HC Deb 08 November 1974 vol 880 cc1509-20

4.24 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am grateful to those right hon. and hon. Members who, by their forbearance, have ensured that this debate is not taking place even later in the day, and I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science present to reply to it. This case has passed through the hands of three Ministers. I hope that the bringing to bear of a fresh mind with strong North-East connections and background will lead to a different approach being adopted to this long and, until now, sad affair of the attempt to close Alnwick College of Education.

The background is the policy of massive cuts in teacher training which this Government inherited from their predecessors, which they might have been expected at least to arrest in some way but which they have pursued with equal enthusiasm. In opposition, the Labour Party denounced this policy. In government, it pursues it with enthusiasm.

It is based on the assumption that the birth rate is falling so fast that we shall have a huge teacher surplus in years to come and, therefore, that colleges of education must have their output cut severely.

I tried to find out something more precise about these assumptions by putting a Question to the Minister about the expectations for the ratio of teachers to pupils in the 1980s and up to 1995. That is the period for which we are training teachers. I received the answer: On current expectations this ratio should be between 18 and 19:1 by 1980; but the uncertainties of demographic and other factors make projections beyond that year increasingly speculative."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th November 1974; Vol. 880, c. 126.] I had asked about the years 1980 to 1995. The projection for those years, according to the Minister, is increasingly speculative. The figures could not even he quoted. Yet it is on that basis that this whole programme depends. It is on those speculative assumptions that these cuts have their foundation.

Even if we were to go along with that policy and put aside the qualifications which many of us have about the scale of the cuts, I think that Alnwick would still require further consideration within the framework of that policy.

The Secretary of State's reasons for concentrating his cuts on Alnwick do not bear close examination. Educationally, Alnwick has earned a claim to a place in future education provision. It has a widely-recognised and distinctive approach and philosophy which exploit the benefits of its small size. Education is one sector in which it is particularly and increasingly obvious that bigger does not necessarily mean better.

Alnwick has had great success in bringing into teaching and training to a high standard mature students who in many cases come from the area and bring into teaching experience of different walks of life.

Alnwick has made a tremendous contribution to education in a scattered rural area stretching from Northumberland into Cumbria and Southern Scotland. If the plans were to go ahead and Alnwick were to close, there would be no institution of education beyond the age of 18 in a huge tract of country from Tyneside to the Firth of Forth and the Edinburgh area. We should remember that it is far from being an area of idyllic schools free from problems. The Alnwick area has within it a strikingly high proportion of what are now being classified as schools with severe social deprivation. Work currently being done to establish which schools these are demonstrates that no fewer than five are in Alnwick itself.

Alnwick has built up an expert and experienced staff together with a massive investment in resources. Over the past two years £250,000 has been spent on new building projects, some of them only just completed, with the intention that the college's work should continue. These assets would be wasted.

The college contributes enormously to the life, economy and employment opportunities of Alnwick. Cuts on the same scale in other areas would have nothing like the effect that they will have on a small town such as Alnwick. The economy will lose to the extent of about £300,000 a year. There are no alternative jobs for the academic or domestic staff whose positions would be lost by the closure of the college. It is significant that the county council sees no foreseeable remedy for the effects on the life and community of the area which the closure of the college would have. The closure has been opposed by the college authorities, the staff and the students, including final year students, whose continuing interest might not be so great, and by intending students.

At the beginning of the debate a message was passed to me from a widow with two children who lives in the area. She has spent two years training to get into Alnwick College of Education knowing that she can do teacher training there and then, when her children have grown up, can look further afield for a teaching place, having been able to do her training in her own area. That is a common pattern which will no longer be available to people living in that scattered rural area.

The local education authority, far from being prepared to accept the Minister's decision, is determined that Alnwick col- lege should remain open, and has examined this in considerable depth. The authority is convinced that the college has a future in association with other colleges in the Northumberland area.

That brings me to the first of a number of specific points on which I should like the Minister's comments. On 23rd July I asked the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler), about the Department's closure proposals.

The hon. Gentleman said: My Department is not issuing closure proposals. It has no standing or right to do so. The proposals come from the local education authorities. My Department considers them and advises the local education authorities, as it has done in the case of…Alnwick. That advice is not necessarily accepted by the LEA's, but in my view it is normally sound advice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd July 1974; Vol. 877, c. 1269.] That is different from deciding that the college is to be closed.

