HC Deb 27 March 1975 vol 889 cc773-84

3.39 p.m.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I am grateful to the Minister for coming here today to reply to this debate. It concerns a topic which is small in itself but is part of a much larger debate which I am sure will be entered into in the country at large.

The subject I wish to raise is the future of the Hereford College of Education, a matter of great concern not only, it seems, to nearly every one of my constituents but also to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) and other hon. Members who have added their support to Early Day Motion No. 336 in my name. That motion states: That this House calls upon the Secretary of State for Education and Science to recognise the contribution of Hereford College of Education not only to the educational, cultural and social life of the city of Hereford but also to the standards of teaching in the smaller schools of rural areas for which the College provides valuable in-service training; deplores the threat of closure which if implemented will leave the large rural area west of the Malvern Hills, comprising Shropshire, Herefordshire and Mid-Wales, bereft of a centre of higher education; and calls upon the Secretary of State to secure the future of the College. In February when I asked the Secretary of State in a Written Question whether he had considered the proposals of the County Council of Hereford and Worcester concerning the future of the Hereford College of Education, he replied that he would not feel able to reach a decision until the review of teacher supply policy had been completed. As the Minister is aware, that review is now complete, and the proposals of the county education authority under the Department of Education and Science Circular 7/73 with regard to the colleges of education at Shenstone and Worcester have been approved. This has given rise to acute anxiety, particularly in the area west of the Malvern Hills and generally throughout the entire county as to the future of Hereford College of Education.

I ask the Minister that, when considering the future of Hereford College of Education, he will take into account not only the singular factor of the number of teacher training places required on a statistical basis, but also the plural factors of geography, cultural contribution, economics and, above all, the people whom his decision will affect.

From the geographical standpoint, does he appreciate that the Malvern Hills, which bisect the County of Hereford and Worcester in a north-south direction, form a natural barrier which has kept separate the areas to the west and the east since the days of the ancient Britons? Today's communicative ability and administrative facility do not alter the fact of life of this, as any resident east or west will readily affirm. The removal of the centre of higher education in Hereford will leave a cultural and intellectual desert stretching to Wrexham in the north, a distance of 80 miles, to Caerleon in the south, a distance of 40 miles, and Aberystwith to the west, 80 miles away. I am sure that the Minister will agree this is a very large area to be without a centre of higher education.

In the DES Circular 7/73, provision is specifically requested to meet the needs of certain geographical areas. Paragraph 12 states: … there should be a relatively greater increase in higher education facilities in regions which are at present less well provided and … it should be an objective of regional planning to expand provision in areas where it is at present minimal, and reduce the rate of growth in areas which are generously provided. Whereas I appreciate that the real reason for today's debate is that the Secretary of State has to find ways and means of reducing the number of teacher training places in colleges of education, I ask the Minister for his agreement that the sentiments expressed in these quotations from the circular nevertheless still hold good for Hereford and its college of education, with the exception that it should now read, There should be a retention of higher education facilities in regions which are less well provided and It should be an objective of regional planning to retain provision in areas where it is at present minimal and if necessary to reduce the level in areas which are generously provided. Hereford is an area which, through no fault of its own, cannot yet offer full career prospects to all its youth, and many leave the area to make their way in other parts of the country. The replacement of this talent through the function of a college of education which brings in the young from other parts of the country is most desirable. Does the Minister accept that there is a valuable interchange taking place when young people from one area come to another, wanting to learn and willing to contribute?

From the area to the west of the Malvern Hills covering Herefordshire, Shropshire and South Wales come 207 students out of a total of 670, just less than one-third of the total. The remainder come from Scotland, Northern Ireland, East Anglia, Kent, Cornwall and other areas—a truly magnificent melting pot of background and experience and a nice balance between home and away. It is worth noting that of the intake for 1974, 200 out of 232 students had Hereford College of Education as their first choice.

From the cultural standpoint I am sure the Minister will agree that Hereford College of Education is a highly successful institution. Founded in 1902, it is the oldest local education authority teacher training college in the country. It has more than 70 years of proud, continuous tradition behind it. Its period of vigorous growth from 1962 to the present has had a dramatic impact on the standards of primary education in Herefordshire, a county which abounds in small rural primary schools, as the contribution of student teachers has made itself felt.

