HC Deb 19 December 1969 vol 793 cc1786-98

1.19 p.m.

Mr. James Boyden (Bishop Auckland)

Adult education is discussed far too seldom in this House. Normally, when it is, the House is practically empty, as it is today. However, I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this subject, no doubt partly to redress the balance. I am sure that I shall receive a sympathetic answer to my points. I think that we need a new formula, that, owing to the sympathetic nature of my hon. Friend's answer, I beg to raise the matter on the Adjournment, so that we can discuss it more fully and get more precision on it. That is the reason for my raising it today.

I am glad to see that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) is present. I want to pay tribute to him for what he has done for adult colleges. I supported his action when he was at the Ministry of Education in calling for the development plans of the residential colleges and making the first capital grants to them. I know that the colleges are grateful, as I am. I hope that he will forgive me if I say that I think that I assisted by pushing from behind. However, he was very ready to be pushed.

As a result of the development plans the residential adult colleges received a 50 per cent. grant for their capital development and they have to find the other 50 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman knows that I always wanted them to have a higher percentage of grant, but the main achievement was to obtain a grant and to introduce a new principle of Government grant-aid for capital development. Practically all the developments except in the case of Plater College are now completed. About £500,000 of public money and another £500,000 of voluntary money has gone into these colleges. The loan services on the voluntary money has caused a great strain on the resources of the adult residential colleges. In no other field of higher education is there such a low capital grant from the Government. Universities obtain a grant of 90 per cent. and voluntary colleges of education obtain a grant of 75 per cent. It is absurd—I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman for this—that the really voluntary colleges, struggling in a very difficult field, receive the lowest capital grant.

My hon. Friend may say that she is waiting for the report of the Russell Committee but she should have in mind that when the proposals for the development of residential colleges are put forward—and I shall put forward some today—her Department should seriously consider an increase in the proportion and and not wait for Russell before getting the preliminaries done. I find it inconceivable that the Russell Committee will report that the residential adult colleges should be done away with and not expanded. For many years I served with Sir Lionel Russell on the Fircroft Board of Governors, and I know that it would not be in his nature to be on any committee which made that recommendation. I therefore ask my right lion Friend to do some preliminary planning so that when the Russell Committee reports, recommending an expansion of adult residential colleges—as I am sure it will—her Department will be ready.

There will be two stages of development. The colleges still need to be modernised. The moderate building plans that have gone forward were to increase their capacity to a modest extent, in order to give them the bare necessities to cope with their job. What is required now is a modernisation, with study-bedrooms, better common rooms, better equipment, better furniture, better sports facilities and all the other things that people demand in these days. It is only right that adult students should have them.

I look forward during my time in this House to a considerable expansion of adult colleges. Some of the existing colleges can expand. When I was a governor, Fircroft was not particularly anxious to become too big, and I appreciate that there is an argument that the size of colleges should not become so big as to destroy the intimacy and effectiveness of their work. Nevertheless, some can expand and there is a need for other colleges. I have indicated the need for a college in the north on many occasions, and I believe that the right hon. Member supported my argument in his day. This matter needs looking into with a great deal of energy. People make the quite false argument that there is not a demand from adults these days. Looking at the past years one sees that there is still a great reservoir of people to come forward. The system of educational selection is still inadequate, so that many thousands fall through the net. Apart from that, on their own merits there is a clear case for more residential college places.

The situation today is almost one of chaos. There is a real possibility that Hillcroft will have to close. In 1969 it began the session wth 10 vacant places. I have a dossier here which I can send to my hon. Friend concerning 43 local education authorities which have not made grants to students accepted by the colleges. Therefore, presumably, if this situation is not remedied there is a danger that there will be 43 vacancies caused by this failure. This is quite absurd.

My hon. Friend should beware the Public Accounts Committee. It is wrong that Government money should be expended in an effort to expand residential colleges while places have been left vacant and may continue to be vacant in the next year if action is not taken. If I cannot frighten my hon. Friend perhaps I can frighten her Permanent Secretary, because this is just the sort of thing that the Public Accounts Committee would probe very deeply.

