HC Deb 23 March 1973 vol 853 cc879-90

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Michael Barnes (Brentford and Chiswick)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the subject of the implications for art colleges of the report of the Pooling Committee. Art education in this country has achieved a world renown during the last decade. The success of art colleges in London like Chelsea, Central, and St. Martins, and indeed Camberwell, Kingston, and Goldsmiths is well known. Writing in The Guardian a year or so ago, Mr. Patrick Heron claimed that Leeds College of Art was the most influential in Europe since the Bauhaus.

In recent months, there has been a series of pronouncements that have caused great consternation and a sense of outrage in art colleges at the prospect that the whole basis of art education will be changed in two important respects.

First, there is the proposal that students should need two A levels to gain entry and that they should enter diploma courses straight from sixth forms, with the consequent loss of foundation courses that this would mean. There appears to be some difference of emphasis about this proposal between the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design memorandum that was issued last month and the joint statement, also issued last month, by the National Council and the Council for National Academic Awards. The joint statement appears to be much less dogmatic on the question of two A levels for entry than does the National Council statement. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify the position, because there is a great deal of confusion about exactly what is proposed.

Any move in the direction of requiring two A levels for entry will inevitably be a retrograde step. Artistic talent is not the same as academic ability. I quote an extract from the speech of Lord Esher, Rector and Vice-Provost of the Royal College of Art, who said at Brighton last month. In 1967 the last year in which class degrees were given at the Royal College of Art of those who received Firsts, 94 per cent were without two A-levels and of those who received 2/'s 82 per cent. were without two A-levels. These were presumably among the most talented artists and designers of their generation. The effect of insisting on two A-levels for entry will mean that it will be much harder for students from educationally under-privileged backgrounds to gain entrance to art colleges. These are students whose intelligence is essentially non-verbal, but in terms of art they are highly talented. I am sure that this is a point which the Under-Secretary of State, with his appreciation of the arts, will understand.

The main subject of this debate is the report of the Pooling Committee entitled Assessment of Curricular Activities and Utilisation of Staff Resources in Polytechnics and Further Education Colleges. That report could mean two things for art colleges. First it could mean that the individual basis on which art and design is taught at present will disappear. Secondly, it could mean that many students will be deprived of access to, and teaching by, practising artists.

I should like to ask one or two questions about the status of the report. The Committee says in its introduction that the report is for general guidance only, but Sir William Alexander, who is the Secretary of the Association of Education Committees, has stated that the report was considered by all the associations and approved by them and therefore had their approval before it was issued.

The report is at present being implemented at the Maidstone College of Art, and from the reports I have heard it seems that it is being implemented in the worst possible way with little consultation between Kent County Council and the College. The cuts put into effect at Maidstone in terms of the amount of money available for employment of part-time teachers mean that the amount of money there will be reduced from £60,000 in the current year to £20,000 in 1976–77.

An earlier memorandum issued by the Pooling Committeee on staff-student ratios for advanced levels of work in polytechnics and colleges of further education conceded that art colleges were a special case and said that no redundancies should take place simply to comply with the proposed ratios. But in reading the documents one wonders whether the Pooling Committee understands the implications for art colleges of what it is proposing. There are special characteristics about art and design education which are not normally present in other disciplines. These characteristics justify a higher level of staffing. For example, there is the individual nature of each student's work. In many cases the innovatory nature of that work expands art into areas where it has not been before and involves the use of new materials. These matters require a wide variety of staff with different approaches and different areas of specialisation.

We must also consider the fact that when students make something with their hands they often work long hours, and this is particularly true of jewellery and silversmithing. It means that studios and workshops will be used for long periods during which staff supervision is required. This results in a situation where art students have relatively short "taught" hours but work long curricular hours. For other students 18 hours per week may be normal, but for art students supervised hours of study are likely to be 35 to 40 hours per week. It is essential in any proposal such as the Pooling Committee's report that there should be a counter-weighting factor for art colleges.

