HC Deb 23 July 1974 vol 877 cc1275-8
7. Mr. Nigel Lawson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has had from teachers about the problems which have arisen in certain schools following the raising of the school leaving age.

Mr. Prentice

I have had a number of letters from teachers and teachers' associations on various aspects of the raising of the school leaving age, and others have been passed on to me by hon. Members.

Mr. Lawson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I too have had a very large number of letters on the subject from responsible teachers throughout the country following my recent motion on this subject? They all drew attention to this problem and asked that something be done to modify the existing law. Will the right hon. Gentleman not merely undertake to have a full inquiry into this matter in the light of experience but also consult the teachers themselves directly and not through the National Union of Teachers, which is not altogether representative of teachers' views on this subject.

Mr. Prentice

I think that we have to distinguish between the narrower point of whether there should be an optional early leaving date in the summer—which is a matter we have under discussion and on which we have sought the views of all the teachers' organisations, not only the NUT, and of local authorities and others concerned—and the wider question raised by the hon. Gentleman in the debate of 8th July, when I thought that he was effectively answered by hon. Members on both sides of the House who preferred to keep to the policy of all parties that the school leaving age should remain at 16 and that all young people are entitled to five years of secondary education.

Mr. Flannery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that every educational advance ever made has produced its range of critics, that every Education Act has brought forth all sorts of condemnation and that every time the school leaving age has been raised there have been critics? Is he further aware that great good is bound to flow to children and young adults in school from the raising of the school leaving age, not merely to 16 but, I hope, one day even to 17 and over?

Mr. Prentice

I agree with my hon. Friend's point of view. From my contacts in many secondary schools in recent months the impression I have been given, both by pupils and by teachers, is that the vast majority of those spending the extra year at school, and who would have left voluntarily had it not been for the change, are behaving well, are not indulging in large-scale truancy, are not disrupting school life and are reaping genuine benefit by the extra year.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

While keeping the principle of the school leaving age at 16, will the right hon. Gentleman take early steps to make it more flexible in practice, first by enabling children at 15 to take up apprenticeships and courses of technical training, and secondly by enabling children to leave school directly after they have taken their CSE or other appropriate examination, because no good is done to anyone by keeping children hanging on at school in these circumstances?

Mr. Prentice

The second point raised by the hon. Gentleman is a matter on which, as I have said, we have been obtaining opinions from the local authorities and the teachers' associations and others concerned, and we will be studying them with a view to deciding whether some adjustment of the summer leaving date would be justified. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on the more general point he raised. Whether they go into apprenticeships or otherwise when they leave school, it must be generally recognised that these young people are entitled to five years of secondary education. We should not be defeatist about this at the end of only one year of the raising of the school leaving age.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Will my right hon. Friend take into account that it is not just a question of boys and girls staying at school until the age of 16 but probably also a question of what we are teaching them during that extra period? When my right hon. Friend is looking forward, will he take into account the advances which science has made over the last 30 years and those which may come into being over the next 30 years in considering what kind of education we are to give our young people to help them to live in that kind of society?

Mr. Prentice

My hon. Friend is right in saying that we have to look forward to the kind of world these young people will have to live in and the situations which they will face well into the next century. We must recognise against that background that they are entitled, all of them, to five years of secondary education. A great deal of excellent work is being done in the curricula in many schools, and bodies such as the Schools Council are stimulating new thought and new methods for the curricula. A great deal has been and is being learnt, and I would welcome comment about the content of curricula in order that we may take the greatest possible advantage of new thought and new methods, to the greatest possible benefit of the children.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there has been a radical change of mind on this matter among many teachers in secondary schools? Many of those who were most fanatically in favour of raising the school leaving age now find themselves most deeply handicapped by it. Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that many older pupils have told me that they would have been happy to stay on as volunteers but did not wish to be press-ganged into doing so, and that this had altered their whole attitude?

Mr. Prentice

I have visited a number of schools in socially-deprived areas which have many difficulties. Teachers have told me their problems. The majority have said that they still believe in the raising of the school leaving age and believe that they are achieving something worth while among the children staying on. I ask the hon. Lady not to generalise always from the worst examples and loudest complaints from a small minority but to consider the whole picture. If she did, she would come to a different conclusion.