Is the Minister aware of the extent to which the college provides in-service training for teachers from the schools of Hereford and the surrounding areas. The location of the college in Hereford, the centre of the area's transportation network, makes travel on a daily basis possible, something that would be substantially more difficult, expensive or even impossible for some teachers if they had to travel to Worcester or Caerleon by public transport.

The campus has evolved along with the character of the institution itself and the contribution of the college to the city. Hence, the college of education is the apex of the pyramid of culture in the city, the base being made up from the schools and further education facilities provided by the technical college and college of art. Over the years the bonds between town and gown have developed strongly. The spirit of community service has been fostered and is greatly appreciated in the city. The combination of college, city and county in a wide variety of extramural activities has made the college an integral part of the life of the area. Organisations such as the Workers' Educational Association, the National Council of Women, the Hereford Civic Trust, the Hereford Community Council and the Hereford String Orchestra are but a few who work with, through or depend upon the college of education.

The academic standards of the college will speak for themselves when the Secretary of State examines them. The college offers both a three-year certificate and a four-year Bachelor of Education course, the standards of which are maintained by validation of the University of Birmingham. Next year it will progress to a new modular degree course for a three-year Bachelor of Education course and a four-year Honours degree course of the University of Birmingham. Not only the students are learners. Among the lecture and tutorial staff there is tremendous enthusiasm for further qualifications. The college is fortunate in having exceptionally well-qualified staff. So far no fewer than 75 per cent. of the staff have gone on to obtain higher degrees and diplomas, an achievement made possible only by their ability to work as a team. Their horizons are truly international and this is again reflected in their contribution to the community of Hereford.

In a Written Answer on 20th March 1975 the Secretary of State said that, … some 30 colleges will have to give up initial teacher training, though as many as possible will be used for other educational purposes. Within this total special attention will have to be given to the balance of training and particularly to the need for specialist teachers."—[Official Report, 20th March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 472.] It is difficult to see how the campus of Hereford College of Education, with its superb hostel accommodation for 250 residential students, can properly be utilised for any other purpose but an institute of higher education.

With regard to the balance of training and the need for specialist teachers, I quote just one short letter from the many I have received. It is from the headmaster of a primary school in the county of Hereford. He says, As head of a small country school I am writing to voice my concern about the possible closure of the college of education at Hereford. The rural school has problems of isolation which may well increase as the cost of travelling inflates. It will become increasingly difficult for the country head teacher and his staff to keep up to date in a rapidly changing educational world. In a large school there is a constant change of staff, with heads of department and deputy heads bringing new ideas and providing that innovating factor which is so vital to a progressive system. The college of education, with its tutors and students, helps provide this factor for the rural school. Students bring in a fresh vitality and verve. Tutors bring both practical and theoretical experience. Frequently they act in an advisory capacity to both heads and staff. I am firmly convinced that if our college closes the education of country children will suffer in real terms. The majority of schools within the Hereford area are rural (just over 22 are within the city limits and over 90 outside the city). These facts alone clearly state the case for retention of our college. Hereford needs a college of education. In the interests of the children I teach I trust, Sir, that our excellent college education will remain open. The Minister will see that there are three reasons for securing the future of the Hereford College of Education. There is, first, the need to train teachers for rural areas. This is best done in rural areas. There is, second, the need for a professional centre in education to redress the age balance in a community which has a natural tendency for exodus among its ambitious youth. Third, there is a need for a cultural foundation for the city on which to base its education and intellectual activity.

If he has any doubts about the desirability and necessity of retaining the Hereford College of Education, I ask the Minister to undertake that before he makes his decision he will visit Hereford to see how the college fits into the needs of the area it serves and fits into the pattern in the county as a whole. I ask him to deal favourably with the proposals of the county of Hereford and Worcester Education Committee and to secure the future of the Hereford College of Education.

3.53 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) for drawing the attention of the House to the problems connected with the Hereford College of Education and for the clarity with which he has put forward his argument. I understand his deep concern. I know of the strong feeling there is in the area. I have received representations. The letter in The Times the other day was a reminder of how strongly people feel about this matter.

I would not disagree with any of the statements made by the hon. Member about the importance of higher education institutions, particularly colleges of education. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I owe a great deal to colleges of education. I was trained in one, and I am grateful for that. I know something about their importance and the contribution they can make.

