HC Deb 25 February 1976 vol 906 cc553-94

10.30 a.m.


That if the proceedings on the Education (School-Leaving Dates) Bill [Lords] are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesday next at half-past Ten o'clock.—[Mr. Gerry Fowler.]

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

I beg to move,

That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Education (School-Leaving Dates) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

Hon. Members will recall that the Government's intention to introduce this Bill was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last July. The effect of the Bill is to bring forward the summer school-leaving date in England and Wales from the end of term to the Friday before the last Monday in May. I shall explain that in a moment. It also provides for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to make appropriate changes in social security arrangements, which are for certain purposes linked to school-leaving dates. It is a straightforward, practical measure, and I hope it will receive the unanimous support of hon. Members today. Certainly the support it commands in the educational world at large is virtually unanimous.

As hon. Members will be aware, children being educated in schools in England and Wales must attend until a certain date, which is expressed as their school-leaving date. Attendance after that date is, of course, in no way discouraged, but the decision to remain at school after his school-leaving date rests with the pupil concerned, who is free to leave if he wishes.

Present arrangements provide, as hon. Members will be aware, for two school-leaving dates in the year, at the end of the Easter term and at the end of the summer term. Pupils born between 1st September and 31st January may leave at the Easter leaving date following their 16th birthdays; pupils born between 1st February and the summer leaving date may leave at the end of the summer leaving date following their 16th birthdays. Pupils born between the summer leaving date and 31st August may leave at the summer leaving date preceding their 16th birthdays.

Those are the present arrangements. My right hon. Friend has no power to make individual exceptions to the law in this matter, nor may he vary it to meet new circumstances.

However, new circumstances have arisen, and a minor change in the law is therefore called for. These circumstances stem from the raising of the school-leaving age to 16 from 1973–74. This long-overdue measure, which was foreshadowed in the Education Act 1944 has benefited countless numbers of pupils, and we have no intention of denying its benefits to 16-year-olds in the future. On the contrary, we remain firmly committed to the principle that all children should have a full course of secondary education. It is, however, important to ensure that this principle is applied in a sensible manner. Nothing is gained by compelling pupils to remain at school when their courses and examinations are completed. Existing arrangements have this effect, and the Bill seeks to put the situation right.

Before the school leaving age was raised to 16, pupils taking GCE and CSE examinations were nearly always over compulsory school age, and it was general practice for those who did not intend to remain in full-time education to leave school as soon as their summer examinations were over. There was no legal objection to their doing so. With the new higher school leaving age, pupils born between February and August are now required to remain at school until the end of the summer term, even if they have already finished their examinations. This requirement has proved unpopular; such pupils are often unwilling to remain at school until the end of term and their parents are reluctant to compel them to do so. Consequently, there was in the summers of 1974 and 1975 a high rate of truancy amongst fifth year pupils. This situation creates all sorts of prob- lems for schools and local education authorities. Widespread truancy inevitably disrupts courses and makes the proper management of staff and physical resources in the schools much more difficult. Under the Education Acts, local education authorities have a duty to institute attendance proceedings in such cases. We all know that is an expensive procedure, but in any case it does not act quickly enough in circumstances such as this to deal with the problem.

The mere fact that a law is being disobeyed is not, of course, a sufficient reason for changing that law. Otherwise we might wish to change many laws! In this case, it is difficult to see how anyone benefits from the present arrangements. That view is shared by virtually the whole of the education service. Formal consultations with associations representing teachers and local education authorities have revealed almost unanimous support for the proposal to bring forward the summer school leaving date so as to eliminate the difficult post-examination period of compulsory attendance. That is the purpose of the Bill.

In addition, my right hon. Friend has received many expressions of support from hon. Members and directly from members of the public. It is perfectly true that a few people have expressed fears that the proposal may erode the decision to raise the school-leaving age. I can only repeat what I said earlier, that we have no intention of going back on the decision to raise the school-leaving age. We remain fully committed to the principle that all children shall have a full course of secondary education. This Bill, far from undermining that principle, simply frees pupils—I stress that—from the requirement to attend school when their education is, to all intents and purposes, already complete.

The purpose of the Bill, therefore, is to make the Friday before the last Monday in May the new summer leaving date, which I will call loosely, for the convenience of the Committee, the Spring Bank Holiday weekend. By that date most courses for fifth-year pupils, examinees and non-examinees alike, have effectively ended. Teachers are absorbed in the task of preparing and marking examination papers and are in no position to devise means of occupying reluctant pupils usefully until the end of term. Most, though not all, CSE examinations will have ended by late May. GCE examinations, on the other hand, continue throughout June; but I think it is reasonable to assume that pupils taking those GCE examinations will be prepared to remain at school voluntarily until they are completed, and similarly those few pupils taking CSE examinations after that date. After all, three quarters of those entitled under existing arrangements to leave school at Easter stay on voluntarily each year, in most cases to take examinations.

To fix a date later in the term than the end of May would leave unsolved the problem posed by pupils whose courses and examinations have ended by then; and to fix an earlier date would, I suspect, lead many non-examination pupils to see little point in returning to school after Easter. The choice of late May as the new summer leaving date has the added advantage that it coincides with a natural break in the summer term, since the Spring Bank Holiday, which is usually the last Monday in May, is rapidly becoming the date of the half term holiday throughout England and Wales. It is not, however, possible or desirable to link the new summer leaving date directly to the Spring Bank Holiday: it is not possible because that expression is not known to the law, and it is not desirable, since the date of the Spring Bank Holiday may be varied by Royal proclamation and might at some time in the future be moved to a date which would be quite unsuitable as the summer school leaving date. I am not suggesting that it will be, but it could. For those reasons, we propose as the new summer leaving date this perhaps somewhat cumbersome phrase "the Friday before the last Monday in May".

Hon. Members will wish to know how many young people will be affected by the new law. Not all of those who reach school-leaving age next year—that is about ¾ million pupils—will be affected, but only those who reach school-leaving age at the summer leaving date and who decide to leave then. That in total is about 280,000, but of these, some will leave at the new leaving date and others later in the term as and when their examinations are completed. We are not postu- lating a situation in which 280,000 pupils leave on the Friday before the last Monday in May. Thus, a side effect of the law will be to help to spread the dates on which pupils actually leave school. The Committee will take note of the fact that this may be very helpful from the employment point of view. It will be easier to settle pupils quickly in employment.

At the same time, hon. Members may question the wisdom of proposing a slightly earlier summer leaving date and hence earlier eligibility for employment in what are difficult times from the employment viewpoint. I submit that the purpose of schools is not to keep young people off the labour market but to provide them with an education, and once that education is complete they should be free to leave—though in no sense am I encouraging them to leave then.

Furthermore, the alternative to an earlier summer leaving date is continued widespread truancy during the final weeks of the summer term. Such truants may not be employed legally since it is illegal to employ full-time someone of compulsory school age. The only prospect open to them is one of idleness which can benefit neither them nor the community. It is surely better by far that these young people should be permitted to leave and take up employment when their courses and examinations have come to an end.

Before concluding, I should perhaps say something about Clause 2 which proposes certain amendments to social security legislation. The amendments are necessary because social security legislation is linked for various purposes to school-leaving dates. They involve no significant issue of principle.

Clause 2(1) provides that summer leavers will count as children for the purposes of family allowances and related child dependency benefits until a date about the end of the summer term or their 16th birthday, whichever is the later. This simply continues existing arrangements for this year. Child benefit is due to replace family allowances in 1977, and that will be related as nearly as possible to the actual dates of school leaving. So we are dealing here with an interim arrangement.

