HC Deb 12 May 1976 vol 911 cc635-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coleman.]

12.45 a.m.

Mr. John P. Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter on the Adjournment. I asked for this Adjournment debate because of the impact on Scotland of a letter from the Secretary of State to the universities and colleges of education, sent on 22nd March, indicating severe, not to say Draconian, cuts in the intake into colleges of education, cuts to be applied as of this year for students going into colleges of education this October.

Perhaps I may weary the House by giving the details. The letter from the Secretary of State said that there would be cuts of the order which I shall describe. Taking the year 1975–76, the intake into training for teachers for primary schools is about 2,500. The proposed cut for 1976–77 reduces this figure to 1,450. That is a reduction of 1,050 in the intake of both graduate and diploma students for training for primary school qualifications. The letter also requested a cut in the intake for the secondary teachers training diploma, the B.Ed., from 3,300 to 2,700, a reduction of 600.

The cuts in these two types of teacher training are extreme by any standards in the history of Scottish education. They have come with very sharp notice on the teaching profession and on the student concerned. Perhaps I may go into a little of the detail which underlay the circular sent out by the Secretary of State. It is proper that we should look into the facts underlying the Secretary of State's decision. I will set them out.

There are at present 620,000 children in primary schools in Scotland. With the decline in the birth rate it is anticipated that the number of children in primary schools will fall by 1984–85 to 469,000. The second assumption underlying the circular is the one that I find the hardest to take. That is that the standard of staffing, the teacher-pupil ratio, will remain the same as set out in the Scottish Education Department's Circular 819 for the rest of the decade—that is, we are to see no improvement in staff-pupil ratios until 1980, and it will not be clear then, but at least it will be reviewed then.

The circular said that primary schools, having 27,804 teachers, have 1,096 teachers over the Circular 819 standards. It is admitted that in certain parts of Scotland some schools are still understaffed. Here we go into rather arbitrary assumptions which tend to constitute manpower planning. Those arbitrary assumptions are that the wastage, or departure, of teachers from the profession has fluctuated between 4.1 per cent. and 9.6 per cent. in different years for reasons which have not adequately been examined. The Department proposes to take an arbitrary average of 7.5 per cent. wastage per annum for the purpose of its calculation of teacher stock.

Secondly, the Department expects a figure of 15 per cent. wastage of boys and girls going through the colleges to qualify, and comes to the conclusion that it would need about 1,500 or 1,600 teachers coming into primary schools each year. At the present level of output of 2,500, it says that at the end of the decade there would be more primary teachers available than could be employed. It is interesting that it says "at the end of the decade". It is not confident enough to pin this down to a nearer date.

Another interesting point is that contained in the figure for primary education is the diploma intake from the schools and the intake from the universities of post graduates who deliberately want to do a primary qualification and to teach in primary schools. The Department has made the arbitrary distinction to allow 250 graduates a year into primary school training, and the rest would be kept for diploma students. I do not know on what basis they make this distinction, because it is clear that the number of graduate students going into primary schools could significantly increase. Why the Department decided to keep this particular balance between diploma and graduate students I do not know. Nor do I know on what criteria it did so.

I turn to the area of secondary schools. In this situation the figures given by the SED show that they are now 398,000 pupils in secondary schools. Unlike primary schools, the number in these schools will go up in 1978–79 to 412,000, but due to the decline in the birth rate, the figure will drop to 374,000 by 1984–85. Again we get the depressing assumption that that staff-pupil ratio will remain the same as recommended in the report on secondary school staffing in 1973. It will remain the same for the entire decade.

Looking at the stock of teachers, the SED says there are 26,303 teachers, 416 more than needed by the old Red Book or secondary school staffing criteria. Of course, it admits, quite fairly, that in the Strathclyde region the situation is different and that there is a serious shortage of teachers even at the moment. In particular, it admits that this is more serious in Roman Catholic schools, and that the situation is particularly bad in certain subjects. It admits that there is a shortage of 500 teachers in the Strathclyde area.

There is the curious idea in the circular that more teachers should be trained in Jordanhill, and in the West, because it is assumed that teachers cannot train in the East of Scotland and work in the West. This is a curious idea when what matters are qualifications and the capacity to do the job.

With the secondary schools, the assumption is that although in the past wastage from the teaching profession has varied between 5.4 and 7.6 per cent., the average again is to be 7.5 per cent., and again the Department accepts a 15 per cent. wastage of students going through the colleges or the universities. As a result, the Department estimates that it could do with an output of about 2,700 from the colleges now, whereas at the moment it has 3,300. Hence this sudden and rapid instruction to the colleges and universities that there will have to be a reduction.

I have tried to set out the facts in this case in the light of what the Department has argued. Now I want to look at the merits of the case. First, I am not arguing, as some do, that every person who possesses a teacher's qualifications has an inherent right to a job in a school. We have never in Scottish education assumed that if one has a law degree the State has an obligation to find one a job as a lawyer, or that if one has a medical degree there is an obliga- tion on the State to employ one as a doctor. It is legitimate to say to men and women who want to be teachers "There will only be X jobs for you. If you are prepared to proceed at your own risk, and take qualifications, you are entitled to do so and to try to get a job."

