HC Deb 01 August 1978 vol 955 cc592-612

6.34 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

Even at this late hour, I welcome the opportunity to raise a rather more salubrious subject than the topic of the previous debate—namely, music schools. I hope to do so in rather less time than the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) took to introduce his debate.

Music is perhaps the art that gives lasting joy to more people than any other. I say that at the risk of offending all the painting enthusiasts. It is something that lifts humanity above the more humdrum struggle for existence and makes life worth while. However, its continuance depends on the development of the talents of a limited number of gifted children in each generation. With the possible exception of ballet, which is well supported by public funds, music is probably the only art in which those talents must be developed at an early stage in a child's life.

There are only four specialist music schools in England providing the necessary training and education for this purpose. There is the Cheetham school of music in Manchester, the Yehudi Menuhin school, the Wells Cathedral school and the Purcell school in my constituency, in Harrow. Of course, many ordinary State schools encourage musical activity by their pupils—I know that Harrow does that extremely well and produces some good results—but that is quite different from the service rendered by the specialist music schools for particularly gifted and talented young musicians.

For this purpose we are talking about not more than 5,000 outstandingly gifted children in the whole country, or only one in 2,000 out of a total school population of 10 million. To get the best out of them, they need training in specialist schools for a number of reasons. They need close association with similarly gifted pupils; they need all aspects of music to be part of the curriculum rather than rushed dinner-hour sessions; they need facilities for instrumental practice during the day; they need opportunities for performance, boarding facilities and master classes by distinguished musicians, none of which is or can be available in ordinary educational establishments.

Of course, the costs involved present the few music schools and the parents of talented children with very great problems. This element of cost inhibites the progress which everybody would wish to see.

I can illustrate this matter by telling the House about the Purcell school in my constituency. It is a fine music school. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), who has taken a great interest in this subject, will confirm what I say if he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) will speak of the excellent cathedral school in his constituency. Therefore, there is really all-party support for the case that I am presenting.

The Purcell school was founded in 1962 for young musicians. For some years it had desperate difficulty in keeping its head financially above water. It succeeded only through the dedication of parents, pupils and staff under the inspired leadership of Mr. Richard Taylor, who was also a member of the Vaizey committee, to which I shall refer shortly.

In 1975, through the generosity and enlightenment of the trustees of the late Arthur Gardner, who was one of the great benefactors of Harrow, the school was able to move to larger and very suitable premises on Harrow Hill. It has 120 pupils who are achieving impressive results. Only the other day a former pupil of the school was the only British finalist in the Carl Flesch international violin competition. The school is recognised as efficient by the Department of Education and Science, but so much more could be achieved if more money were available.

The Minister will appreciate that there are special circumstances in these schools. The teacher-pupil ratio has to be quite different from that in other schools, and there are many additional costs connected with the instruments. The estimated cost per pupil at the Purcell school is £1,800 a year. The fees charged to parents at present, including instrumental tuition, amount to approximately £1,500 a year. No teacher at the school is paid above Burnham scale I—the lowest scale. One has to admire the sheer dedication of the staff in that respect.

It is true that some nearby local authorities place 18 pupils at the school, but the local authority contribution averages only £426 per annum per pupil. Therefore, even the parents of assisted children face a shortfall of anything up to £1,000 per annum. It is sobering to reflect how much talent has been wasted as a result of the cruel dilemma facing less-well-off parents. In addition, extra accommodation is urgently needed, at an estimated minimum cost of £200,000, in order to make the best of the school and inflation is forever pushing up this figure.

In her letter to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West on 25th July, the Under-Secretary who is to reply to the debate said that there was a possibility that the Purcell school could be voluntarily aided by a local education authority. I do not nor does the headmaster, to whom I spoke yesterday, know anything about this. I hope that the Minister can enlighten us, because her letter is, to say the least, cryptic in this respect. If this possibility exists, can the hon. lady assure us that her Department will give the consent that will be required?