Clause 2(2) simplifies the wording of the Family Allowances Act 1965, but makes no change in the workings of that Act. Clause 2(3) provides that the date on which a person becomes entitled to injury benefit will continue to be the date when he ceases, for the purpose of family allowance, to count as a child; and, finally, Clause 2(4) simplifies the arrangements for entry to national insurance. Under those arrangements, a person who enters employment before reaching the age of 16 will still not have to pay contributions until his 16th birthday.

Finally, I should say that the education service expects this Bill to become law in time for this year's summer school-leavers, and the education service asks regularly about the progress of this measure.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

May I check the statement which the hon. Gentleman made about the eligibility to enter employment? As I understand it, at present it is illegal, if under the compulsory school leaving age, for a person to enter employment. Let us say that someone reaches the age of 16 at the beginning of August. Under this legislation he can leave at the end of May. Will he then be eligible to enter into full-time employment, even though he is not 16?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, he will. The whole point is that we have a sharp cut between compulsory school attendance and eligibility for employment. This will change that situation, too. We shall not have a situation of idleness to which I referred a moment or two ago.

I trust that the Committee will support this measure which has widespread approval in the education service.

10.45 a.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I congratulate the Department of Education on being able to find a Minister to support an Education Bill! We welcome the Minister of State back from his travels. We hope that, like our late sovereign King Charles II, he has resolved not to go upon them again—at any rate, on days when the Committee is sitting.

As the Minister said, there is no great division in the Committee over the Bill. The Opposition have no quarrel with the Bill. Indeed, we might claim paternity for it since we have been suggesting for some time that there should be a change in the school-leaving date. We have also been arguing for greater flexibility. I hope we shall have an opportunity to put some questions to the Minister of State on the wider issues raised by the Bill, of preparation for adult life and, in particular, for the basic essentials of earning one's own living.

At present there are two school-leaving dates—at the end of the Easter term and at the end of the summer term. It has been suggested there should be only one. Although that is supported by many educationists, many employers feel that that would not be a change for the better.

The Bill substitutes mid-May for the end of the summer term as the date by which a child may leave school. We have heard something about the Spring Holiday. I regret the introduction of that secular festival because it has caused great confusion by separating the Bank Holiday from the traditional Whitsun. I hope we may read into the Minister of State's observations some hope that that may be changed subsequently. At any rate, I entirely agree that we do not want to perpetuate that unfortunate memorial of the late Mr. Richard Crossman in this Bill.

The change of date will enable children to leave almost immediately after they have taken the public examinations, which seems quite sensible. There is, however, one point I should like to raise with the Minister. While the great majority of CSE examinations are finished by mid-May, which is, in effect, half-term, a number of GCE O-level examinations will not have taken place. Is there not a case for the starting dates of these two examinations to be so arranged that they all finish by mid-May half-term?

The clause dealing with family allowances will enable family allowances to be paid in 1976 until the end of the summer term after the age of 16, even though, under this Bill the child may leave school in the May after his 16th birthday. That also seems reasonable and in accordance with parental expectations.

In 1977 we are due to move towards child credits, as envisaged in the tax credit scheme, and the Bill leaves the position open. I hope that if any change is to be made, it will be thoroughly explained and publicised before it comes into effect so that parents understand it. Perhaps the Minister would say what the Government's intentions are in that regard.

There are, however, a number of points of importance which are not covered by the Bill, perhaps understandably, but about which it would be helpful to know something of the Government's thinking.

Most members of the Committee—and there is no Liberal representation—will agree that there should be no reversal of the raising of the school-leaving age to 16. One reason we took this step was that we saw the wide variations over the country in the numbers staying on beyond 15, getting additional qualifications of one kind or another. It was felt that one means of levelling up and enlarging opportunity was to get the age to 16 everywhere. I still consider that right, and that is the Opposition view.

The first point is the extent to which we are solving the problem of making the last year at school really worthwhile for those who will not get any further qualifications, at any rate on paper. Can the Minister tell us, for example, the extent to which instruction in civics covers practical information on such matters as buying a home with a mortgage—the most important transaction in the whole of most people's lives—and how the tax and national insurance systems work? Are such practical matters being covered in the civics course?

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

I was a little concerned about the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "civics". It is a long time since I took a civics course, but it seemed to me to involve local Government, procedures at elections and national government to an extent. I think the points that the hon. Gentleman raises are valid, but they are essentially practical matters which might come under "home management" and other such terms, but hardly "civics". I think it is merely a matter of nomenclature and a difference of interpretation of the term "civics". No doubt, the hon. Gentleman has other words to describe it.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I have never been a nominalist, so let us not quarrel about a name. It is the substance of the course about which the hon. Gentleman and I are concerned.

Is there a genuine atempt to help pupils on career guidance, to bring in local industrialists so that they can make their views known? At the rate that rail and bus fares are going up at the moment certainly there will be a desire to cut down on travelling to work. Should we not consider getting local councillors, for example, to talk about the work of local government and the services that it provides and—something which is extremely important for young people—how they might help to support voluntary care services for the elderly and disabled? I quote these merely as examples of what might be done in that last year.

Secondly, there is the special problem of those who have not mastered unhappily, even in their last year at school, the arts of literacy and numeracy. It is no use these children staying on at school for a further year and still not being able to read and write. Should we consider whether they should be taught, not at school, but alongside the many adults who wish to cure their illiteracy? It may, of course, create a problem of resources, but it might be more fruitful. Television, for example, has been performing an extremely useful job recently in advising people how to set about getting help with reading and writing if they have difficulties in that connection.

Thirdly, there is the particular problem of the small minority who have decided that they are against the whole school setup. They might adopt a different attitude if they were allowed to attend some sort of training course not connected with school. But we must be careful not simply to transplant this problem from school to further education. We on this side of the Committee believe that we could make the application of the school-leaving age more flexible, while retaining the principle. It could be open to children to attend apprenticeship courses. It should also be open to them to join the Armed Forces, provided their education is continued there. The test needed here is: is education being continued? If that test is passed, the spirit of the law can be observed without necessarily clinging to the letter of it.

If we had sufficient resources, we could consider dealing with difficult children in special units. I accept that this may not be possible at present. However, we could certainly find some practical means of preventing a minority of children from spoiling the chances of the majority who would gain benefit from the additional year at school, if the class room atmosphere was conducive to that purpose.

This is a point which has been very much in the minds of the National Association of Schoolmasters, amongst others, and I would ask the Minister to make some comment on that. The Minister knows that it takes only a few trouble makers to disrupt a class. It may well be that where a headmaster is prepared to certify that a child of, say 15 is thoroughly disruptive, he should be allowed to leave in the interests of the other children, if not in his own. I appreciate that there are difficulties in such a situation, but it is something to which we should give serious thought. I see nothing wrong in allowing a child to leave school if he gives a guarantee that he will attend some approved course of training. That is the apprenticeship point once again.

I accept that the real challenge with which we are faced in schools is to make the last year at school a thoroughly worth while year. In all these issues it is better to be positive than negative. This calls for imagination and thought amongst teachers acting in co-operation with parents, local industrialists, councillors and others. We all have an interest in making sure that the coming generations are as fully qualified as possible and will take up jobs to which they are best suited and in which they feel that their abilities and aptitudes are being properly tested and utilised.

10.57 a.m.

Mr. Andrew F, Bennett (Stockport, North)

I very much welcome this measure. Before I came into this House I taught both fourth and fifth year leavers for 13 years, and I am well aware of the problems experienced with those groups.

In my first year of teaching I remember reaching Christmas and being relieved to find that one third of a rather unruly fourth year class were leaving. When the proposals to do away with Christmas school leaving were carried through, I had some reservations. In my first year after the ending of Christmas school leaving, I was surprised how much better the school year progressed. There was no longer the atmosphere which used to creep round the fourth year classes halfway through the autumn term because it was only a short time before they were "demobbed", when the pranks became wilder, their attention diminished and attendance became worse. Once we got rid of the Christmas leavers, these problems were put off until Easter.

