge presented by the fact that thousands of additional programmers are required in this country by 1970. If the Government will not give a lead in this field, who on earth will? Unless action is taken quickly the Department of Education and Science will rightly be accused of evading its responsibilities.

The pressing need is for a much closer co-operation between the Department of Education and Science, on the one hand, and local education authorities and private schools, on the other. Local authority courses must be given much wider publicity. The private schools devote huge budgets to their advertising, and it is only right that local authority courses should be given similar publicity. Private schools should be subject to registration as efficient. They should be regularly inspected and there should be one nationally-recognised examination.

If action is taken along these lines we can establish proper standards for computer education and help to ensure that industry secures recruits of the number and calibre it requires. At the same time, we shall prevent the heartbreak and financial loss which is now being suffered by so many commendably ambitious but sadly naive people. For those reasons I earnestly hope that the Minister will be able to offer some positive action this afternoon.

Mr. Speaker

This debate ends at half-past Four. The House has cooperated today. I can call both hon. Members who wish to speak if their speeches are fairly brief.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I want to add only a few words in support of the demands of the hon. Member for Bromley (Mr. Hunt) upon the Minister. As the Minister may know, I had a case similar to those which the hon. Member has outlined. A constituent of mine, in every good faith, applied to take a course at one of these private computer schools and was given one of the aptitude tests which the hon. Member has mentioned. On being told that he had a very good chance of qualifying as a computer programmer he was induced to part with the sum of £230, only to discover, having completed the course, that none of the established computer companies or those who were using computers paid the slightest attention to the training which he had undergone. In fact, they said that it was virtually useless.

What is so shocking about this case is that the computer school in question purported to offer my constituent an aptitude test before he paid over the money, and told him that he was suitable to undergo the type of training that it was offering, and that at the end of it he would be in receipt of the kind of salary which the hon. Member has mentioned.

This is a confidence trick, and the hon. Lady and her Department should take steps to control it. It is no good her telling me—as she or one of her colleagues did in a letter replying to the one that I wrote—that if my constituent had sought advice from the Department of Education and Science before embarking upon this course he would have been told that similar training was available from the local authority and that much better advice on his aptitude and capabilities would have been obtained if he had gone to that source.

We cannot expect private citizens to have that information, especially if, as the hon. Member said, local authorities give no publicity to the computer courses that they offer in computer programming. There is a deficiency here which the hon. Lady should realise.

The House should be concerned not only with the people who have suffered and who have paid over large sums of money; what should also concern us is the general responsibility of the Department of Education and Science to see that scarce resources are not wasted. Presumably these computer schools have people who are qualified computer programmers—I hope that is so, and perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us —but if they were diverted into institutions capable of training people possessing the aptitudes to meet the need, this would be a contribution towards the solution of the shortage to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. loan L. Evans.]

Mr. Lubbock

There is no doubt about the need. Every computer firm to which one talks says that towards the beginning of the 1970s there will be a serious shortfall in the number of computer programmers and systems analysts coming forward to meet the requirements of users and manufacturers. There is no dispute about the absolute demand for an expansion of the facilities that are available. The concern is to ensure that resources in the programme are not wasted and that people do not come forward for training who are totally unsuitable and are not able to get advice at the beginning that they are better suited to other jobs.

If the hon. Lady can do something towards that end—I do not suggest that registration is the only answer—by making proper advice available to school leavers who are being induced to part with large sums of money and, I go so far as to say, defrauded by some of the more disreputable computer schools, the debate will have served a useful purpose.

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Mr. Hunt) upon raising the subject and upon the overwhelming case that he put forward for registration and, about all, a national examination.

In the 'fifties there was constant complaint about the form of contract used by some dancing schools. It would be a grotesque parody of technological progress if the maladministration of some computer schools became a similar educational racket in the 'sixties and early 'seventies.

I wonder whether there are any records of the numbers of civil servants taken on from private computer schools. I am led to ask this because it has recently been suggested that the consumer needs for the proposed new London Post Office telephone directories, with its 36 volumes, were arrived at after the use of computers. I can only assume that those who put the information into the computers had come from some of the less competent of the computer schools.