We have had the advantage of a most thorough study of these problems by the Gulbenkian Foundation committee under the distinguished chairmanship of Lord Vaizey. Until now, all these schools have relied on fees and endowments to keep them going, but in the present economic climate they cannot hope to maintain, let alone increase, standards on this basis. As the Vaisey report points out, there are only two solutions—direct grant aid from the Government or voluntary aided maintenance by local authorities.

I submit that the direct grant is the proper course to adopt, and I do so for four reasons. First, education statutes provide that this could be done under existing law, and doing so would be wholly logical within the framework of the Government's education policy. Secondly, the principle that it can and should be done has been established, because the Yehudi Menuhin school at Leatherhead already receives a direct grant to the tune of about £82,000 a year, even though only about 30 of its 40 or so pupils come from this country. It is a fine school and I admire it tremendously, but I do not think that discrimination among the only four music schools in the country can be justified.

Thirdly, I believe that local authority aid is too varied and too restrictive in different parts of the country. It is altogether too hotch-potch, and musical talent does not divide itself up neatly into set local government boundaries. Fourthly, the public expenditure element involved is too small to cause even the most flinty Treasury Minister or monetary purist a moment's loss of sleep. I estimate that no more than £1 million is involved. I calculate that to be the equivalent of one two-hundredth part of the cost of a long-playing record per person per year —a very small price to pay to help those who will create those records in future.

The classic Treasury "floodgate" argument is not tenable in this case. Exceptional talent does not, alas, flood in that way. I believe that the Secretary of State for Education is sympathetic, but if she cannot get this unique item of expenditure past the Chancellor I do not know what she can get past him.

Therefore, I hope that the letter from the Under-Secretary to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West dated 25th July does not mean that her mind is closed on this important subject. She has the backing of an important and thoughtful committee report. That committee went into the matter in great depth. She has a great opportunity to make a major contribution to music in this country and to give lasting joy to present and future generations.

I hope that this short debate will have helped the hon. Lady to fight for a most worthwhile cause.

6.45 a.m.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I am pleased that this debate has taken place. I am also pleased that it is being conducted in the bipartisan manner that is apparent.

I have been on a delegation to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who agreed to consider the points that were made very carefully. I have worked all my life in trying to eliminate social selection in education. Someone in my position has a right to say something about this problem, which is one to which all British Governments—because traditionally we are a somewhat more philistine country in our Governments than many on the Continent—ought to pay greater attention.

As the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) has made clear, the matter is now ripe for the development of policy within the Department of Education and Science, because the Vaizey report has indicated what the problem is and some of the lines on which it could be solved. I shall comment on that matter shortly.

This debate is about grants for secondary schools for specialist musicians. A lot of the Vaizey report was connected with further education and the Royal colleges and the other music colleges in Britain. But it really is not possible to develop a system of further education in music in the country as a whole if it is not underpinned by something at secondary school level. That is why I have always felt that it is this section of the Vaizey report which we must try to get right if we are to be able to develop music in the other ways that the report suggested.

My first question to my hon. Friend is this. Has the Department got what one could call a policy on secondary schools for music yet? Having been a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department on two occasions in the last 15 years, I am aware of the fact that there are quite a lot of areas on which the Department has not got a policy. I very much suspect that this area is one of them. I am not criticising the Department for this. However, since the Vaizey report, this is an area in which policy can now be developed and ought to be developed.

The hon. Member for Harrow, Central said that he was talking about no more than 5,000 pupils. In the first stages of this policy, I am not sure that we are talking about any more than 500 specialist musicians, very talented musicians, in the whole country.

However, as I see the matter at present, one could state the Department's policy a bit like this: "We have the Yehudi Menuhin school. It is a bit of an accident and a bit of an anomaly. It got slipped through as a direct grant school out of the responsibility of the Arts Council in 1972"—there was no debate in the House and no one really realised what was happening. "However, we do not want to extend that particularly and we feel that the other schools can fend for themselves." If I am being unfair to the Department, I hope I shall be told, but that seems to be the policy at present. I hope that we can get a bit beyond that.

