§ '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-Stevas.]
§ Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gerry Fowler)
I was on my feet when the debate on this Bill was last adjourned. The briefness of my speech on that occasion was a record.
I might point out that Hansard was not strictly correct. It quoted me as saying "Mr. Speaker" when I said "Mr. Deputy Speaker". Hansard thereby shortened my speech by one-third. At that point the Ten o'clock rule intervened.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) proposed a group of new clauses dealing with early entry to further education and with other reasons for exempting children from the normal provisions of the law on compulsory school attendance. I am afraid that we must resist all those new clauses. Many of them are, in my view, singularly ill-thought-out.
I am a little disturbed to find that the hon. Member for Chelmsford should be seeking in this series of new clauses which, if he will forgive me for saying so, he moved with an apparent lack of understanding of their content, to sabotage the measure taken my his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition when the school-leaving age was fixed at its present level.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are faced with a situation in which the Vote Office is unable to supply copies of the timetable motion passed yesterday. I have been in a queue of hon. Members seeking to obtain copies so that we may be precisely clear about its terms. It is not available in printed form. The copies supplied yesterday have run out, apparently. Can anything be done to put copies into the hands of hon. Members?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
There are copies available in the House, but I shall see that the information is conveyed to the appropriate quarters.
§ Mr. Fowler
It may be of advantage to and for the convenience of the House if I say that the terms of the motion passed yesterday were that the Report stage should continue until 10.30 and the Third Reading thereafter until midnight. I assume that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is aware of that.
Perhaps I may now deal briefly with the new clauses, though I understand that the Opposition do not intend to press them. The first, New Clause 40, provides:… 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 follow-that date to a full-time course in further education.I accept happily that there is an argument about whether for some children the further education system would make better provision than the school system at a given age. That is an unresolved argument, and it is one on which we should not put too much weight. There are many children who are out-with the present provision and competence of the FE system quite as much as they are out-with the present provision and competence of the school system.
Furthermore, this new clause, like many of the others, has a serious technical deficiency. The clauses provide that a child may leave school, in effect, on his birthday, provided that it falls after 1st September, provided that he has been accepted for a course beginning the following term. The Opposition have not told us what happens in the interim.
1811 There could be a gap here of as long as four months. If we assume that a child has a birthday on 2nd September, we have to assume, according to the terms of the new clause, that he could be outside education for September, October, November and December, provided that he has been accepted for a place in a further education college the following January. The same weakness applies to New Clause 41 with regard to apprenticeships, New Clause 42 with regard to skilled training and, of course, conspicuously, with regard to New Clause 43.
I am unable to comprehend the meaning of New Clause 43, which says:… 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 into Her Majesty's armed forces.This is the first I knew that Her Majesty's Armed Forces operated on a term basis. I am sure that that must be an error of drafting. As so frequently happens with amendments and new clauses put down by the Opposition, despite the fact that the Bill began its progress on 4th February, we see conspicuous evidence of hasty and ill-thought-out drafting. I must ask the House to reject all these new clauses.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
With the leave of the House, may I sum up briefly the case put by the Opposition on these clauses? Since I was the only Opposition speaker in the debate, it should not take me too long to sum up the views expressed from the Opposition Front Bench.
I want to reassert the position taken by the Opposition, which is that we stand by the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition when she was in office at the Department of Education and Science —a period which by common consent is now referred to as "The Glorious Reign"—when she succeeded after many years of endeavour in being the Secretary of State who raised the school leaving age to 16.
There can be no question of the Opposition going back on that commitment in principle. At the same time, we 1812 are not dogmatic in our approach to this problem. We believe that it is possible to preserve the principle and, in effect, to be more flexible in practice.
We have given three examples. The first is that there should be a possibility of continuing education at a college of further education. To the extent that I followed what the Minister of State said, I gather that he did not reject that out of hand, but thought that it was worthy of consideration. The second exception which we have suggested is in the case of an apprenticeship—that a person who has not yet reached the age of 16 should be free to leave school, provided that there has been acceptance for entry for the term following that date to a full-time approved apprenticeship. The third exception which we propose in order to make this more flexible is that, where a person has attained the age of 16 years, he shall be free to leave his school, provided that he has been accepted for entry for the term following that date into Her Majesty's Armed Forces.
These three exceptions are joined together by a common principle. In each case education is continuing, and we do not equate education with actual attendance at school. Provided that education is going on, and provided that education is on a reasonably full-time basis, we see no reason why there should not be a degree of flexibility introduced into the application of the law.
We know that the Armed Services provide excellent educational courses, and they are willing to undertake this responsibility. I am sure that I am not alone in saying that for many people the best education that they ever received was in Her Majesty's Forces—and I am not referring only to the academic instruction with which they were provided.
There are other matters which we might consider, although they are not the subject of new clauses here. It has been suggested—and the suggestion has been supported by no less an authority than the late Lord Crowther—that there should be a dispensing power. In that education report, he suggested that it should be a dispensing power in the hands of the local authority. I believe that that is not generally accepted today. But it is worth considering, though it is not the official policy of the Opposition, 1813 that there should be a dispensing power in the headmaster so that, with the consent of the parent, the headmaster could give an authority for the child to leave school in special circumstances.
That needs to be considered further, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that a dispensing power is at any rate preferable to a suspending power. I believe that I made a brief reference to the historical situation when we last discussed this matter when I pointed out that His Majesty James II lost his throne when he used the suspending power, but kept it when he used the dispensing power. There is a moral there for moderation.
§ Sir George Sinclair (Dorking)
May I hark back for a moment to what my hon. Friend said about education in the Services? In recent years, many of us have welcomed the continuity of education provided in the Services and the growing use of university courses for people required by the Services to do with all their complications of technology and command. This is not just for the narrow age grade of 14 onwards. It is a continuing programme of education which is now provided within our Armed Services.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. All his interventions are enlightening, constructive and helpful. I only regret that he has had to announce the sad news that he will not be recontesting his seat at the next General Election. That will be a great loss to education in the House. Meanwhile, I hope that in the time that he has left to him—which I understand from a conversation with the Prime Minister is likely to be short—he will redouble his efforts in the cause of education.
The Minister of State, who is not strong on technical matters, expressed some difficulty in understanding the wording in the new clauses.
§ The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
I have some difficulty in understanding the new clauses. I join in the tribute that the hon. Gentleman has paid to the hon. Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair). As a former Minister for the Army, I endorse what he has said about education in the 1814 Services. I thought that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) was winding up the debate but, although I do not challenge his right to speak twice, it appears that he is reopening the argument.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
No, I am not. I obtained the leave of the House. One has to be punctilious in these matters and if I was out of order, I should have been told so by the Chair.
I do not propose to repeat myself. I was trying to make the same points in different language. I am merely summing up the arguments that I made before, but using different words. I was saying that we are not wedded to a particular form of language here. These are probing new clauses and we do not intend to press them to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.