HC Deb 23 March 1972 vol 833 cc1821-46

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Raising of the School Leaving Age Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st February. The Motion was originally put down as a Prayer. The Prayer is now out of time, and we have a different wording. The present wording suits my purpose very much better than the wording of the original Prayer, because I am not against the raising of the school leaving age. I am very much in favour of it. I congratulate the Government on their decision to carry on with this overdue reform.

My purpose tonight is to call attention to one consequence of the raising of the school leaving age which I am quite sure neither the right hon. Lady nor anybody on either side of the House intended. I realise that since I put down the Prayer—and I make no complaint about the delay—my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) has had an Adjournment debate on it to which the Under-secretary of State replied. As my hon. Friend dealt mainly with the problem from the point of view of his own constituents in the North-East, I make no apology for raising the matter again this evening.

In the debate on the Adjournment on 23rd February the Under-Secretary of State admitted that the need is much greater for maintenance allowances in areas like the North-East of England than it is in counties like his own. He gave the figures for Durham and Berkshire. In Durham there are 1,127 children for whom allowances are being paid, and in Berkshire 62. That is understandable.

In February this year unemployment in the North-East of England was 9.3 per cent. This was an increase of 27 per cent. over August, 1971—six months ago. That compares with an increase of 71 per cent. over the whole 10-year period, 1960 to 1969. In this 9.3 per cent. unemployment which we have in the North-East of England at present there are 92,000 males unemployed.

This deep-seated and persistent economic malaise in areas like the North-East has repercussions on the life of the region in a great many ways, not least on education. Most of the region's educational handicaps—and it has many—stem from the fact that fewer children stay on at school over the statutory leaving age. In the North-East the latest figures I have seen are 46.9 per cent. staying on at the age of 15; in the South-East 63.8 per cent. This disparity between the numbers staying on over the statutory leaving age in areas like the North-East—I think it applies, perhaps not equally but to a considerable extent, in all other development areas—is certainly because of financial and social factors and the deep-seated insecurity of the people who live in an area of that kind.

But because fewer children stay on over the statutory leaving age, fewer children in the North-East go in for higher education. This in turn impedes economic development because the modern sophisticated industry which we hope to attract there needs the support of a vigorous local higher education system. So we are caught up in a vicious circle. Recent years, however, have seen a commendable effort to induce more young people to stay on over the statutory leaving age. I pay special tribute to the Director of Education in Durham, who has made tremendous efforts in this direction. I am quite sure that maintenance allowances have played a part in this—a small part, but nevertheless an important part.

In my own City of Newcastle the amounts being paid out at present are approximately £9,000 for allowances for the 15- to 16-year-old age group, £6,000 for the 16- to 17-year-old age group and £6,000 for the 17–18 age group—a total of £31,000 a year. These amounts are important, although not large. They are small for two reasons. The first is that not nearly sufficient people know that the allowances are available. The second reason, of course, is that the scales are quite inadequate.

In July 1971 the North-East Council of Education Committees drew up a revised scale which most of the authorities in the area have adopted. But even the revised scale was hopelessly inadequate. All it did was to add about 15p a week to the allowance. The inadequacy of the allowance is illustrated by the fact that net parental income must not exceed £7.75 a week to qualify for the maximum allowance for a 15-year-old boy.

As the hon. Member for Durham, North-West said on 23rd February in the Adjournment debate, this really is ludicrous. What is true of the North-East is, I believe, true of all the development areas. Naturally, the numbers who do and can avail themselves of the amount are very small because of the inadequacy of the scales which are out of date. The Under-Secretary said that nationally 20,000 parents were receiving the allowances. I think this was based on the 1970 survey. But there are 556,000 children in the age group of 15 and over excluding the 15-year-olds who are under school-leaving age, roughly one in 27.

I have no idea how many of these are 15-year-olds who get allowances but probably between 6,000 and 10,000 out of 223,000 in the age group of 15 years but over the school leaving age. The approximate proportion is one in 30 of the 15-year-old age group. I very much regret that only about one in 30 of 15-to 16-year-olds get help, but I am quite sure that very many more parents of children in this age group need it and would avail themselves of it if they knew about it and if the scales were adequate. But because the numbers are so abysmally small the cost of giving the allowance to the 15- to 16-year-old age group must also be very small indeed. I estimate it would be between £30,000 and £50,000 per annum, but probably very much less.

These allowances are paid by the Secretary of State under regulations made under Section 81(c) of the 1944 Act. On 24th August last the Secretary of State sent out Circular No. 8/71, which said: Maintenance allowances payable under the Regulations made under Section 81 of the Education Act, 1944 are available only for children above compulsory school age. From 1st September 1972 such allowances will not therefore be payable in respect of children of 15 unless they are covered by the exception in Section 114 (6) mentioned in paragraph 4(ii) above". Section 114(6) can be omitted from our discussion because it has only a marginal bearing on the point I am making.

