HC Deb 01 July 1976 vol 914 cc777-84

'Notwithstanding the provisions of section 9 of the Education Act 1962, where a person attains the age of 16 years on any date after the 1st September, he shall be free to leave his school provided he has been accepted for entry for the term following that date to a full-time course in further education'.—[Mr. St. John-Ste vas.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

With this we may also take the following:

New Clause 35—(Amendment to section 36: exemption from schooling); New Clause 41—(Apprenticeship at 16 years); New Clause 42—(Skilled training at 16 years); New Clause 43—(Service in Her Majesty's forces at 16 years); New Clause 44—(Last year of compulsory education); and Amendment No. 129, in Clause 10, page 5, line 29, at end insert: ',or who is undertaking a course of further education or similar instruction or training'.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

This is an extremely important set of new clauses concerning the school leaving age. They involve a great many issues of fundamental principle. We have had a very reasonable atmosphere in the House today and we have had important discussions on the situation relating to the disabled. I hope that this atmosphere will continue, because it is in the interests of the House that it should do so. However, in order to have an intelligent discussion on this matter it is vital that we should know the Government's intentions about this evening. How far do they intend to go?

We are relying on the fact that a motion has been put down by the Government to suspend the 10 o'clock rule so that we can continue the debate after that time. It would be quite intolerable if for a third time we were to be faced with a situation in which the Government pull up stumps, and abandon their Bill, thus creating a situation in which it is impossible to pursue our discussions. We have 10 new clauses and 15 amendments, apart from the present one, still to discuss. Could we have an indication of the Government's intention? Otherwise, it will be impossible for us to make intelligent contributions to the debate.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I am bound to tell him that I do not have any expectations of completing the remaining stages of the Bill during the present sitting. The discussion has been interesting, but it has at times been characterised more by quantity than by quality. Nevertheless, I am hoping that tonight the hon. Gentleman, in his characteristically concise and clear way, will give his views on this series of new clauses, and we shall have an opportunity to study them and return to them for further consideration at another time.

Hon. Members

No! No!

Mr. St. John-Stevas

We wish to discuss these clauses fully and reasonably, but not at excessive length. We would prefer to have a discussion on these clauses at a reasonable time of day, but rather than have no discussion at all we would want to discuss them at night. Is the Secretary of State proposing to move the suspension at 10 o'clock or not? The House should have the opportunity of hearing the, Government's intentions.

Mr. Mulley

It is a most unusual procedure to anticipate intentions in this way. I do not think we can complete the discussion of these clauses at a reasonable hour, and I know that hon. Members on all sides want to catch trains tonight to their constituencies. [Interruption.] If the Opposition are so anxious to complete the remaining stages of the Bill, perhaps they will facilitate that through the usual channels, and then we can make suitable arrangements.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Once again the Secretary of State has evaded the issue, but let him be under no illusion that if it is he who is refusing to go on after 10 o'clock this evening he has no moral right to introduce a guillotine motion. It will be an abuse of the traditions of the House if he permits it to rise at the early hour of 10 o'clock and then comes back at a later stage complaining that he needs a guillotine to get the Bill through when he has here an Opposition who are willing to go on and discuss clauses in a reasonable way.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)

Bring back Ted Short.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

This is such an important matter that the Government should give us the time to discuss it. That being the case, there can be no possible justification for stopping at 10 o'clock when there are sufficient of us here ready to ensure that the clause is properly debated.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member will have an opportunity at some other time to make a speech. We are now discussing New Clause 40.

Mr. Freud

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Throughout this debate the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has taken, and very properly, half an hour or so to develop his opening speech. Is it not right that he should be allowed to do this tonight without being interrupted in the middle of his speech?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As far as I am aware, the hon. Member is moving New Clause 40.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am moving it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I was attempting to get some rationality and order into the discussion, because while it is one thing, on one occasion—

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A moment ago I heard you call the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) to move his new clause. He has said that that is his intention, but he is about to begin a discussion on something entirely different.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member is anticipating what the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) might say in moving his new clause. The hon. Gentleman must be allowed to develop his argument in his own way.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I was merely endeavouring to establish the time framework of the debate so that I could arrange my arguments with some anticipation of when the discussion was intended to be concluded. On two occasions our discussions have been cut short. We have put up with that in a reasonable way, but it would be intolerable and ridiculous for it to happen a third time. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State has lost all sense of the duties of his position and of his duties to the House. I trust that if he is entertaining any thought of introducing a guillotine he will abandon it, because to act in that manner would be to flout the traditions of the House.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Mulley

I have no intention of introducing a guillotine tonight or at any particular time, but the hon. Member has stressed this matter so much that we shall have to give it proper consideration.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Let the Minister answer a simple question. Will there be a suspension of the rule at 10 o'clock?

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Did you call the hon. Member for Chelmsford to move the new clause? What motion are we supposed to be discussing? Is it a guillotine motion?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps I can advise the hon. Member. We are discussing New Clause 40.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Exactly. Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is obvious to all hon. Members where the responsibility will lie if we are unable to discuss these important clauses tonight.

The Opposition's attitude to the raising of the school leaving age to 16 is quite clear. We support it in principle. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State for Education when the reform was introduced. We stick by the principle but we believe it is sensible that, in the light of experience, we should make it more flexible. The object of the clause is that, while keeping the principle, we should make it sufficiently flexible to meet the objections of teachers, who should be listened to with respect as they have devoted their lives to education.

