HC Deb 18 July 1979 vol 970 cc1953-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

11.41 pm
Mr. Barry Jones (Flint, East)

I forecast that next year Clwyd's rates will rise by 25 per cent. Nearly 20 per cent. will be due to the recent Tory Budget boost to inflation, and the rest will be a supplementary rate to try to rescue vital services such as education. This Government have cheated parents. They promised them tax cuts, but they can be obtained only by slashing central Government funding of county services such as education. Some observers believe that education standards will be butchered because of the Government's blind commitment to "Thatcherite" cuts in public spending.

Pernicious Government financial policy, imposed to redeem the tax cuts election pledge, have brought forth unprecedented demonstrations. Spontaneously, thousands of mothers gathered at Shire Hall this week. They carried the day, and persuaded the local education authority not to massacre the nursery units, not to imperil Welsh language teachers and teaching and not to penalise vulnerable pupils in need of remedial education. In fact, their muscle power far exceeded the legendary power of the trade unions.

But still the Clwyd LEA finds itself in an impossible position. As the county programme for 1980–81 says, With regard to growth, it is evident that the Government is not prepared to maintain the levels set out in its predecessor's White Paper mentioned in paragraph 3. A cutback of 3 per cent. in current expenditure in the present year has already been called for, roughly equating to £2.5 million of the country's revenue budget. Clawback of rate support grant for 1979–80 is still to be announced. It is also evident that the Government will be proposing further cuts in the coming year, and there seems little prospect of any improvement in the situation for some time to come". I cannot adequately describe the indignation and dismay depicted by the hundreds of young parents whom I have interviewed in the last few weeks. One thing is for certain—they believe in nursery education, oppose education cuts and dislike totally the Government's current policy.

The National Union of Teachers has left me in no doubt whatever regarding its views. It envisages over 300 teachers less, the primary pupil-teacher ratio going from 23.25 to 24.25, and a decline in the secondary pupil-teacher ratio from 17 to 18.5 It says that there will be a review of small sixth forms. That is what the NUT has told me, and I congratulate its members in Clwyd on forming an action committee to alert the local people against what will be an inevitable fall in standards. It is certainly their intention to warn against that possibility.

Mrs. Ann Snowden, of the Mold and Buckley NUT, has written to me deploring the advance towards cuts in education. She says that the first point to emphasise is the combined effect of various proposals for cuts on the slow learners and deprived children … The second point is the worsening of the pupil-teacher ratio … which must result in whole subjects disappearing from the curriculum … We are hoping that the council will agree to a supplementary rate. That is on behalf of the NUT.

Many members of school staffs throughout Clwyd have told me of their great concern. For our pupils some subjects will disappear from the curriculum. They will have restricted choice in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh years, which will affect their career opportunities. It will no longer be feasible to provide for minority subjects and those courses that are designed to broaden the perspective of pupils. Additional stress will be placed on teachers through the increased size of classes. Some subjects will be taught by non-specialists. New entrants to the profession will not have the benefit of immediate support from senior colleagues. Supply teachers with the appropriate specialisation will not be available, thus disrupting courses. At lunch-time supervision is stretched to the limit and can be stretched no further.

Parents value and have come to expect the school to provide counselling and guidance for their children. The present level of caring cannot be sustained. All pupils in the comprehensive school will be affected by these cuts over the next months and years. Parents are rightly concerned that the opportunities for their children will be significantly restricted. We shall not be able to maintain the existing standards of work or the quality and range of opportunities offered. That is the thrust of intelligence and advice that I have received. I am told that the morale of the profession is seriously affected by the prospect of continuing cuts of such severity. Short- and long-term effects of these cuts on pupils' opportunities in an increasingly complex world is surely most worrying.

From Flint, Mr. Megson has written to me in blunt terms, saying that The Government made it clear that their intention was to cut public spending but they had no mandate from the public to destroy an educational system which has in recent years provided wider and better opportunity for our young people. The cuts Simply a shortening of the duration of 'a school education' for many young people … As the Member of Parliament for Flint, East I hope you can help by passing on my fears and dejection through the channels at your disposal so that we may try to change the direction the present Government have elected to take. I have also been told by the Clwyd Secondary Headmasters' Federation that it is deeply disturbed about the implications in Clwyd of educational cuts. It says that These cuts are not just 'good housekeeping' adjustments and savings but the amputation of important parts of the education service … which were regarded as essential. The teachers who remain in the service are becoming increasingly demoralised. The Clwyd Federation of PTAs has been in touch with me. It vigorously opposes any of the suggested cuts in education that affect the quality of tuition given to our children. I dare say that the Minister will say that cuts can be found that will not affect the quality of tuition. My constituents and many others will be interested to hear his observations.

The honorary secretary of the St. Richard Gwyn Association of the high school in Flint has written to me saying that As a Member of Parliament who has represented many of us living in the constituency with distinction we would ask for your active help in promoting educational safeguards at a very difficult time for the nation. The Association asks that those cuts which directly affect the quality of education in the classroom should not be imposed. Recently articulated Conservative theory on education has emphasised the need to safeguard educational standards. The Party has also taken a strong stand on the rights of parents. Current Government policies threaten both. I agree.