The letter which I received on 25th July from my hon. Friend said: We are not convinced therefore that the case has been made out for additional public expenditure that would be involved in the proposals outlined by the three schools. I am not sure that this is a problem of public expenditure at this point. I suspect that it is more a problem of agreed policy about how to tackle this question.

If the problem of putting other schools on the same basis as that of the Yehudi Menuhin school were a problem of public expenditure, I am sure that it would be possible to phase a programme over a very large number of years, if necessary, until one had a system under which we had in this country specialised schools for these exceptionally talented musicians which covered the country in a proper way. It is ludricrous to suggest that the 30 or so youngsters, nearly all specialising in stringed instruments, who are supported by direct grants at the Yehudi Menuhin school, cover the whole problem. They do not even cover all the instruments of an orchestra.

The great dilemma is that the Government have indicated that they feel that the solution to greater financial support for the other three schools that are not being financially supported by the Government at the moment—the Purcell, Cheetham in Manchester, and Wells Cathedral school—is some sort of voluntary aided status supported by local authorities.

Perhaps that will be possible, but as one who knows a good deal about local education authorities I can say that the present trend of falling rolls, with fewer children coming into schools, creates a tremendous problem for local authorities, which are more concerned with the closure of schools. For any but the most adventurous of local authorities, the prospect of opening schools against that background is particularly daunting.

Therefore, is there anything that the Department can do in its relationships with the local authority associations to push its policy forward? If there is not, it will look like a get-out, a method by which the Department can say that it wants to help while doing nothing.

There is another problem. The Purcell school may accept that as a solution, but the other two—Wells and Cheetham's —probably would not. Cheetham's in Manchester is a very well established music school, drawing from local authorities in the Greater Manchester area and beyond and with, over many years, a close association with the Northern College of Music. The school is located in the middle of Manchester, surrounded by a large number of local education authorities. It simply would not be the right solution in Manchester for one of those authorities to take over Cheetham's. It would be far better to produce some other solution, and that is why I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has not ruled out some sort of direct grant aid.

I do not need to remind the House that the Yehudi Menuhin school is not a direct grant school in the same way as Manchester grammar school and Bradford grammar school used to be direct grant schools. The form of direct grant is quite different. I think that it ought to be perfectly acceptable, if this seems to be the right solution, to extend that principle from the Yehudi Menuhin school to these other schools, because the very real problem facing these schools is this.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, in her letter to me, says that 400 specialists at these four schools receive some support from public funds, either by fee remission—there are only about 30 of them at the Yehudi Menuhin school—or by discretionary grants from local education authorities. That is true—a tot of them get discretionary grants from local education authorities—but the point is that the regulations for the Yehudi Menuhin school in administrative memorandum 1573, issued by the Department of Education and Science when the school was started, actually lay down a scale of fees, so that it is possible to calculate the finances of the school, how much it needs and how much the parents have to contribute.

But in the case of all the other local education authorities in the country, as I understand the position, there is no nationally laid down scale of fees, and the real problem which is now appearing —particularly at Cheetham's, where I had some discussions yesterday with the headmaster—is that more and more local education authorities pay such a low level of discretionary grant that a lot of pupils, although the local education authority thinks that it is making it possible for them to go to the school, are not able to go to it at all, and the grants are small and ineffective.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary this specific question. If in carrying this matter forward she has discussions with the local authority associations about it, will she consider laying down an indicative scale of fees in order to give some guidance to local education authorities as to the level of discretionary grants that they should make, if they decide to make a discretionary grant at all? It seems silly to make grants which then cannot be taken up, sometimes because of ignorance by the local education authority of the level of costs involved in the whole business of training and educating highly talented specialist musicians.

