HC Deb 27 June 1978 vol 952 cc1349-64

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

9.25 p.m.

Mr. Gerry Fowler (The Wrekin)

I rise rather earlier than I expected. That being so, it may be that we can take the debate in a slightly more leisurely fashion.

My interest in the subject of the educational guidance service for adults in Northern Ireland is, I should explain, an educational interest. It is a service that has occasioned much international interest. It has done more, internationally, for the image of the Province than most of the events that have taken place there in the past decade.

The service was established under a different name—the adult vocational guidance service—in 1967. It was financed originally by a trust, and was administered from the outset by the Northern Ireland Council for Social Service, with an advisory committee to help it.

Initially there was some doubt whether it might have as its original name implied, a vocational bias. However, it was established that its orientation would be towards education problems.

In December 1969 the Council's advisory committee sent a deputation to the Northern Ireland Ministry of Education to discuss the future of the service and its financial situation, as the aid from the Wilson Trust was coming to an end. At that stage the Ministry agreed to grant aid to the service. In consequence of that the change of name occurred, and in 1970 it became the educational guidance service for adults.

In September 1973—I go quickly over the history—the Ministry of Education received another deputation from the advisory committee. The advisory committee wanted a new look taken at the future of the service. At that meeting the permanent secretary of the Ministry asked the committee to suggest various ways in which the service might be reorganised and expanded. Four possible schemes were formulated, with a centrally organised but independent service being favoured. I stress "independent".

In 1974 the Department of Education, as it had by then become, set up a working party. In that year the Minister of Education announced to the then Northern Ireland Assembly that there would be created a council for continuing education. In the course of the statement he referred again to the educational guidance service for adults. The following year a special panel of the new council, after investigating the work of the service, recommended that it should be continued based on one of the education and library boards with arrangements for suitable financial contributions from other boards. It should continue to be known as the Educational Guidance Service for Adults. Existing staff should be transferred with the Service". I stress the words "based on", which in normal English do not mean "run by". I stress that the service should continue to be known as the educational guidance service for adults.

The year after that—we now come to modern times, 1976—the Department wrote to the five boards asking them to indicate how they intended to make provision for a service taking into account the experience of the educational guidance service. At that stage there was no suggestion that one of the boards should run the service on behalf of all five.

The Northern Ireland Council for Social Service asked the boards how the EGSA might be incorporated into their own plans. What emerged from that is what we now have. The Belfast education and library board has established a service. It is not known as a guidance service for adults. It has run from April last year with the name of the further education guidance service. None of the other boards has so far established a service, though all were expected to do so at about the same time. There is some notion that the Belfast board may act on behalf of the others, but that does not seem to be happening to any great effect. In the meantime, the Department has ceased to grant-aid EGSA through the Northern Ireland Council of Social Service.

In the recitation of the history I stopped at one or two points to stress the words "independent" and "based upon one of the boards". I did that because there has been some confusion, not least within the Department of Education, about what is meant by integrating the service provide by EGSA in the past with statutory provision.

I have received letters from the Minister of State, Lord Melchett, in which he argues that a statement by the director of the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services supports his view and his action in ceasing to fund the board. The director says: It was always the Council's intention that ways should be sought of having the service, once its usefulness to the community had been proven, integrated into the statutory education service of the province. That is right. No one is contesting that. But the word "integrated", any more than the words "based upon", does not mean "run by" the board as part of the normal service. Why is that? What is the point of having a separate or independent service even if it is integrated in statutory provision in the sense that it is funded by and linked to some common services?

Current thinking in the adult education world, not only here but interntationally, favours the provision of at least some counselling services separately from the providers. So many agencies are involved in the provision of education for adults that it is impossible for any one of them to run an efficient, cost-effective service without any bias in the advice that is given to clients.

In the Northern Ireland context, we are not talking simply about further or adult education as it is provided by the education and library boards; we are talking about the Open University, the two local universities, the Ulster Polytechnic, the Workers' Educational Association and a host of other bodies. Few in the adult education world believe that guidance services can be provided adequately by one of the providing bodies separately from the others, unless that guidance is provided through an independent or semi-independent agency.

There is another reason why a measure of independence is essential. It is that counsellors have to be seen by their clients to be independent and impartial. They have to be able to act as advocates for their clients to the providing bodies without being under undue pressure from their employers.

