HC Deb 08 February 1977 vol 925 cc1221-3
Q1. Mr Nicholas Winterton

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a further statement on the part which he has played in the great debate on education.

Q5. Mr. Forman

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a further statement outlining his part in the great debate on education.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

As a follow-up to my speech at Ruskin College last October, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Science and Wales have agreed to organise wide-ranging consultations on the issues which I had raised. There is to be a series of eight regional conferences during February and March to which representatives of parents and teachers, trade unions and employers, local authorities and other organisations are being invited; a back ground paper for consideration by the conferences has been prepared and is to be published tomorrow, and a copy will be placed in the Library. A Minister will preside at each conference. Following these discussions, the Government will publish a Green Paper in the summer. I shall continue to take the closest interest in these developments and am much encouraged by the interest that has been aroused.

Mr. Winterton

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Secretary of State for Education and Science openly admitted in an education debate from the Royal Institute that was televised on BBC2 last week that comprehensive schools were unable to meet the needs of gifted children? Is he aware that these gifted young people are vital to the future success of this country? Would he ensure that no institutions of academic excellence are destroyed before the end of the great debate? Also, would he ensure that adequate provision is made for gifted children?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend said nothing at all to lead the hon. Member to that conclusion. The discussions taking place in these regional conferences will cover a number of matters of common concern. The four major issues that will be discussed are the curriculum, standards and their assessment, training of teachers, and the relationship between education and working life. If the subjects are approached on the basis on which I tried to start this debate, that can do nothing but good.

Mr. Forman

We are all very grateful that one of the subjects to which attention is being drawn is the relationship between education and industry. Does the Prime Minister accept that the much-vaunted industrial strategy to which his Government claim to be committed is not worth the paper on which it is printed unless the education system turns out highly qualified entrants to the labour market?

The Prime Minister

This is one of the questions to which I called attention in my original remarks. As a follow-up I was very glad that we were able to make arrangements between the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Education and Science for employers to make grants of up to £500 a year for scholarships for further education and training without that amount being taken into account against mandatory grants. This is where we want to establish a relationship, and I agree entirely with what the hon. Member has said.

Mr. Ward

Will the Prime Minister confirm that in addition to these subjects it is open to the conferences to discuss a broader range of educational topics which are of interest and importance to the regions in which the meetings are being held?

The Prime Minister

There is no restriction on the nature of discussion, but the issues laid down have formed the subject of the memorandum. I hope that hon. Members will read that in the Library, because it focuses on the real issues on which we have to reach common agreement and about which parents and industry are very concerned.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Surely the Prime Minister would agree that, as the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) are in happy harmony for once, we are quite right to be concerned about gifted children. This is much more important than any obsession with doing away with grammar schools. Surely there is room in a mainly comprehensive system for a certain number of selected schools for highly gifted children.

The Prime Minister

As a Socialist I am all in favour of everyone having the fullest opportunity to develop his or her talents to the maximum. That seems to be a necessary condition for a healthy society and I am certain that our education system will be formulated accordingly.