I want to deal also with the matter that the hon. Member for Harrow, Central dealt with, sometimes called the proliferation point. I speak very much as a Member of the hon. Lady's own side here. When we met her recently, fears were expressed about proliferation. If the Government were to go beyond the direct grant for the Yehudi Menuhin school, where would it stop? I should have thought that the answer is in the Vaizey report. It is quite obvious where it stops. It stops with the four schools in England and the one school in Scotland mentioned in the report. The very great danger of not acting on that report is that there are several local authorities in Britain which are trying to save what are perfectly ordinary grammar schools by the thoroughly phoney method of renaming them specialist music schools and by doing a little bit of specialist music at them. This proposal has come up in the London borough of Enfield, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) would confirm, except that as a Whip he is not allowed to say anything. He would do so if he could.

There are other local education authorities—advised, unhappily, by the Opposition spokesman for education—who would use any legal device to try to perpetuate a grammar school system under another name. Although I am quite sure that my hon. Friend's Department might be very much alive to this sort of thing, the Department's experience in the courts over the last few years is such" that, whatever the Department may decide, it may be worsted elsewhere. Having no policy produces far more proliferation than accepting the Vaizey report, which limits the extent of these talented musicians. The direct grant system as operated at the Yehudi Menuhin school might be the easiest solution.

One problem with two of these four schools is that not all their children can be described as exceptionally talented musicians. Both the Purcell school and Wells admit that. That is a real problem with taking them over as voluntary schools. But there is no problem with the formula at the Yehudi Menuhin school, under which a certain number of pupils can be designated as having exceptional musical talent, with the direct grant allocated in respect of them alone.

The Department has a dual responsibility. For one reason or another—I believe for a bad reason—we are the only country in Europe not to have a Minister for cultural affairs with the ear of the Treasury and the Prime Minister. The reason why other countries foster artistic talent more than we do is the historical situation. The Department therefore not only must organise an educational system with as much equity as possible but bears a national cultural responsibility for artistic people of exceptional talent.

When, along with my hon. Friend, I sat through the long hours of debate on what became the 1976 Education Act, I never saw the saving clause which excepted music, dancing or any other art as a negative clause designed simply to legalise the position of the Royal Ballet school and the Yehudi Menuhin school. I saw it as implying a positive policy. I have fought all my life, with some success, for the elimination of selection in education, which purports to breed an educational elite but actually breeds a social elite. But this is not a problem in the arts. The arts are blind to class, if for no other reason than that there is no money in it.

If we were to direct-grant this limited number of pupils, there is no danger of the problems arising of selection and elitism in education which the Minister does not want—and nor do I. There is a real argument that this small number of children need a great deal of association with other specialists to develop their talents. In big areas like London there are excellent solutions, such as the Pimlico school—I do not object to that at all—but smaller local education authorities simply cannot do that. There must be some arrangements for boarding as well as day schools along these lines. The four schools that I have mentioned cover the country appropriately.

I appeal to the Minister to keep an open mind on this issue. It will be some time—over the next 10 years—before any Government develop their policies in this area. It is a difficult situation for local authorities, some of which will always be downright philistine and a few of which will never support the talented specialist musicians. I ask my hon. Friend to reply as generously and as openly as she can. I hope that she can give more interpretation of a somewhat cryptic letter. I do not complain about that—sometimes cryptic letters are better than clear ones because they leave the matter open. I hope that she will say something also about a standard indicative level of grant.

7.7 a.m.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)

I am glad to be able to take part in this debate on a narrow but important subject. I can claim no special knowledge, so I have carefully relied on the Gulbenkian-sponsored Vaizey report on musical edu- cation. I pay tribute to the helpful way in which it provides the background for someone like myself. We should take advantage of the wisdom of this important report, bearing in mind the distinction of the committee's members. It should be noted that at least one member was from one of the local education authorities, which brought in knowledge of that aspect of the subject.

Having read the report carefully, I was disappointed by the letter that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) received from the Under-Secretary. As he said, it was cryptic and may be open to further consideration, but it dismissed far too readily the pivot of the Vaizey committee's argument. The committee highlighted these four schools, with strong musical background, offering general education as well as specialist musical education—four centres of musical teaching excellence, by accident well spread throughout the country. Coming from the West Country, where distances are great and many people do not have such opportunities to listen to good music in the "live" and to be brought up in the atmosphere which children might have when living in the centre of a metropolitan area such as London or Manchester, I think that the accident is good. It is one which we should try to exploit nationally.