I should make it clear at the outset that no decision has been taken to the effect that the college should close. Nor has my right hon. Friend put any such proposal to the Hereford and Worcester authority. The position is that the authority submitted in November last year, in response to Circular 7/73, formal plans relating to the whole of its area. It was told at the beginning of February this year that my right hon. Friend did not feel able to take a decision about Hereford until the Government had completed their review of teacher supply and teacher training policy which was then under way. The House will know—the hon. Member referred to it—of my right hon. Friend's statement on 20th March in response to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) that this review has now been completed.

As the next step in considering the future of Hereford College, my noble Friend has agreed to discuss the issues involved with representatives of both the college and the authority on Tuesday 8th April. I understand that the hon. Member and his hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) will attend that meeting. It would be quite wrong if I were to say anything today which might prejudice the outcome of that meeting. My noble Friend, who has special responsibilities in this sector, will, of course, approach the meeting with an open mind, and I have no doubt that he will read with care the hon. Gentleman's submission to the House today.

I wish now to deal with some aspects of the social and economic importance of Hereford college to the surrounding area. The hon. Gentleman made his view on that matter very clear, and I realise how important it is in the view of the local community. I do not dispute that in any way, and I know that it is a matter to which the Hereford and Worcester authority attaches great weight. No doubt, its representatives will wish to emphasise that in discussion with my noble Friend.

I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend is very conscious that in any circumstances a decision that a college of education should give up initial teacher training is a serious step and will inevitably cause considerable distress to those directly concerned, not least to the members of staff. Furthermore, he recognises that in predominantly rural communities, in particular, the indirect consequences of such a decision can be much more widely felt, because of a college's influence on the broader economic, social and cultural life of the area. It is partly for this reason that the Government attach so much importance to finding, wherever possible, alternative educational uses for the premises of colleges of education no longer required for teacher training purposes.

My right hon. Friend will, therefore, take careful account of the points which the hon. Member has made today regarding Hereford college's special contribution to the life of the western part of Hereford and Worcester. The hon. Member will understand, however, that we have to balance these arguments alongside the educational considerations which form the background to general Government policy for the future development of higher and further education as a whole, including teacher training. I am glad, therefore, of the opportunity afforded by this debate to set out some of the main relevant aspects of that overall policy.

Let me say a word now about Circular 7/73 and the policy inferences there. The key to the Government's approach to the reorganisation of colleges of education is the need to improve the quality of teacher training. One major step forward will be the gradual introduction of new B.Ed degree courses in place of the present certificate courses. The new courses will have a normal entry requirement of two A levels, compared with the minimum of five 0 levels required for certificate courses. It is important to realise that these degree level courses will impose greater demands not only on the students but also on the institutions concerned, and we shall wish to ensure that the reorganisation exercise produces an institutional structure able to meet those demands as effectively as possible.

The Government believe also that the quality of teacher training will benefit by the establishment of much closer links between it and other forms of higher and further education. We are, therefore, seeking to move away as far as possible from a situation in which teacher training has been concentrated almost exclusively in monotechnic institutions. This means encouraging colleges of education to diversify; that is, to introduce other kinds of higher and further education courses alongside their teacher training provision. Some are large enough and strong enough and are appropriately placed to do this as free-standing institutions. Other can best play their part in diversification by joining forces with polytechnics or other further education establishments.

The process of diversification will have the added advantage of introducing a new element of flexibility into the teacher training system, which should make it much easier in future to meet the fluctuations in teacher supply requirements which are bound to occur from time to time. The introduction of the diploma of higher education and the new pattern of B.Ed courses, generally unit based, will add to this flexibility so that, in the future, many students will take the Dip.HE and not decide to become teachers until the end of their second year, and eventually the operative intake for regulating the supply of trained teachers will be the third year.

In any event, when the reorganisation has been completed, institutions offering both teacher training and other forms of higher and further education should be able to increase or decrease the number of teachers they produce by marginal adjustments within their existing overall staffing and other resources.

