HC Deb 01 July 1969 vol 786 cc372-83

Question again proposed.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

If the Minister insists on going ahead with the Regulations, has he had regard to the problems and the hardship of parents who are faced with the choice of making a big sacrifice or taking their children away from the schools?

Whenever anything like these Regulations has been brought forward by the Government, they usually back it up by saying that they have made an assessment, inquiry or survey to ascertain the effect. I wonder whether the Government have made any inquiries about the effect which the Regulations will have on the children who are at the schools, who may have enrolled at the age of 8. 9, 10 or 11 some years ago and whose parents now find a substantial increase in the costs. Can the Minister give examples of how fees have risen in the last four years and what effect this will have on fees in future?

It is not, however, for that reason that I must oppose the Regulations. It is because of the effect which they will have on the intake of the schools over the next few years. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South seemed to look on the Regulations with joy because he thought that in some way they might result in finishing or abolishing the schools.

Those of us in the big cities knows that the Regulations will not have that effect. Schools like Hutcheson's, Park and St. Aloysius will always be full, even if they put up the fees to £100 or £200. On the other hand, they will cease to become academically-selective schools and will simply become class-selective schools. They will be schools at which only weathly parents can afford to enrol their children. This will destroy the whole character of the schools and the purpose for which they were set up.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is again allowing the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Dewar) to tempt him out of order into widening the debate. In the Regulations we are discussing certain reductions.

Mr. Taylor

It is a fair point, Mr. Speaker, that that reduction will increase fees. Every increase in fees under the Regulations and the previous Regulations, and which will take place as a result of consistent Government policy, will gradually—admittedly, the Regulations will do it only gradually—reduce the social content of the schools.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is only the present Regulations which we are discussing. I have allowed the hon. Member to refer to the previous Regulations. He cannot speak about anything ahead.

Mr. Taylor

The Minister will, I think, accept that, in however marginal a way, the Regulations will reduce the number of parents who can consider sending their children to schools of this sort. He must be aware that by not increasing the grants that effect will come. Certainly, reducing them will have that effect. Is that really what the Minister is trying to do?

Bearing in mind the arguments which the Minister and some of his colleagues recently put forward on the Education (Scotland) Bill, when he said that fees were wrong because they prevented some parents sending their children to these schools, what is the point of bringing forward Regulations which in another group of schools, in largely the same areas, will have exactly the opposite effect and reduce the social mix in these schools?

The Regulations are part of a move by the Government which is entirely wrong, because they will play their part in making schools which have been built up on a reputation and character of social mix become essentially schools limited to only a number of parents who can afford to send their children to them. The Regulations are entirely wrong for that reason.

There is no point in the Minister trying to hide the precise purpose of the Regulations. They are spiteful little Regulations to have another crack at the selective schools. The Minister is undermining the character and basis of these schools and the character of the children who attend them. He is undermining the system on which these schools have been based and organised. This is a silly, unnecessarily spiteful move, and I hope that the Minister will withdraw these Regulations. I hope that he will give these schools the opportunity of carrying on as they have done in the past, on the basis of a broad social mix, and will not try to bring about not their extinction by death by a thousand cuts—far from it—but a change in the character of these schools. This is what these Regulations will do, and I hope, therefore, that the Minister will withdraw them.

Can the Minister give us some indication of the effect which these Regulations will have on the parents of children who are at these schools now? If the Minister cannot do anything under these Regulations can he do anything to help those children who, as a result of these Regulations, may be faced with having their education broken, and having to change from one school to another at perhaps a very important stage of their education? If the Minister will not do something to help the children who are at these schools now, we can only consider these Regulations as an unnecessarily spiteful crack at these schools and all that they stand for.

10.6 p.m.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

These Regulations should be opposed, and opposed most fiercely, because they are not fair. They are grossly unfair in the way they have been drawn. I say that bearing in mind that because of the current economic situation and all the trials and tribulations it is correct that everybody should bear his part of these trials and tribulations which have been brought on by the Government.

Not by any stretch of the imagination can this calculation of the reductions being made be described as fair. The first reason for my saying that is that these cuts are to take place against a background of steadily rising costs throughout the whole of education, and not least in the costs of running these schools. Costs of everything are rising all the time. Therefore, even if the Minister did not make any cuts, but kept the grant at the level it had been, the effect would still be to put a heavier burden on these schools.

