HC Deb 10 April 1973 vol 854 cc1284-94

10.43 p.m.

Mr. James Boyden (Bishop Auckland)

We can all agree with the last few words of the Secretary of State for Education and Science on the Russell Committee Report, that it has been comprehensive and thorough. Whether I shall get any more enlightenment tonight on what the Government propose to do about the report is a different matter. Judging by the answers to Questions I received today the whole Department is making a very serious study of the report. However, the Government have had the report for a full four months. They presumably have been advised how the recommendations were likely to go, and were therefore in a position to make some announcements about some of the principles behind the report.

The report's general tone is that adult education bodies have been doing a good job. They need more support, particularly financial support. I would have thought that the Government would be in a position to say that they welcome the general outline of the report, that they accept its conservative nature, that there is not much wrong with the voluntary bodies and the way in which adult education is tackled, and that they agree that more money and more effort is required from the Government.

All the matters of consultation which I have no doubt the Secretary of State will go through are dependent on a clear lead from the Secretary of State that the money will be forthcoming and an assurance that the Government will show a more active interest in adult education than they have in the past.

As all the newspapers which are interested in this matter have been saying, the amount of money involved is relatively small. This branch of education has been neglected for many years. I can remember the time when I was part of a deputation which went to see the then Minister of Education, Lord Eccles as he now is, and when we were sent away with his phrase ringing in our ears, "There are no votes in adult education". We realised that from the way in which we were received and the way in which our case for increased interest and more money was turned down. The noble Lord is still in the Government. I hope that his views do not prevail. Even if such a cynical view is in the minds of some Ministers, I hope that the Secretary of State will take a genuine interest in the recommendations and make some attempt to repair the omissions of the past.

If money is forthcoming in reasonable quantities, there can be a great flowering of adult education in the next few years. One of the excellent features of the Russell recommendations is that they are relatively short-term and can be put into operation quite quickly. If there is money available and if energy is displayed by the Department of Education and Science the objectives outlined in the report can be achieved in between five and seven years. This is very rare with reports on education. Some of the great reports that we have had have taken a long time to get into motion and have not had the compactness and practical recommendations that this report contains.

I very much hope that the Undersecretary will be forthcoming in a general way about the Government's attitude to the money, that provision will be made in the next set of Estimates, and that all the bodies which the Secretary of State intends to consult will be told at once that they can go ahead with plans for the future because reasonable sums will be available.

Allied to that is the fact that active ministerial interest in adult education has been missing from the centre for a long time. It is incumbent upon the Secretary of State to take an active interest in it. She should indicate those areas in which she thinks there are deficiencies and where she thinks effort is required. At the very least, the Under-Secretary should have added burdens put upon him. A large amount of his time in the next year or so should be devoted to looking after the various needs of adult education. It would be even better if a special Minister were appointed for two or three years to consult the voluntary bodies and LEAs, the Government having made up their minds about the main recommendations, and to assist them in drawing up their plans.

I understand from newspaper reports that the Secretary of State has already reorganised the Civil Service in her Department. A new division has been set up to deal with adult education. This is not before time. When I went to the Department in 1964, the adult education side seemed to be run by a bright HEO. Interest in adult education among the top levels of the Department was very sparse. There has not been a great deal of improvement in the interest shown on the part of the Department. There will need to be an effort from Ministers to galvanise the Department to deal with the mass of detail which will arise in carrying out the administrative decisions flowing from the report.

There are a number of areas in which the Secretary of State could make a declaration which would be helpful in dealing with the follow-up detail which will require time in terms of consultation. Certain things need to be made clear, so that consultation can flow on the exact details. For example, the Development Council for England and Wales for Adult Education is a new concept. Most of the educational Press take this as a watch dog to see that the Minister and her partners in adult education are kept up to scratch. One weakness in the 1944 Act was that after the flurry of activity in the early years, interest in the Department tailed off and there was a long fallow period when voluntary bodies and local education authorities were left to jog along. I hope that an early announcement will be made informing us when the development council is to be set up.

The Department should also announce that it is working on a comprehensive and varied service for adult education which the committee recommends should be set up, and that within a fairly short time advice and directions to local authorities will be issued. This aspect should not be allowed to get into a rut, as happened after 1950.

The third matter which is important is a long-term consideration, but one on which an early announcement needs to be made. This relates to the Department's recruiting the extra staff needed. An early indication of a considerable expansion in the number of adult tutors would be helpful.

There is one area in which the Committee's recommendations break new ground. I refer to those recommendations which ask for special attention to be paid to the needs of education for the handicapped and the disadvantaged. Local education authorities and local authorities generally are moving into a new field of activity. We all appreciate that new directors of social services are being set up within local authorities and that these new departments are in process of being organised. Again, it would be helpful if the Government were to give a clear indication that this is to be a growth point to be backed by the Department and, indeed, by other Government Departments.