But it is a mistake to cut down the intake now for short-run economic considerations when we may well want to revise the staff-pupil ratio in the years to come, when we might find that the situation changes and when men and women who obtain teacher qualifications have them for life. It is scandalous to take that view.

I hope that I am not being unduly kind to the colleges, but I think that they are providing a general education. What is wrong with getting a teaching certificate and going into another occupation? What is wrong with having teaching qualifications so that one could choose to change to that occupation later in life? I am not arguing that these people have an inherent right to a teaching job but that if they want to train as teachers they should have the choice and opportunity open to them. A member of my family trained as a teacher without intending to be one. He said that it was a good insurance certificate for the future if he could not get employment elsewhere.

One of the reasons why this manpower tuning or planning is such rubbish, as those with experience know well, is that people go into teacher-training qualifications, go into teaching work and then leave for other jobs. The wastage depends much upon economic conditions. If the conditions are good, the outflow from the profession is high and we want more teachers. It is difficult for even the most experienced staff of universities or colleges to predict those who want the teaching-training diploma at the end of their degree course as a kind of fall-back position and those who want it because they are dedicated teachers. It is unsatisfactory for the Government to take this kind of decision into their own hands and to pre-empt the situation, saying that they can determine who is or who is not entitled to go into the occupation.

The universities have pressed upon me strongly that the colleges have been accepting people and have to reach a final decision by July as to whom they are to take in, and in March they are given a sudden instruction to cut the intake vastly for the forthcoming October.

How do the people concerned propose to act? No criteria have been laid down. Is the process to be on the basis of "First come, first served"? Is it to be confined to those already admitted, whereas the foolish virgins, as it were, are to be excluded? Is it to be based on merit or qualification? Is it intended to "up" the grade level or to lower the grade level? If people of a lower grade have already been accepted, what will happen at a later date?

I come to deal with a glaring case of injustice. There are young men and women who have come into teaching or teacher-training as a deliberate result of the Government having said "We need more teachers". They have come in, have undergone three years' university training, are due to graduate this summer and expect to go to teacher-training colleges. Are they now to be told "We do not need you"? Edinburgh University estimates that 70 people who have undertaken a three-year training course will now, in their last year, be denied their teaching diploma at Moray House College.

I could better understand the cut-back if it were part of a carefully planned process, but that is obviously not the case. The decision appears to have been taken at the last moment. Let me give an example which I find hard to take. I was told by a careers adviser at Edinburgh University as recently as 3rd December 1975 that when SED spokesmen were asked "What are your plans", if any, for cutting back on intake for teacher-training colleges?", the answer was "We have no such plans". That was as recently as five months ago. I have also been told that the principals of various colleges also had no idea that a reduction was to take place. Therefore, it appears that this decision is being imposed at this late date.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that mature students now engaged in training are also experiencing problems, in that they now see their whole future career being taken away from them?

Mr. Mackintosh

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Mature students face particular problems, as do those who have been taken on as a result of special recruitment schemes.

There are further objections to the way in which this matter is being pursued. I am dubious about the morality of the matter. The choice of career must be left to the individual. If the individual has been given assurances as to his future career, it is dubious practice when he or she is now told by the Government "We shall train only those people for whom we can find jobs."

We have only to remember what happened when as a result of the Willink proposals intakes into medical schools were cut. That was a deliberate piece of planning. That decision has caused the NHS to suffer, as we have seen. However, the authorities forgot to calculate the amount of emigration. Therefore, this arbitrary figure of 7½ cent. wastage may be thrown out if there is an error of ½per cent. in the calculations.

Another aspect of the situation relates to the assumption of constant staff-pupil standards. I hope that we shall not allow restrictions of capital and public expenditure to lead us to take the view that we shall never improve in the foreseeable future the staff ratio in our schools.

I do not want to appear to be unconstructive in my remarks. Therefore, I should like to make one or two positive suggestions to the Minister. I suggest that this has been a piece of bad planning and that a Draconian decision has been taken, without adequate consultation. The decision has caused much consternation and in one or two cases particular unfairness to individuals. Therefore, will the Minister delay the cuts until 1977–78 and, before that date, apply the cuts to that intake rather than to people who are now half or three-quarters of the way through their training?

Secondly, he should establish proper criteria for selection of those students who are to be admitted. Thirdly, there should be a proper procedure for the whole matter and things should not be cooked up within a few months.

Finally, the special obligations to university students, mature students and those in the special recruitment scheme should be observed. All of this would do a great deal to reassure the teaching profession. I hope that my hon. Friend, on whose basic good will in this matter I rely, will look at this carefully and withdraw the requirement tonight.