The Minister is proposing substantially to reduce the amount of grant given to these schools. If he tries to make out that what he is doing is on a par with what is being done with the rest of the educational system, let him say which part of the education system is facing a net reduction in the face value of money spent on it this year or next. Let the Minister tell us which secondary school, or primary school, or education authority, is suffering a net reduction in the face value of money spent on education in the years to come.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

It is not we on this side of the House but hon. Gentlemen opposite who are saying that cuts have been made in education expenditure and in the public service. The hon. Gentleman is now asking my hon. Friend to justify statements which hon. Gentlemen opposite are making.

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman is not his usual perspicacious self, because, I am sure inadvertently, he has not understood my point. I was saying that these Regulations will reduce the amount of grant. If that is supposed to be fair to the grant-aided schools compared with schools generally, let the hon. Gentleman tell me which other schools are facing a cut in the money they receive.

Mr. Hannan


Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman says "None". In doing so he proves that these Regulations are unfair. The hon. Gentleman's comment proves that the Minister is taking a harsher line with grant-aided schools than with other schools generally. By proving my point the hon. Gentleman has saved a lot of time, because I shall not now need to develop that further. The Minister can perhaps save a lot of time by telling us whether he agrees with what his hon. Friend has said, and whether he accepts that what his hon. Friend has said shows that these schools are being harder hit than other schools.

Then there is the argument that these cuts are necessary to save money. That is a strange argument from the Government who, just a few weeks ago, were throwing money around, wasting £250,000 on abolishing fee-paying schools. There was no shortage of money then, yet now we are told that it is terribly sad but they have to take £130,000 in grants away from these grant-aided schools. The Minister seems to be a Jekyll and Hyde personality. At one time he has all the money in the world for undesirable changes which no one wants, and then we have this Order, which is desperately parsimonious, taking money from these schools, which no one has suggested are anything but first-class.

It is not good enough for the Minister to sit in St. Andrew's House and do his sums on a piece of paper, unfair though they may be. This kind of decision affects people who must pay the extra fees which will be necessary, and who are already saving the State large sums of money every year by paying a large part of their children's education. If any one of these children was taken away from his school, that would add about £100 to the Minister's budget for education. This is the Minister's problem. He is penalising these people. As these schools provide for a middle section in the educational system, it is these parents, who are getting the education which they happen to want, who will not, in many cases, be able to raise the extra money after these schools are forced by the cuts to become more and more dependent on fees and less on the community. These people will be forced to go into the completely independent sector.

That is why these cuts are unfair. They are unfairly calculated and fall unduly heavily on a section of the population which already suffers great financial burdens in every possible way because of the general economic troubles. That is why the Order should be opposed, because the economic arguments do not begin to hold water. The education argument is very undesirable as well, because it knocks yet another hole in the Scottish education system, which has worked so well for so long and has already been whittled away by the Government, who are now making life more difficult for the grant-aided schools. The Order is economic nonsense and educational eyewash, and that is why it should be opposed.

10.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

I should start with a little of the background to the Order, because the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) raised one or two matters in that connection. It was announced on 23rd October, 1967, by the Secretary of State for Education and Science that the Government had decided to ask the Public Schools Commission to consider the problems of the direct grant schools in England and the grant-aided schools in Scotland, and its terms of reference were accordingly extended.

At the same time, because the grant-aided schools in Scotland have certain characteristics which they do not share with the direct grant schools in England, it was decided to set up a separate Scottish committee, appointed by the Secretary of State, to frame recommendations on the Scottish grant-aided schools. Two members of that committee are also members of the Public Schools Commission—Dr. Faulkner and Mr. Roger Young, who is the headmaster of one of the grant-aided schools concerned, namely, George Watson's in Edinburgh. There are a number of other members of the committee.

I was asked to state the Government's view on the future of grant-aided schools in Scotland. It would be completely improper for me to make any such pronouncement tonight, simply because we have asked this committee of the Public Schools Commission, and the Commission itself, to look into this matter. We expect that the report of the Commission on grant-aided schools and independent day schools may be completed towards the end of this year. However, that is a matter for the Commission and not one within my control.

When the Commission reports, the Government will take a view on the future of grant-aided schools in Scotland, but I do not think that it would be appropriate for me tonight, in view of the work that the Commission is doing—even if it were in order in this debate—to say anything more about the long-term future of grant-aided schools.