New Clause 40 provides that the principle of education to the age of 16 will be fulfilled provided that a pupil has been accepted for entry to a full-time course of further education in the term following his sixteenth birthday. It puts into practice what should perhaps have been the original principle in law—not that it should be necessary to attend school until the age of 16, but that education should continue until that age.

It does not matter whether education takes place in a school, a college of further education or some other institute of learning, provided that the education is continued. New Clause 40 attempts to import that modification into the law. We are not wedded to our form wording. We put forward the new clause as a basis for discussion. If Ministers can find a better form of words enshrining the same principle, no one will be more delighted than my hon. Friends.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Can the hon. Gentleman explain what the new clause means? It seems to say that a pupil may leave school on his birthday provided that he has been accepted for a full-time course of further education starting the following term. That could result in an intermission of nearly a term in a pupil's education.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is designed for the Easter leavers. But the Minister of State must not spend his time picking holes in wording. What we expect from the hon. Gentleman is a declaration of Government policy on this matter. That is all the more important if our discussions on the clause tonight are to be transcated against our will. We shall not have time to go through these clauses word by word if the Government are to abandon their Bill for a third time and leave us—I would say in limbo, had it not been abolished by the Second Vatican Council—for another week.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

My hon. Friend has quite rightly asked for a declaration of Government policy on this matter. Has it occurred to him that the Government may have no policy for a change or improvement, and that equally we are entitled to the Government's views as to why they have no policy for such change?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My right hon. and learned Friend is so concise, eloquent and to the point. What can I add? I should be reduced to the state of a footnote if I attempted to add anything to that extremely pertient observation.

I pass on to New Clause 41. We are consistent in these clauses. New Clause 41 retains the principle of education to the age of 16 but provides that, if there has been acceptance for a full-time approved apprenticeship and adequate arrangements have been made for that, the pupil will be abl eto leave school in order to take up that apprenticeship.

New Clause 42 enshrines the same principle. It states that the school may be left if skilled training is provided.

In New Clause 43 we again have the same principle of leaving at 16, but it adds that he shall be free to leave the school"— that is to say, before that date— provided he has been accepted for entry for the term following that date into Her Majesty's armed forces". The Forces have in the past provided an excellent education, in addition to the military training, for boys and girls in this position. There would, therefore, be no loss educationally. There would be a gain, I think, all round by these proposals. The Armed Services are anxious to do this.

The further clauses concern the last year of compulsory education, and New Clause 44 is to be explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet). He will be able to speak for himself, provided that we are not guillotined this evening by the Government.

I think it is extremely important not to be carried away, either on one side of the argument or on the other, or to take up an entrenched position. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), who blazed a trail in this respect and was one of the first Members in the House to produce a Private Member's Bill suggesting a modification to this principle. I felt unable to support him then because I thought that the way in which it was presented was perhaps too definite for that period of time. But everything has evolved since then and I think we have now found, without any change of position from either of us, a meeting point. That is a quite remarkable thing to have done.

Mr. Freud

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

No. Moderation in all things.

On this particular matter, which is of great importance, I hope we shall be able to present a united approach so that we can meet the serious anxieties among teachers and in the education service. At the same time, we shall keep the principle of education to the age of 16, which is important.

At this point I want to develop the argument in further detail on these new clauses. Now that we have started this debate and now that the principles have been laid before us, it would be helpful if we were able to continue it. I do not say that we should continue the debate to a very late hour. That is not desirable. However, to have an hour's debate on this important set of new clauses, when we have so many Opposition Members present, would be reasonable. We want to hear tonight the Government's attitude on these new clauses. We hoped that on this issue there would be a change of heart, if not of mind—if that be the appropriate word to apply to the Secretary of State.

We would move the suspension ourselves were we able to do so. Unfortunately, that is confined to a Minister of the Crown. Therefore, the responsibility lies in the hands of the Secretary of State. It is a motion put down in the name of the leader of his own Government, the Prime Minister, and only he can facilitate the discussion. I am endeavouring to continue the debate.

It is possible to take up a rigid line on the question of education to 16 years. One may say that there must be no change in the law whatsoever and that to change it would fatally weaken the principle. I do not think that that is a right attitude, though I understand it because so many people have worked for this principle. I also understand the regional concern that exists. It is, unfortunately, a fact that a far higher proportion of children in the South of England stay on for further education at schools than is the case in the North. That is a regional problem.

I also understand the fears for working-class children whose parents may not be—though this by no means applies in every case—as strongly motivated as others to advance the education of their children. There may be pressures on those children to leave school at an early age. All those fears are reasonable and should be taken into account. It is precisely because those fears are reasonably based that we think it would be wrong to alter the principle. However, we should make it more flexible.

It is, in fact, the difference between the suspending and the dispensing power. To suspend the principle of education to 16 would be wrong. To allow dispensations from it would be right and reasonable. We have some historical examples on our side. Our late Majesty King James II kept the throne when he used the dispensing power, but when he used a suspending power he lost it. It is as well, first, to know history, because history is very far from bunk, and then to draw the right lessons from it.

I hope, therefore, that we shall have a reasonable approach from the Minister. We shall listen with great interest to the contribution he has to make.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Mr. Deputy Speaker—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.