One area of the report on which I have campaigned has received rather timid attention from the committee. I refer to paragraph 255, relating to long-term residential colleges. The committee has made a number of recommendations which are all of an administrative nature and which will be easy to put into effect. I see no reason why an early announcement should not be made that those recommendations will be accepted. This would ease the burden on the colleges and assist them in their job of teaching.

The committee recommends that one extra college should be located in the North. I have for many years campaigned for a college in Durham, where the county council, the university and the Workers' Education Association have always shown great interest in such a project. However, I think that the recommendation is timid, in that there is a great untapped demand for a long-term residential institution. Merely to strengthen the existing organisation is satisfactory, but in the same way that before 1964 the Conservative Government were very slow to recognise the contribution which mature students could make to the teaching profession, so the Russell Committee has been timid in thinking that there was room only for one more college and in respect of the strengthening of existing colleges. There is no reason why there should not be an announcement fairly soon that the administrative measures which the colleges want and the Russell Committee recommends will be put into operation.

One matter which will need discussion, which is fundamental for voluntary bodies, is the committee's recommendation that the responsible bodies should go and that universities and the Workers' Educational Association, with direct grant from the Department, should be treated as entities in themselves.

The Workers' Educational Association come very well out of the report. The committee recommends the strengthening of many of its existing functions and finds them all satisfactory. It draws attention to what many of us have been urging for a long time, namely, that only lack of money prevents much more activity by the WEA. In the same way, it is vital that in trying to strengthen the education side of universities the UGC should take a much more positive rôle.

This is undoubtedly a matter for consultation with responsible bodies, colleges and the WEA. I hope that throughout the consultations, the Secretary of State will take a positive line and that the change from the responsible bodies to a wider concept will in no way inhibit the maximum flow of funds from universities, the Department and local education authorities into this work. A statement of that kind could be made quite soon. It would be of help to existing responsible bodies, the extra-mural bodies and the Workers' Educational Association, as they make plans.

There are two general matters to which I should refer. With the great development of interest in adult education in Europe, the desire for qualifications to be of the right status and the need for professionally qualified people throughout Europe—a debate on this subject has been taking place in the other House today—I hope that in its consultations on the long-term requirements the Department will ensure that universities are enthusiastic about building up a system of credit for adults on the American style of degrees, diplomas, and other qualifications, not only in our territory but in relation to growing developments in Europe.

We are disappointed that the Russell Committee took an offhand and insular view of permanent education. The Council of Europe has been developing this concept for a long time. In practical terms, in Britain, we are fairly good at this, but we do not philosophise about it, and perhaps the philosophising of the French and Germans on this puts us off. The Russell Committee puts this on one side, saying that to evolve a scheme of permanent education would take too long, and therefore it is not for us at the moment.

In a sense that is one of the general weaknesses of the report. It looks only at what is going on and only a short time ahead—but it is precisely for that reason that it should be welcomed by a Conservative Government. It should lend itself to being put into operation easily and quickly. I hope, therefore, that the Under-Secretary will be able to give a general indication that the Government are prepared to do their part in what Russell recommends.

Having had the report for four months, the Government must know what general principles, amongst the mass of detail, they can declare. I hope that they will give an assurance that time will be found in the near future for a full debate on the report. My views tonight are those to which I think quick answers can be given. I hope there will be a general assertion that the money and departmental interest will be there, so the recommendations of this practical and sound report can be carried out in the minimum of time.

11.1 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

First, I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) for having raised this most important topic of the Russell Report on Adult Education. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's long and active association with adult education, first in a teaching capacity—when he was a lecturer at a number of university extramural departments, and later director at Durham—and, more recently, in the rather broader capacity, which he has so ably exercised tonight, of advocate for a bigger and better system of adult education, with its own separate structure and identity. No one in the House has done more than the hon. Gentleman for adult education.

In a very much smaller way I have been concerned with the work of the Workers' Educational Association. When I was starting my brief and quite un notable career at the Bar I was very grateful to the association because it provided me with one of my few means of support during that period. I was glad to receive the modest fees which were involved in interesting myself in lectures for adult education, but I found it much a more rewarding experience educationally than financially.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the previous relationship with my noble Friend, Lord Eccles. My noble Friend has maintained his interest in adult education because, after all, what is an interest in the arts, which he has done so much to sponsor, but a form of adult education which is a remarkably painless way of deepening one's knowledge and one's own and other people's culture?