From my experience, I feel there would be advantages, particularly with reluctant attenders at school, if we had only one leaving date. The atmosphere generated by leavers would spread through the school only once a year.

I should like to make a few comments on the use of the final year which the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) mentioned. In my experience, before the school-leaving age was raised, a great deal of thought was given to the kind of courses which would be run. The majority of schools now run extremely worth-while courses in their fifth years for non-examination pupils.

My one reservation is that too often the careers guidance talks are based on the assumption that pupils will get qualifications. I remember the number of careers guidance talks given in the schools in which I have worked, where nice ideas for careers were put forward. The truth was that many of the children leaving would finish up in factories. They were simply told of the kind of jobs they would never achieve because they had opted not to take either CSE or GCE examinations. That is the one reservation I have about the careers guidance given in schools. It is often given to the non-examination pupils because the examination pupils are so busy slogging away at their academic subjects that they do not have any time for guidance.

For pupils thinking of going into sixth forms, it would be helpful if they could go out and gain some experience of work, if the employment situation allows it, before committing themselves to the sixth form. Many pupils seems to end up in sixth forms because it is traditional; many go on to university and some go into teaching, never having found out what the real world of work is about. So it would be useful, if the job situation permits, if some of those pupils went out and obtained some work experience when GCE examinations ended.

When I first came into the House I pressed for this measure, and I was most disappointed to find that it could not be put into effect by means of an order, subject perhaps to affirmative resolution of the House, but that it actually required a Bill to be introduced. For that reasons, instead of being able to do this coincidentally with the school-leaving age, we had two years in which most unsatisfactory procedures were carried out and truancy rose. In the summer term the problems of truancy spread to pupils lower down the school. I consider it most regrettable that it was not possible to carry this out to coincide with the raising of the school leaving age.

I was also concerned at the seeming failure of the Ministers and the Department to appreciate a particular Lancashire problem here. In Lancashire, at least, the summer term varied widely from one education authority to the next. It also varied widely between direct grant schools and local authority schools because of the Lancashire Wakes holidays. Thus some authorities had an early Wakes holiday, and others had a late one. There was also the question of the summer holiday in relation to the Wakes. My experience was that schools within a couple of miles of each other ended their summer terms either early in July or early in August. That caused problems if pupils were competing for the same jobs. One pupil could apply for a job almost a month before another pupil from another school. The formula of "the Friday before the Monday" is much better. It produces a uniform date throughout the country and does away with the anomaly which existed in Lancashire of Wakes holidays and varying summer terms.

Having pressed for two years to see this little Bill produced, my concern is that we still have an unresolved issue—namely, the question of the Easter leaving date. I was disappointed when the Minister, in reply to a Question of mine last summer, said that he was continuing consultations about the Easter leaving date. For the welfare of schools, it would be far better to have a fixed date, so that there is not this "demob" atmosphere spreading through the schools twice. Pupils taking CSE in one or two subjects are not then torn between choosing whether to go to work at Easter, because they might be able to compete more successfully for a job, or waiting in school to try for their CSE examinations, of which they may be rather proud in future years.

I realise that the Department of Education would prefer one leaving date, and I am sure most educationists would. The real battle is between the Department of Education and the Department of Employment, which, one suspects, would like pupils to be able to leave each Friday and trickle out into the dead end jobs market, so that every time a petrol pump attendant became fed up with the low wages at 18 and left his job, the garage proprietor could ring up the schools and obtain a replacement of cheap labour.

That is perhaps being a little unfair on the Department of Employment, but I can appreciate the problems, and it would be unrealistic to expect the Department of Education to win this year. I wonder whether that Department can ever win, but I should have thought it could have looked at the Bill and said, "If the Department of Employment rings this year, we shall not do anything about the Easter leaving date." That would have persuaded the Department to let the Minister have in the Bill a clause allowing him, by order, to vary the dates in the future, and perhaps, to be safe, to vary them only from two to one, so that we could not go backwards.

Had we done that, and should the employment situation, as we all hope, pick up next year or the year after, it would be simple, by means of a Statutory Instrument, subject to an affirmative order, to introduce one leaving date. As it is, in my understanding is that another Bill would be required. I realise that the Second Reading Committee helps to get measures through the House, but it still takes a lot of time actually to get a Bill through Parliament, as opposed to an order.

If the consultations which are taking place with all the interested bodies come down in favour of one leaving date, it would be helpful if there were such a clause in the Bill to cover that contingency.

I should like to press the Minister on one other point. If we are making the effective leaving date the Bank Holiday Monday, we should be looking carefully at induction courses and at the use of FE colleges. Most of these colleges are empty from the Whitsun holiday to some time in late September. We are short of buildings, and this would be an ideal opportunity to run special courses for a period of a few months from Whitsun to September when the colleges have the spare capacity. I hope the Minister will be able to the Committee that linked with this change in leaving date we shall see a much more imaginative use of resources in FE colleges.

I welcome this measure. It will be welcomed by everyone who works in schools and will do a lot to solve existing problems in the summer term. I ask the Minister to give careful consideration to my suggestions, and perhaps persuade his colleagues in the Department of Employment that if nothing can be done this year, a small amendment could be made to the Bill to allow the Minister in some future year to abolish Easter leaving.

11.7 a.m.

Mr. John Loveridge (Upminster)

Most people will welcome this measure. Those who have been connected with education will appreciate how hard it is to interest students after they have taken examinations. It is the end of the term and the vacation is in view. It is possible to run special courses. I have had experience of doing so with adult students, though not in the State education system, which can excite their attention and keep them occupied usefully. There are too few who pass their examinations at the end of their training. Nevertheless I accept that it is wise to allow those who have taken examinations, however few, to go if they want to do so.

There are 70,000 who leave in the summer unqualified in any way. Are we really to say that we should allow to leave school early those who are most backward, who most need training, and, indeed, those who perhaps cannot even read and write? Surely this is saying that we cannot teach them, that we do not know how. I appreciate that many of these students may be truculent and difficult, and disturb the other students. It may be hard for the staff to handle them. But that problem does not apply to every one of the 70,000. That problem can be solved by giving wider powers to the local education authorities to act in specific cases to remove pupils who really are truculent and frustrated because they are not learning anything. Will not the Government consider putting into the Bill a greater measure of flexibility, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has suggested? It is not enough to fix a single date six weeks earlier in the summer. It is certainly not enough for those who need more education than they are getting—those who are the most desperately backward after many years in our schools.

However, it is not only those with which I am concerned. As the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) has said, there are the Easter leavers. Most of those go out unqualified. If we are to have two exit periods, surely our examination system can be adjusted so that there is the same measure of effort towards examinations to be set for Easter as for the summer. There should not be an advantage to the summer leaver over the Easter leaver, and there should be no real difficulty in arranging that the Easter pupils have the same full measure of excitement and impetus towards their end-of-school period. I do, however, accept that it would be difficult to have a single date because of the large numbers thrown on to the labour market at one moment.

What of the teachers? Of course, this provision makes life much easier for them. Those of us who have been connected with education appreciate that teachers like to have their lives made easier. Most of them are tired towards the end of the long year. None the less, the long vacation is approaching and it would not be harmful on behalf of those 70,000 pupils who leave unqualified if they really had to do their utmost at the end of the school year to try to bring those pupils up to a better standard to fit them for modern life.

