HC Deb 06 August 1976 vol 916 cc2354-64

2.0 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

When eight days ago I discovered that I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to debate the question of educational maintenance allowance today, it was with mixed feelings, not because I did not particularly want to be among the handful of hon. Members who would be here this afternoon but because I suspected, or almost hoped, that the debate might well be irrelevant. It seemed to me almost certain that some time this week my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Employment would deliver a package dealing with the problems of juvenile employment, and that it would include a reconsideration of educational maintenance allowance. I was extremely disappointed when I listened to my right hon. Friend's statement on Tuesday and when I read it carefully afterwards to find that he had made no mention of the matter.

Therefore, perhaps this debate is even more relevant than it would have been. I hope that during the next two months the Government will carefully consider what contribution can be made to dealing with the present difficulties of juvenile unemployment by encouraging people who would benefit from it to stay on at school.

The topic has traditionally been ignored by the Government. Every so often there is the production of an authoritative report on the subject which makes recommendations, but the Government appear to take no notice. We could go back a long way, but I do not think that it is relevant to go back beyond 1957, when the Weaver Report clearly set out the problems of maintaining young people at school beyond the compulsory leaving age. It stated the cost and recommended grants.

From then on very little happened. One or two local authorities made minor improvements to the scheme, but we never got a national scheme off the ground. In April 1974 the Government carried out a study, but it has not made much difference. In that year the Expenditure Committee of the House of Commons carefully examined educational maintenance allowances and produced a report which was useful not only in its recommendations but in much of the detailed evidence, particularly that submitted by such bodies as the Child Poverty Action Group. The House found time to debate the report, but the Government were unable to comment on it for a long time. It was almost two years before they produced their White Paper on it. It took them 21 months to think about it and to produce their printed response. One might have hoped that after that time they would come up with something worth while, but they produced one of the slimmest documents we have ever seen, taking up some of the space with apologies because their remarks were not even worthy of a White Paper.

The Government's comments were very disappointing. They suggested that they could do nothing to amend the present scheme and that any support would not come from education authorities but would have to come from the Department of Health and Social Security in the context of general family support. It appeared that those concerned with educational maintenance allowance had lost the day. But I hope that it may be only an interim comment by the Government and that they may yet have a change of heart.

It is difficult to find out what changes have occurred in the allowance since the autumn of 1974. Every time I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State Questions about the matter he shows that he still relies on figures for 1974 and says that he has no intention of carrying out a new census of local authorities to discover whether they have increased the benefits or improved the means test provisions. Even when one asks how many sixth-formers are receiving free school meals, to make a comparison and to discover the take-up of the educational maintenance allowance, the Government are again unable to help.

As far as I can discover from information which I have received in Stockport and in Oldham, where I live, and from the Child Poverty Action Group, the situation has not improved since 1974. It has probably become worse, because the allowances and the means tests have probably not been revised as quickly as changes in the rate of inflation.

There were two variables in the 1974 figures—the number of grants by local authorities and the amount, both of which varied widely between authority and authority. Let us first consider the number of allowances paid, which we can take as a percentage of the school population. Knowsley paid out allowances to 9.6 per cent. of the children staying on after the compulsory school-leaving age. Next door in Liverpool only 4.2 per cent. received the allowances. One would have expected the figures to be exactly the other way round, but whichever way round they were, one would not have expected such a big difference.

Both those authorities pay out to quite a large percentage compared with some others. For example, Stockport paid only 2.2 per cent. It uses the same scales as Trafford, which is also within the Greater Manchester area, where 4.4 per cent. received the allowances. It seems extremely odd that there should be such variations.

In Oldham the take-up rate is exactly the same as for Stockport, yet by the criterion of rateable value and other criteria Oldham is a much poorer area, and one would have expected far more educational maintenance allowances to be paid there. Nearly at the bottom of the scale in the 1974 figures was Shropshire, with 0.1 per cent. of its children receiving the allowances. I believe that Dudley was bottom with 0.07 per cent. I assume that both areas have hardly ever heard of the allowances.