The Secretary of State's ruling is given, quite rightly, under the law as it is at present. It means that a relatively small group of poor parents with children of 15 who get allowances now are not going to get them after 1st September this year. I am quite sure that this is an administrative consequence of the political decision to raise the school leaving age, and I am sure that the Secretary of State did not intend that this should be. I am sure that no one in the House intended this result.

I realise that as the law now stands allowances cannot be paid in spite of what that supposedly responsible journal Education said about me on 3rd March. I realise, as I have always realised, that the law does not allow them to be paid. But all that is required is very short one-Clause Bill deleting three words from the 1944 Act and substituting three other words.

I guarantee that if the right hon. Lady wished we would pass such a Bill through all its stages in one day, as we did with the Northern Ireland Act. If that is not acceptable, I would understand it, but I would guarantee that the right hon. Lady could have the Second Reading and Third Reading on the nod and have the Committee stage in one day. So there is no parliamentary problem; the right hon. Lady cannot plead lack of parliamentary time. There cannot possibly be a public expenditure problem.

The purpose of this debate is simply to make that one point. I am not cluttering up my speech about raising the school leaving age with any other points that I would dearly love to make. The whole purpose of the exercise is to ask the Secretary of State if she will change the law in that way to enable those poor people, the poorest of the poor—they must be, or they would not qualify—to keep the allowances they now receive. It is ironical that I must make this request in this of all weeks, after a Budget in which the Chancellor handed back £300 million to those whose incomes are entirely investment incomes.

All I am asking for is probably between £30,000 and £50,000, and perhaps less than that. It is a mere crumb compared with some of the Chancellor's handouts. If the parents concerned need the allowances this year, they will still need them after 1st September. Their sons and daughters will not stop eating after 1st September; they will not start wearing everlasting, non-wear clothing after 1st September. These young people, as the right hon. Lady knows—she has a family of her own, as I have—are physically adults. The cost of their maintenance is enormous: it is a growing financial strain for their parents which will not end and will not diminish after the school leaving age is raised to 16 on 1st September. It will almost certainly increase.

The Under-Secretary of State, to whom I am most grateful for sitting in tonight, said on 23rd February that he could hold out no prospect of legislation. I have learned from experience that he chooses his words with care, and I note that that does not turn it down entirely. He said: This is a very personal subject on which, in general principle, it would be right for the House to continue to entrust discretion to local authorities."—[Official Report, 23rd February, 1972; Vol 831, c. 1460.] I would settle for that. Let us allow the local authorities discretion to continue to make payments to 15-year-olds. I should like to go further, but if the Government would agree with that I would settle for it and congratulate them. I do not ask that it should be extended over the whole compulsory age range. That was a rather silly point that the hon. Gentleman made on 23rd February. We are asking for people to keep what they have now. That does not imply that we are suggesting that all schoolchildren should have allowances. All I am asking is that the parents of children of 15 who now receive an allowance, the poorest of the poor, should be allowed to keep what they have.

The right hon. Lady wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) a letter in which she said: For the younger children, that is, those of compulsory school age, local education authorities have power to help parents under existing arrangements with such items as school meals, uniforms, transport and other expenses as may be necessary to enable pupils to take part in any school activities. I cannot agree that the social security provisions are not appropriate in cases of hardship which are not covered by these arrangements". May I make it clear to the right hon. Lady that these arrangements are not comparable in scale and are quite inadequate. The need has existed hitherto for the 15–16 age group and it will continue to exist after 1st September. If the right hon. Lady refuses to change the law to enable parents to get these extra allowances, all I can say is that her decision, which we are awaiting tonight, will fall into the same category as her decisions on school milk and meals. I am sure that even she does not want to make another such decision.

In a week when £1,000 million-plus has been handed out, yet virtually nothing has been given to the poorest members of the community, and nothing much to children—I do not know whether the right hon. Lady has seen the article in this evening's Evening Standard headed "Women and Children Last", referring to the Budget—I want to appeal to her on behalf of these 20,000 needy parents for a crumb. That is all I ask of the right hon. Lady tonight.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. John E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

We can all understand why the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) was not sorry that the lapse of time has caused this Motion to be expressed in a different way, because we appreciate that he would not want to oppose the raising of the school leaving age. He directed his remarks to what has always been, in my mind, the biggest justification for raising the school leaving age; namely, that we hope it will lessen the disparity between the north and the south. He has illustrated the root causes behind that disparity.

I have always hoped that one result of raising the leaving age would be that teenagers still at school would not see, as happens with those who now stay on voluntarily, their exact contemporaries in the world of work earning what seem to be comparatively large sums of money, even though they may be in dead-end jobs. That would no longer be seen to be an option and children should be more willing to stay on and enjoy the extra year. That is the consequence which I hope will follow. We all appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's sincerity in putting forward this very difficult case on behalf of those families he has referred to. It is really by legal rather than administrative effect that the allowance becomes impossible to pay, just as in another sphere work experience schemes are stopped and 15-year-olds will no longer be able to drive farm tractors. In the long run I hope that some future legislation will restore these practices so that children do not lose such facilities and experience as a result of the leaving age being raised.