A Mrs. Shackleton, who writes to me from Cefn-y-Bedd, in the part of my constituency near Wrexham, says: I have two children at Abermorddn Primary School. The junior children at this school are in mobile classrooms. Due to not having a teacher replaced this September, these rooms are going to be overcrowded. The toilet facilities also are far from ideal too. The junior department of this school is in the building programme for 1980. It is essential that this is not delayed at all. We know that it will be because the Budget has announced that the education budget must be cut by £55 million. The private sector will be stimulated by an additional £50 million. Mrs. Shackleton's school will not get what it needs because the order of priorities under this Government will be changed.

The headmaster of Queensferry primary school tells me that the principle of compensatory education is basic to the work of the school and that the proposed cuts attack that principle savagely. A constituent from Hope Village, a Mrs. G. A. Bellis, writes that The facilities of the Swimming Baths were supposed to benefit the Community and as we—the parents—pay for them out of very heavy rates why should our children be denied free entry to these very facilities? I would add that I personally am not in the Teaching Profession, neither do I have a child under school age so have nothing personally to gain from these complaints other than the hopefully continued standard of Education our children enjoy at present. A constituent from Broughton, a Mrs. Linda Roberts, says: The opinion overall at our meeting was that no cuts in education should occur. Education should never suffer through inflation, and the County Council should go to the ratepayers to raise these monies. She speaks for many in Broughton.

The parent manager, a Mr Brian Williams, of the Broughton school, says in a letter to me: This Country has been involved in two World Wars, with a considerable number of deaths, sufferings and hardships, in order that we may keep Britain alive and maintain standards our parents required for us. It is now apparent that because of the reduction in Grants from Central Government, that these standards are not going to be retained for our children. I know that Mr. Williams has done a great deal for the school at Broughton, and that he and his managers are deeply distressed by what faces them.

From Saltney, a Mrs. Susan Stuart, whose friends I met in her home recently, when they were most distressed at hearing of the need for cuts in the education service, has written to me since that meeting. She says: I am writing this letter on behalf of the majority of parents in the Saltney area, to request you to bring to the notice of the government the following drastic effects, in this area, of the recent 2 per cent cuts in spending in Education and to try to convey the bitterness of feeling these effects have caused. I can vouch for the strong feelings of the mothers that I met in Saltney.

The parent-teachers association of the Ysgol-y-Fron and Perthy Terfyn schools in Halkyn Street, Holywell, sent me a letter stating that We the P.T.A. Committee of the above Schools feel we must register our serious protest to you with regard to the cuts proposed in education spending by Clwyd County Council. The association particularly points with dismay at the degree to which the actual schooling may be affected for the worse. It says that, as an alternative, there should be fewer subject supervisors and that an extension of the winter holiday should take place with a reduction in the summer holiday so as to lessen the cost of fuel in local schools.

A headmaster has written to me on behalf of his school in Bagillt, and as chairman of the PTA association, regarding the proposed cuts and the dire effect that they will have on the community of Bagillt. He says: On educational and socio-economic grounds, I feel that there is a backward step, and I ask you, as a good friend of this area, and as an ex-teacher, to do your utmost to oppose such action. Furthermore, I feel that you should be made aware of the fact that reports of 'no teacher redundancy' are inaccurate … Surely education should mean more than ruthless culling of £X to meet demands of our political administration, who seem to have mixed up national priorities … I could understand vicious cutbacks having to be made in social spending in times of national crisis, but as far as the public is concerned there is no crisis, but this is a deliberate action by a Government which will have far-reaching effects on social standards and morale for years to come. Besides the headmaster's signature on that letter, there also appear the signatures of the PTA secretary, Mrs. Sutton, and the PTA assistant secretary, M. Sewell.

From Holywell, Mrs. Gwen Roberts says: The present threatening cuts in our children's education will undoubtedly be very detrimental to many, especially to the children themselves and to certain areas in education that have been fostering so well over the years. Mrs. Dougherty, of Buckley, at whose home I met a number of constituents who were concerned about these cuts, says: It has been brought to my attention … that the present Conservative Government plan to make cuts in education. There is much speculation as to just where these cuts will come … I am certain about one thing, and that is to ensure my children's education standards improve, not deteriorate. I will give my full support to any campaign to see that this Government do not bring about this action. If these actions are allowed to materialise this year, it will be a springboard for future plans. Finally, to sum up, it is a fact that throughout Wales we suffer a £1.3 million cut in the building programme. The hopes of modernising more of our ancient schools have been dashed, directly because of the Conservatives' Budget cuts in the State education service. There is a threat to reading and writing practice in the infant schools, a threat to books and equipment in our junior schools, and a threat to examination and preparation and prospects in secondary schools. There is also the prospect of disturbing redundancies amongst teachers.