The Minister has advised the local authority to close the college but it has decided that it does not wish to do so. Where does the authority now stand? The Minister must know that he has it in his power to put a number of obstacles in the way of the decision of the local authority to continue the college. I should like to hear today that he has no intention of putting those obstacles in the local authority's way if it decides after careful consideration that the college should remain open. I hope that the Minister will not prevent the local authority from implementing its decision. That was the spirit of what the hon. Member for The Wrekin said on 23rd July and I hope that it will be borne out by subsequent actions of the Department.

I should like more than a grudging blessing from the Government for the policy decided on by the county council. I should like the Government's full blessing, and if the Minister has looked at the Department's case—as I know he has over the past few days—he will see that it turns on doubtful assumptions.

Let me consider first the alleged low standard of entrance which is one of the features that has been argued against Alnwick. This seems to be an absurd objection to raise when it rests on the fact that Alnwick recruits mature students who have not had the opportunity to obtain A-level qualifications which the present school leavers have. It has brought in people whose experience is in a different school of life. Are the Labour Government, in their headlong rush to get an all A-level entry to the colleges, to turn their back on the contribution of present generations of mature students who can bring to the education system something which it badly needs?

The other objection against Alnwick is its smallness and remoteness. These factors are seen by the Minister as positive advantages in certain other colleges. The Minister has agreed that the Charlotte Mason College of Education at Ambleside should continue to exist, and it comes through from Cumbria's submission to the Minister and his acceptance of it that he sees advantages in the smallness of that college. These advantages are exploited by Alnwick and there are close links between Alnwick and Charlotte Mason based on the similar kinds of work of the two colleges.

Particularly complex and difficult is the question of the validation of the future B.Ed. degree. This is the turning point of the Department's case against Alnwick and it needs closer examination. The problem arises because Newcastle University has decided, for reasons of its own which have nothing to do with the college, not to offer a service of validation to colleges in its area.

We know why the decision was taken. I was a member of the staff at the university at the time. The decision was connected with the university's own resources and had nothing to do with the colleges, but the decision placed the colleges in a difficult position because they must look either to another university or to the CNAA for validation of their degrees.

It may be asked why they should not look to another university. An area training organisation cannot be sacrosanct if one university decides not to provide a validation service. It is possible that other universities may be asked for their help. I do not think that the Minister can turn his back on that possibility.

Let us look at the CNAA. The extraordinary view has been put about by the Department that it would be unlikely to validate B.Ed. courses at Alnwick. The CNAA has already indicated that colleges of the size of Alnwick are not excluded from validation.

From where comes the damaging myth that the college could never get CNAA validation? My first trace is in a letter over the ubiquitous signature of Mr. Harding dated 23rd May 1974, in which he said: It is extremely unlikely that Alnwick could from its own resources satisfy CNAA requirements. That goes very much counter to what the CNAA has been saying to colleges. If it is to be prejudged in this way, we might as well tell it to pack up and send its members back to their various universities. If we are to say in advance that it will not validate particular colleges and courses, its labours are surely in vain. Decisions as crucial as the closure of colleges must be based on a sounder foundation than the prediction of a civil servant that the CNAA might not validate a course which has not yet been prepared.

Everything that Alnwick can offer the education system is threatened by some very shaky reasoning. The Department's arguments begin to crumble on close examination. I hope that over the last few days the Minister has seen this for himself. I do not expect him to announce today that he has entirely changed the decision and that the college will now remain open for initial teacher training. I and many people in Alnwick will be pleasantly surprised, indeed delighted, if he does, but I expect him to be able to say that he will now review the decision in its entirety to ensure that there is a future for a college with a tremendous contribution to make to initial teacher-training and against which the case is so weak.

4.36 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for the manner in which he has raised this matter, which is important both to him and in the context of the reorganisation of higher education. I know how strongly he feels. He has put a strong case in moderate terms, for which I am grateful, and I shall do my best to deal with his points.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

This is an early point to intervene in the Minister's speech, but it might be easier than interrupting later. Will he accept that this is more than a constituency issue, that the position is deeply and widely resented in Northumbria and the North of England generally? In that respect, will he also assure us that, before any decision is taken, regard will be had to the letter which the Northumberland County Council sent his Department on 5th November, which says that the council and the governors are unanimously opposed to the decision?