In my opinion, the right hon. Gentleman has raised a problem of poverty rather than education. Clearly, it is undesirable that the raising of the leaving age should affect these particular families. My calculations show that the figure is about 1 in 30. Although the proportion is small, I cannot help feeling that it would be more desirable not to extend the responsibilities of the educational budget. I would prefer this to be dealt with by the Department of Health and Social Security. Most of those who are concerned with education would like the Department of Education and Science to be relieved of the social obligations and responsibilities because there are so many more purely educational tasks we should like the Department to be able to undertake.

Mr. Bob Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

Surely the hon. Gentleman must realise that the State accepts full responsibility for the maintenance of students undergoing further education. What difference is there between a 15-or 16-year old and an 18-year old in this respect?

Mr. Hill

The difference lies in whether the educational activity is a statutory requirement or a voluntary undertaking. That is a perfectly definable and acceptable borderline. I do not want families to suffer poverty as the result of the raising of the school leaving age, but I would rather see that social obligation discharged by someone other than the educational body.

It is surprising that we should be here tonight approving the order when we have all been working on the basis that the school leaving age was raised. Some people are quite surprised that only now are we formally authorising it. We are long committed to the raising of the school leaving age. It goes back to the Spens Report of 1938. Having been embodied in the Education Act, 1944, it was recommended by the great reports of Crowther and Newsom. It is very sad that Lord Crowther did not live to see the reform which he so strongly advocated brought into effect. I acknowledge my gratitude for his great contributions to our education system.

If these two reports on secondary education had come out after the Plowden report on primary education instead of before it, we might have devoted more of our resources immediately to preschool education. Compulsory education here starts at five, which is a year earlier than in practically all other countries, and this removed some of the pressure building up for more pre-school provision. In the circumstances that exist today I am sure that we should carry through our plans for pupils of 15, because that is what we have positioned ourselves to do.

The greatest trouble has been taken in every school that I have visited or heard of to prepare for a formidable challenge. The resources have never been unlimited, and I hope the Secretary of State will be able to provide the resources still required to make a success of this scheme. About £125 million has been spent on buildings to provide extra accommodation. Nevertheless, most schools are finding it hard with their money for the raising of the leaving age immediately to provide all the facilities that are deemed to be necessary. Therefore, I express the hope that the Department will monitor progress with a view to seeing that the deficiencies are made good. We are most unlikely to get everything right from year one.

We have the teachers, and I hope they will continue to have in-service training so that they will be better enabled to provide the tuition and personal relationship that these maturing children deserve. Surely the essence of raising the school leaving age is that young people should be fitted to take their place in the outside world of work and leisure. If the extra year of the five-year course does not achieve that, it will have failed. But I do not think it will. Signs are that the preparation has gone forward successfully, and, thanks to the work of the Schools Council, there will be in many schools a whole number of new courses.

I hope that many pupils will decide to stay on and will take some form of C.S.E. examination, whether mode three monitored by the school or otherwise, so that they complete the five-year course. I should like to see a single school leaving date. We know that in the short term this is not feasible, but it may be that the 15-year-olds will decide to stay on and complete the course.

This is a great move forward, and I am sure it is right to go ahead. Britain cannot have a smaller proportion of children staying on until 16 than many of the countries with which we have to compete. Therefore, I wish this great enterprise every success.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. Bob Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

The descriptive title by which the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Education and Science has become known, and deservedly so—"Thatcher the Snatcher"—will hardly be appropriate this evening if she does not agree to the reasonable and modest plea put to her tonight by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short). She will in future become known as "Maggie the Meanie", and possibly the hon. Gentleman who aids and abets her will become known as "Bill the Kill"—an educational Bonnie and Clyde.

As my right hon. Friend has said, a simple amendment to Section 81 of the 1944 Education Act is all that is needed to put matters right. My right hon. Friend has given certain assurances from the Opposition Front Bench, and, since we are often accused of having some differences between our front and back benches, I can give a wholehearted assurance on behalf of my back-bench colleagues. We as a party were anxious a month ago on Tuesday, 23rd February, to legalise the position of British troops in Northern Ireland, and rightly so. The Labour Party would be more than willing to expedite any simple legislation to put this matter right.

My right hon. Friend has been more than generous. He has referred to a sum of £50,000 as being about the maximum required in this instance if the right hon. Lady were to be generous enough to say "We will make this small amendment to the 1944 Act and will accept that the status quo will remain at 15 on present scales." I would not be quite as generous in this matter as was my right hon. Friend. I believe that the right hon. Lady should think about revising the scales upwards. If she were revising the scales upwards 400 per cent. on the figures quoted by my right hon. Friend, it would mean only £500,000, and that amount, in terms of educational expenditure, is, in any man's language, simply nothing more nor less than peanuts. It is one-eighteenth of what was saved by the miserable, niggardly abolition of free school milk.