There are almost as startling variations between the amounts paid out. In Hampshire—near the top of the list—the average payment in 1974 was almost £200, admittedly to only 3.2 per cent. of its children staying on beyond school-leaving age. Walsall paid £197. In the Isle of Wight, which one would assume to be an area rather similar to Hampshire, the amount was £31, and in Staffordshire it was £39. Even in Shropshire, which paid out a very small percentage, the average amount was only £48. The amounts paid out do not seem to fit into any pattern of wealth or social deprivation. The total amount was not all that large in 1971—£1.5 million—and it involved only 28,000 pupils.

It is clear that there is a wide variation between areas in the number who apply for the allowances and the amount of help they receive. It is also clear that the means test scales have steadily slipped behind increases in wages and even in supplementary benefits. Information that the Child Poverty Action Group has given me suggests that one must now be below supplementary benefits level in some local authorities to receive the maximum educational maintenance allowance.

I wish to deal with the problems that affect those who contemplate staying on at school. They are well aware of the family pressures in terms of income, and they realise that if they stay on at school it will increase the burden in the family. They are also conscious that many of their friends who leave school will have large incomes at their disposal. Probably teenagers at work have more money to spend than many other wage-earners because they have few fixed commitments. Therefore, there is pressure exerted on those pupils who wish to stay on at school from their families and their friends, and indeed there is unintentional pressure in the schools themselves.

Although we talk about free education, there are many aspects of school activities that cost a good deal of money to indulge. Money is required for participation in school sports, functions, and so on, and financial pressures build up in those ways. Pupils who pursue A-level courses in geography are often involved in expenditure connected with field courses. The same is true of some domestic subjects such as needlework and dressmaking, which again involve a considerable amount of expenditure on materials not provided by the schools.

As a result pupils are led to taking Saturday jobs in order to help out with problems at home. That means that they may well neglect their school studies—studies which are necessary if they are to benefit from sixth-form education. Therefore, very real human problems are involved.

There is a strong case for raising the amounts involved. There are wide variations from one region to another. In some parts of the country 50 per cent. of pupils stay on for sixth-form education, but in other areas the figure drops to 10 per cent. The figure varies, not because of the type of school but because of the financial background of parents.

One of the strongest elements in seeking to raise the school-leaving age relates to the question of regional variations. Far too many children left school before they took their O-levels or CSE exams. If that consideration applied in raising the school-leaving age from 15 to 16, it also applies if pupils are to remain at school after age 16 if they are to have the benefit of full-time sixth-form education or of education in a further education college. I am not suggesting that we should raise the school-leaving age again but that we should make the financial provision necessary to enable people to be encouraged to stay on at school.

Comparisons have also been made of costs between those children who decide to leave school to get a job and those who decide to stay on. If they stay on to obtain a further qualification, it may mean that such pupils are more easily able to obtain a job. We must bear in mind the economic consideration that if a pupil leaves school and is unable to obtain employment, he or she is entitled to £6 to £8 a week in supplementary benefit. If we are prepared to pay that sum to a person who is obtaining no education, why can we not consider expenditure of that nature to give encouragement to a pupil to stay on for further education?

In the present economic circumstances, it is no use the Goverment asking the local education authority to increase allowances or to make more generous grants. Any action that is taken should come from the Government. The Government must regard this as a specific problem that is to be dealt with. The unemployment situation can be eased in this way. I suggest that the Government should either take over the scheme in its entirety or lay down the view that for every pound of local effort the Government will match it with grant.

In suggesting a specific action, I suggest that the means test should be at least as good as in regard to free school meals and that the situation should be quickly improved. Far more people if they qualify should obtain not the minimum but the maximum grant. That figure should be raised to around the £7 mark at least. At the same time we should make it clear to schools that they should inform all pupils that, unless they obtain full benefit by remaining in the sixth form, they should not be there. It is important that we should not merely keep pupils on at school but should ensure that while there they are usefully employed.

My time for debate is strictly limited, and there are many more points which I should like to make. I conclude by saying that I am worried by the considerable variation between the system of education as applied to various parts of the United Kingdom. It is odd that the situation in Scotland should be so much better than the educational system applied to English children. Will the Minister possibly announce some firm action on this subject? I hope that, at least in the next few weeks before schools reassemble, he will carefully examine the situation and take action to improve the level and number of educational maintainance allowances.