The point that comes through the Vaizey committee's report is that no exceptionally talented child should be prevented from obtaining a place at one of the specialist music schools to which he has been admitted because of his qualifications simply because the local authority refuses to pay the fees, his parents are unable to pay them or there is no trust or scholarship fund available.

The reply from the Department seems to have missed that point. We are not asking for more generous support for more pupils on any great scale. That is not the point behind our message today. We are asking for some support to enable a very few gifted children to obtain this specialist musical education, which is not necessarily available to them elsewhere, or for whom the conditions of their educational establishments are not necessarily the best suited to them to obtain this specialised training.

I do not dispute that the main bulk of the provision of musical education should be provided by the local education authorities. The Department uses the words "rightly so" in the letter. I am not sure that I think that those words should be there, if they mean an exclusive provision by the local education authorities. If it is exclusive to them, it dismisses the Vaizey tenet that gifted musicians of slender means should have the same chance to obtain a place in a school of undoubted excellence as anyone else.

I found one sentence in the important letter from the Department very obscure. I hope that the Minister will explain what she means by this: There must be some reservations about the appropriateness for more than a small number of children of the kind of concentrated experience these schools provide. I very much hope that this is not an anti-elitist feeling coming through from the Department in a cryptic way. If that is so, it cuts right across the Vaizey report's argument. The report endorses the need for specialist musical education for a very small number of children. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West suggested that it was a very small number. His was the sort of number that I have had told to me by a number of people who are specialists in the matter. Not many children are in a position to qualify or benefit from this type of specialist school.

The additional public expenditure argument is trotted out again, but the children in question are being educated anyway to a large extent on public expenditure. They are paid for by the local authorities and the rate support grant. Although I realise that it is not quite fair to say that all the money would be transferred to these schools, some of it would be, so that the extra cost to the Government, small though it is, would not be entirely additional. In some respects it is a substitute. I hope that the Department does not have a closed mind and that this letter is not its last word.

Wells Cathedral school, by its long tradition and the ambitions of those who run this excellent school, is, in the words of the Vaizey report, something of a specialist school for the Bristol and West of England area. Its individual approach has been to develop highly specialised musical training within the framework of a normal academic curriculum. Within today's practicalities, the school believes that it must remain an independent school. It is a large independent school with 620 pupils, day and boarding, taking an academic education alongside and including 70 or so of the specialist musicians in the school.

The Wells Cathedral school feels that its ambition to develop as the specialist musical school for the West of England could well be unduly restricted by any major alteration in the way it is organised and paid for. Nevertheless, it wants to keep the local authority links as far as possible. Its experience, however, with local education authorities has been that obtaining grants for the children who come to the school has been cumbersome and not altogether satisfactory. That is not surprising because the local education authorities, particularly in the rural areas, are under great pressure as regards the funds available for specialist education, particularly out-county education. They are naturally reluctant, when the pressure is on their own schools, to provide funds for out-county education. To rely on local education authorities in future will not be wholly satisfactory for a school such as Wells.

The proposal which we put forward, and while it is one of a number of alternatives it seems the most sensible, is that we should seek to fall in behind the Yehudi Menuhin formula, with certain direct grant places. For Wells the figure of 70 places has been suggested. I am certain that that would be a flexible proposal, subject to give and take, depending upon what the Department decides. It is believed that the Yehudi Menuhin example offers the best way of tackling the problem.

The direct grant solution seems to be the way forward but I have no doubt that the Department may have other solutions. We would like to hear any alternatives that it has in mind, bearing in mind the difficulties of relying on local authority out-county grants, or local authority direct grants in the case of Somerset, to pupils attending the school.

My colleagues representing constituencies all over the South-West are fully in support of the idea of Wells Cathedral school pupils being given some means of support so that we have this centre of musical excellence in our area.