I speak with deep and sincere feelings as one who was born and bred on Tyneside in the City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and whose parents could not afford to clothe and provide me with the necessary equipment when I won a scholarship to a secondary school. It was only by the generosity, devotion and sacrifice of my elder brother, who was then a Regular in the Royal Navy—driven into the Royal Navy by the harsh economic circumstances prevailing in the North-East at that time and the fact that he could not get a job—that I was able to continue my education, because my parents certainly could not afford to allow me to accept the scholarship. So I have firsthand knowledge of what is happening to many children in my part of the country today. Of course, I am talking about 1934, but here we are 38 years on, and, though things are better now than they were then, they are still bad by any standards.

My right hon. Friend has referred to the unemployment figures in the North-East. I make no apology for repeating them. This week's unemployment figures from the Department of Employment indicate that we have 89,779 people unemployed, which is 6.9 per cent. of the working population. But this does not mask the real misery—

Mr. Edward Short

This is for the Northern Region. I was talking about the North-East.

Mr. Brown

My right hon. Friend rightly reminds me that he was talking about the North-East, where the situation, unfortunately, is a damn sight worse. Over the Northern Region as a whole 9.1 per cent. of males are unemployed. I am reminded that the position in the North-East is worse, and it is far worse on Tyneside, which my right hon. Friend and I represent.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) talked about children staying on at school and being envious of their pals who leave school and, albeit they get dead-end jobs, are earning money. There was a cartoon in one of the national newspapers this week, I do not propose to identify because it might be thought by some to be in bad taste, depicting two youngsters walking into school lamenting the fact that they had to stay on for an extra year. One said to the other "It's murder. I am going to miss my 12 months' supplementary benefit." This was a cartoon, but it characterises the North-East today where the youngster sees his friend not earning a living but getting unemployment or social security benefit because he cannot get a job.

My right hon. Friend has mentioned that only 20,000 parents are getting this allowance. Therefore, there is, clearly, a complete lack of knowledge about its availability. The Under-Secretary, in an Adjournment debate raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), said that he was pleased that it would get some publicity. Unfortunately, at 20 minutes to two in the morning that kind of thing does not get much publicity from this place. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Lady will undertake to give some publicity to the availability of this grant. It is fair to assume that, with the unemployment to which I have referred, 20,000 people should be qualifying in the North-East alone, particularly if the income scales were brought up and especially in view of the niggardly sum of £7.75 to which my right hon. Friend referred.

Fifteen-year olds are not children in the sense that they were 40 years ago. In many respects—some say in virtually all—they are adults. I have done some research into this, and I have obtained from the Library a book which contains an interesting graph of statistics about children in Glasgow. It shows that between 1906 and 1945 13-year olds increased in average height from 4 ft. 5 in. to 4 ft. 10 in. They increased in weight from 5 st. 2 lb. to 6 st. 4 lb. These were pre-Welfare State times and included 10 war years. If those statistics applied to 39 years prior to the introduction of the Welfare State—or to 39 years less 10 war years, with the deprivation of those years—imagine what the statistics must be with the benefits of the Welfare State. There must have been a much greater improvement in physique.

I give these figures simply to show that youngsters today are bigger, need more clothing, more food and, beyond that, are more mature than were their counterparts years ago. It is, therefore, that much more difficult for their parents to keep and look after them.

My right hon. Friend gave the lamentable figures—£35,000 expenditure on maintenance of the 15 to 18 age range—for the City of Newcastle. It is an outrage that these figures should exist in this day and age. I hope the Secretary of State will look sympathetically at the case my right hon. Friend adduced and agree that we should stay at least where we are in this matter for 15-year olds. I would like us to go further, but I would not like the right hon. Lady to do that at the expense of delaying urgently needed legislation.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

I am glad that we are debating this order to night, though I was sorry that the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) referred in a cheap way to two hard-working and devoted Ministers. He rather spoilt the atmosphere in which the whole issue had been discussed.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has been able to stick to the 1972–73 date for making this change. In paying tribute to her I also pay tribute to Lord Boyle, who had the courage to commit the party to this course in 1964, shortly before that General Election. I am sure that there will be benefits for the children, which is the main thing, and also, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, for those regions which at present are particularly disadvantaged in this respect.

The fact that the Government are going ahead with the change, in contrast to the last Government's postponement, will be seen in retrospect as one of the best educational advances of the Conservative Governments of this decade and the last. But this is not, as we all know, a popular move. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) has mentioned the strong feeling, of which we are all conscious, among parents and educationists that it might well have been better to shift these extra resources to the starting end and not the finishing end of school-time for many of our children. But, now that this decision is taken, I hope the Government are keeping in mind the extreme pressure, growing as it is, to do more for nursery education just as soon as resources permit.

We have to make a success of this change and it will not be easy. Much has been done under both Governments to get the necessary buildings ready. We have been markedly successful, too, in attracting the necessary extra number of teachers. The teacher-pupil ratio should not suffer more than fractionally and for a very short time after the change. The main question mark is over the curriculum. What is to be done with the extra year? How can it be put to best use?