2.18 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

I suppose it is appropriate on the last day of a difficult parliamentary period that the House should debate once again the subject of education. We have spent more of this Session, whether in the House or in Committee, debating the subject of education than any other single subject.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) was spared membership of the Standing Committee on the Education Bill. The length of sittings in that Committee put the sittings on the 1944 Education Act to shame. Indeed, they beat that original measure into a cocked hat. Not only were the sittings longer in absolute terms but, measured by the length of debate per clause, they beat that Bill by a multiplier of 12.

What has impressed me most about our education debates has been the quality of contribution from my own side of the political fence. There are hon. Members who are concerned primarily to fight the battles of yesteryear and to be concerned with the maintenance of selection at age 11. I believe that that battle in essence has been won and lost. Although there are still a few dinosaurs in existence—and I gather one or two exist in the Greater Manchester area—they will suffer the fate of all dinosaurs before too long and will be consigned to museums. I repeat that that battle has been won. The real battle for the future is to secure greater equality of opportunity in the 16 to 19 age range and to ensure that there is a much higher take-up in the rate of education opportunities than in the past.

We have raised the school-leaving age relatively recently—indeed, it is the second time that the school-leaving age has been raised since the war. But the answer is not to raise the school-leaving age again. My hon. Friend was right to say that that is not the right strategy. We are talking about extending opportunities and participation rather than about compulsion to remain in full-time education for those who have exceeded their sixteenth birthdays.

I wish to register a note of marginal dissent from what my hon. Friend said in referring to those who remain at school. I am sure that he would share my view that for many young people further education colleges offer more suitable courses and better opportunities.

Perhaps I may draw my hon. Friend's attention to what the Government are attempting to do with the pilot schemes of vocational preparation which we announced recently. I cannot stress too often that they have to be pilot schemes, because this is an area of the curriculum where we have too little expertise, and where, because provision was so deficient in the past, there are few who can claim expertise in devising suitable courses for that very large number of people who hitherto dropped out of education once they attained the statutory school-leaving age.

We very much hope that in future it will be possible to build up those schemes and that this will be one means of attracting back into education and training, not simply for a 12-week period—that is merely an appetiser—many people who hitherto dropped out at far too early an age.

We are very much concerned, then, as a Government with the problems that beset the 16 to 19 age group in both the short term and the longer term.

Concerning the longer-term problems, my hon. Friend may be interested to know that recent surveys show that only 8 per cent. of sixth form pupils and 12 per cent. of further education students come from homes where the parents are partly skilled or unskilled workers. He will be well aware that that is a substantial part of the population—some 23 per cent. But 52 per cent. of sixth formers and 41 per cent. of FE students come from the professional, managerial and senior technical classes. Together those classes form a marginally lower proportion of the population—21.5 per cent.—than the partly skilled and unskilled workers, yet there is this very much higher take-up rate.

There may be all sorts of reasons for this, and I do not want to give any simple or simple-minded explanation of it today, I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right in the general gist of what he said—that relative poverty is a factor here. I think that that is inescapable.

With all the improvements which have been made over the years, and particularly in the last couple of years, in family support arrangements, the problem is clearly much more subtle than simply one of family support. That is why we have a great interest in the area to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. That is why we have a great deal of sympathy with his remarks, and why we shall continue to study this problem in the hope of reaching some solution that would be acceptable to the House.

Apart from these longer-term considerations, there is a short-term problem and a tragic one. My hon. Friend stressed very heavily the argument about youth unemployment. He was right to do so. The current unemployment situation is obviously a threat to everyone, but no one suffers more seriously than the school leaver, not only because of the level of unemployment among school leavers, but because of the argument, which I think is absolutely valid, that to be faced at the beginning of one's working life—or what should be one's working life—with the spectre of unemployment can scar a young person for the rest of his working life. We are determined, therefore, as a Government, to do everything we can to protect such young people from that terrible threat.

The measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, to which my hon. Friend rightly drew attention, are one aspect of that. None of us would say that that can be the end of the story, although how the story will be developed is as yet a matter for speculation. We shall certainly not rest on our oars.