I come now to what I believe to be the most important matter to result from this report. It is the situation of practising artists who act as part-time teachers. These part-time staff may be working one, two or three days a week or may be working on short block contracts, and they are occupied as practising artists and designers during the rest of the week. In addition to providing a variety of specialised skills in art colleges, they bring practical and up-to-date knowledge of the subject to teaching.

When the memorandum of the Pooling Committee says that there should not be redundancies simply to comply with the ratios, it ignores the fact that many of these part-time staff are on short-term contracts and therefore that there is no need for them to be made redundant. It can simply be a matter of not renewing their contracts. But in any event if the report were implemented it could mean that as many as two-thirds of the part-time staff in art colleges would have to go. That seems to be the direction in which Maidstone College of Art is heading.

It may be said that some full-time staff in art colleges are also practising artists. But the demands of teaching make this very difficult in practice. For most practising artists who teach there comes a real point of conflict between their own programmes of work and their teaching if they try to do too much teaching and, if they are teaching for four days a week, they are unlikely to be producing much work of their own.

There may be many subjects which are perfectly well taught by people who teach rather than by people who do, but art is not one of them. The nature of art makes it essential that young men and women who want to be artists have access to those who are themselves practising artists.

For all these reasons I urge the Undersecretary to give guidance to local education authorities about how they should view this report of the Pooling Committee as far as art colleges are concerned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the point that I am trying to make about the need for further guidance from the Department about how this report should be viewed and acted upon. Such guidance seems to be very badly needed.

As I said earlier there is a great sense of outrage amongst students and teachers about what they fear is about to be done to art education. They feel that art colleges are being meddled with by those who do not understand them. As the noble Lord, Lord Annan reminded us in the Dimbleby lecture on the universities which he delivered some months ago when he quoted Dr. Arnold, No one ought to meddle with universities who does not know them well and love them well. The same goes for art colleges.

4.13 p.m.

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

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) for raising this most important matter. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to do so, let me congratulate him upon the extremely clear and cogent manner in which he presented his argument.

Before I attempt to answer the points raised by the hon. Gentleman on the Pooling Committee's report, I should like to say a few words on the matter of entry qualifications to the Diploma in Art and Design.

The first point that I should make is that the question of future requirements for entry to the Dip.AD is, of course, the concern of the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design. That is the body that awards the Dip.AD and validates the courses. It was asked to consider them by my right hon. Friend in the light of new developments and has done so. In its recent memorandum, widely circulated, the council has set out the changes that it has in mind for the future and explained the main lines of argument which led to its conclusions. That is a long and detailed document, issued by the council, which has to be studied. It does not propose two A levels as the only acceptable entry qualification but includes alternatives calling for further consideration and discussion. It has something to say about foundation courses, and the wording it uses does not imply a sudden extinction of these. As to the revised conditions of entry, the document explains that the council considers that it would be inappropriate to require these of students entering diploma courses before September 1976.

The national council has also recently issued a joint statement with the Council for National Academic Awards, which the hon. Member has also mentioned, which refers to entry qualificaitons in the context of a proposed merger between the two bodies. That statement says that five O level passes and a satisfactory attainment in an appropriate foundation course would, in the first instance, be acceptable for entry to degree courses in art and design, but it is to be expected that in general, entry qualifications for such courses would come to be similar to those for other degree courses. This is in the context of a merger proposed, subject to agreement and the necessary processes, for September 1974. On this point of entry qualifications I think it would be mistaken to see a conflict between those two statements. These are, of course, statements not of the Government but of the councils responsible.