There is then the question of apprenticeships. I understand that there was in Northern Ireland a provision at one time that pupils could leave at Christmas instead of Easter if they had proper apprenticeship arrangements made for them. This is not altogether attractive, because it appears to go back on the 16-year-old leaving age. On the other hand I think the Committee would welcome some analysis of how that system worked and what it meant to those pupils to whom it applied. Why did it lapse? There must have been reasons, and they relate to the whole question of dates.

Therefore, I support the measure, but I hope the Government will give some thought to the qualifications that I suggest, particularly to allowing local education authorities greater discretion. They are mostly vastly experienced and run by sensible people, and I think it would be helpful.

I should, however, like to ask the Minister one specific question. How does this measure relate to the Education (Work Experience) Act 1973? That Act allowed local authorities to let children leave school during their last year of compulsory education in order to go out to get approved work experience. I do not know to how many this applied. When I asked the Department in 1974, no figures were available, and I expect that is still the case because it is a local authority matter.

Nonetheless, it has this aspect which I do not quite understand. If a child is leaving school in that last six-week period after the Spring Bank Holiday—or the Friday before the last Monday in May, as we prefer to call it—but is going out under the Education (Work Experience) Act 1973, how different is his situation compared with the pupil who leaves school under the provisions of the Bill? There may be no conflict between the two measures, but it appears to me that in view of the family allowance and social security provisions this might deserve investigation.

With those observations, I welcome the Bill.

11.14 a.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

I wish to ask two brief questions and I hope to make one brief comment.

May I direct the Minister's attention to the first four words in line 7, Clause 1,"the end of January ". I plead guilty to some confusion. Why this phrase "the end of January"? Surely it is not because the preceding term is also limited by the phrase "the end of January". In general terms, "the end of January" appears to be a non-date. It is not the beginning of the year or the beginning of the school term, which begins in January. It has no fiscal relationships so far as I know. So why have the words "the end of January" been chosen instead of either 1st January—which has some significance outside education—or the beginning of the school term after the Christmas holidays? I should like the Minister to explain that choice not only for my benefit but for others who are concerned.

Secondly, may I have an assurance from the Minister that nothing in the Bill will prevent a pupil who wishes to stay at school till the end of term do so if he wishes? I understand that if a pupil wishes to stay on until the end of term, it is common practice to give him every encouragement to do so. But I should not like a situation to arise, after the Bill has become law, in which a pupil who would like to stay on is prevented by law from doing so. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) used the phrase "to obey the spirit of the law and not the letter '. I have not been before a court, but if I were, I should think I would be judged on the letter of the law although I might hope to be judged by the spirit of the law.

Those are the two points I wished to raise: Why choose "the end of January"? I should like an assurance that whatever the reason—perhaps a pupil is waiting to take up a job or to begin an apprenticeship—a pupil will be welcome in school, whatever the law happens to say at the time.

Hon. Members have used this opportunity to say what should be done during the last year's term. It is tempting to follow their example, but I shall resist the temptation. Emphasis has been laid on the fact that the school-leaving date is for the benefit of the pupil at school and for the teachers. However, the Minister must have some regard—although it is not his ministerial responsibility—for the effect of the school-leaving date upon educational employment and upon further teaching. The school-leaving date should not be fixed solely for the benefit of the school, the pupil and the teachers; it must have some regard for the opportunities available to prepare the school leaver for a full life later on. I give the Bill my support.

11.18 a.m.

Mrs. Margaret Bain (Dunbartonshire, East)

I hope hon. Members will not find it presumptuous of the only Scottish representative present speaking about a Bill which basically affects people south of the Border. I trust that the Minister, who has just moved from the devolution unit, will not feel that I am impinging on his territory. I am going on the assumption that the same type of legislation will ultimately be implemented in Scotland—thus reversing the Scottish Acts of 1962 and 1969. It will be a very different Bill because examination dates are not the same. Holidays are different; we do not have a Spring Bank Holiday. Our Summer holidays begin at the end of June and they last throughout July and August, which causes Scottish Members of Parliament with families a great deal of concern. It is difficult for them to have a family holiday if Parliament is in session until the end of the first week of August.

However, I welcome the general principles of the Bill, although there is a strong case for arguing that fixed dates for school-leaving should be abolished altogether. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) said, encouragement is given to children to stay on at school. No one forces them to leave. Everything possible is done within education circles to encourage children to stay on. But the problem with fixed dates is that some children will be able to leave when they are 16, but some will have to stay until they are 16 years 7 months. It is the latter group who cause major problems for the teachers.

It is difficult for a child, who recognises that the school-leaving age is 16, to make the psychological jump and accept that he has to stay on until he is 16 years 7 months, when his friends from the same class are taking up employment or going on to college. Like the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), having dealt with children in this age group when I was a teacher, I found them extremely difficult to cope with. They are antagonistic towards the school and the teachers.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) made great play about the kind of work that should be done with these children. I assure him that a great deal is done with these children, not in something vague called "civics" but throughout the school curriculum. In our school we co-ordinated every department and the children were given a great deal of instruction for life and leisure, which was what we called the course. We worked very hard.

But, even with that kind of work, if the child is antagonistic to having to stay on at school, he will not take advantage of it. It is difficult to give a child of 15 or 16 a crash course in literacy and numeracy. That needs to be done at primary level in the school system. I speak as a qualified remedial teacher in a secondary school. A child coming into secondary school with literacy and numeracy problems will not have the problem eliminated in three or four years in secondary school. The vast bulk of the work should be done at primary level.

Another problem about forcing children to stay on at school is that we may make them antagonistic to going on to further education and accepting opportunities later in life. I should like to see much more encouragement and instruction given to children about the kind of opportunities available later in life. It is often difficult for people to go back into education because they may have family or financial responsibilities. We must look at the whole system of awarding grants to people who want to come back into full time education in later life.

I welcome the general principle but I feel we should approach this question in a more flexible way and abolish fixed dates.

11.22 a.m.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

Like all hon. Members, I welcome the Bill in principle, but I have taken note of one or two matters raised by previous speakers about allowing youngsters to leave earlier after sitting their examinations. The inference of one or two previous speakers was that this may give them a quicker opportunity to obtain a job than the youngster continuing to the end of the term. This is scaremongering, unintentional though it may be, because I have found in my experience in local government that for most children leaving with O levels the intakes are fixed fairly rigidly throughout the country.

Local authorities will be starting now to discuss their intakes and deciding how many jobs will be available and how many youngsters with O levels will be recruited for those jobs. This also applies in the banking houses and most of the business houses. Despite the high percentage of school-leavers with O levels who go into local government, the business houses and the nationalised industries, the intake is phased fairly rigidly. I cannot see those organisations suddenly deciding to intake earlier. It would mean a double intake to them. Children sit their O levels with the intention of leaving school afterwards. But they still have to wait to take up the positions that they have applied for, because often whether they get those jobs will depend on the results of their O levels. The situation can suddenly change and a double intake can occur in one year.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St John-Stevas) talked about industrialists and apprenticeships. One of the saddest things that has happened during this past decade is the number of industrialists who have gone backwards and not forwards in providing educational training for youngsters leaving school. I worked in a factory employing 24,000 people which had an excellent school within its curtilage which children could leave with some qualifications and go on to get others. But with rationalisation, on top of 12,000 jobs, the school was completely obliterated.

So I do not accept lightly that industrialists pay high regard to catering for school-leavers. It has to be done within the educational system. Most of the school-leavers who go into society to try to get some qualifications overwhelmingly have to obtain them with our own Civil Service, local government Civil Service, as one might call it, with local authorities, or with nationalised boards. I only wish that the industrialists—one industry that fell down very badly in the past few years was the building industry—would have more regard to providing technical training for youngsters who leave school with limited qualifications. Unfortunately, they do not do so to any degree. I still think that it has to be done within our education system.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I welcome the Bill in general principle. It concerns something on which I have been keen for some time. It is nice to be a member of a Committee which is discussing education. We often consider Bills on which we argue about systems, but today we are actually discussing something which goes on in schools, and that is encouraging.