We are continuing to discuss with the TUC and with the local authorities further proposals designed to help the young. A Press release from the TUC two or three days ago says that the TUC is disappointed that the Government has not taken steps to encourage more young people to remain at school beyond 16 years of age by providing financial help to their parents. The TUC will therefore be seeking an early meeting with the Education Secretary to see what action can be taken to Improve and extend the educational maintenance allowances that some local education authorities already make available for this purpose. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I had a meeting with a deputation from the TUC only yesterday. We had a most fruitful discussion. I hope that discussions will continue—and continue to be as fruitful as was yesterday's meeting. Certainly one of the matters that we shall continue to discuss will be the possibility of improved educational maintenance allowances.

It is tempting to dismiss as inadequate the efforts of local education authorities under the present system of discretionary allowances. My hon. Friend quoted some statistics, upon which I shall not comment in any detail, not least because, alas, my own constituency is part of that county to which he drew attention as having a not over-exciting record—Shropshire.

It is not conventional for Ministers to make constituency speeches at the Dispatch Box, and I leave the subject of Shropshire very rapidly. But I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that there is some educational light shining out of the gloom of that county at least. I hope he will recognise, too, that local authorities are continuing to make grants under the present discretionary scheme despite their gross financial difficulties.

My hon. Friend referred to thead hoc survey carried out in the autumn term of 1974. I imagine that hon. Members will be familiar with that, because copies were placed in the Library of the House at the time. That survey certainly revealed the extent of the discrepancies of provision among education authorities. This was exactly the point made by my hon. Friend.

But the survey also showed, interestingly enough, that the authorities had not a bad track record between the spring term of 1970 and the autumn term of 1974, the period covered by the survey. During that period EMAs increased on average from £72 to £125. I believe that the Under-Secretary of State gave a parliamentary answer on that subject on 7th July. This is an increase of 74 per cent. over the period, compared with a rise of about 54 per cent. in the cost of living.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

What has happened since?

Mr. Fowler

I know from the other Questions that my hon. Friend put down for answer on 7th July that he would like us to carry out a further survey. But if my hon. Friend will bear in mind the cost of such a survey in terms of resources and manpower and in terms of other forms of expenditure, and compare that with the value we could expect to gain from it, perhaps he will recognise that we are right to say that now is not the moment.

We are all aware of the defects of the present system. My hon. Friend is aware of them, I am aware of them, and so is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We know what the situation was less than two years ago. It is reasonable to speculate—we have to be careful about using the word "reasonable" in the education world these days—that the situation might well have become worse, given the present economic situation. That was a speculation of my hon. Friend and I am inclined to share it. I do not think that we should gain anything of value from a further survey.

The concept of a fully mandatory system of EMAs has, of course, immediate attractions. But I have to emphasise again the high cost of such a scheme. My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that proposals for substantial additions to public expenditure could scarcely be less welcome than they are at this moment. This is exactly the wrong moment for such a proposition.

Perhaps there is a little more hope in pursuing an examination of a matter to which my hon. Friend drew attention at the very end of his speech—the discrepancy between the provision in Scotland and Northern Ireland and that in England and Wales. In the light of my former responsibilities for devolution, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Scots have a lot to teach us.

The Scots are for ever reminding me that they have had a comprehensive system of education for many years, although I would want to enter one or two caveats to that proposition. It is also true that for 20 years they have operated sensible and practical arrangements which, they might justifiably claim, combine the virtues of a discretionary system with those of a mandatory system.

Indeed, I may say that in the discussions which my right hon. Friend and I had yesterday with the TUC, mention was made of the Scottish system. Let me describe in essence how it works. The decision whether to make an award is up to the local authority entirely. There is no evidence that authorities in Scotland treat this lightly or arbitrarily. But, having taken the decision, to make an award—a bursary, as they call it—they have to pay an award in accordance with scales and net parental income levels which are laid down in regulations by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am not suggesting that such a well-established scheme, and least of all, the financial arrangements in it, would read over automatically into the English and Welsh situation. That is quite a different proposition. But at least we can benefit from the study of such a scheme.

I cannot say today whether a substantial improvement in the EMA scheme will prove to be feasible or whether it is the best way to improve the lot of young people above school-leaving age, because there are other measures which the Government will continue to examine. But my hon. Friend can rest assured that this is a possibility that we shall take seriously into account in our deliberations, and I am extremely grateful to him for raising it today.