I turn now to the question of the Pooling Committee's memorandum. First, I must explain the background. The system known as "pooling" operates in relation to the provision by local authorities of colleges of education and of advanced further education courses at polytechnics and other colleges, including colleges of art. It is a method of distributing among all local education authorities expenditure incurred by only some of them where this is thought to be the equitable course. However, this method of distributing expenditure has the effect of weakening, for the providing local education authority, the normal financial constraints. For this reason my right hon. Friend's predecessor who was in office in 1968 set up the Pooling Committee, at the request of the local authorities, to exercise a general oversight of expenditure incurred by local education authorities in the provision of those services whose costs are pooled in the way I have described.

It is, of course, the local authorities which are responsible within our system, for making the actual provision of education in the establishments which they maintain. The membership of the Pooling Committee is drawn from the local authority world, comprising representatives nominated by the appropriate associations and committees. My Department provides the chairman, the secretariat and professional and technical support.

Some time ago, as part of its proper function—the promotion of efficient and economic management of the institutions whose expenditure is pooled—the committee embarked upon a thorough examination of the staffing arrangements in polytechnics and other colleges of further education which offer a substantial element of courses at the advanced further education level. This was the exercise which led to the production by the committee last year of a memorandum on student staff ratios for advanced level work in polytechnics and colleges of further education. The memorandum is the document that recommended the adoption of certain student-staff ratio bands.

Just to get the position clear, however, I should explain that, after having arrived at these recommendations, the Pooling Committee considered that the work it had carried out made it possible to suggest to authorities and colleges methods of compiling and presenting information about students and staff. A separate document setting out these methods was accordingly prepared and, at the invitation of the Pooling Committee, the local authority associations subsequently arranged for this to be published. The resultant booklet is a descriptive paper about methodology and does not make recommendations about student-staff ratios as the memorandum did. I am making this clear so that there should be no misunderstanding, and in my further remarks I shall be referring to the memorandum alone.

The subject of the memorandum is student-staff ratios for advanced level work in polytechnics and colleges of further education. It will be seen therefore that the memorandum related to work at this level in the whole field of further education and not just in colleges and departments of art, which account for a relatively small proportion of the whole.

The committee's first step was to collect the facts on staffing arrangements. Thereafter, the provisional proposals were, I understand, discussed with representatives of the teachers and other interests in the further education service. This included discussion with the bodies representing art institutions and art teachers.

In reaching its final recommendations the committee gave very careful consideration to the views and comments submitted by representatives of the various organisations in the further education service with which its provisional proposals had been discussed. Eventually the committee submitted the memorandum to the local authority associations, and it will be noted here by the hon. Gentleman that the committee's recommendations were addressed to the local authority associations and not to my right hon. Friend.

The memorandum recommended the associations to inform maintaining authorities, polytechnics and colleges of what, in the committee's opinion, could be regarded as reasonable norms of student-staff ratios for advanced level work. It was the local authority associa- tions which, after consideration, circulated it last August and commended it to their members, namely the authorities responsible for maintaining the polytechnics and colleges. It then became a matter for the individual local education authorities to consider the application of the memorandum.

The point that I stress to the hon. Gentleman is that the memorandum is purely advisory. It is not mandatory in any sense, but of course individual authorities will pay great attention to the words of Sir William Alexander. Anyone who works in the education field would be wise to heed what Sir William says, but it remains for the individual authorities to decide in what way and to what extent they should apply its recommendations to the colleges they maintain. The responsibility of authorities and governors of individual institutions for determining the staffing of the establishment remains theirs and has in no way been changed by the issue of the memorandum. I hope that that makes clear precisely what is the status of this memorandum.

The recommendations in the memorandum are quite simple. For the purpose of student-staff ratios, the separate faculties and departments in polytechnics and colleges were to be grouped under two main groups, and to each of these two groups overall student-staff ratios were to be applied. Art and design is included in Group 1, along with technology, engineering, science, architecture and certain other faculty areas for which the more generous of the ratios is proposed.