Much has been said about work experience schemes and linked courses with further education, and making this final year a really new year and different from the previous years in the extent to which children can get away from school in their whole orientation and out more into the community in one area or another. I hope that most effort will be concentrated in the area of community service in the locality, which I am sure will fire the imagination of even those children who seem academically dullest, about whom we are perhaps most worried.

The main anxiety in my mind is the one I have come across in many teachers. The National Union of Teachers nationally has been in favour of this change year after year for its own reasons, and yet I have found anxiety in my constituency among the teachers concerned at the chalk face—those at present in the still-secondary modern schools until we may reorganise. The overwhelming majority of such teachers are worried about the change and are not yet as reassured as I would like them to be. I have had long correspondence with my noble Friend Lord Belstead, who has paid great attention to our problems. I will not weary the House with the whole story, but what emerges from my talks with these teachers is the whole problem of discipline and whether a few recalcitrant children who do not want to take this extra year and are anxious to leave school at 15, let alone 16, may make life impossible for teachers and for the mass of the other children during the additional year. We must in the time left give all assurance we can to teachers and parents that a few trouble-makers are not going to be allowed to wreck the change for everyone else concerned.

I end on the question of preparation and the degree of urgency that is being shown in getting ready for the change among local education authorities all over the country. My right hon. Friend sent a comprehensive and helpful circular in the second half of last year to all local authorities asking for answers by early December on how their preparatory work was going and what problems still existed. I hope she can say something tonight about the results of that survey and the lessons she is drawing from it for the future.

In my area there have been good discussions between teachers and local authorities, bringing industrialists in as well. People in industry are offering transport to help get children out to various projects in the additional year. There is also the question of buildings outside school which can be used as headquarters and centres for these extra-curricular activities. This is all very promising, and more should be done.

But in the remaining time Ministers and their advisers should turn a search light on the areas where too little has been done and where teachers are anxious about what will happen when the change is made. Let us use these months with a real sense of urgency—among the Government, local authorities, local industries, local communities and voluntary associations and teachers themselves—to make sure that the change is as smooth and satisfactory as possible. I am confident that we shall then succeed, for the good of the children and the good of the country.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I shall in a moment follow the sensitive speech of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), but I want first to support the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short). I spent 12 years at the chalk face myself, and when I first stood in this place I was still partly in that position.

I was responsible for many children whose parents received the allowances of which my right hon. Friend spoke. This modest allowance had considerable effects, particularly on families with only one parent and particularly when that parent was the mother. Other benefits can come, but there was undoubted psychological help to the parent.

It was done, in my authority at least, in the best way, which I am sure would have commended itself to the Secretary of State in her attempts to deal with the milk problem. Application was made to the divisional office on a separate form, and one did not know whether the application was entirely successful. But one could sense, as I have said, from the reactions and morale of both parents and children when some little help was given. It is not so much the amounts that we are concerned with. Little though they were, they were very significant in the families concerned.

This was particularly important when a balance had to be struck between whether a pupil had to leave or not. This little assistance from the community, based on educational need, helped that balance. I know that that will still be available from the age of 16 onwards, but the fact that it will not beavailable from September onwards for those 15-year-olds who by law will be told to remain at school whether they like it or not, and whose parents will be required by law to keep them at school, whether they like it or not, will be of considerable psychological importance.

Also, a number of pupils, when not at school, have been known to be not at home but engaged in activities for which they received an income. This may spread next year, if this sort of allowance is not maintained. Just before this debate, a Bill went through the House very quickly. That was a consolidation Measure, but I am sure that other Bills could go through just as quickly. As my right hon. Friend said, we on this side would give every help if the right hon. Lady chose—I hope that she will—to introduce a short Bill of this nature. In this of all weeks, when some people will have £1 per week more in their pockets, this move will not be a great comfort for many of the families about whom I am concerned. Of course there will be an extra allowance on the tax form against children who are at school or dependent, but many of these people will not be paying tax anyway and, therefore, will not necessarily stand to gain from that.

I understand that the order has been passed and that this is perhaps a discussion noting it. The order is, therefore, of significance because we now have secondary education for all in a way we never could before. While supporting this in principle, I have somewhat mixed feelings about it, as has the hon. Member for Cambridge.

We have put rather too great a faith in time at school and believe that education then automatically occurs. I do not think that time at school is necessarily time when education is taking place, any more than the time the House sits is necessarily time when debate takes place. The truth is perhaps more intangible, that neither necessarily occurs when people are in a particular place and noise comes from them.

I was rather concerned at the division shown by the hon. Member for Cambridge when he mentioned the outward looking syllabus. I agree, but we have to be careful not to perpetuate a split between those who are capable of taking public examinations and those who are not.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) mentioned the C.S.E., which is a fair examination of a liberal type, but inhibits the ability of teachers to provide some children with what they need at the time they need it. It is a fundamental principle of education that one provides pupils with what they need at the time, so that they may progress. I am not necessarily going with the theorists and pundits. All classroom teachers know what they can do with some theories.