Subsequent to the announcement that the schools were being referred to the Commission, it was announced on 5th December, 1967, that the Government had decided to impose a ceiling on the grant pending the recommendations of the Commission. The ceiling was put at the level of the estimated grant for the schools' financial year 1967–68. On 17th January, 1968, when the Prime Minister announced considerable savings in public expenditure, there were included in those savings reductions in the grant to the direct grant schools in England and the grant-aided schools in Scotland. The reductions amounted in total to £130,000 in respect of Scotland, and they were partly covered by the Regulations of 1968 and partly by the Regulations which we are debating tonight.

It seems proper, when the Government are making substantial cuts in public expenditure, that grant-aided schools should pay an appropriate contribution. It seems to me to go rather further than that, because I do not consider that the grant-aided schools, wherever they may be, are an economically under-privileged sector of Scottish education today. [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite ask, "It is right that the grant-aided schools should bear a dispropionate part of the burden?" I am not necessarily accepting that description of what has happened, but I am happy to defend a situation in which the grant-aided schools would be expected to bear a disproportionate part of the burden because that would be a legitimate use of Government priorities in the educational sphere. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Dewar) pointed out, hon. Gentlemen opposite should not be ashamed to accept that position, particularly when they are so anxious for us to cut Government expenditure. It is difficult to think of any sphere of Government expenditure that the Opposition are in favour of cutting although they make constant appeals to the Government to cut it, not just by £130,000, the modest sum we are discussing tonight, but by considerable sums indeed. The position which the Government have taken in this matter is clear, and I have no difficulty in defending it.

The original cuts in the 1968–69 grant were made in Regulations put through last year. I found completely unconvincing the defence by the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire of the Opposition's neglect to pray against the Order in 1968. The fact is that hon. Members opposite negelected even to see, despite their tremendous preoccupation and passion for the grant-aided schools, that these Statutory Instruments were coming forward. Their ignorance was so profound that when the announcement was made earlier this year of these cuts a number of hon. Members opposite put down a Motion condemning us for introducing this surreptitiously by the backdoor, whereas the notice to the schools concerned had been given in a circular sent out as far back as February, 1968.

A great deal of concern expressed this evening is absolute hypocrisy on the part of hon. Members opposite. Comparisons have been drawn between the Scottish and the English positions. Obviously it would be out of order to deal with this in detail, but perhaps I might make one or two comments in view of the fact that comments have been made by hon. Members opposite on this matter in the debate.

Mr. Speaker

The Under-Secretary will remember that I ruled most of those comments out of order.

Mr. Millan

I shall try to deal with those which were not out of order.

Mr. MacArthur

I am reluctant to interrupt the Under-Secretary because we all very much want to hear what he is to say, but he is making quite incorrect remarks about the circumstances in which the first Regulations were introduced and viewed by us. If he refers to HANSARD and publications outside he will see that a wide range of comments were made by a large number of hon. Members on this side of the House at the time the announcement was made. It is inexcusable for the hon. Gentleman to make hollow and groundless statements of the kind he has just made.

Mr. Millan

The hon. Member has been here long enough to know that the way in which an Opposition criticises Regulations is to pray against them. The Opposition did not pray against the 1968 Regulations.

I was about to deal with the comparison between the Scottish and English systems. The two systems are not directly comparable. First, the English system involves the schools concerned making a certain percentage of places available to the local authorities, whereas the Scottish system imposes no such obligation and most of the schools in Scotland make no places available for local authorities. Second, there is no direct grant paid in England in respect of primary pupils, whereas in Scotland a direct grant is made in respect of primary as well as secondary pupils, and this amounts to a considerable amount of the grant aid given by the Department. The reduction in England in the capitation grant was from £52 to £32 per pupil, which is a substantial reduction. The reduction in Scotland works out over the two years to between £6 and £7 per pupil.

The Scottish schools compared with their English counterparts are being extremely generously treated. The Scottish schools' revenue met by grant aid is very substantially greater than the percentage met by grant aid in England. The situation is not comparable, but so far as one can make comparisons the advantage lies with the Scottish schools. This is a matter which, no doubt, the Commission will draw attention to later in the year.

The original grant ceiling for 1967–68 was £1,681,000. The savings of £130,000 were made on that. The actual expenditure in 1967–68 was a little less than £1,681,000; it was £1,649,000, which means that the cut in 1968–69 was a real cut not of £34,000 but of only £5,000. Over the two years the cut is not in practice £130,000 but only £99,000. So it is not even as great as hon. Gentlemen have alleged.