I share the hon. Gentleman's views about the importance of the contribution made by the report to the discussion of an important subject, and I gladly acknowledge the debt that is due to Sir Lionel Russell and his colleagues for the great amount of work which they have put in over such a long period in producing such a thorough and comprehensive survey of the present situation.

The hon. Gentleman said that we had had the report in the Department for four months. That is true, but the report was published only a fortnight ago and despite the zeal of the hon. Gentleman and the capacity for work of my right hon. Friend, which the House knows so well, a fortnight is not long enough to put in train the consultations which must take place with those organisations which have a special interest in this subject. But I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are preparing the ground for this.

The report is a very long and detailed document. It took four years to compile. Perhaps I may say something of its main themes. The hon. Gentleman has touched on a number of them, but, given the dimensions of the subject, I hope to say something about them without treading over the same ground.

The first point I should like to make is that in our society the demand for all kinds of education, and especially education during adulthood, will increase. There are a variety of reasons for this. The population is increasing. It is a better educated population that we have ever had, and better educated people demand more educational provision. Economic considerations require people to accept change and prepare for a second or third career, or for early retirement or redundancy. The pace of change will undoubtedly be hastened by our membership of the European Community. Social mobility is on the increase and it demands new social skills. Changing patterns in child education require changing provision for parents and for children when they become adult, especially in leisure-time activities.

Although we may not call what is needed l'education permanent, in the French manner, I believe—whatever the Russell Report may say on the point— that it is precisely with that concept that the report is dealing, and that we are entering into a situation in which education will and must continue throughout life.

Next, the report makes the point that many people do not reach their full potential during the years normally associated with full-time education. It is in the interest of society to provide opportunities for such people, in adulthood, to train or retrain for more exacting and skilful occupations than they would otherwise be qualified to follow. Many of these people are handicapped, live in areas of social deprivation, or are otherwise disadvantaged. Adult education is one instrument to be used to improve the capacities of such people as individuals and as citizens.

Thirdly, the report deals with the evolution of industrial society, with its better educated, more affluent and more leisured adult population. The service has the potential to make a worthwhile contribution to the social health and well-being of the community as a whole, and should not be thought of only as either a matter of personal cultivation or as part of the process of preparation for vocational change or advancement. But it is a process; the process of adult education is something of value in itself to society.

The report indicates that opportunities for the development of adult aducation are already extraordinarily widespread at all levels through clubs, societies, organisations, institutions, and so on. More deliberate effort should be devoted to the cultivation of this potential. Relatively small grants paid to national bodies in respect of their general educational work and to local groups in respect of local activities are instrumental in releasing for adult education considerable voluntary effort as well as other resources at the disposal of these organisations.

Finally, the report claims that the value of adult education is not solely to be measured by direct increases in earning power or productive capacity, or by any other materialistic yardstick, but by the quality of life it inspires in the individual and generates for the community at large. No academic subject or social or creative activity is superior to another, provided that those engaged in it develop a greater awareness of their own capacities and a more certain knowledge of the totality of their responsibilities as human beings.

If we look at the state of our society today—the permissive society, as it has come to be known—we should have to be complacent indeed not to be alarmed at certain features of it, and at the sort of society, moral and intellectual, that we are creating. The negative form of response to that society is perhaps epitomised in the approach of those like Lord Longford and Mrs. Mary White-house, who, with, I am sure, sincere motives, adopt what I often think is rather a negative approach to these problems. Adult education is a positive contribution towards solving these problems. It is meeting a moral crisis not by negative proscriptions but by seeking to provide postive good for people's minds and thoughts.

If the hon. Gentleman tells me that the Department should show interest in this subject, I tell him that it is already showing the most intense interest in it. If he says that a special Minister should be concerned with this subject, I say that I believe that that is unnecessary, because both my right hon. Friend and I are extremely interested in the issues involved. I shall be going to Bangor just before Easter, to the Conference of the National Institute or Adult Education, to speak about the report and its contribution to our life.

It was right that the report should be published as quickly as possible, to give the earliest opportunity for discussion, but it is also right that the fruit of nearly four years' work by a distinguished committee should be carefully weighed before decisions are taken on its recommendations. My right hon. Friend believes that, as part of this process, she should at the appropriate time—which will be soon—have the benefit of comment from those who provide, use or are otherwise involved in the adult education service. The report is a thorough-going examination—the first for about 50 years—of adult education in this country. We must be sure that whatever steps are taken as a result of it are the right ones.

I conclude by expressing again to the hon. Gentleman our sense of appreciation that he has chosen this subject for an early Adjournment motion. I assure him of the Department's concern and my own personal interest in the subject. We look forward to having the advice which I am sure he will be willing to give us and the questions which he will raise on this subject, to which he has made such a notable contribution.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Eleven o'clock.