We are now in great danger of having school leavers leaving school partially crippled in the learning sense; indeed, partially sighted. Unless the pupils who leave can go on learning, under their own volition and with the tools they have acquired, we have failed, and I fear that we now have a crisis of that kind.

This is a learning crisis as distinct from a teaching crisis. There is, indeed, a state of turmoil, if not of crisis. Some of this has been spurred on by hon. Members opposite, as we have something of an indulgent society where we are told "Play now, pay later" and easy ways of getting cash are paraded before young people. It is difficult to persuade them that privileges and responsibilities come together and that the ways of getting money are not always easy. If we do not, there are dangers at every turn.

Finally, there is the question of tools. We have a misunderstanding of the space needs of secondary education today, and I have been writing to the right hon. Lady on this. There are school standards of buildings inherited from the past which are not suited to the growing personalities of young people today.

Some of the difficulties we have in schools today are connected with emotionally warped pupils. Difficulties in meeting their needs are partially related to providing enough space. If we can get that right—and personal relationships, rightly emphasised by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South—we can be on our way.

We can get all these things in context. I hope we may give a lot more thought to getting secondary education for all, which was the cry of educationally progressive people a century ago.

Mr. David Knox (Leek)

I am pleased to be able to speak in this important, if short, debate. I am sorry that more hon. Members are not present. It is worth making the point that there are twice as many on this side of the House as on the other. The reason may be connected with the fact that hon. Members on the other side have something to be ashamed of in their own attitude to this matter when in Government.

I welcome very strongly the proposal to raise the school leaving age. I endorse absolutely the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) in his congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The Measure is long overdue. People have been talking about it since the Spens Report in 1938. I was about five years old then. I am now very much older than that. We have had the Education Act, 1944, the decision in 1964, and the postponement in 1968; now, at long last, the goal is in sight. Therefore, it is scarcely a hurried Measure. The Government have not shown undue haste in introducing it. Almost 30 years have passed since the Education Act, 1944. When the Measure becomes effective, about 10 years will have passed since the previous Conservative Government took the decision to raise the school leaving age. Therefore, those in education who try to pretend that there has been insufficient time to prepare for this do not have much of a case.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) and with my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) that it is not enough to leave this matter to people staying on voluntarily. In an ideal world this would be the best thing, but, alas, there are substantial variations between one-part of the country and another in the length of time people stay on at school. Therefore, it is necessary to introduce compulsion. The reasons for the variations are as suggested by the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central. They are social and economic reasons.

Recalling my school days, because it was not socially fashionable for people to stay on at school in the area in which I was educated, quite a number of my contemporaries left school at a point when more education could have been a great advantage to them. Hon. Members opposite are no doubt surprised to learn that I attended a State school. Quite a number of hon. Members on this side did.

The Measure is important and necessary for two reasons. In the world in the future, we need to prepare people for work more than we have done in the past. We have also to prepare them to enjoy their leisure. The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) made the very legitimate point that extra time at school in itself will not ensure that the objectives are achieved; but, equally, without the extra time the objectives will not be achieved.

More education is necessary if we are to prepare people for the sort of work they will have to do in the future. Work is becoming more complicated and difficult at every level, from the managing director to the person on the shop floor. Work is calling for greater skill as each year passes. In addition, the pace of modern science and technology is such that in future people will have to change their jobs once or twice in their lifetime. Consequently, people will need not merely a deeper but also a wider knowledge. They will need to acquire a broad knowledge early in life which will make it easier for them to adapt to new skills later in life.

More education is also important in relation to leisure. We are moving into a society in which people will work shorter and shorter hours. They will live longer and be able to enjoy longer retirements. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare people to make the greatest possible use of their leisure time, not by forcing them to do particular things but by arousing their interest in the numberless different pursuits, not necessarily intellectual pursuits, but those which will enable them to enrich their lives. It is rather pathetic to see that so many of our fellow citizens who have reached retirement, instead of looking forward to it as a tremendous opportunity to engage in new pursuits for which they have not previously had time, tick away their lives until they die. Education has a particularly important rôle to play in helping people to get more out of life. Education can broaden people's outlook and open the way to 1,001 different leisure-time activities, which will enable them to lead fuller and more rewarding lives.

So it is for these reasons that I welcome this increase in the school leaving age. I am delighted that it is being done. I hope that in the very near future it will be possible to go even further and raise the school leaving age to 18 because, though education is an important means to an end, it is also an end in itself.

11.10 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

The raising of the school leaving age has been welcomed on both sides of the House and I am glad that I have had the honour to put the proposal into effect. The order has now been approved and this is merely a take-note Motion. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) for that. He raised one specific point while other hon. Members have taken the debate wider and have asked a number of questions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) referred to the circular that the Department sent out to local education authorities asking them how their preparations for raising the school leaving age were going and asking them to report to the Department. Before I deal with specific points raised in the debate I would like to respond to my hon Friend's invitation to give an idea of what the replies were to that circular. They have provided a wealth of material about the steps that have been taken and are still being taken in preparation for the reform. Apart from the essential business of providing buildings, to which the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) is constantly referring, and teachers, these include the preparation of suitable curricula, careers guidance and collaboration with further education.