Further, in view of these tremendous assertions of loyalty to grant-aided schools which we have heard from hon. Members opposite, it is enlightening to consider what happened in the last few years of Conservative government, in terms of the total grant to grant-aided schools. A comparison of the amounts paid by hon. Members opposite with those paid by the Labour Government causes me to be amazed at our generosity.

Between 1961–62 and 1962–63 the Conservative Government reduced the grant to grant-aided schools in Scotland. What is more, they reduced the grant again between 1963–64 and 1964–65. In the three years between 1961–62 and 1964–65, which is perhaps the last year which we can genuinely attribute to hon. Members opposite, the increase in grant for all the school's concerned was only £58,000. The percentage of the schools' revenue represented by grant fell by 5 per cent. over that period.

Even with the reductions made in these Regulations, the grant in 1969–70 will be £1,551,000, which is £251,000 more than hon. Members opposite paid to grant-aided schools in 1964–65.

Mr. MacArthur

Now will the hon. Gentleman—

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. MacArthur

—say something about costs?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have had a placid debate. There is no reason why it should become turbulent.

Mr. Millan

I notice that the injection of a few facts into a debate always causes the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire to become hysterical.

Mr. MacArthur

If the hon. Gentleman wants to quote the facts completely, will he call attention to the other fact, which is that under the Labour Government costs confronting grant-aided schools rose between 1964 and 1967 by £500,000?

Mr. Millan

I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman talks about the costs of these schools having risen under the Labour Government. Of course costs have risen under the Labour Government, but in the three years between 1961–62 and 1964–65 under the Tory Government costs rose by more than £300,000 and grants rose by only £58,000, so there was a considerable percentage reduction in the amount of grant which hon. Members opposite paid to these schools in those years. Apart from all the argument from principle and philosophy to which we have been treated, the record of the last Conservative Government in help to grant-aided schools was a completely miserable one in the last few years of their government.

I was asked about some particular schools. Despite all the fuss and palaver which has been made about these Regulations, only two of the 29 grant-aided schools have made representations to the Government against them. They do not include either of the schools in Dumfriesshire mentioned by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro). Those schools have made no representations. As far as I know, there are no special financial difficulties in either of those schools. But if there are financial difficulties the schools can bring them to our attention, and Regulation 4(1) provides that in certain circumstances the Secretary of State can pay a higher grant if he feels this is justified. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison).

Mr. Clark Hutchison

It does not answer my point. I understood what the Regulations meant. What I asked was how many schools, or which schools, the Scottish Office thinks will have to make use of this provision.

Mr. Millan

In the first instance it would be for the schools to tell us that they were in financial difficulties. Of the 29, only two schools have made representations. There is one very small school with special problems which I think relate only to that school. If it finds itself in special financial difficulties I shall be willing to look at the position of this school.

I think I have demonstrated a number of things this evening. The first is the justice of the modest reductions we have made in the grants to grant-aided schools. The second is the Opposition's failure even to understand the facts about their record in the matter, much less the facts about the present Government's record. I have also dealt with the longer-term future of the schools in my reference to the Public Schools Commission. The Motion is completely misconceived and misinformed. It does not deal with the realities of the situation.

Mr. James Davidson (Aberdeenshire, West)

I apologise for missing the earlier part of the debate. Can the Minister tell me whether the reductions to the individual schools are balanced to any extent by the proportion of local authority students which the schools admit? In other words, where the schools admit a high proportion, as in the case of Robert Gordon's in Aberdeen, which I believe admits about 50 per cent. local authority students, has the grant been proportionately less reduced?

Mr. Millan

Robert Gordon's does not admit any local authority pupils. It has no arrangements except through a foundation, but it is not part of the local authority system. There are only a few such schools in Scotland that work closely with the local authority system, none of them in Edinburgh or Glasgow. A few schools, like Morrison's Academy in Crieff, and the one my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) mentioned, Marr College. All these matters are taken into account in deciding the grant paid to particular schools.

Mr. MacArthur

The hon. Gentleman, who is proving so selective in his facts tonight, should have his attention called to the fact that Robert Gordon's College received £3,250 in fees from the local authority in 1967.

Mr. Millan

Compared with the £95,335 it receives in the terms of the Regulations that is very small beer.

The Opposition's Motion is misconceived and completely uninformed. For the reasons I have given, I ask the House to reject it.

Question put and negatived.