I have a personal stake in this Bill. When I moved last year, the sixth-formers of the local comprehensive school on their way home smashed a considerable number of my windows. I thought it was a political move, but found that it was not. Apparently it is the standard practice in the last few weeks of the summer term. It was my turn that time; the year before, it was somebody else's. It reflects the boredom within that age group. I do not blame them. If they are fed up and want to express themselves, throwing stones is not a bad way to do it.

I come to a more serious matter. I am slightly concerned about examinations and the later date of the GCE. I am worried that in more humble families there may be pressure on the child not to take the exam but to take a job. It is a matter that we ought to consider very seriously. A lot of children do not appreciate the importance of an exam, and if there is pressure from the parents we should look at the matter. I also support the view expressed about the one leaving date. Eventually I hope that we shall have that, because I think it is right. I would support any measure to secure it.

I want to say a word about careers guidance. I did a research project on the subject, and it was the most depressing thing I have ever done. The amount of careers guidance that is provided in all schools—I am not talking only of the State system; I am talking of the private sector, too—is pretty dismal. It is something that we should do a great deal about.

An hon. Gentleman opposite said that we must remember those who have no qualifications, and that usually their only option is the local factory. I do not agree. The options in life are tremendous, if the opportunities are explained to them. They can get jobs in other parts of the country. There are apprenticeships and all sorts of things which—

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

My point was that suddenly people talk to fifth-year children, who have opted to take no exams at all, about the opportunities for them if they get five or six GCE subjects. It is too late then for them to get them. Most of the opportunities being explained to them are ones which require those qualifications. That, I think, is one of the sad aspects of careers guidance.

Mr. Durant

I was not disagreeing with the hon. Gentleman. I was saying that we should open up options. We do not give children an opportunity early enough to see what the options are. It is not good starting to talk about careers in the last year. That is wasting time, because many are pre-destined. Much more should be done about careers earlier in the school programme. That is something on which I am keen.

I am glad that we have talked a little about the contents of the syllabus. I should like to see basic economics introduced on a greater scale during the latter part of schooling. Many people do not understand how the subject ticks, and the more we can teach them about what happens in society the better. There is the civics course where the local Member of Parliament goes along and talks about what it is like to be an MP and then a councillor relates what it is like to be a councillor. They call it a civics course. I do not. I call it a bore.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

It depends on the MP!

Mr. Durant

I do it quite often and I am asked back, so it cannot be that bad. I think we should teach much more about how our society is structured and how things work, and the financial structure of the country is something I should like to see introduced much more into the school syllabus.

Another thing which I should like to see in the latter part of schooling is teaching about leisure. If we move into a society which has a shorter working week—and I am all for that—we must teach people how to enjoy themselves in ways other than just kicking a football. We all know about sport, and that is a good thing, but there are many other aspects of leisure which I might never have taken up if someone had not introduced me to them. I might never have appreciated music if someone had not opened up the subject; I might have shut my ears to it.

Generally, I welcome the Bill. I hope that we shall look carefully at the question of examinations and careers guidance, which needs much more attention in the school syllabus.

11.31 a.m.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Hemel Hempstead)

I hope that the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) will not be surprised if his offer to local 15-year-olds to break his windows is all over the local newspaper next week. I wonder what his wife will say about it.

I welcome the Bill. I was particularly encouraged that the Minister went out of his way to stress that it was more a tidying-up measure, much demanded by people in education, than an invitation or encouragement to pupils to leave school. Many hon. Members have referred to the fact that it is these pupils more than others who will find it more difficult to find either work or satisfying work, and certainly more difficult to find anything which could be remotely described as a career.

In my constituency one of the problems of school-leavers is not that of continuing engineering apprenticeships but the fact that a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs have disappeared for ever. I was gratified to hear members of the Committee stress the importance of trying to prepare these pupils, who in many ways—and this must be said—are failures as far as our present education system is concerned, to earn a living and understand the world into which they are going. I agree that the practice of leaving these issues until the last year is far too late.

I know the Minister has listened carefully to the comments about career guidance, particularly those of my hon. Friend. When the Bill is enacted I hope that local authorities will be encouraged, perhaps on a group basis with help from colleges of further education, to offer special courses to children who choose not to leave at this new date but wish to continue on to the summer term, to try to give them a better introduction to the world of work. It is my belief that this will become a growing problem, with so many unskilled and semi-skilled jobs disappearing, and in this sense we are building up trouble for ourselves.

I also believe—and I hope I shall not be misunderstood—that perhaps we are discussing this measure because the whole of the education system is geared to examinations and to the achievement of obtaining a piece of paper which, in many respects, becomes either a first-class or a second-class ticket on the journey through life.

In that sense, we are talking about the failures of the education system which is heavily weighted towards examinations. I would hope that in time we would begin to move to a system which avoided these make-or-break examinations and made continuing assessments. The piece of paper that someone might have would be much more useful even than O levels or A levels and an objective summary of the strength and weaknesses of that particular individual, because whatever is said on that piece of paper may be instrumental in the kind of life that its owner makes for himself. This is tremendously important, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it.

11.36 a.m.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

I hope it will not be amiss if I bring a slight—I emphasise slight—element of discord into what has been a very stimulating and useful debate about, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) has said, education and what happens in the schools.

I welcome the Bill. It has been a worthwhile birth but I think we should question the nature of its conception on two counts. The first is that it goes so far but not very far and one has to ask whether this is the right way to bring in this element of flexibility. We have all had examples of students leaving after their examinations, not being of the qualified age and therefore, although offered jobs, often could not take them up simply because they could not obtain their national insurance cards. This caused tremendous frustration and annoyance, and often, of course, they missed the chance of a job they were interested in.

The psychological aspect of the effect on the pupil is most important as well as the aspect of vandalism and damage to the schools themselves. There is also the truancy element and the fact that these people can no longer be held in the schools. Clearly the Bill has been introduced to deal with a difficult situation, notably truancy, although there are other vital aspects, and possibly, therefore, it is too narrow in its conception.

Another point is the degree of flexibility which the Bill gives. I had some cases in 1974 and I shall quote from a letter written to me by the Minister when he was previously in his present job because it highlighted a situation which is not resolved by this Bill.

I have an example of a young girl who became 16 two days after the end of the eligible period—in other words, on 2nd September. She wanted to take a pre-nursing course in the local further education college which gave her the chance to take O levels which in that particular secondary modern she had not been able to do. She was most keen to do this because she wanted to be a nurse. She had a valid intention to go into education, but she was denied that chance because she had to stay on to the next school-leaving date, which was at Easter. She could not join the course at Easter. So, again, there is tremendous frustration on the part of the child and her parents.

The Minister wrote, rightly, at that time and with some sympathy: I am afraid that there can be no individual exemptions from the law governing school leaving dates. … He continued: However, as Ernest said in the last debate, a greater degree of flexibility in operation may well be desirable, particularly where pupils wish to continue their education elsewhere than at school … This is a complex question and any alterations to the existing arrangements will of course involve legislation. In no way does this Bill get over that problem. With respect to the civil servants in the Department, one wonders why gestation takes so long before something emerges and then produces such a mouse. Is it not possible that an alternative might have been to give the Secretary of State powers under regulations to make exemptions on an individual basis? I accept that we have an immediate problem ahead of us, but I am questioning whether we look far enough ahead and think things through. If the way I have suggested would be too cumbersome, would it not have been possible to draft something which enabled the pupil, or the pupil's parents, or both, to make a submission to the governors of the school, the head, or the local authority on the ground that the pupil was leaving the school to go on to a link course or quasi educational course? That is the kind of flexibility that we should look for rather than the narrow flexibility we have in this Bill.

