HC Deb 04 March 1975 vol 887 cc1253-6
10. Mr. Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will take special steps, in view of the intention of local authorities to reduce their further education expenditure, to ensure that any progress made in extending day release for young workers can be met by the resources available in the colleges of further education which such young workers would attend.

Mr. Prentice

I am not aware that local authorities generally have decided to reduce their expenditure on further education. The rate support grant settlement for 1975–76 allows provision for the expected increase in the number of students in maintained colleges of further education in the coming year. I am anxious that opportunities for the continued education of young people in employment should be improved, and I am discussing with interested bodies possible ways of making practical progress in difficult economic circumstances.

Mr. Thorne

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the local authorities can meet all the needs of the further education sector in view of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's call for a reduction in revenue expenditure and the restrictions placed on capital projects? Does he consider that lower expenditure on education is part of the social contract?

Mr. Prentice

As I explained earlier, there is rising expenditure on education, and the education element in the rate support grant for 1975–76 allowed both for an increased number of students in further education and for some modest improvement in non-teaching costs. It is therefore not true to say what my hon. Friend said. I think we can see some progress here. In some areas, though not all, there are empty seats in classrooms in further education colleges and I would like to see these filled with extra students since that could be done without extra cost.

Dr. Hampson

Since the Government have asked local authorities to cut back on expenditure, and since education is now at the bottom of the Government's priority list of expenditure forecasts, how does the right hon. Gentleman justify asking local authorities to make reorganisation of secondary education their number one education priority? This lack of strategy and lack of guidelines will cause indiscriminate cuts and great damage to the system.

Mr. Prentice

I tried to explain earlier that education was not at the bottom of the Government's priorities. If the Conservatives had won the last election, however, it would have been at the bottom of theirs. It was a very important part of the Conservative election campaign to call for cuts in public expenditure with the exception of housing, pensions and agriculture. So education clearly was due for considerable cuts, and the country has been saved from that by the continuation in office of a Labour Government.

Mr. Spearing

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in spite of the welcome increase in education expenditure in polytechnics and technical colleges there is a distinct danger of valuable courses which cost very little being cut in order to maintain other more prestigious courses which appeal to the nominally better-qualified teachers? Will my right hon. Friend look at this as it affects the efficacy of the school leaving age programme and those not going for the more scholastic certificates and degrees?

Mr. Prentice

Both in our capital allocations and in all our policies we are tending to favour the local authority sector of higher education rather than universities and, within that, to give all possible priority to non-advanced work such as that provided for those on day release and further education courses.

Sir John Hall

Is the Secretary of State aware that, if the local authorities are to meet the Government's request that rate increases in the coming year should be restricted to no more than 25 per cent., there will inevitably be a cut in education expenditure in real terms? The target cannot be achieved in any other way. How does the right hon. Gentleman answer that point?

Mr. Prentice

No, Sir. The rate support grant settlement was negotiated between the Government and the local authority associations on the basis that rate increases should be confined within the limits laid down and that expenditure increases should be confined to inescapable commitments. The education component of that envisaged growth in real terms of 4 per cent. and the further education component, which is the subject of the Question, envisages increased student numbers and some modest improvement in standards.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

I accept most of the things my right hon. Friend has said, but is he aware that there is very real concern among people who are involved in these matters that cuts are taking place in post-16 education in general? Does he accept that post-16 education is particularly vulnerable in times of economic stringency compared with the mandatory pre-16 sector?

Mr. Prentice

I accept that it is a particularly vulnerable sector because it is not mandatory. I would like to put on record that I would greatly regret the policy of any local education authority which involved economies at the expense of those in the 16 to 19-year age group in employment who still have educational needs as important to them as the needs of those who go on to full-time higher education.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the needs of this age group were amongst the top four priorities in two successive Labour manifestos last year? So far the Government have not brought forward any specific proposals to fulfil either manifesto pledge. When are we going to do so?

Mr. Prentice

I have made it clear that within the framework of the rate support grant we have made a better provision than many hon. Members realise. I am consulting a number of bodies about long-term changes. They include the TUC education committee, the ATTI, the City and Guilds of London Institute, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and others. I am exchanging views with them about the future pattern of provision for this important age group.