1.6 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Frank McElhone)

The subject which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) has raised is vitally import- ant and I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify a number of issues which he and others have raised.

First let me make it clear that the proposals with which we are at present concerned are about intake to teacher-training courses in 1976–77. Intake to the colleges of education in 1977–78 and beyond is at present under review and will be the subject of separate consultations later this year. I do not deny that there has been some criticism of our decision to tackle the problem in two stages. But it is important to take decisions on next session's intake as soon as possible, and that would not have been possible if we had postponed our consultations until our proposals for the longer term were formulated.

Secondly, there has been much talk of closing colleges of education and making college lecturers redundant. I want to emphasise that no decisions have yet been taken for next year. Some reorganisation of the teacher-training system may be necessary as a result of the decline in teacher demand but it is too early to talk of closures and redundancies. The colleges of education provide not only pre- service training of teachers but also in-service training and in some cases training in other fields such as youth and community work. It is conceivable that they may diversify their activities further in the future. Until all these aspects of the situation have been explored in the second stage of our review it is not possible to foresee the likely size and shape of the college system or how individual colleges and members of staff may be affected. I will not conceal from the House that there will be some difficult decisions to be taken by my right hon. Friend.

There has been a good deal of criticism of the timing of our proposals. My hon. Friend has certainly made that point. We have, of course, been conscious for some years of the drop in the birth rate. I can give many figures. Between 1975–76 and the end of the decade, 100,000 fewer primary pupils should be in our schools. Since 1972 we have set overall objectives for intake to primary diploma courses and have recognised that there has been a drop in the birth rate since 1964. But no one would have gained much support during these years for a proposal to cut intake to teacher-training when shortages—some of them serious—still persisted in many schools.

By the autumn of 1975, however, it was evident that the fall in pupil numbers, the significant improvement in teacher supply, and the need to contain public expenditure were combining—to an extent that could not have been foreseen—to make a radical review of teacher supply and training necessary. The factors involved were many and complex, and the work of analysing them and formulating proposals inevitably took some time.

The inescapable conclusion was that intake to the colleges would have to be reduced next session—particularly in the primary sector—if we were to avoid producing many more teachers than authorities would be able to employ in the years ahead. We knew that such a proposal would not be popular, but we were equally certain that if reductions were not applied this year they would have to be all the greater next year. It would have been no kindness to colleges, staff or students to postpone decisions and so subject them to a further period of uncertainty.

Our method of consultation on the proposals has also been attacked. It is true that we first discussed the situation with the principals of the colleges of education. But the principals have been consulted annually about college intake for a number of years; and they have expertise and knowledge which we wished to bring to bear on our proposals before putting them out for wider consultation. As hon. Members know, we have since sought and received comments from a very wide range of interests. As I said in Committee on the Education (Scotland) Bill, about 40 organisations have submitted observations on the intake proposals for next year.

Mr. Mackintosh

My hon. Friend says that he has consulted the principals of colleges of education. Did they agree with his proposals?

Mr. McElhone

They broadly agree with our proposals. With the birth rate dropping dramatically, people realise that the intake must be cut or many teachers will be unemployed. Nevertheless, 40 organisations have submitted their views. I saw Mr. Maxton of ALCES myself and a delegation came to see me in Dover House. We have tried to see that the bodies representing staff are kept informed at all times.

Some bodies think that they should have been consulted earlier, but there would have been little point in seeking views before our proposals were properly formulated. I am satisfied that our programme of consultation has given everyone ample opportunity to comment fully and constructively, and my right hon. Friend will have regard to all the views that he has received before reaching final decisions.

Mrs. Margaret Bain (Dunbartonshire, East)

Does that mean that the Scottish Office decided to set a higher figure in terms of the cutback than they originally intended to implement and that they will now say that they are climbing down because of consultation, when in fact they will be sticking to a target they set before?

Mr. McElhone

The hon. Lady is tempting me to comment on a decision that my right hon. Friend has yet to make. But once he has considered all the views, the final decision on college intake for 1976–77 will be taken quickly, and longer-term proposals will be circulated as soon as possible. There is a two-stage review—one for this year and the other for the years up to 1980.

I understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend, with his long record of educational work. The Government have allocated rate support grant for 800 extra teachers for Strathclyde next session, which I hope will see the end of part-time education in Strathclyde and Glasgow for the first time in 30 years. We have the best pupil-teacher ratio we have ever had in Scotland, and the Red Book agreement and Circular 819 will help to implement those high standards. We have a teaching contract which many teachers in England would be glad to have.

I know that my hon. Friend is worried about staff ratios not being improved for the rest of this decade. My right hon. Friend and his predecessor fought to ensure that, within the restraints of the White Paper on Public Expenditure, these staffing ratios and the figures for education are maintained. We should always aspire to better standards in education and better staffing ratios, and allowing for the present difficult financial situation, my right hon. Friend is actively considering all the proposals. My hon. Friend's views will also be considered when he makes his final determinations.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past One o'clock.