The case I have quoted was two years ago. We have not yet heard from the Minister whether this is part of any coordinated strategy concerning this age group. Are we thinking things through? Are the Government doing more than simply responding to pressure?

When we continually raised this matter in 1974, there was a marked reluctance on the part of the then Under-Secretary and his Department to do anything. The weight of opinion in the profession has certainly built up and there is also pressure on all sides of the House. Consequently the Department has responded.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does the hon. Member mean that some blame attaches to this side of the House? It was 1974 when the problem first occurred. If I remember correctly, we had a Labour Government from February of that year. Surely if one were trying to do something which was to become effective in that summer, then it should have been done by the previous administration.

Dr. Hampson

I was not necessarily blaming the Government side. I was indicating that there was a marked reluctance on the part of Government or their advisers. But this problem has been around a long time in that even when the school-leaving age was earlier people could not get their national insurance cards if they opted out after taking examinations. I opted out after my examinations. Certainly most of the pupils who did not continue to A levels left school after O level examinations had finished and tried to get whatever jobs they could. This has been a longstanding problem.

I wish to turn to the more fundamental question which relates in the first instance to the two school-leaving dates. At most, one would have only eight weeks between these two dates. If we were operating it this year, there would be only six weeks. On educational grounds I must question this. What can one do with this particular age group in a six-week period? It will be a "fag end" of a course. It raises the question of the "in-fighting" between the Employment Department and the Education Department. I should have thought that there was little to justify this on educational grounds. The Minister has said, and I understand full well, that there is a lot of pressure from the employment point of view. There is an argument being put forward that the employment situation is eased, because the staggering of the school-leaving dates helps to slot people into jobs.

I ask the Minister how far the Government have consulted with the careers advisers and their associations on whether this is helpful. I believe that only a quarter of those pupils entitled to leave at Easter actually do so. Perhaps this number will grow. In other words, the number is about 80,000 to 85,000 out of the entitled 300,000. We could find ourselves with a not small amount to cope with at Easter but a very substantial number. It will depend on the changed situation.

The other aspect of the school-leaving situation at Easter, as I understand it—and the Minister might be able to enlighten us further on this—is that of the 80,000 or so pupils entitled to leave about 70,000 are leaving without any qualifications. If raising leaving age is to do anything, it must encourage people to take up more skills or prepare them better for the world outside. If it does not give them paper qualifications, it should help with their functional literacy and numeracy.

We have a serious problem. There is a depressing report out about the Midlands situation, centred on Coventry, which showed disturbing evidence that young people, such as apprentices on the shop floor, were not at the literacy and numeracy levels they should be.

11.45 a.m.

The biggest problem is that, because of home pressures and other demands people are inclined to leave early and not to make the most of the last year, and therefore there is, on educational grounds, a lot to be said for not having the break at Easter. This may appear to clash with what I said earlier about the need for flexibility, because one could argue that to meet my initial point about the desire of people to leave, even if their birthday fell just after the leaving dates, there might be a case for going back to the Christmas leaving date. If there is no way of changing the regulations, possibly there is something to be said for that, but we have seen no evidence as to how far this has been thought through and why we have ended up with the present option.

In Northern Ireland, when the school-leaving age was raised, the situation was more flexible than in this country. One could leave at Christmas to go into apprenticeship and for the whole of the last year—this is how many of us would have liked to see ROSLA operate here—one could opt out of school provided one could take a further education course.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

The Northern Ireland scheme was largely concerned with apprenticeship rather than with continuing education specifically. It operated for only two years. The order was not renewed largely because education interests opposed continuation of the scheme.

Dr. Hampson

It would be very interesting to know the grounds on which the education people opposed it. I suppose we might have problems with the trade unions if we brought in a full flexible system.

The Minister is one of the foremost exponents of the concept of recurrent education, and what we are aiming to do, I hope, is to encourage people and to motivate them to go into the education system at other stages of their lives—an in-and-out system.

There is a basic dilemma. It would be better if we did not create a situation which encouraged those who most needed to stay on—that is, those without qualifications—to leave at Easter. Yet it might be useful if we encouraged people to leave school. If this is a hostile environ- ment for them, is it right to imprison them in the school system? Would it not be better to encourage them to go into work experiences related to further education, hoping they could be stimulated to return to formal education for training or retraining? This is not the simple and clear-cut question that this Bill tends to imply it is. I would hope we could widen it out and probe Government thinking in this respect. We should like to see some common ground because education is about improving the qualitative aspect of education, particularly for those who are not academically bright—the mass of people who have great difficulty getting qualifications, many of whom are keen to leave, although being totally unskilled and without much functional literacy. That is my major theme, and I hope that the Minister will say something about it.

Can the Minister give any indication of the number of teachers who will be affected by this change, and what the cost will be for paying teachers' salaries when there are no pupils in the classrooms? We could perhaps use this period at the end of the year from May onwards to gear teachers into some sort of in-service training rather than just allowing them to stay in the schools and be paid. Possibly we should broaden this narrow aspect of the Bill and consider how to use the time to train teachers on an in-service basis.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

At present a fantastic amount of work goes on in schools in the summer into planning courses for the following year. It is no relief to teachers not to teach in the summer term. If they are good teachers, they are fully engaged in organising visits, materials and resources for the rest of the year.

Dr. Hampson

I accept that to a certain degree. As a result of my brief period in a school, I am aware of the situation in staff rooms. There is much physical time taken in marking. Many teachers are taking in CSE and GCE marking from outside. I should not like to imagine them doing all the forward planning to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. If we are to try to get in-service arrangements going, we should try to gear them into this part of the year, particularly in the light of the changes which this Bill will make, which would relieve some of the pressures on the schools.

This is a worthwhile, though rather slight, Bill. We would appreciate hearing more from the Minister about the context in which the decisions were taken to produce it in its present form.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

With leave, may I say that I shall not attempt to answer every detailed point raised today. Some were essentially Committee points.

No member of the Committee in any way resented the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) making available her experience north of the border. England and Wales, and Scotland have separate education systems, and I hope that each of them will continue to learn from the experience of the other, even after devolution. I have a feeling that the hon. Lady is pursuing me, but I also have a feeling that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) is pursuing me. He will not take it as any slight on him if I say I would prefer being pursued by the hon. Lady. I assure her that there is already in another place a Bill which will make similar provision for the Scottish education system. It will not be exactly the same as this measure because the two systems have always been and, I am sure, will continue to be different.

One of the major issues referred to today is whether there should be one leaving date. As an educationist, I have every sympathy with this argument. We have to take account of employment interests and these are not simply the interests of employers but the interests of school-leavers in obtaining jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) suggested that there was a battle between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Employment. We in the Department would be mistaken if we did not take account of the needs of employers and did not look to the best interests of school-leavers in obtaining jobs without too long delay after leaving school. Having two dates does make this problem somewhat easier to handle. While I sympathise with the thesis of one leaving date, I cannot see us adopting that change in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does this mean that the consultations referred to in a reply to me last summer have been completed? Has it been concluded that two dates will remain? Or, as I understand, are the consultations still going on? If so, why pre-judge them in the Bill?

Mr. Fowler

The consultations are complete. But I assure my hon. Friend that we are always open to reconsideration of education policy from the point of view of the best advantage to those being educated within the system. I shall draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the point my hon. Friend has made today and we shall continue to keep an eye on the situation, even after the Bill has become law.

The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) sympathised with the notion of one leaving date but requested flexibility in the application of that date. The difficulty here is twofold. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we might allow exemption by application to the Secretary of State, but he recognised this would be extremely cumbersome administratively. I fear it would require a substantial number of additional staff in the Department of Education and Science, and I have no desire unnecessarily to add to public expenditure.