Nobody suggests that consumer advice centres should be run by manufacturers. Nobody suggests that citizens advice bureaux, although funded by grants from central and local government, should be staffed by civil servants and local government officers. Heaven forfend such a system. And yet it is suggested that one of the providing bodies, the Belfast education and library board, should, in effect, run what is not in the strict sense a guidance service for adults but a further education advisory service.

I turn to another aspect of the EGSA's work in the past. The EGSA collected and kept up to date information on a wide range of further education and training courses and on careers. It produced its own leaflets on courses and career opportunities for adults. It dealt with a host of inquiries and drew upon a bank of information that had been built up over 10 years. It became the main centre in Northern Ireland for information on all spects of adult education.

In this island, we now have an advisory council on adult and continuing education which has established a committee. The task of that committee, which is chaired by Peter Clyne, of the Inner London Education Authority, is to investigate the possibility of establishing information collection centres as well as guidance services. Why is that? It is because information collection is relevant not only to guidance in the face-to-face sense but to a host of other developments which are likely to take place in adult education. One of the most obvious is the establishment of the credit transfer system.

There is a publicly funded research project on the establishment of information banks as a basis for running a credit transfer system. We had one in Northern Ireland but it has been wound up. It has been argued repeatedly to me, in correspondence, by the Minister of State, that the educational guidance service for adults was established on an experimental basis. It is extraordinary that an experiment should run for 10 years, but it is more extraordinary still that if the EGSA was run on an experimental basis no one from the Department made the slightest effort to monitor that experiment, to collect the evidence of its success or failure, though the Department freely admits in letter after letter that it was a success, and then to build upon that success. What one does not do with expriments after 10 years is to say, without any evidence or monitoring, that an experiment has been a success and that therefore it must be wound up, closed down and started again somewhere else.

That is a most extraordinary way to proceed. The experience and expertise built up within the EGSA, not least the experience and expertise of Dr. Eagleson, who was primarily responsible for running it, has been wasted. Over that 10-year period the service had over 4,000 clients. A large number of them are still using it in spite of its official demise. Although it no longer has funding except from voluntary sources, it still manages to carry on, and it is carrying on, I am glad to say, under the aegis, not in a financial sense but in order to give it a protective mantle, of the Association for Recurrent Education, of which I am happy to be the president.

At least 1,000 of the 4,000 clients who have been to the service could still be described as being on its books. Though it has never advertised, it has guaranteed complete confidentiality and has avoided being identified with any particular body or institution. In that way it has attracted clients who have expressed—some have expressed it to me—the most extreme trust in the quality and confidentiality of the advice that they have received. They could not do that with a board office any more than it could be done with a local education authority in some parts of this country.

If one neglects the Belfast scene and looks to the rest of Northern Ireland, one sees that many of those entering board offices fear that they will be recognised, and that means particularly those who have learning difficulties, mental problems, and so on—and many of those have come the way of the EGSA. Nor could employees of the board itself easily use that service. I am not making a point specific to Northern Ireland. I would not want to see that happen in this country either, where at least the LEAs are democratically elected. It is even more disturbing when there is no demo- cratically elected organ of Government responsible for the education service.

The Northern Ireland Council of Social Service has consistently told the Department that it is happy to continue some involvement with the service provided that it is continued with public funding and with independent or semi-independent status. I am not sure that that point has always been fully understood by the Department or by the Minister of State.

I turn now to some other aspects of the work of the EGSA. What I have not yet said is that by the provision of an educational psychologist—always available to the service; indeed, employed by the service in latter years—it has been able to offer substantial help to many people who would otherwise not have come within the ambit of the traditional adult education sevice at all.

These are people who, perhaps because of the peculiar conditions of the Province, perhaps because of their own personal difficulties, would not normally—and certainly would not in this island, I suspect—have thought of seeking to improve their prospects in life through adult education courses. By coming into the EGSA, by sometimes undergoing testing—and psychological testing has been used, basically simply to discover aptitudes and abilities, with some 30 per cent. of the clients—and by receiving the expert counselling which the staff were able to offer, many of these people have developed new interests and ultimately have undertaken new careers.

The international reputation of the EGSA is not in question. I have with today a document from a UNESCO conference held in California last year, in which there are words of praise for the EGSA, and in which it is also concluded that It is desirable to establish a comprehensive information, guidance and counselling centre as an independent information and counselling service for adults, maintaining close contact and co-operation with all adult educational agencies but administratively autonomous. At this year's conference of the National Institute for Adult Education in Cardiff, which I attended and which the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science attended—he made representations, I believe, to the Northern Ireland Office after that conference—there was almost unanimous support for the continuation of the EGSA and expressions of great regret at the decision of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to cease funding the service

On other occasions there have been letters in Northern Ireland papers, and even in the educational papers in this country, praising the EGSA and suggesting that funding to it should continue.