Mr. Armstrong

Yes, I have considered that letter. I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's presence, and I understand the importance of the matter.

I was saying that the situation of the college has to be seen in the context of the reorganisation of higher education. It is certainly much more than a constituency case. We have had a volume of correspondence and protest from all kinds of voluntary bodies, from the local authorities concerned, and from the North-East Development Council, and so on. All have been considered carefully, and we have also, although it is very recent, studied the letter to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned the birth rate projections and the size of the higher education sector in the years to come. I am sure he will agree that that will be debated many times in the House. Nevertheless, it is against that background that we have considered the Alnwick case.

The hon. Member knows that the Secretary of State took the decision with the greatest reluctance that Alnwick should cease to admit students to initial training after September 1974. Alnwick has many friends. I was privileged to visit the college myself before I became a Minister to talk about certain aspects of education. It is in a delightful setting, and has many well-wishers, far beyond the bounds of Alnwick and the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The concern expressed since it became known earlier this year that its future was in doubt demonstrates clearly the respect and affection that it has deservedly won in the surrounding area and more widely since it was established as an emergency training college shortly after the Second World War. The Northumberland authority and the governing body have throughout given the college their wholehearted support. I must pay tribute to the work of Miss Hollamby, who has been an outstanding principal by any count, and to her staff Alnwick has made an important contribution to teacher supply over the years and has earned a reputation for a distinctive approach to the professional element in its courses.

The decision which has now been made should not, therefore, be taken as any reflection on Alnwick's achievements in the past; rather, it results from grave doubts about its prospects of meeting the demands of the new developments outlined in the 1972 White Paper. That White Paper will already be familiar to the House. I must, however, mention some of those demands again, as they provide the background against which the decision on Alnwick has to be viewed.

The first one—and we cannot escape this—is a sharp reduction in the number of places for teacher training from the 1971 figure of 115,000. I agree that in all these matters we must give a judgment, but no one can yet say precisely what the requirement will be in 1981, although it is unlikely to exceed, in the extreme, 80,000 places and may well be very much less.

The second development is the ending of the present isolation of the colleges of education and their closer assimilation with the rest of higher and further education. Thirdly, there is the substitution of new B.Ed degree courses with a two A-level entry requirement for the colleges' present certificate of education courses for which there is a lower academic requirement. In the White Paper the statement was The introduction of new three-year ordinary and four-year honours B.Ed courses with a two A-level entry requirement. That has to be borne in mind.

Fourthly, there is the introduction into the colleges of education, wherever possible, of courses other than teacher training courses.

I now turn specifically to Alnwick and mention some of the main considerations which my right hon. Friend took into account when he made his decision. One was that with a student number target of 396 Alnwick is one of the smallest colleges in the country. I know from my experience in education that size is not everything. I know that there are some students who are attracted to small institutions because they think they will find a distinctive atmosphere there and there are others who, naturally, will seem to gravitate towards a college nearer home because of their domestic circumstances. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall bear this in mind but, of course, we must consider it against the bigger background.

The resources of small institutions, however, are necessarily restricted. It is difficult for them to offer a full range of advanced courses. Despite the good work that Alnwick has done, it has regularly failed to fill its places. For example, this year, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it has attracted only 100 entrants, although the target was 125.

Mr. Beith

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that this applies to almost all colleges in the Northern Region at present?

Mr. Armstrong

Yes, I am aware of that but I was saying that this is viewed in the context of the smallness of Alnwick college.

The second consideration was that only about 20 per cent. of the students entering training had two A-levels. This is no more than half the national average and compares unfavourably with some small and isolated colleges. Given what I have just said about recruitment, it is hard to believe that Alnwick would ever succeed in attracting sufficient students with two A-levels to the new B.Ed courses which are to replace the certificate courses. I recognise the tremendous job that has been done in attracting students who had not got two A-levels and came into the profession when we were in desperate need. I acknowledge that that has been an achievement, but we must pay regard to future policy.

It is in any case very doubtful whether Alnwick would be able to develop degree level courses. The decision by Newcastle University, with which Alnwick has hitherto been associated, not to validate such courses at any college in its area means that it would be necessary to turn to the CNAA for validation. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about other universities.

Mr. Rippon

Will the Under-Secretary be sure to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about the views expressed by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler)?