Apart from that, the hon. Gentleman's other suggestion seemed to have a central weakness. He suggested that parents might apply to governors of schools to exempt their child because he or she was proceeding to a given course of further education or training. He must realise the invidium this would cause up and down the country. Governors might exempt one or two children in an age group from remaining at school to the statutory leaving date and others would not be exempted even though their parents had applied. This would be very undesirable and would create a great deal of ill-will in each community. However, although I have sympathy with the object behind his proposal, none of his suggestions is practicable.

Dr. Hampson

Taking the example of the girl to whom I referred earlier, if we had a one-leaving-date system, and if there was no flexibility, instead of waiting until Easter she would have to wait a whole extra year in the school, with ail the consequences for the school, the rest of the children, and herself. Therefore, either one has to go back to a Christmas, Easter or summer leaving date or have a more flexible, individual-oriented system.

12 noon.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

I agree entirely that whatever we do about specific leaving dates will leave individual problems. I am suggesting only that there is no obvious practicable way of solving those problems.

I must re-emphasise one other point that I made earlier. We are determined that everyone should have a full course of secondary education. We do not want to see the attenuation of secondary education for a minority of pupils. It is important that we should not build into the system exemptions for what may prove in the event to be narrow forms of training. I am not suggesting that the case which the hon. Gentleman gave is a narrow form of training. However, if we do that, we are committing ourselves to a policy of permitting certain pupils to exchange too early narrow training for what most of us understand as education. The danger of that is that we are then training them essentially for redundancy as well as for a much less satisfactory life in society. I say "training them for redundancy" because we shall not have given them that broad educational base upon which they can build career changes, learn new job techniques, and undertake further training successfully. I should be loth to go along that road.

Mr. Loveridge

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) and, I am sure, many other right hon. and hon. Members, I have had cases come to me of people whose careers have been interrupted by this lack of flexibility in dates. In one case that I remember, a boy could not join the Navy at the proper time. The Minister has explained that it would be difficult, for the reasons he has given, to give power to governors of schools to act in this matter. He has also said how cumbersome it would be to give the power directly to the Secretary of State. Most of us accept that. But he has not covered the suggestion—which would be neither so cumbersome nor so near to the parents on the ground as to cause invidious comparisons—giving a power, which could be subject to some form of inspection by the Department, to the directors of education themselves, subject to their own local authority control as well as the inspection.

Mr. Fowler

I am not sure that that overcomes either of the difficulties. There would be additional administrative costs, without a doubt. The administrative arrangements would impose an additional burden on local education authorities at a time of great difficulty for them. Nor could we give that duty to the directors of education or chief education officers. We should have to impose the duty upon the local education authority specifically, and we might find that in some local education authorities power was delegated to the chief officer but that in others elected members wished to decide such cases in committee, and that would be very time-consuming.

Moreover, we should not really get over the point about invidium. I do not know the hon. Gentleman's experience, but in my own constituency, where I have had cases of this kind, there would perhaps be even greater resentment were the decisions handed down from the LEA in what is seen as the remote county town of Shrewsbury and from an authority the politics of which are not totally sympathetic to the majority of the electors of my constituency—I seek to put the matter delicately—than if the question were decided purely locally. I can see a great deal of lobbying of county councillors on individual cases, leading perhaps to highly undesirable accusations of bias and the like.

Therefore, while I am open to practicable suggestions, I do not think that the Committee has yet come up with one. Perhaps I may press on, as we can consider that at greater length in Standing Committee, and no doubt some members of this Committee will wish to do so if they are given the chance of serving on the Standing Committee.

I turn now to some of the other arguments that have been put forward today. The hon. Member for Chelmsford was keen that children should make the best use of the last year at school. He devoted much of his speech to that subject. I have every sympathy with it. He will know, as well as I, that that is not purely or even largely a power available to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is more a matter for the local education authorities and for the teachers, the other partners in the government of education. We have always said that Ministers do not intervene in the curriculum. Certain qualifications should be entered to that general proposition. I should make that clear because I have said it so often in writing. That is a doctrine to which we have all adhered in general.

The hon. Member talked about civics. I agree with the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden). I do not think that "civics" is the right term to use; it has rather old-fashioned connotations. But I have every sympathy with the substance of what the hon. Member for Chelmsford meant by civics—instruction in the important practical matters that an individual is bound to come up against in his life, the operation of the national insurance system, for example, or how to obtain a mortgage. He might also have mentioned the local authority system of determining rents, because that may matter just as much to many pupils.

Since the decision to proceed with the raising of the school leaving age was announced, much development work has been done in the schools on how to make the best use of that last year. Some of the work is extremely worthwhile. It does not consist simply of getting in the local Member of Parliament. I am sure that the children of Reading are extremely lucky to have the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) visit them so frequently. We have all done that.

There are well developed courses to help to ease the transition from school to work or from learning to earning. That problem is not one simply of the last year of compulsory schooling; it runs forward into the continuing education of the 16 to 19 age group. I know that many members of the Committee will have noted the intention of my right hon. Friend to hold a conference on that subject next month. I was most impressed by some of the things that I saw yesterday when I was in Nelson and Colne. I strongly recommend the hon. Member for Chelmsford to visit the Nelson and Colne College where I am sure he will learn a great deal. I shall not cavil should he choose to be absent on any Tuesday or Thursday.

We were asked by the hon. Member for Reading, North whether local industrialists or councillors were brought into the schools often enough. All I can do is express sympathy with the objective which underlies his suggestion. I am sure that many schools do this, and they do it well. Other schools perhaps do not do it often enough. As long as, side by side with the industrialists, he includes the local trade union leaders I should be perfectly content.

It has been suggested that we should include apprenticeships as a substitute for school education. I have alluded to this already. We should find it difficult to define a satisfactory degree of educational content, as opposed to training content, in those courses. On the other hand, I draw attention to the continuing development of linked courses between schools and further education. I am sure hon. Members will agree that this has been a most valuable development in our education system, and that we should go further along that road to bring further education and the schools closer together.

As for work experience, there was some misapprehension about the operation of the Work Experience Act raised by the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Loveridge). The provisions of that Act did not include the provision that children could leave school. The intention was that children could gain work experience by attending, under supervision, a shop or a factory for a brief period, such as a day a week. This was not a period of employment in the normal sense of the word, but it was intended to give experience of different kinds of employment situation. The pupil was still within the education system. It is now a normal provision in many schools. It is essentially a local matter and when the hon. Gentleman asks me whether I can give him statistics, the answer is that I cannot because my Department does not keep such statistics.

Mr. Loveridge

I was anxious to determine whether there was advantage to the pupil in the last six weeks after the spring date if he went out under the 1973 Act to get work experience, or whether there was advantage to him if he left school altogether. I wondered whether there was some conflict in the family allowance and social security measures here.

Mr. Fowler

I do not think that there is any conflict. The crucial matter here is that if the pupil goes out under the Work Experience Act, he remains within the school system and has not left school. That, of course, will have implications in respect of family allowance under the present legislation. Whereas, if he leaves school there will be the transitional arrangements set out in Clause 2 of the Bill.

As for the future arrangements after the introduction of child benefit allowance, the hon. Member for Chelmsford asked me to ensure that there would be adequate publicity to parents, and I shall certainly draw that request to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security. I assure him that in the Committee stage of the Bill not only an education Minister but also a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Security will be present. I am sure that that will please the hon. Gentleman. I cannot assure him on this occasion that we shall also have a Minister from the Welsh Office.