Perhaps I may quote Paul Bertelsen, the head of the adult education section of UNESCO. He said earlier this year of Dr. Eagleson, who has been running the EGSA: Dr. Dorothy Eagleton is highly thought of internationally. She has made a very constructive contribution to knowledge in this area. If you give her functions to someone without her experience and qualifications, you might just as well put a pile of directories in a room and call that an advice centre. People who run these services must be skilled in psychology, in human relationships, be very understanding and have a very wide knowledge of education. In December of last year the educational magazine Education—I pause on that point to stress that that is a proper name—contained a lengthy article describing the new growth of advisory and counselling services in Great Britain. It said: Ironically, the most fully-fledged guidance service in the British Isles is threatened with extinction. It is the one in Northern Ireland run by Dr. Dorothy Eagleson. It went on to describe some of the total of about 40 schemes which are now in process of developing in Great Britain. Not one of them, to my knowledge, is run purely by a local education authority. Most of them are run by a combination of providing bodies and are funded by a combination of providing bodies, and they are run in independence from any single providing body, some of them with Open University involvement. There is an excellent example of that in the South Wales area.

I quote again from a gentleman who has been attempting to set up a similar unit to the EGSA in Merseyside. He said: Dorothy is the key figure in developments of this kind. Between 30 and 40 educational guidance projects on the mainland are legitimate offspring of the EGSA. I could go on with an endless series of quotations in praise of what the EGSA has done. What amazes me is that the Department of Education has not only cut off the EGSA, as it were, and tried to create a new service elsewhere—I commented on that earlier—but it has acted in such a way that the Northern Ireland Council of Social Service has had to give notice to Dorothy Eagleson, much against its own will, after 11 years of devoted service. That does not seem to me a sensible way of a Government Department to behave. I say that with great regret to my hon. Friend, for whom I have the highest respect. It seems to me to be bad industrial relations, at the least. It seems also to be bad administrative practice to scrap what exists and is successful and to replace it with yet another experiment.

I shall end by quoting from a letter published in the Press in Northern Ireland about a year ago, written by a man who signed himself simply as "Second Chance" and who was one of the clients of the educational guidance service for adults. At the end of his letter he said: There is surely something wrong with a Government that cannot find a way to underwrite a far-sighted, creative and community-oriented education service which is the envy of counsellors in other parts of the United Kingdom. I endorse those words.

9.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler) brings to this subject considerable experience, including ministerial experience, and, as he pointed out, he has had lengthy discussions with my noble Friend, whose departmental responsibility this is in Northern Ireland. It is not my responsibility, but in his place I answer for my noble Friend's actions and responsibilities.

I have, however, carefully studied the background to the correspondence and the administrative changes which have been made, which have raised the ire and criticism of my hon. Friend. I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's general position in his concern for the whole field of guidance in further education. It is a subject which I know something about, having participated in it.

Before I venture forth upon the departmental brief, I wish to say to my hon. Friend—I have convinced myself of this—that the changes which my noble Friend has sanctioned have been precisely in pursuit of the aim which my hon. Friend would urge him to adopt, that is, the improvement of the guidance service. It is not disputed, I understand, that Dr. Eagleson offered a first-class service, but when the "experiment"—I put that word in inverted commas—was examined, it was felt—indeed, at the end of the day it was recommended—that a more broadly based service should be offered, for the obvious reason that all adult education and further education should be backed up by a complete and wide-ranging advisory service.

What we have so far in Northern Ireland by way of a State service is in itself a beginning, and one hopes that it will improve. As my hon. Friend said, the Belfast area has the only service so far with a fully fledged system, and that is looking after the needs of the whole of the Province. As I shall be able to point out as I go through the brief, we hope to extend and improve the scope of the service.

My hon. Friend has spoken strongly in support of the Northern Ireland educational guidance service for adults, and I say at the outset that the Government fully accept that a need exists in Northern Ireland for an effective service to assist and guide adults to take advantage of the opportunities available to them in further and higher education. We are committed to a policy of developing such opportunities within the Province under the general umbrella of continuing education.