The same position applies, to a lesser degree at Ruskin College and Fircroft College. Ruskin College overcame the difficulty in 1969 by using its private resources and waiving fees for some students, but I remind my hon. Friend that adult colleges are in a far worse position than any other institutions of higher education. The Robbins Committee recommended that the percentage of fees going into the revenue of a university or other higher education institution, such as an adult college, should be 20 per cent. In the case of Ruskin College it is nearly 35 per cent. so that it is quite absurd that the college should "carry" students for whom local education authorities ought to be responsible.

In the five years from 1957 to 1962 the universities raised only 9 per cent. of their income from fees. Here again is another burden on residential adult colleges which I hope my hon. Friend will do something about. She might consider increasing the percentage of the annual grant for the current year or for next year, until the Russell Committee makes firm recommendations, in order to help the colleges over these difficulties.

I made a certain amount of political capital here. There is undoubtedly a Tory L.E.A. squeeze. The same Tory authorities are putting adult grants at the bottom of the list in quite arbitrary ways. I have already mentioned in the House that one local authority is not giving grants to anybody unless he is over 30 years of age, while the authority next door is not giving grants to anybody unless he is under 25 years of age. Some local authorities are demanding professional social qualifications, saying that the residential colleges exist to train professional social workers. Others say that if the student has done this and obtained a qualification then the L.E.A. will not give another grant. Coming to Ruskin or Hillcroft, perhaps the worst local education authorities have been those demanding G.E.C. qualifications, because it is quite ridiculous for a local authority to demand G.E.C. qualifications for an adult education college. Any chief education officer who permits his office to send out a letter to an adult student demanding a G.C.E. qualification ought to be deprived of office on the grounds that he has not the minimum knowledge of the education system.

I ask the Minister to do five things. First, she should send a circular to local education authorities spelling out in simple terms what the colleges are and pointing out that her Department fully support them and explaining how the grants should be made. She may recall the days of what I call the "Anderson" Standing Committee which decided this area of grant.

Secondly, she should increase the number of mature State scholarships. She does not need powers to do this; she needs only the money. In this year or perhaps next year State mature scholarships could be used as a stop-gap until a permanent solution is found to this problem. I can send her particulars of the defaulting local education authorities concerned. Perhaps she will then write to them. There are 43 in respect of adult colleges and four in respect of universities. This means that there are 47 defaulting local authorities, and I ask here to see whether she can use her charm to persuade these authorities to see the error of their ways.

Fourthly, this is a crisis and I am not a person to cry wolf in this House when there is not a wolf around. But on this occasion there is a crisis, and I ask her, while waiting for the Russell Report, to ask the Russell Committee to consider this situation as a matter of urgency and to report back on it. I will accept a confidential report from the Russell Committee to my hon. Friend, without any publicity, so long as I am not put off on the ground that this Committee is looking to the long term and that therefore nothing can be done about the short term. The matter is very urgent.

I know that it is out of order to refer to legislation, but I should like to do so in one sentence. Consideration should be given in the Education Act which is to come before the House to making these grants to students mandatory on local authorities, or alternatively to take them completely from the local authorities and deal with them in the Department of Education and Science. There are arguments on either side but a decision on the matter is urgent.

I suggest that the hon. Lady should visit the residential colleges, starting with Hillcroft. I know that she knows Ruskin. She will find that the situation is as I have described it and will get considerable pleasure out of making the visits.

There is an undoubted permanent and considerable need for residential colleges. I do not argue the case on its intrinsic merits because this is difficult to get over. I am talking in simple crisis terms. But to take the results judged as an academic chief education officer would look at the matter in terms of the contribution to the nation and the success of students, I will give one set of facts from an investigation which was carried out at Ruskin between 1945 and 1954.