The four schools we have been talking about are of great importance to the development of the arts in this country. We are fortunate indeed that there are a small number of these highly talented children who can be trained up to devote their lives perhaps to music, giving the rest of us the enjoyment that we are bound to have from them when they deploy their talents to the full later on in life. They will certainly repay the community for whatever we are able to give them at the start of their lives, not only to the enjoyment but subsequently to the great pride of their fellow countrymen. I therefore ask the Minister to think again and give the matter a lot more consideration.

7.21 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

Like those who have already spoken, I welcome the chance of this debate, the more so because I was rather dismayed to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) saying that he found my letter somewhat cryptic. I think he will acknowledge that it is not my habit to be so. Certainly it would appear that a little clarification is necessary.

Let me at once say, therefore, that the letter which my hon. Friend received, and which he feels was not as plain as he would have liked, was intended to say to him that we have considered this solution but do not believe it to be the right answer.

I was also a little dismayed to hear my hon. Friend questioning whether the Government had a policy on this matter. I hate to disillusion him but, yes, it is the case that we have a policy on this matter, even in the Department of Education and Science. That policy is that it is the maintained system of education that should be the principal focal point for musical education and training for all school-age pupils.

The hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) suggested that this was perhaps in some ways a slightly narrow debate, and I would accept that. I think that that is a consequence not merely of the fact that this is a rather specialised subject but of the fact that we have perhaps treated it a little narrowly in that the debate has concentrated on these schools alone and has not looked fully into the position even in regard to those schools.

The underlying assumption in the debate has been that for students of above-average ability or above-average interest in music there is a need for a greater amount of this kind of musical education. There was also an assumption that this particular approach to musical education is the right one for pupils with a particular degree of musical talent.

We are conscious of the fact that for students of such musical talent there are a number of alternatives. For example, a number of local education authorities sponsor music centres, usually at weekends, which provide excellent opportunities for such young people to study to a high standard. Also, for musicians who are at maintained schools but who have shown considerable musical talent, there are junior exhibitions at the main music colleges, which again are sponsored by education authorities. The Royal Academy, for example, has more than 100 places at present taken up by local authority sponsorships.

These opportunities are well patronised and it seems to us that they meet the needs of the large majority of children who want, or whose parents want them, to continue their interest in music to an advanced standard. We would not argue that there is not scope for improvement—there is always scope for improvement in development—and there is work going on.

The Schools Council, for example, is doing work on the musical education of young children for primary schools, and it has a secondary school music project. All this is directed at improvement in the general level of musical provision in maintained schools, apart from this allied opportunity for children of exceptional talent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West only touched on the Pimlico experiment, and I would like to say a little more about it. Since 1971 ILEA has incorporated a special music unit in this school in Pimlico, which is simply a large maintained comprehensive school. About 15 places a year are available for children who have shown outstanding instrumental ability or potential. The activities and music tuition are specially timetabled, but for the most part these children are part of the mainstream of the school and take most of their lessons with the other pupils. There are now about 90 musicians taking part in this work among about 1,600 other pupils.

There is a substantial and growing body of opinion which feels that there is considerable value in young musicians of this kind continuing to mix in the general educational and social environment of the ordinary school, and we hope very much that it is the kind of experiment which other authorities will consider, with authorities perhaps working together rather than as individual authorities, as my hon. Friend suggested.

We recognise, as I think I have indicated in my description of the Pimlico work and of other music centres, that children who are gifted in instrument playing need special arrangements, or may well need them, but by definition this applies to only a very small minority of children, and there are indications that in many county schools such children are being identified and that the right course of study is being made available for them.

We recognise that there will be children whose parents feel, or perhaps whose authorities feel, that they are likely to profit from going to one of these independent schools or to an independent school which specialises in music and that this approach is the right one for the child. In circular 6/77 we made it plain to local authorities that when a place of that kind was being taken on grounds of musical or dancing ability, an authority did not come under the general requirement to apply for specific approval to the Secretary of State to take up such a place. We have, therefore, shown that we are aware that there are authorities which wish to take steps of this kind, but it is entirely up to local education authorities whether they take these steps. I shall return shortly to whether that is or is not desirable.