We recognise that an effective guidance service for adults is an indispensable requirement if the best possible use is to be made of the facilities and the courses which already exist and which are being planned. We believe, however, that adult educational guidance must be made available on as wide a basis and to as many people as possible and must be backed up by a structure able to furnish the necessary administrative and other resources which such development demands.

After careful consideration of the courses open to them, the Government came to the conclusion that the most effective way in which these essential requirements could be met was by asking the education and library boards to take on responsibility for providing a guidance service, applying where practicable, the lessons gained from the work of the EGSA.

A considerable time has elapsed since this decision and during this period the Government have had no cause to change their view that an expanded service to cater for the whole of Northern Ireland can best be established through the education and library boards, which have statutory responsibility for the provision of educational facilities of all kinds.

In addition to providing a base for a comprehensive service, this arrangement means that support will be available from the organisational structures and expertise which exist within the boards. In considering the matter there has never been any question whatsoever of abandoning the basic principles so successfully established by the EGSA; rather, the intention has been to make provision for development along the most rational lines. In this respect a promising start has already been made by the Belfast education and library board and I propose to give hon. Members an outline of what has been achieved by the board during a relatively short period of operation.

Before doing so, however, it might be useful if I were to review briefly the history of EGSA. The service was first established in 1967 when the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services considered that there was a need to look at the problems associated with guiding and counselling adults on their educational needs. The Council as a consequence established the EGSA on an experimental basis. In the first instance, finance was provided by the Clement Wilson Foundation. But in 1970 the Foundation withdrew its support, apparently being satisfied at that time that the immediate objectives of the experiment had been met.

Financial assistance was then sought for a further period from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, to enable the future of the service to be considered. From 1970 to 1973 the service was financed partly by the Department and partly by the Gulbenkian Foundation, but since 1973, when that Foundation's involvement came to an end, the service has been wholly dependent on grant-aid from the Department. The point has been made from time to time that there is particular merit in having an "independent" guidance service but although the project has never been under the direct control of a statutory body, in recent years it has been entirely dependent for its continued existence upon public funds.

In outlining the general background, the other point which I should like to underline is that, in spite of its long period of operation, the EGSA was, as I have already stated, conceived as an experimental unit, set up to explore the field of adult educational guidance and not as a body on which the provision of a service for the whole of Northern Ireland might be based. Indeed the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services in a Press statement has said, it was always the Council's intention that ways should be sought of having the Service, once its usefulness to the community had been proven, integrated into the statutory education service for the Province. Such a development is part and parcel of the philosophy of a Council of Social Services and there is ample precedent for it". It is a measure of the success of the experimental unit that in 1976 my right hon. Friend, the then Minister, considered that the nature and extent of the need for adult educational guidance had been fully established and felt justified in moving forward to the next logical stage, initiating a service to provide for the whole of Northern Ireland. In this respect, I should like to stress the Government's appreciation of the fine pioneering work undertaken by the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services, which cleared the way for this important step, and to say how impressed I am with the general recognition this work has so rightly been given by those who have the general interests of education at heart.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

The Minister has read a statement by Lord Meldrum which I had quoted. Would he accept that when Lord Meldrum, the director of the Northern Ireland Council, spoke of the EGSA being integrated into the statutory provision he did not mean that it should be wound up and its functions transferred somewhere else? That is not quite the same thing.

Mr. Carter

I bow to my hon. Friend's departmental experience and knowledge, but I cannot conceive of a situation in which one would wind up a voluntary body and yet at the same time keep it in existence within the statutory framework. I do not understand how that could happen. I know of no precedent for it.

I think that we are in a situation of some conflict here, where the voluntary body is obviously carrying out an educational function which is recognised by the State. However, the State thinks that it could do the job rather better within its own functional and departmental responsibilities. I believe that my noble Friend in Northern Ireland felt that the conflict could best be resolved by the winding up of one body and the complete transfer of its responsibilities to his Department.

The EGSA was located in Belfast, though it provided guidance for clients from outside the city area if called upon to do so. It had a total specialist staff of one full-time organiser and one part-time psychologist. In the circumstances it was felt that it could not possibly provide a suitable base for the establishment of a comprehensive service extending over the whole Province, a view which was consistent with that subsequently expressed by the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services. On the other hand, the boards, which are financed 100 per cent. by the Department and which are statutorily responsible for educational services in Northern Ireland, were seen as being ready-made for the purpose.