Shortly after Easter I will give a full account of the information received in the series of "Reports on Education". But on the whole the resources which have been provided are being applied effectively and sensibly. There will be occasional local problems—it would be surprising in an operation of this size if there were not. But the general picture is favourable.

I will deal with just a few of the separate aspects and I start with buildings. Authorities were given power to use their allocations for the raising of the school leaving age as they thought fit. Almost 60 of them have chosen to provide special units based on the Department's building bulletin. Others have felt that the needs of the new fifth form pupils could best be met by incorporating suitable provision in secondary major building projects. In general, authorities have been planning all such projects in recent years with the raising of the school leaving age in mind. A few are planning some of their buildings in conjunction with Youth Service projects. My Department is keeping in close touch with any authorities—there are not many—which appear to have a practical problem of timing.

May I refer to teachers and the task they will have. Authorities are generally confident, and I know the right hon. Gentleman is interested in this, that their existing pupil-teacher ratio can be maintained and many plans to continue the improvement in ratio which has been taking place in secondary schools during the last few years. More than 20 authorities refer to their intention to appoint teachers to posts of special responsibility for the raising of the school leaving age. A few have emphasised the need to recruit experienced teachers for work with the new fifth formers. Some have also appointed education officers or advisers with specific responsibility for co-ordinating preparations and others mention that close consideration is being given to the implications of the raising of the school leaving age for their school welfare services.

There is one especially interesting aspect: reports from most authorities did not refer to anticipated behavioural problems as being a major issue. One authority even went so far as to say that there was a need to offset the harmful effects of national publicity on the subject. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge and Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) that there will be problems. We all know that there will be problems of truancy and discipline. They are not sufficient to prevent us from implementing this major reform.

My hon. Friends also referred to the curriculum. Schools Council working papers and projects have formed the basis of about 80 authorities' preparations in this field. There are now 480 teachers' centres throughout the country and many have full-time wardens. Most authorities report that their teachers' centres are the focus for training and discussion. Many new courses, some involving examinations and some not, have emerged and some authorities are preparing programmes involving short residential courses. Many reports emphasise the increasing importance of careers advice, and almost 100 authorities have referred to close co-operation with careers guidance officers.

About 90 reports refer to the use of my Department's publicity material. More than 100 authorities are already concentrating on publicity through the schools either as a supplement to centrally-provided material or instead of it. Very few authorities omitted to mention this important aspect of preparations, but we are asking those which did to let us know what they have in mind. Letting the parents know about this move and what it will mean for their children is extremely important. All told, there are grounds for confidence that the reform will be constructively and effectively implemented.

Now I should like to turn to some of the specific points, apart from those in the circular, which the right hon. Gentleman and others have raised. The first major point, which was the subject of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, was the educational maintenance allowances. The right hon. Gentleman argued that they should be available to children under the statutory school leaving age. He said that those who received it now should continue to have the maintenance allowance when they were over the new school leaving age. May I make one thing clear. If a child is now the subject of an educational maintenance allowance, that allowance will continue to be received after the order; it will not be taken away. The reason is that once a child has passed the compulsory school leaving age he cannot go back to it by virtue of an intervening order. So those who at present attract educational maintenance allowances will continue to receive them.

But that, I believe, was not the right hon. Gentleman's real point, which was that the allowances should be payable to children below the statutory school leaving age. At any rate, that was what the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) wanted. I have one figure relating to Newcastle that might be of interest. The right hon. Gentleman gave some figures. I do not have his with me, but according to the information received in January, 1970, and published on 15th February, 1972, only 310 pupils were attracting the allowances in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The hon. Gentleman might have some later figures.

Mr. Short

The North-East Council of Education Committees revised the scales in July, 1971, and recommended them to the local authorities in the area. I think most of them adopted the revision—certainly Newcastle did. I do not have any figures for the numbers of children receiving the allowances, but the totals being paid out that I gave were. I think, correct.

Mrs. Thatcher

I should like to make it quite clear that the scales are a matter for the several local education authorities. There are no nationally laid down scales.

I should like to continue on the right hon. Gentleman's point that educational maintenance allowances should be available to children under the statutory school-leaving age. This was not a point put forward by the right hon. Gentleman's Government when the school leaving age was last raised and children of 14 ceased to be eligible for maintenance allowances. The circular sent out then, Circular 189, issued by the then Labour Government, reminded local education authorities that Such allowances are not intended either for the general relief of poverty in the home or to take the place of earnings which the child might otherwise contribute to the upkeep of the household. These allowances, which date from 1945, are payable by the local education authorities at their discretion to the parents of children who stay on at school beyond compulsory school age.