The hon. Gentleman dealt also with the problem of troublemakers. He suggested that perhaps they might leave on the certification of the head teacher. I freely confess that I do not like that idea. I feel that that suggestion would be too great an incentive for head teachers to issue certificates in respect of pupils they wished to get rid of. In any event, just because pupils are troublemakers—I want to make clear that I recognise that such pupils exist and cause great problems to teachers in the schools—that is no excuse for the early termination of their education by society, or for turning them out into the world of work with less preparation than other pupils, who may need less help in any event.

I was more attracted by what the hon. Gentleman said about the possibility of special units. He will know that some authorities at present are attempting to create such units, and that some schools have separate premises, or accommodation in the normal school premises, for such special units. There is a good example in Coventry, which has recently been discussed in the Press. In such cases, we can build up experience of how these units work before deciding whether they should be adopted in any sense as a national policy, or whether we should want to give guidance on their creation. We are thus going along one of the roads that the hon. Gentleman has described.

At present, however, it is up to the local education authorities and the schools. We must build up considerably more experience before we seek to generalise such arrangements.

I am well aware of some of the specific points which were raised by my hon. Friends and by hon. Members opposite, but it would delay the Committee were I to deal with each one of them today. Let me, however, assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) that I, at least, am conscious—I was in Lancashire yesterday—of the problems of Wakes Weeks, which he called a specific Lancashire problem. I hope that we have effectively dealt with that problem in this Bill.

There have been references to Northern Ireland. If I may expand upon the intervention I made in the speech of the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), the situation was that in the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, provision was made for young people whose normal school leaving date was Easter to leave at the end of the preceding Christmas term in order to enter a course of full-time training in a Government training centre or other centre approved for that purpose. The course had to lead to skilled status in a recognised craft. It was a very narrow provision in any event, though it was part of a much wider package which included the raising of the school-leaving age in Northern Ireland to 16 years. This was an attempt to balance, in that larger package, education interests and the interests of employers. After two years the order was not renewed as there was strong feeling among educationists in Northern Ireland that, for good education reasons, it was desirable that everyone should have the opportunity to complete a full course of secondary education. So it was purely transitional arrangement.

Hon. Gentlemen may wish to argue that it would have been better if we had some such transitional arrangement in this part of the United Kingdom when we raised the school-leaving age. That is, however, history and I do not think that we should want to go back to such a transitional arrangement at this stage.

Finally, may I deal with the second point made by the hon. Member for Ripon, who asked whether we would save teachers by this measure, or whether alternatively, we could devise some means of using the time made free more profitably than it had been used hitherto. He specifically mentioned the possibility of in-service education for teachers.

Many of the pupils who will leave at the new leaving date have, unhappily, over the past two years been leaving early but have done so in defiance of the law. What has happened is that they have made the teachers' work on the organisation of courses and forward planning, much more difficult than it would normally have been. In that sense, I have no doubt that this measure will east the teachers' lot, which is why education interests in general welcome it. But I do not think that it will release a large number of teachers from the schools, nor that it will reduce the forward planning work done by teachers.

While I am sure that local education authorities will want teachers to make the best use available of any additional free time in the summer created by this measure, I doubt personally whether any free time thus created will be significant.

Dr. Hampson

In that case, would the Minister think of issuing a circular to local education officers asking them to look at this aspect and to make sure that their colleges of further education have the sort of short-term intensive courses that teachers might be able to make use of if the schools felt that the pressure was so eased that they could let one, two or three teachers attend?

Mr. Fowler

I will certainly note that point. I have no doubt that when this measure becomes law we shall be communicating with LEAs, so that we will be able to consider whether to draw their attention to the type of opportunity this may create.

Let me conclude by referring to careers guidance. I share the general concern and hope that we will continue to improve throughout the school system the careers guidance that we offer to every pupil, irrespective of his ability or aptitude and irrespective of his intended job destination. I hope, too, that we shall do it much earlier than we have done in the past, and, further, that this will be seen by every teacher as part of his duty, not simply as a duty for one or two teachers in a school.

There is everything to be said for integrating education and preparation for work, which is what we have been talking about today. That must include careers guidance. There is little to be said for separating that from normal education. I do not suggest that there is not an expertise in the subject, and that that expertise can be possessed to a high degree only by certain individuals. We cannot ask all teachers to have that expertise to a high degree. But we can ask teachers to take note of the need to guide all their pupils, from the moment they enter secondary education, with one eye upon the pupils' ultimate job destination.

I am sure that the hon. Lady would tell us that experience in Scotland is somewhat different from ours in England, with different administrative arrangements. That is another area in which we might learn from the Scottish schools' system. I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that my period in devolution was well spent.

We are all at one on that subject. It is not simply a matter for Ministers. It is a matter for all the partners in the education system. This measure, although a minor one, will bring a great deal of benefit to a substantial number of pupils and many teachers. I commend it strongly to the Committee.

Mr. Ogden

This has been a happy Committee and I do not want to prolong the proceedings longer than necessary. I should, however, like to ask my hon. Friend whether, having given a great deal of attention to answering questions from Opposition Members, he would for my benefit answer the two questions which I put to him. It is difficult to decide on the dividing line between a Committee point and a non-Committee point. I do not know whether my hon.

Friend was promising or threatening us with membership of the Committee. I do not know who will be members of the Committee. I do not want it suggested that I should have one of those certificates as a trouble-maker, and whether that would include or exclude me from serving in the Committee. It is certainly a way to reach Cabinet level.

I should have thought that if we were merely to say that this was a Bill to change the date of the school leaving age it was not necessary to put in the actual date or the end of January. I submit that it is more than a Committee point to know why the date is set at the end of January.

I should like assurance, too, about the second question, that nothing in this Bill will prevent a pupil from remaining at school if he so wished. I am not asked to approve the Bill on the basis of knowledge I may or may not have in a fortnight's time; I am asked to approve it now. It is at least as important for a Minister to have the support of his hon. Friends as it is to have the tacit approval of the Opposition, no matter how helpful they may be in the future or have been in the past.

Mr. Fowler

I am sorry about ignoring my hon. Friend's first point. I dealt with his second question when I spoke at the beginning of the debate. Clearly he missed what I said. I gave an assurance then, and I repeat it now, that pupils who want to stay on at school may do so. As I said earlier, far from wanting to encourage pupils to leave school, I want to encourage as many as possible to stay on.


Williams, Sir Thomas (Chairman)

Harper, Mr.

Bain, Mrs.

Kelley, Mr.

Bennett, Mr. Andrew F.

Loveridge, Mr.

Corbett, Mr. Robin

Ogden, Mr.

Dean, Mr. Joseph

St. John-Stevas, Mr.

Durant, Mr.

Shelton, Mr. William

Edge, Mr.

Thomas, Mr. John Stradling

Fowler, Mr. Gerry

Woof, Mr.

Hampson, Dr.

I have been asked specifically about the date of 31st January, the "end of January". The basic point is that, if we are to have two leaving dates, the year must be divided into two parts. At present the divsion is 1st September to 31st January, and 1st February to 31st August. I agree with my hon. Friend that where those dates are placed is a matter of judgment.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the implication of what I have just said, that 1st September to 31st January is a period of five months. If we were to move that date back to 31st December, as I think he was half-suggesting, we should have divided the year unequally into one-third and two-thirds. There is therefore a case for saying that 31st January, which is the present date, should continue. That has been the date since 1962. That is why, in this measure, which seeks to deal with a different problem, we do not propose to change that date. If my hon. Friend serves on the Committee and wishes to table an amendment, naturally the matter will be debated at greater length.

I do not want to delay the Committee further. There is general agreement that this is a welcome and helpful, though minor, measure. I commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Education (School-Leaving Dates) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

Committee rose at twenty-six minutes past Twelve o'clock.