HC Deb 18 January 1977 vol 924 cc62-5
8. Mr. Bryan Davies

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many representations she has received urging her to reduce the school leaving age to 14 years.

13. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she has any proposals for lowering the statutory school leaving age.

19. Mr. loan Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations she has received regarding the reduction in the age for school leavers.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

In the last four months of 1976, my Department received two letters urging that the leaving age be lowered to 14 years and 29 seeking other variations in the leaving arrangements. Opinion in favour is evidently far from overwhelming, and I have no plans to lower the statutory school leaving age. Indeed, the raising of the school leaving age has been of great benefit to many boys and girls, especially in regions where only a small proportion stay on after compulsory age.

Mr. Davies

Does my right hon. Friend draw a degree of consolation from such a limited response to the initiative by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), the Opposition Front Bench spokesman on education? Perhaps the hon. Member could write more frequently himself. Is it not a fact that the British people have no wish to return to the depths of the nineteenth century in terms of educational provision?

Mrs. Williams

One is entitled to inquire just how far the views of the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) represent those of the parents for whom he claims to speak. Fortunately I, in common with members of his own party, do not agree with his views.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Will the Secretary of State confirm that none of her predecessors was more successful in securing resources for raising the school leaving age or was more dedicated to that idea than the present Leader of the Opposition? Whatever else one might say about the argument, does the Secretary of State agree that educationally it is far too early to make any serious suggestions for altering the school leaving age, for the time being at any rate?

Mrs. Wiliams

There is no doubt that the Labour Government of 1966–70 and the present Leader of the Opposition pursued with vigour the raising of the school leaving age and the supply of resources for it. That makes it all the stranger that the Leader of the Opposition should have chosen the hon. Member for Brent, North as one of her spokesmen. However, I attribute this to her respect for free speech.

Mr. Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is it wrong on education grounds to think of reducing the school leaving age but it is wrong also because many school leavers are unemployed, and it is difficult at present to find positions for teachers? Such a ridiculous suggestion should not even be considered.

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend is quite right. In the last year there has been an increase of 35,000 boys and girls who choose to stay on at school after 16 over and above the figures for the previous year. This bears out what my hon. Friend says about employment opportunities and illustrates the wish of many young men and women to improve their skills. I give him a full assurance that there is no question of going back on the raising of the school leaving age. To do so would destroy the possibility of a full five-year course.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Surely the Secretary of State must know that Conservative policy on the school leaving age is to keep it in principle at 16 but between 15 and 16 to make it more flexible in practice by allowing selected pupils to go on to colleges of further education or take up apprenticeships. Why is the Secretary of State attacking my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) when in the matter of standards, with the possible exception of the Prime Minister, she is his most distinguished convert? Should she not have greater respect for her guru?

Mrs. Williams

There is no doubt that on this issue the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and I had established a certain bipartisan policy with regard to the hon. Member for Brent, North. However, that is a matter for him to decide. Yes, I am aware of Conservative Party policy, or at least I thought I was. I hope the hon. Member recognises that this policy would require a change in the law.

Mr. Skinner

Does not the Secretary of State agree that perhaps it would be better if the two hon. Gentlemen who are spokesmen on education came to the Dispatch Box together and told us where the Tory Opposition stand on education? The result could not be more garbled than at present. If we were to lower the school leaving age fewer teachers would be needed, and we need to occupy those who are out of work at the moment. One way to keep teachers in employment is to keep the colleges open. In this regard, will my right hon. Friend ensure that Matlock College is kept open as well?

Mrs. Williams

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity in raising the matter of his college, but on that part of his question I must ask him to restrain himself for a week. On the first part of his supplementary question, I would point out that as a lover of music I have never much appreciated discordant duets.