HC Deb 19 April 1977 vol 930 cc13-5
8. Mr. Spearing

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what guidance she has given to local authorities or what statements have been made by her Department on the establishment of sixth form centres as an alternative to schools for pupils aged 11 to 18 years.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

I have issued no guidance on the establishment of sixth form centres. I have mentioned in several speeches the need to use our limited resources effectively for 16- to 18-year-old pupils, especially in the light of the future decline in the school population.

Mr. Spearing

But is it not a fact that when local education authorities had a choice between creating sixth form centres and 11 to 18 all-through schools, the latter were set up with the express approval both of the Department and of the Minister's predecessors? Therefore, is not the review, coming out of the blue, typical of the worst aspects of the Department, which sometimes tends to be excessively mechanistic and bureaucratic, creating uncertainty where uncertainty in the education system should not exist?

Mrs. Williams

No, Sir. I am grateful for the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to clear up what is obviously a misunderstanding. There has been a discussion between my Department and the local education authorities about the ideal size of a sixth form. That is in no sense a statement of policy. The statement of policy is the one that I made to the National Association of Schoolmasters and to other conferences in the past week, to the effect that as the size of the post-16 age group falls, as it will dramatically by the middle 1980s, thought should be given to what provision can be made to offer a reasonable range of courses, both academic and non-academic, to those studying in the sixth form. I put it to them that there are three possibilities: first, the linking together of existing all-through schools; second, the sixth form college, and third, the tertiary college concept. It is for local education authorities, in consultation with teachers, to decide what suits them best. A great many of the articles that have appeared in the newspapers, including the Evening Standard today, are based upon a totally misleading misconception.

Mr. Beith

Will the Minister make clear that in expressing enthusiasm and support for the sixth form college principle, which in appropriate cases I share, she is not inviting those local authorities which have only just completed major secondary reorganisation to embark upon a further reorganisation within five, eight or even 10 years?

Mrs. Williams

Absolutely. The whole position is bound to be based upon the local pattern of the provision of education. All I am trying to say to education authorities is that if they decide that they do not wish to reorganise further—I quite appreciate why they may not want to—they should now start considering how provision can be made, between groups of schools, to offer minority subjects, which might otherwise disappear from the curriculum, to any child who wants to take them.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May we take it, then, that the Secretary of State is repudiating as false the reports that she is carrying on any sort of vendetta against the traditional sixth form, and that she is prepared to encourage a variety of sixth form provision in which sixth form colleges will have a place but in which the traditional sixth form will have an honoured and guaranteed place as well?

Mrs. Williams

I think that that is broadly fair. The only point that I should make to the hon. Gentleman, which I think he will accept, is that where a school's sixth form is so small that it is unable to mount more than a narrow range of courses, both academic and nonacademic, that sixth form must link with other sixth forms in order to enable minority subjects to be offered. The House will be aware how great is our concern about such subjects as Italian, Russian and Spanish, which may well disappear unless arrangements can be made in local authority areas to enable all boys and girls who want to take those subjects to take them, although they may be offered by a single school.

Mr. Hardy

Although I disagree in no way with my right hon. Friend, is it not possible that the dramatic fall in sixth form population that her Department expects may be much less than is feared, since there is at least a possibility that voluntary staying on at school after the age of 16 may grow remarkably during the 1980s?

Mrs. Williams

I take on board my hon. Friend's point. We are projecting everything that we say on the assumption that about one-third of boys and girls will choose to stay on after 16, as against about one-quarter at present. But my hon. Friend will know that quite a number of youngsters decide to move to further education colleges because they want a more vocational type of training. In this situation, the House must consider how best we can offer a range of courses at sixth form level in all our schools.