One other aspect of the debate on which I want to touch is that those who have spoken mentioned that there is already local authority participation on this basis of free choice by the authorities, but I think they glossed over a little the extent of the public support that this participation provides. For example, I understand that Cheetham school receives fees from more than 50 local education authorities and this covers 85 per cent. of the pupils attending the school. I recognise —I think it was my hon. Friend who made the point—that these payments vary in size from one authority to another, but I am told that in 1977–78 the sums involved amounted to about £372,000—about 60 per cent. of the school's total income.

At Purcell, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant), I gather that about 20 students are supported by local education authorities at a cost of £8,000. I am told that at Wells there are about 70 specialist musicians and that of these about 10 receive help from local authorities with about £14,000 a year. This represents investment by local authorities of nearly £400,000 a year. As I have said, and, indeed, as has been said by hon. Members, authorities are able to increase these sums and increase their participation if they think fit to do so. This is a fairly substantial sum and not one that should be passed over as though it is of no consequence.

All hon. Members who have spoken have suggested that the variation in sums is undesirable and that there would be authorities which would be unwilling to incur the expenditure at all, even on a fairly minimal level, and that this would be a main reason for young people not getting a grant. But I must say to all three hon. Members and, indeed, to others who have written to me about this matter that there are authorities which consider, perhaps justly, that they can cater for their most able young musicians in their own schools. Equally, there are authorities—they may or may not be the same ones—which may be dubious about the wisdom of over-encouraging children to specialise from such an early age, even though this is an area in which a start at an early age is expected. These are problems which the inspectorate and others have spent a lot of time discussing and considering and on which discussion and consideration will continue.

Mr. Christopher Price

That illustrates my fears about policy. My hon. Friend has just said that some local authorities may have doubts about early specialisation for very talented musicians. As I took it from the Secretary of State's letter to Lord Vaizey, immediately after the Vaizey report, the Government accepted the argument for early specialisation for very talented musicians. What is my hon. Friend doing to persuade those local authorities of Government policy?

Miss Jackson

With the greatest possible respect, I think that my hon. Friend is falling into the trap which has been evident throughout the debate. The Government do indeed accept that there is a need for specialist training and assistance for talented young musicians. The question is whether it is precisely the kind of specialist training which is available at these schools which all young musicians need and whether this is exactly the sort of provision which ought to be made and encouraged. There is a difference between saying "Yes, there is a need for specialist help" and saying that that help can be provided only in this particular way. That is the contention about which some of us perhaps have doubts.

As regards what we as a Government are doing and our encouragement to local authorities to consider these matters, I have already explained that discussions about this are constantly going on with authorities and within authorities. But, after the meeting which my hon. Friend and the other hon. Members attended, it became clear to me that it was not merely a matter of our encouraging the local authorities to involve themselves in discussions with these schools but that there were stringent conditions which the schools themselves would put on their involvement with local authorities. It seems to me that it is not merely a question of what the Government are going to do to encourage local authorities to work with these schools and to formulate particular ways of working with them. It is also a matter for the schools themselves.

Mr. Anthony Grant

With regard to the specialist music schools, the case for them was argued very clearly in paragraphs 90 to 92 of the Vaizey report. Am I to take it that the hon. Lady's advisers in her Department point blank disagree with that, because that is the effect of what she is saying?

Miss Jackson

I am not saying that we point blank disagree with it. What I am saying is that perhaps we have reservations about whether this is the only answer and whether this is the total direction in which we should aim our policy and assistance. In fact, I am saying that we do not 100 per cent. accept the case in the Vaizey report and that we think there are other arguments to be considered.

Considerable reference has been made to the fact that grants are made to the Yehudi Menuhin school as well as to the Royal Ballet school, although that is a rather separate issue. Grant is paid in fee remission for about 40 children. In the year 1977–78, which is comparable with the figures I quoted earlier, the grant paid was about £82,000. My hon. Friend queried whether it was the case that we were stuck with the Yehudi Menuhin school and simply did not wish to extend our participation to other schools. I must say that his cynicism on this occasion is unjustified.