At the time there appeared to be a general agreement that this was the best way to proceed. Following discussions between the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services, the Department of Education and the Belfast education and library board, it was agreed that the Belfast education and library board should establish a further education guidance service to commence on 1st April 1977. On this date the EGSA was to cease its active counselling function, but in effecting this transfer the Department of Education was most anxious to ensure that the experience gained in the experimental venture should not be lost to the Boards and that some way should be found to enable the EGSA's organiser to contribute to the development of the extended service. It was clear that this role would have to be distinct from the bulk of the counselling work, which would be undertaken by the service established within the Belfast board.

It was considered that the organiser, Dr. Dorothy Eagleson, could best assist the boards in setting up the new service by becoming associated with a study of development and training requirements, and by pursuing research into areas in which the need for guidance and counselling had not been properly met. Unfortunately, it was not possible to reach agreement on the extent and nature of a continuing role for Dr. Eagleson.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that one of the suggestions made in that context to the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services for Dr. Eagleson's activities was that she should not only investigate the possibility of setting up a guidance service for the other boards but should examine the possibility of establishing an advisory service for female school-leavers who might have become teachers had it not been for the cut-back in teacher education and who no longer had that opportunity before them.

As to the establishment of the further education guidance service, which looks to 16-year-olds to 19-year-olds as well as adults, there is clearly in the Department's mind some confusion about what educational guidance for adults specifically is.

Mr. Carter

My hon. Friend has raised a matter to which I am not privy. I shall take it up with my noble Friend. I am sure that my noble Friend would want me to say that in these early and formative stages of the education and library boards providing this service we must accept that there is a learning process involved, though, as I shall indicate later, we seem to have got off to a fairly good start in terms of the number of people approaching the new service. But I shall make known to my noble Friend the point that my hon. Friend has just made.

In the circumstances, the Government have been forced to the view that a continuation of the direct counselling role of the EGSA would only duplicate the service provided by the education and library boards. The Department of Education cannot use public funds to give 100 per cent. grant-aid to separate organisations which would, in effect, be competing for clients.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Carter

It is indicative of the Government's concern to arrive at a solution to this problem that, to give time in which to reach an agreement, grant aid was continued at 100 per cent. to meet the EGSA's staffing costs for one year beyond the original hand-over date of 1st April 1977. During this period there was extensive correspondence between the parties concerned and a number of meetings took place, but it was all to no avail. When the Department fixed 31st March 1978 as the date on which grant to the Northern Ireland Council of Social Services for the EGSA would finally cease, it was clear that no prospect existed of any agreement being reached on how Dr. Eaglesson might work with the Belfast education and library board's new service.

Turning to this new service, I am sure that the hon. Member will be pleased to hear that it has got off to a promising start since it began just over a year ago. At present the further education guidance service is providing a service for all areas of Northern Ireland, not just Belfast, pending the development of similar services by the other education and library boards.

The board deliberately called its new service the further education guidance service to avoid confusion in the minds of the public with the experimental service provided by the EGSA. This was necessary because there was an overlap period when both organisations were offering their services to the public. I would stress however that the term "further education guidance service" embraces all forms of continuing education and that the new service caters for all adult educational needs.

In its first year of operation the further education guidance service dealt with almost 600 cases. These covered a wide age range, but at least 80 per cent. of them related to people over the age of 20 and almost 50 per cent. were in the age range 22 to 40. Of the total number of cases, 316 related to the Belfast education and library board area, 110 to the South-Eastern board area, 74 to the North-Eastern board area, 19 to the Southern board area, and 28 to the Western board area. In addition there were 29 inquiries from outside Northern Ireland.

The new service has been widely advertised throughout Northern Ireland and there has been a steady stream of people looking for help and advice. Close liaison has been established with other statutory bodies and the Department of Health and Social Services. The service is also operating in close co-operation with the board's other specialist services including that provided by the educational psychologist.

In general it is fair to claim that the first year's experience of the scheme operating within the statutory education service is a story of success though, of course, much remains to be done.

Finally, I would not wish to close without remarking on the high regard in which the experimental education guidance service for adults was held and expressing the conviction that in its turn the statutory service will come to be universally regarded in a similar light. It was never intended that it should follow exactly the same pattern as the pioneer service, but the Belfast board has made an energetic and successful start and there has certainly been no decline in the number of people who have sought and been given assistance. We should like to feel that in Northern Ireland and we are still pioneering by working towards the translation of a most successful experiment into a full-fledged and equally successful service and thereby still maintaining our position as leaders in this field.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Ten o'clock.

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