One hundred and eighty student careers were studied. Eighty-seven of those had had no secondary education at all, 17 had been only to secondary modern schools. By 1957 a quarter of these, some 49, had successfully completed honours degrees, two-thirds taking seconds or above. There was only one failure. This is a great tribute to the selection methods of the colleges and also to the persistence of the students. One-fifth had taken teachers' qualifications. Therefore, about half this representative sample had gained higher educational qualifications, having started in the position that they had left school at about the minimum standard. In other words, in one or two years they had made up fully for the three or four years which they ought to have spent at grammar school. This is remarkable educational progress.

My own personal experience is that I never had a failure. The students were characteristic genuinely working-class students who had missed the educational boat and were making it up in such a way as to deserve the plaudits of everybody. The characteristic student at the residential college these days is a working man either semi-skilled, unskilled or skilled from a secondary modern school or the victim of economic circumstances at the grammar school who takes further education through the W.E.A. or extramural departments or through the trade union. His age is under 30. The only difference between him and the pre-war type is that these days he is often married. This should be taken full recognition of in any new development, but I will wait for Russell on this matter.

One of the keys for success at the college is the partner of the person concerned. The wife, or husband if we are talking about Hillcroft, has as much to put up with as has the student. The college pattern of development is very rapid. Progress is faster than in almost any other sector of the educational system. For this subsequent career the ex-student will have more demanding work, with a more satisfying and more effective rôle to be played in the nation's affairs and, either in paid or voluntary work, will make a better contribution to the country. This matter needs considerable attention immediately to get over the present crisis and set the future pattern right.

1.35 p.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) for his reference to me in the early part of his speech. As he said, the one thing I was able to do in 1964 was to get a building programme in the long term for residential adult colleges. It will probably be found when the history of the Department comes to be written that it was the last administrative decision ever to be taken under the old Ministry, a matter of days before I was succeeded by the First Secretary of State.

One cannot deny that the long-term adult residential colleges are a high-cost part of our adult educational system. This needs to be said and is true. At the same time I am clear in my mind as to the importance of these colleges. I have visited a number of them.

First of all, they provide a second chance for members of the community who have been allowed to write themselves off below their true potential. At these colleges one meets considerable numbers of students from wage-earning families who have never previously thought of higher education in terms of themselves. They perhaps have left school at an early age, many have been to secondary modern school, and I have no doubt that for such people the longterm adult residential college meets a special need.

When one visits these colleges one finds a high standard of work and discussion. I have on several occasions visited Fir-croft in Birmingham and as recently as last Whitsun Recess I visited the college at Coleg Harlech in Wales. In case it should be thought that my own views are in the minority, I know that, were my noble Friend, Lord Harlech, in this House and not in the other place, he would strongly support all I am saying. He shares my enthusiasm about Coleg Harlech. I am always impressed with the quality of discussion and questioning, and the evidence of wide, thoughtful and critical reading by many students at these colleges.

One particular reason why I regret the critical situation at Hillcroft is that it is a college for women. In my view there is still a very long way to go in our society before we can say that women are keeping up with their potential abilities and taking advantage of opportunities to the same extent as are the men. If John Stuart Mill were to come back to life today with a new edition of his book on the subjection of women it would not be the same book, but it would not be anything like 100 per cent. different even a hundred years afterwards.

Let us remember that it was in this decade when I was Minister that five of the best-known girls' grammar schools had proper chemistry and physics provision for the first time in their building programmes. This is what I have in mind when I consider the adult colleges like Hillcroft and the rôle they can play. These colleges are in considerable difficulty at the present time. It is not too much to talk of a critical situation, and part of the difficulty is caused by the heavy burden of capital costs. Difficulty undoubtedly is caused by the policy of local education authorities on the question of grants and awards.