The Pooling Committee expressed the belief that it should be possible for all colleges to make the necessary adjustments to achieve the ratio, which is not expressed as a single figure but as a band within which the ratio should fall, within a period of about four years from the date of the memorandum, and added that in no case should staff be made redundant simply to comply with the staffing ratios. The Pooling Committee's memorandum announced the committee's own intention to review from time to time the levels and operation of the ratio bands that the memorandum recommended, and when any such review takes place I have no doubt that the committee will take into account the experience of authorities and colleges, and of other interests concerned in the operation of the memorandum. But it is early days yet, and I think it right to say to the hon. Gentleman, who has been so vigilant in this respect, that it would be wise to wait to see how things turn out before passing final judgment.

I now come to the particular question of the implications of these recommendations for art colleges. The memorandum had some special comments to make on art colleges, in respect of which it noted that at the present time there appeared to exist a number of additional features resulting in average student/staff ratios lower than the ratios in colleges generally. From what it said in the memorandum it is clear that the Pooling Committee itself positively advocated sympathetic consideration by authorities for the area of art and design and the special difficulties that might arise. I am sure that all those concerned with the interests of art and design education will welcome this recommendation of the Pooling Committee's memorandum, and it is an approach which my right hon. Friend and I would underline.

One factor often referred to—the hon. Member mentioned it—is the important place, in such teaching, of part-time staff who are practising artists and designers themselves. It will be appreciated that there is nothing in the memorandum of the Pooling Committee to say that part-time staff should not be employed, and certainly nothing in the policies of my Department to prevent the employment of part-time teachers in further education. I am sure that where there can be some practising artists and designers teaching part-time, this is an uncoven-anted gain to a college; the authorities, polytechnics and colleges will themselves know that this is the view of the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design, since it states in its Memorandum No. 1: The employment of part-time staff and visiting lecturers who are practising artists, designers or other specialists of repute is to be regarded as strongly desirable". Not that this is to decry full-time staff, since the NCDAD says: All teachers should be practitioners in their own field ". The artist's lot in our society is not a happy one. While public and private money is poured out on a whole range of projects, some good and some bad, not nearly enough is being done for the creative artist—yet he is the one who most enriches, in the true sense of the word, our society. He does something to bring transcendental values into a society which is suffering from a form of spiritual starvation. For this he is offered by society, if not a stone, at any rate a crust. I should be the first to deplore any move to snatch from him or her such crusts as are available.

Havng said this, I would add that efficiency and economy in the growing provision of higher education is a proper concern not only, in further education, of the local authorities whose representatives constitute the Pooling Committee, but also of the Government. Hon. Members will be aware of the broad view on staffing standards in higher education in paragraph 126 of the recent White Paper "Education: A Framework for Expansion". This said that, in the Government's view, the financing of universities and of non-university higher education should be based on the assumption that staff—student ratios could be modified by the end of the decade to an average level of about 10: 1 and that the Government considered that a gradual transition to this average figure should be possible without lowering standards.

Standards are important, and this applies in art and design education as elsewhere. I am sure that local education authorities, in considering the recommendations of the Pooling Committee and their application, will keep this very much in mind, and will use their discretion in the application of the recom mendations, taking full account of all local circumstances.

Given the background to the memorandum and the body which produced this, I do not see it as the place of my Department to offer explicit guidance to the authorities on how they should carry out functions which are their own responsibility, and accordingly I do not contemplate the issue of guidance from the Department to authorities on the implementation in respect of art colleges of what is in itself a guidance document circulated by the authorities' own associations. But no doubt what I have said in this debate will be brought to their attention and noted by them.

I should like to conclude by referring specifically to the art colleges and departments. It is the local education authorities which have built up the provision to its present high standards, and one must not expect them now to wish to take action to lower these. But the best foundation for securing them in the long run, is a bedrock of sound organisation, including the most effective possible use of staff resources. This is an aim which can, I hope, command the support of all who wish to see the continuance of a strong place in the future for art and design within our further education system.

I thank the hon. Member once again for having raised this very important matter, and I assure him that it is one in which I take a personal interest.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.