Mr. Armstrong

Yes. If there are not too many interruptions, I hope to cover that point.

Nor, in view of its position some 35 miles from Newcastle, would Alnwick have any reasonable prospect of strength and support by means of association with institutions there. It is also necessary to remember that the area north of the Tyne is relatively well provided with teacher training places and cannot escape a fair share of the national reduction of which I have already spoken. Nevertheless, the Northumberland authority hoped that Alnwick could continue to provide initial teacher training.

In my right hon. Friend's view, these considerations amounted to a strong educational case for the ending of initial training, for if Alnwick continued greater reductions would obviously be necessary at other training colleges.

I come now to some of the points raised in this short debate which, so to speak, touch the meat of the matter which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made much of the cultural, economic and social impact of the college on the surrounding area, and I, for my part, as a member of the Northern group on these matters, cannot overemphasise the importance of that. The authority also has made the same point. This is an aspect to which my right hon. Friend gave particularly careful thought.

I should make clear that the end of initial training does not necessarily mean the end of Alnwick College as an institution. To talk of closure is misleading. My right hon. Friend is concerned that as far as possible the premises should continue to be used for education. He has, therefore, urged the authority to examine further the possibility of using them for such purposes as in-service training and adult education, in addition to the nursery nurse training which is already contemplated. Officials of my Department have recently had a meeting with officers of the authority about this, and they will continue to offer help and encouragement. My right hon. Friend will be taking a close interest in these developments.

The hon. Gentleman questioned my right hon. Friend's powers in the matter. If he reads again the statement by the Minister of State who was in the Department, he will, I think, realise that in the context he was not saying that the Secretary of State did not have power. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to Regulation 5(2) of the Training of Teachers Regulations 1967: An authority shall comply with any direction given by the Secretary of State after consultation with the authority…to cease to maintain an establishment or to discontinue any course provided by an establishment. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is conclusive.

Mr. Beith

This is precisely the obstacle which I hoped the Department would not put in the way of the authority in giving advice. It ought not to be a determination on what it should do as a result of that advice.

Mr. Armstrong

With respect, I have read the relevant extract from the 1967 regulations, and it is conclusive.

Mr. Rippon

Does that not override the ministerial statement by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler)?

Mr. Armstrong

I have read the regulation. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman reads HANSARD he will find that authority is given to the Secretary of State, after consultation with the local authority, to direct that an establishment is no longer maintained. I do not think that any good purpose is served from Alnwick's point of view in arguing about that.

It is nearly two years since the issue of the White Paper, with its warning, which was repeated over 18 months ago in Circular 7/73, that some colleges which were small and inconveniently situated might need to be closed. I know that we have had criticism on the matter of timing, but for the whole of this time Alnwick, for all its hopes of survival, must have known that its future was in doubt. The doubt became all the greater last May when officials of the Department told the authority that they saw no future for initial training at Alnwick and invited its views in order that my right hon. Friend might take an early decision.

There followed what must have been an agonising period for Alnwick during which representations were made by the county council and by others with an interest in the college. My right hon. Friend considered all these representations very carefully, and this necessarily took some time. Having done so, he felt that, despite the General Election, it was necessary to bring the prolonged uncertainty to an end. His decision was, therefore, conveyed to the authority on 8th October.

I have referred already to the future of the premises. It will be necessary for the college to consider how to meet its obligations to the students already in training during the period when numbers are runing down. The future of members of staff must also be of great concern. As the hon. Member may know, the salaries of lecturers who obtain employment elsewhere will be safeguarded, and there are special arrangements, applying to non-teaching as well as to teaching staff, for those who are unfortunately unable to obtain employment. The authority has already been told, and I repeat now, that officials of my Department and members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate are available at any time to discuss these matters with the authority. I am sure that the Manpower Services Commission, too, will give all the assistance it can.

However, I should emphasise that if, as my right hon. Friend sincerely hopes, it is possible to keep the premises in use, the incidental effects of the end of initial training will be very much smaller than has been suggested.

During the past few days the Northumberland authority—the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to it—has written again to ask that Alnwick should continue to offer initial training. My right hon. Friend will very carefully study the arguments put forward by the authority. Nevertheless, I must, with regret, tell the hon. Gentleman, who has fought very hard for Alnwick, that I cannot, in view of the background I have described, offer hope that it would be possible for the decision to be reversed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Five o'clock.