This is a point of some seriousness. The Minister of Technology in his recent speech at Llandudno looked forward to a new political-technological era in which computers would be used to assess the needs and desires of the public, and he believed that this would increase the happiness of the body politic. I find this a doubtful proposition because I believe that one of the fears of the British people is that, in their dealings with the Government, they will become a mere slot in a computer card and will cease to be treated as human beings.

The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Technology has been responsible for the introduction of all-number telephone dialling and laid the foundations for the introduction of this monstrous reorganisation of the London telephone directories. In face of that sort of thing, the fears of people that they are merely to be looked upon as something to be put into a computer system are justified.

But at least we can hope that those who will put information into computers will be thoroughly competent and the proposals put forward by my hon. Friends for the control and registration of these schools and the introduction of a proper national examination are of national importance.

4.6 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

Despite the tempting offer by the hon. Member for Bromley (Mr. Hunt) on this Whitsun eve to follow him like St. Joan in defence of my right hon. Friends the Minister of Technology and the Postmaster-General, I shall stick to the straight and narrow path of considering the case of private computer schools and I hope that he will acquit me any lack of gallantry in doing so.

I concede a great deal of the case made by the hon. Gentleman, and in initiating this debate he can fairly be described as fulfilling the watchdog rôle of Parliament. I concede, first, that the aptitude tests offered to people who wish to attend private computer schools are in many cases worthless as any effective form of selection. Secondly, I concede that the courses in many cases, although not in all, do not lead to recognised national examination standards and in some cases, although students may take such an examination, the syllabus they follow gives little chance of their getting satisfactorily through it.

Thirdly, I readily concede that a number of students are bitterly disappointed, although it is fair to say that some have been satisfied. Fourthly, I concede that the fees are often high. They may be as high as £150 for a six-week course and therefore there is the temptation to the schools to accept unsatisfactory material because of the large sums of money spent.

Mr. Lubbock

In the case I quoted the fee was £230.

Mrs. Williams

That may be so. The average sort of fee brought to our notice is about £150 for six weeks. I am not saying that this is the highest fee which may be charged.

Having conceded so much of the case, there are several matters I want to try and clarify. First, what alternatives exist? Quite fairly, the hon. Gentleman said that many alternatives were open to students wishing to study for computer courses. There has been a rapid expansion in the number of courses at colleges of further education, technical colleges and at higher levels in the past two years.

Not only the Department of Education and Science but the Youth Employment Service, technical colleges, local authority further education advisers and the British Computer Society are all willing to give advice to would-be pursuers of studies; in computer programming systems, analysis and the like. Therefore, there is a considerable network of ad- vice, although I concede that the network is not backed by as much publicity as applies in the case of the private computer schools.

There is, as I have already said, a wide range of courses following recognised examinations open to the would-be student. One of the points which the hon. Member for Bromley has made, both in Questions and in this debate has been met, namely, there is a Co-ordinating Committee for Examinations in Computer Studies which is drawing together the demand for computer studies, is allocating courses among its constituent members, and is trying to establish nationally recognised examinations. It cannot lay down a requirement that every school needs to follow syllabuses leading to these examination standards. We hope that this body, by setting nationally recognised examination standards, will gradually, like good money, drive out the bad; but we cannot give any absolute guarantee that this will happen.

Only in the last few months the Engineering Industry Training Board has set up a sub-committee—the Computer Training Policy Committee—which has representation from my Department, from the major computer manufacturers, from the National Computer Centre, and from the new examining body, the Coordinating Committee for Examinations in Computer Studies. It is hoped that in the field of training the Engineering Industry Training Board's sub-committee will be able to establish clear syllabuses for courses of training for those, employed in the computer field.

So much for the alternatives. It will be helpful if Members of Parliament whose constituents ask for their advice can bring to their attention as far as possible the fact that there are these alternatives and that, in almost all cases, they cost much less and offer a higher quality of training than the very expensive private courses do. I will look into the question whether more publicity can be brought to bear. We have increased our expenditure on publicity, but I am well aware that there is much more to be done if we are to bring to the attention of students the fact that these alternatives exist.