I would add one discordant note. I feel that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland was a little rough in talking about the Tory squeeze on the local education authorities without reminding the House of the squeeze by the Government on L.E.As. Do not let us be under any illusion at present over the great financial problems faced by many education authorities, particularly in their dealings with their finance committees when there is rigid system of the rate support grant at a time of rapidly rising costs. One must riot forget the very real problems which race any authority today, whatever its political colour. The county authorities cannot be accused by the Government of being reactionary over such matters as secondary school reorganisation, and it is often these authorities which have the greatest difficulties over finance

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the suggestion that the students should all have G.C.E. qualifications seems to show ignorance of the whole purpose of these colleges. I am distressed when I hear a local authority say, "We dare not give this man or that woman a grant, because there is a terrible possibility that he or she might subsequently get a university place and then we will have to support them for a number of years later on." Those fears, which sometimes are in the minds of local authorities, are quite unworthy of them. I hope that the hon. Lady will consider what has been suggested about mature State scholarships. What I hope even more is that she will say that she recognises that these are discretionary awards but that, none the less, the gap in the handling of awards by local authorities has got dangerously wide and that she will give encouragement to all authorities to come up to the standard of the best.

These are, of course, discretionary and not mandatory awards, and I recognise that the boundary line in 1962 was dictated very much more by the interests of the Treasury, where I was then a junior Minister, than by intrinsic educational arguments in some cases. But let us remember that, however much we talk about the difference between mandatory and discretionary awards, the whole of our educational system as far as schools are concerned is largely based on discretion and discretionary powers. That is to say, over the whole range of our system, the basis of which is a partnership between Government and the local authorities, a great many of the powers and duties are to some extent discretionary.

Always one has to recognise the role of the Department in giving encouragement, in urging on and attaching greater importance to one thing as opposed to another from time to time. I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to make a sufficiently encouraging speech as to make it easier for those people in local authorities who, whatever their party, wish to be more generous to adult education, to press the case for this important category of student to be treated in a fairer way over the whole country.

1.42 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Joan Lestor)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) raised this subject and I agree to a great extent with what he has said. I also agree with the broad general statement made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), particularly in relation to women. I think that we are still in a state in which women who are successful, particularly in a man's world, are told that they have the mind of a man, and this, of course, is an admission that women have not yet been given the same opportunities as men.

I can tell my hon. Friend that, before any pressure had been put upon me, I had already arranged to visit Hillcroft, and while I will take it upon myself to discuss what he has referred to as a very urgent situation there, I must add that I have not been informed and have no reason to believe that the college is likely to shut. I would be glad to have the information my hon. Friend promised me. I have also had discussion with officials in my Department on the possibility of visiting other colleges during the next few months. I hope to make these visits and to be able to discuss with those concerned during them the problems they are facing.

Like most right hon. and hon. Members concerned with education, I admire the way in which these colleges, starting with Ruskin College in 1899, have provided facilities in which people who have lacked the advantage of extensive formal academic education have been able to undertake serious studies in a community specially designed to help them, and if it is true that, by the action of local authorities, people for whom these places were specially designed are not being catered for, then we should certainly look at the situation.

Local education authority grants were the subject of a Question by my hon. Friend on 11th December, and it was explained then that, in a circular of April, 1966, the local education authorities were advised on the use of their discretionary powers to make awards, and the Secretary of State expressed the hope that all authorities would be prepared to make awards at uniform rates to suitable students, undertaking courses of a year or more at the adult residential colleges.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State cannot override the exercise of this discretion. Many local education authorities are prepared to assist students at adult residential colleges in spite of their real financial difficulties. I hope that all local authorities will note what has been said in the debate by my hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman and what I am going to say, and will look at their policies in that light. May I remind my hon. Friend also that, on 11th December, he asked that a revised circular should go out if possible. I am pleased to tell him that this is to be prepared and special attention will be given to the question of qualifications and the way in which students are picked and given awards. I am given to understand that, although one authority puts an age limit for its grants, it is prepared to make exceptions in particular circumstances. The question of the G.C.E. is for the local education authorities.

