HC Deb 03 August 1976 vol 916 cc1414-7
7. Mr. Luce

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what are the present staff-pupil ratios in primary and secondary schools.

12. Mr. Charles Morrison

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the national average teacher-pupil ratio for the academic year 1975–76.

Miss Margaret Jackson

Definitive figures are not yet available, but preliminary estimates for January 1976 show that teacher-pupil ratios in maintained schools in England and Wales were then about 1 to 23.9 in primary schools and 1 to 17.0 in secondary schools, giving a combined national average of about 1 to 20.3.

Mr. Luce

Since parents are very concerned about educational standards and about class sizes, does the hon. Lady accept that parents are increasingly concerned about the lack of balance in terms of priorities in education? Does she accept that many parents would be prepared to pay more for school meals and to obtain more resources with a view to reducing class size as a result?

Miss Jackson

The hon. Gentleman should know that the school meals subsidy is a national matter, whereas the amount spent on teacher employees and the number of teachers employed, are matters for local education authorities. There is no simple balance between one and the other.

Where money is given to local education authorities for current expenditure through the rate support grant, it is within the discretion of the authorities to decide whether that money is spent on education. It is certainly within their discretion to decide whether it should be spent on the employment of teachers as opposed to other priorities within the education system. If my right hon. Friend were to raise the price of school meals, this would not necessarily have any direct effect on the employment of teachers.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Will my hon. Friend ensure that, despite any restrictions on public expenditure, there will be no significant worsening in the pupil-teacher ratio? Will she suggest to local authorities that if they want to make cuts in education they should start by looking at administration costs, which have been grossly swollen since local government reorganisation was pushed through the House by the Conservative Government?

Miss Jackson

There is a great deal in what my hon. Friend has said. The rate support grant settlement was based on the assumption by my Department that local authorities would maintain their existing staffing ratios. Where they make other cuts is a matter for them.

Mr. Charles Morrison

On 14th July the Secretary of State urged local authorities to set up part-time courses, three days a week, for 16-year-olds, to help cope with the youth unemployment problem. What effect will that have on the teacher-pupil ratio? Has any estimate been made of cost? If the costs increase, how are local education authorities to find the money?

Miss Jackson

I am not sure that it will have any effect specifically on the teacher-pupil ratio. The aim of the 16–19 provision was partly to deal with children who might not be willing to stay on at school or were not interested in doing so. I do not think it can have any direct effect such as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Will my hon. Friend give the figures for teacher-pupil ratio north of the Trent and south of the Trent? Concerning school meals, will she treat with indifference the supplementary question put by the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce)? If we put up the price of children's meals, a good many children of poor families will not be able to afford them and will therefore go without their main meal of the day.

Miss Jackson

As my hon. Friend knows, I have already dealt with that supplementary question by the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce) concerning school meals. I cannot offhand give my hon. Friend the pupil-teacher ratios north and south of the Trent, but I shall write to him with that information.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Although the pupil-teacher ratio is of the utmost importance, does not the Under-Secretary agree that the quality of teachers is even more important? Will she tell the House what the Department is doing to improve the quality of young persons coming into the teaching profession?

Miss Jackson

I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman would have us do. We are certainly doing our utmost to see that people accepted for training as teachers are suited for such training. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is always the case, in a difficult employment situation, that perhaps those who do a little better get jobs more easily than those who have less high qualifications. But it is, I am sure, the case that most of our teaching force are people of a very high quality. It is to be regretted that we are not able to employ more of them in our schools at the moment rather than make the assumption—which I recognise is common to the Conservative Party—that those who are successful deserve to be so and that the others are automatically failures.

Dr. Boyson

Although I recognise the importance of the pupil-teacher ratio, may I ask the hon. Lady whether she is aware that there has been a fall of 25 per cent. in the average number of pupils per teacher in the last 25 years? Is she further aware that it was hoped that this would lead to an increase in education standards but that this has not happened? Does not this indicate that the quality of teachers and also the assessment of teaching method are equally as important as pupil-teacher ratios?

Miss Jackson

I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman is only too willing to seize on any piece of evidence, however unrelated, to try to prove his assumption that methods of teaching and the results of teaching in schools are getting worse. But I know of no statistical and objective evidence to support the contention that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward not only today but continually. He is always willing to draw very sweeping conclusions from evidence which does not necessarily point in the direction that he suggests.