Before 1945 local education authorities had powers to make various allowances in respect of children at school. The 1944 Act drew a distinction between some needs, for example travel expenses, meals and clothing, for which separate provision was made in respect of children of any age in school, and on the other hand the limited maintenance allowances which were to be made available henceforth for children over compulsory school age. It was made clear at the time that the purposes of these allowances was a very restricted one. Successive Governments have regarded them as additional encouragement to parents, who by law can remove their children from school, to allow their children to remain at school. They were not intended to compensate parents for lack of earnings which their children might otherwise be bringing home.

Mr. Short

What were they for?

Mrs. Thatcher

I quoted from the Labour Government circular on that point.

Mr. Short

The right hon. Lady quoted from a circular issued 27 years ago. She is surely not holding me responsible for that.

Mrs. Thatcher

No, but I am saying that it was not put forward last time the leaving age was raised and exactly the same arguments would have weighed then as the right hon. Gentleman advanced tonight. The maintenance allowances have always, from the time of their inception, been intended solely to prevent parents in the lower income ranges from becoming involved in expenses which they could not reasonably be expected to meet and which might force them to withdraw their children from school at an age earlier than they would otherwise have done.

Mr. Short

I have the Act here. Where does it say that? Show me.

Mrs. Thatcher

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Act specifically refers to pupils over compulsory leaving age. The circular was sent out at the time of the Act based upon that construction, and the intention and purpose of the Act was quite clear, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that. Specific provision was also made in the Act for the other allowances to be payable at any age, and I have referred to those.

Mr. Bob Brown

I concede that this was missed the last time the leaving age was raised, but the right hon. Lady must concede that the 15–16 age group is different from the 14–15 age group. Would she further concede that those who are caught by accident of birth will have to stay on until they are 17 not 16?

Mrs. Thatcher

The arguments that the right hon. Gentleman advances could have applied last time, and the arguments which he and the hon. Gentleman have advanced would apply to children of almost any age at school and are not limited to one year below the leaving age. The arguments the hon. Member was advancing were rather different from those put forward by the right hon. Gentleman. If I were to concede the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend, educational maintenance allowances would become a general contribution to family resources, and that would be a long way from their original purpose. Since the time of the original Act there have been social security measures under successive Governments, including the F.I.S., which provides a new injection of State assistance for the first time to families earning comparatively low wages. This is a totally new social benefit and an extremely valuable one. It was this kind of benefit which was meant to help with the general expenses of the family.

Like other benefits, educational maintenance allowances will have to be looked at in the light of the tax credit scheme proposed for further consideration by the Chancellor on Tuesday. This could be a radical change. All payments of this kind must be looked at in conjunction with that proposal. Family income supplement was introduced last year at a cost, then of about £8 million. Already provision has considerably increased in terms of social security benefits. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South was getting at—that there are other ways of helping families with very large expenses.

Maintenance allowances are at the discretion of local education authorities both in the scale at which they operate and in the amounts they give to those who apply. There are approximately 20,000 people receiving them, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I have not the figure as a percentage of the 15–16 age group, but it works out at 2.6 per cent. of all children at school who are over the compulsory school leaving age.

So I think that the right hon. Gentleman would not merely be amending the Act by three words; he would be altering the entire purpose of these allowances in a way that was never intended. They have always been intended to help or encourage parents to leave their children at school beyond the compulsory school leaving age. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman is fond of the sound of his own voice, but he expects other people to listen to him, and they usually do. I wish that he would extend the same courtesy to others.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned other points. In particular my hon. Friends have mentioned the rôle of further education, which is an extremely important one. Colleges of further education have a positive contribution to make through the development of linked courses in which pupils still at school attend a college for part of their education. I have been encouraged by the reports that I have received from local education authorities. They show that 102 areas are already operating such courses and a further 22 are planning similar developments. The range of topics is very wide and often makes use of local opportunities. I believe that this kind of development goes a long way towards achieving the essential objectives of those who advocate a change in the law so that some pupils in their last year of compulsory education could attend colleges of further education rather than schools.

I recognise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Knox) made that the further education service has expanded more rapidly than any other part of the education service, and the development of linked courses has introduced many of these young people to further education courses and could possibly stimulate them to continue with their education beyond compulsory school leaving age, either on educational courses or the specifically vocational courses which are provided in these colleges.

The order has gone through, and I think that we would all join in hoping that this much-needed reform will now go through as smoothly as possible and ultimately prove of great benefit, especially to those children who would not otherwise have a chance to stay on at school.

Mr. Short

With the leave of the House, I should like to say one more word. I regard the right hon. Lady's reply to my point as thoroughly unsatisfactory. It is quite disgraceful that in the week in which the Chancellor has given away £300 million to people with unearned incomes the right hon. Lady should refuse to give £30,000 or £40,000 to enable the poorest of the poor to retain maintenance allowances which they have at present.

This is typical of the right hon. Lady. It is in line with her decision on school milk and school meals. It is a thoroughly disreputable and disgraceful decision.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House takes note of the Raising of the School-Leaving Age Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st February.
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