I hope that we can enlarge on all this in the circular and that the local authorities will take note of what has been said in the debate and bear in mind that the colleges were designed for a certain purpose and that we do not want to raise standards too high or otherwise make it too difficult for those who ought to benefit from them. We do not want to see anyone who has not had advantages in other ways being crowded out or unable to take advantage of this facility because of difficulties placed in their way.

The recurrent grants paid by the Department have increased in total from £34,000 in 1959–60, representing 35 per cent. of the colleges' total expenditure to £161,000 in 1968–69, amounting to 53 per cent. of that expenditure. This is a generous increase in these difficult times. I accept, however, that, in a sense, these colleges have been one of the poor relations of adult education as a whole.

I cannot promise any immediate action but I can say that I am personally very interested and concerned about this subject. I am bound, however, as we all know, by the financial difficulties we are facing. As my hon. Friend said, the Department pays 50 per cent. grant towards the capital cost of extending accommodation by colleges, and to this extent, therefore, we are providing new places in which local education authorities are able to support students. I promise that we shall watch the position. My hon. Friend knows that the possibility of raising the percentage of the D.E.S. capital grant to the residential colleges has been carefully considered. The colleges have never been led to expect grants of more than 50 per cent. of the cost of their capital investment and have all planned on that basis, At the moment, I am afraid that that situation must stand, although I am aware of and have taken the point about the pressure being put on us to look at this matter again.

On the question of the Russell Committee, I fear that my hon. Friend and I may be parting company. The Russell Committee is looking at the whole question and we must get the rôle of the colleges reassessed. This cannot be done, in my view, without looking at the whole question of adult education. We cannot isolate one particular aspect of it. The Russell Committee is an independent body. It would be premature to make any changes in arrangements for courses at adult residential colleges in advance of the Committee's recommendations.

I accept that these are early days yet in the discussions of the Committee and that it may be some considerable time before we get its detailed report and recommendations. Regretfully, I must say that it would be unwise to promise that any preliminary planning can be done until the report is available. I stress that I will take the opportunity to visit the colleges and discuss at first hand some of the problems which will face them and us when the Russell recommendations are made.

Mr. Boyden

Is my hon. Friend rejecting out of hand my request that she should ask the Russell Committee to make a confidential interim report to her Department on the subject of residential colleges so that her Department could act with the full backing of the Russell Committee in any action necessary? I well understand the administrative position—that the Department has set up a committee and does not want to interfere with it—but if the Russell Committee is willing, and I have no evidence whether it is or is not, would she at least follow my suggestion?

Miss Lestor

It is a difficult matter. If one applies pressure about one aspect of the subject which the Russell Committee is studying, one is clearly open to pressure on all sorts of other aspects and I must therefore regretfully reject my hon. Friend's suggestion. I am trying to meet him by saying that I will discuss as far as I can the problems of the colleges so that at least in the Department we are informed of the difficulties when the Russell Committee makes its report. I know that it is early days yet and that it will be some time before we get the report, but it would be wrong for me to hold out any hope of acceding to my hon. Friend's request.

I welcome the fact that this matter has been raised in the House, because the subject of adult education and these colleges in particular is one to which we may not give sufficient time and perhaps not sufficient attention because we are involved so much with other aspects of education. Special arrangements are being made and have been made and improved over the years to assist people who lack certain academic qualifications, or who have missed opportunities in the past. This is a matter to which we should direct our attention and about which we should do what we can to make sure that people do not lose opportunities.

I am well aware that good work is being done by the colleges and I know that some face enormous difficulties, some which are not so enormous but which are certainly irritants, and that lack of money is at the bottom of all this. I can only reassert that the circular for which my hon Friend asked will go out and we shall draw attention to these problems in it. I hope that local education authorities will take note of what has been said today, of the concern and interest which hon. Members feel, and their anxiety that advantage should be taken of these courses, and I hope that they will review and make their awards in the light of what has been said.