Like other hon. Members, I am not a specialist in these matters. As I understand it, however, there is a very serious argument which suggests that it is string players who need to start their training at such an early stage and that this is not as necessary for pupils who are studying other instruments. Therefore, there is a very clear musical reason for supporting the Yehudi Menuhin school, which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, specialises in string instruments, rather than the other schools involved. That is one of the factors which we have indeed considered.

We recognise, however, that the system that exists may cause difficulties for individual students. We are concerned about this. However, it is difficult to quantify the need. I think it was agreed at the meeting I had with hon. Members some weeks ago that it was hard to quantify the need for specialist music places and certainly the unmixed need for which the case was being argued. I understand that Cheetham's, for example, says that it has six good students a year who find it difficult or who, perhaps, in the end do not succeed in getting support. This is a rather different matter from the arguments about 500 which were being advanced earlier.

Mr. Boscawen

We are talking about a very small number. The 500 was the global figure. We are talking about tens or twenties.

Miss Jackson

I recognise that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman in turn will recognise that already substantial sums are being made available from public funds to help such pupils in this way and to give them this form of musical education, quite apart from the sums which are being provided in different ways more directly through the maintained system.

Several hon. Members said that no doubt public expenditure constraints would be called in aid, that this was not really a serious matter and that there were few schools—on the argument of the Vaizey report, as I understand it—which would be able to claim to be treated similarly. The hon. Gentleman will be as aware as I am that the fact that one could quote the Vaizey report would not make any difference. There are 30 or so choir schools which have already indicated to the Department that, if a change were made in the provisions, they would wish to take advantage of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West mentioned that many of these schools, as, indeed, some of the schools that we are discussing, are selective on academic grounds quite apart from their musical provision. Although he is arguing for support only for the schools which are musically selective, nevertheless it would involve us in giving financial support to assist in the continued existence of selective schools.

I hope that I have already indicated to hon. Members—I certainly hope to convince them by the end of the debate—that it is not simply a matter of public expenditure. It is a question of whether this is the right way for us to go.

I was asked to say a little about the possibility of Purcell school becoming a voluntary-aided school. I hope that the hon. Member for Harrow, Central, will forgive me if I offer to write to him, because I have no notes on the matter at present and I should hate to mislead him or to quote a local authority incorrectly. I undertake to write to him.

So we are left with the present position. If we have reservations, as we have, about the proposals being advanced by hon. Members that local authorities have discretion to pay grants, questions arise as to on whose behalf they pay them and as to the amounts they pay. I recognise that this can lead to undesirable anomalies. I think also that it has certain advantages, because it is only the local authorities which know what provision is available in their area, what other help is available and what other help they make available themselves or which neighbouring authorities make available for individual children. It would be undesirable if we sought to control more stringently what they do without having the benefit of their local knowledge and of the studies they have been able to make of the possibilities for each individual child.

We think that the case hon. Members have made has not been proved. We do no think that at present it is right for us to recommend or to implement some direct grant status for these schools on the lines of that for the Yehudi Menuhin school, and we believe that the development of musical training by the maintained system is the direction in which at present we should be going.

I offer what I hope will be some small comfort to hon. Members. We were concerned that some of the information about the sort of response that is needed in musical provision is not fully available and that certain questions have not been asked about the degree and sort of need for such provision. We are prepared to consider whether we need more research into the needs of able musicians of school age in order to shed light on such matters. If there were a general feeing that that research would be useful and if a specification could be agreed, we might be willing to take part in it. That would have to be without prejudice to the outcome.

I am afraid that I shall have disappointed hon. Members in that I have not been able to give them a response different from the one they have already had from me on this matter. I hope they will recognise that there are a number of arguments to be considered. I hope that they will be prepared to reconsider their position on the basis of a further study into the degree, kind and extent of the need for specialist musical provision.

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