I come now to the question raised by the hon. Member for Bromley of the ways in which the private computer schools might be controlled. I will first point out exactly what our powers are. A private school serving students of more than the statutory leaving age—that is, more than 15—and only such students which is the case, as far as I know, with all these private schools—cannot be obliged under present legislation to register with the Department of Education and Science. It may, if it wishes, apply for recognition as efficient, just as an independent school may so apply.

Recognition as efficient is not a legal requirement on any institution in further education. It is a mark of the acceptance by the Department of a certain standard being achieved in accommodation, training, qualifications, and of satisfactorily carrying out the work done within the institution. So any of these institutions may apply for recognition as efficient. One of the institutions—I think the largest; namely, the Fich Institute—has now applied for recognition as efficient.

There are two difficulties. First, there is a genuine question of definition. Does such a school constitute a training establishment or an education establishment? In terms of its courses, it may be a little difficult to define it as an educational establishment. If it is defined as a training establishment, recognition as efficient does not apply to it. However, we in the Department are prepared to make our rules as elastic as possible to enable us to apply the tests of recognition as efficient to this school to see whether it satisfies that standard. We hope that by encouraging these schools to apply for recognition as efficient—I again make it clear that legally that is all that we can do at present—we will be able to indicate those that are so recognised, and which can be genuinely entered by students who are concerned to have a serious course, and those which we could not so recognise.

Again, I would say, as it were to the public at large, and schools in particular, that we hope, if they are doing a good job, and certainly one or two are, that they will apply for recognition as efficient. Beyond that we cannot go. We cannot force them to register, there is no legal power to do so. We could bring legislation before the House, but we must admit that such legislation would have to cover a very much wider range of situa- tions than merely the computer schools. It would be inappropriate, and very difficult, to draft a law which simply covered this group of institutions. This therefore raises the very much wider question of caveat emptor in the whole of the educational sphere.

Mr. Lubbock

May I make a suggestion? I appreciate the difficulties that the hon. Lady has mentioned, but will she at least send a circular to the headmasters of all secondary schools, drawing their attention to this problem, and asking them to make the advice that she has given this afternoon available to anyone who might be considering these courses?

Mrs. Williams

We have done just this, not in respect of the headmasters, but in respect of the local authorities and the technical colleges, by sending out a booklet which we have just produced on the availability of computer courses.

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to go further and say which of the private institutions that we feel deserve support and which do not, we cannot do that unless and until the "recognition as efficient" procedure has been gone through. We would then be prepared to indicate if we can recognise one of these institutions, or any of them, as efficient that we have done so. It is quite common for such institutions to publicise this fact themselves on their own literature.

My last point is that there is a very genuine difficulty of principle about this. There is a limit, though I feel rather strange saying this as a Labour Minister to two Conservatives and one Liberal Member of Parliament, to how far one can go in protecting adults against the advertising of various institutions and bodies. Clearly one wants to indicate, as far as one can, what alternatives are available and which of these institutions one can accept.

It is not possible for any Government of anything less than a 100 per cent. paternalistic or authoritarian variety totally to protect would-be adult students against what may be institutions that are not fully up to standard. All that we can do is what the hon. Gentleman has done, namely, to raise the matter and give it the fullest publicity. As a Department we can bring to the widest attention the merits of other alternative courses and show, as I am this afternoon and as the hon. Gentleman has done, that many of these courses lead to no recognised qualifications whatever, that they are not a guarantee of employment, and that computer manufacturers will always advise on the courses that are acceptable to them.

I hope that the setting up of the Coordinating Committee on Computer Examinations and courses and the establishment of the Computer Training Policy Sub-Committee of the E.I.T.B., both of which are new developments, and finally the publication of the Department's booklet, now generally available, will do something to educate citizens about the position. It is true that in any area growing as fast as this, some people will try to get in on the ground floor. We hope that we can indicate much more widely than we have yet done which are worthwhile and which are not.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Four o'clock, till Tuesday, 11th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 16th May.