I turn now to my right hon. Friend's statement of a week ago. He then said that, in the light of the Government's review of teacher supply policy, it would be necessary to reduce the number of teacher training places outside the universities to about 60,000 by 1981. This is little more than half the number of places which the colleges of education provided in 1971. The detailed implications of this for individual colleges have not yet been determined, but I would just make here two general observations. One is that it remains our intention to secure a better distribution of teacher training places in proportion to school population. This is partly so that we can continue as far as possible to provide teacher training opportunities for students who wish or need to live at home. It also reflects the desirability of ensuring that schools in all parts of the country have initial and in-service training centres relatively near at hand.

My second point is that the viability of the teacher training system as a whole would be impaired if the 60,000 places were divided amongst too many separate institutions. All the advice and representations we have received suggests that we should aim for an average size of 700–750 teacher training places per centre. This clearly has important implications for the schools concerned with teacher training, a question now being considered in detail by my noble Friend.

I wish to deal now with the situation in Hereford and Worcester and I have no doubt that the hon. Member will make his representations on the relevant points when he comes to the meeting at the Department. The county now has within its boundaries three colleges of education. In that respect it is relatively well-provided compared with some score of counties in England and Wales which have only two colleges or fewer and, of course, the handful which have none at all.

My right hon. Friend has already approved Hereford and Worcester's proposals for two of its colleges. The City of Worcester College, which has about 1,200 places, is to widen the range of its provision to include other courses of higher education as its teacher training commitment contracts, and Shenstone New College, which now provides 850 teacher training places, is to merge with Bromsgrove College of Further Education to form a single institution offering a wide range of teacher training, other higher education and further education courses. Our present view is that these two centres will need between them to retain about 1,100 teacher training places in 1981. That figure is itself almost 60 per cent. more than the 690 places which the authority could expect to have on a strict distribution of 60,000 places in proportion to school population.

In this context, Hereford College of Education presents a very real problem. It has only 600 places, and would therefore find it very difficult to diversify from within its own resources. It is also some 25 to 30 miles from the nearest other institution concerned with higher education. That was one of the hon. Member's points. If it continues to be engaged in initial teacher training, it is therefore hard to avoid the conclusion that it will have to remain a very largely monotechnic establishment at about its present size—as indeed the authority has itself concluded and proposed.

In view of what I have just said about the county's proportionate share of 60,000 teacher training places, it would be difficult to add a further 600 to the 1,100 already envisaged for Worcester and the new institution to be created at Bromsgrove. If, alternatively, the 1,100 places were to be divided between three institutions, each teacher training unit would be unacceptably small. In either case, a monotechnic college in Hereford would represent an inflexible element in teacher supply.

In considering the future disposition of teacher training numbers, the Government must necessarily have regard also to the respective records of individual institutions. I would be the first to agree that comparisons of this kind are often invidious and can sometimes be misleading. Nevertheless, I want to be honest with the hon. Member and give him the full picture. If we are to improve the quality of teacher training it would be foolhardy to ignore opportunities of building on existing strengths.

I regret that I must therefore point out that the available figures suggest that Hereford has to date been a less successful college than either Shenstone or Worcester. In 1973, 38 per cent. of Hereford's non-graduate intake had two or more A-levels, compared with 53 per cent. at Worcester and 42 per cent. at Shenstone. The number of fourth-year students taking a B.Ed course at Hereford in 1973 represented only 6 per cent. of the non-graduate intake of the colleges three years previously. Figures for Shenstone and for Worcester were, respectively, 12 per cent. and 19 per cent. Both sets of figures show a similar pattern for preceding years.

The hon. Member has referred to the fact that the number of candidates naming Hereford as their first choice college—this was indicated in the letter which appeared in The Times—is now almost as many as the college's student intake. However, the majority of colleges have far more first-choice applicants than they can provide places for.

These are some of the main educational considerations which my right hon. Friend will have in mind when reaching a final decision about Hereford College. It is fair to say that they are weighty considerations. However, this does not necessarily mean that they will be found persuasive in the light of the points advanced today by the hon. Member and those which the authority will shortly be making to my noble Friend. I must re-emphasise, therefore, that the college's future is still very much an open question.

Finally, the Government recognise that continuing uncertainty about the college is a matter of grave concern locally, especially to those whose livelihoods depend on the outcome. We have no wish that this situation should be prolonged more than is necessary for the issues involved to receive due consideration. I therefore very much hope that all the interested parties will agree that the matter should be finally determined as soon as possible after my noble Friend's discussion on 8th April.