If the cuts to be imposed by central Government go ahead, by the rate support grant cut, which inevitably points the axe at education, there will be a rapid deterioration affecting the most precious asset of the nation—our children. It is no use the Minister's saying that the Government are not to blame. The savage cuts in the RSG give Clwyd LEA no option but to look very harshly at the education budget.

11.58 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I fully support the hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) in his plea that education standards should not be reduced because of the necessity for cuts in expenditure, but, unlike the hon. Member, I fully support the need for such cuts. Furthermore, I have found, in meetings that I have had with parents and teachers throughout the county, that there is very general acceptance of the need for cuts, coupled with a determination that these cuts should be imposed in such a way as not genuinely to damage educational standards.

One common factor that I found running throughout was an absolute insistence that in no circumstances must the rates be allowed to rise on this account. But I found plenty of constructive suggestions about the way in which cuts could be made without damaging education standards. The most common one, with which I can hardly expect the hon. Gentleman to sympathise, is that there should be a massive reduction in the number of administrative staff in the education service, which has swollen beyond acceptable bounds. I recognise that there may be difficulties with the unions. I trust that the Government will encourage local authorities to be firm in their determination to cut the size of administrative staffs.

A second item on which there could be large economies is the subsidy to school meals. I find a general readiness to accept a higher charge for school meals. Unfortunately, as the law stands this seems outside the capacity of local education authorities. I hope that the Government will look urgently at the matter and that they will also examine the possibility—even more relevant—of a charge for attendance at nursery classes. At present this is excluded by law. I find that many parents would be prepared to pay a charge in exchange for an assurance that nursery classes would be allowed to continue.

A major contribution to reducing education costs that ultimately should be made is the question of the school leaving age, which has not been an unqualified success at its present level.

12.2 am

The Under Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Michael Roberts)

The hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) was to raise the effect of Government spending cuts on nursery education in Clwyd. I took careful note of how much time he spent on that subject. He devoted not more than a second to it. One can understand why. The hon. Gentleman has been overtaken by events.

I welcome the opportunity afforded by this debate to set on record the view that I take on the approach of local education authorities to reductions in expenditure now being sought by the Government. I can only believe that the dismayed and angry ladies of East Flint took no notice of their Member of Parliament but took notice of my advice, given from this Dispatch Box last Monday, when I suggested that it was for the local education authorities to decide whether cuts should be made. No doubt, having read my remarks, they went along to their local authority, made their demonstration and put their point of view. The result was that the local authority came to a totally different decision from that represented to us in the House by the Opposition during Welsh questions on Monday.

I must express a measure of sympathy for the hon. Member for Flint, East. Having said that he would be raising on the Adjournment the proposals to cut back sharply on nursery education in Clwyd, it must have been disconcerting—I put it no higher—to find that the education committee of Clwyd county council has, after all, decided not to proceed with the widely publicised recommendation put to it. I leave it to the hon. Gentleman to draw what lesson he wants from that.

Until comparatively recently, the hon. Gentleman was himself the Under-Secretary of State at the Welsh Office who was responsible for education. He shares with me both a personal knowledge of and a commitment to the education service. His experience in office will have given him an acute awareness not only of the scope of nursery education but of the vulnerability of this sector in relation to compulsory school age education. He will also recognise the problem of resources and, in consequence, the overriding importance of priorities in a situation such as the present one.

In some respects, therefore, we have much in common. Neither of us is in any doubt about the inherent importance and value of nursery education. In an ideal world, we would both want to see this form of education provided for all those children aged between three and five whose parents want it. It remains our long-term objective to achieve the targets of nursery provision laid down in the Gittins report and in the 1973 circular issued, it will be recalled, by a Conservative Government.

But in an ideal world we should also have a right to expect many other things—more new schools to replace the hopelessly dilapidated ones that we both know about, better equipment and certainly better books, and improvements all round in the quality of our public services.

We must, however, recognise that we live in the real world, not in an ideal world, and it is no use pretending that we have arrived at Utopia. This Government certainly did not inherit Utopia from the Opposition when we took over in May this year, and the hon. Member for Flint, East must know that in education affairs if he knows anything about the matter at all.

I wish now to say a few words about standards because the hon. Gentleman is concerned about them, as are all those of his constituents who wrote to him and whose words he has quoted tonight. They are concerned with standards. But I do not for a moment subscribe to the proposition that standards depend entirely on the volume of resources put into any service. I may in passing remind the hon. Gentleman of the considerable achievements of the education service in Wales at a time when the resources available were but a small fraction of today's level. Indeed, there are many who would take the view that standards in the basic educational skills have failed to keep pace either with the injection of resources or with the demands of society. In my view, the standards achieved in education depend largely on how well we use the resources at our command.

If the hon. Gentleman has any doubts about that, he might recall what was said in the Green Paper of 1977, "Education in Schools", to the effect that although some improvements call for additional resources, others, including many of those proposed in this Paper, do not. This is partly a question of attitudes and basic approach. I make no apology for saying that it is time that we restored the emphasis on the basic curriculum. For far too long this has been regarded as an old-fashioned concept, and great has been the obsession in recent years with the structure of the education service—with the organisation, reorganisation and, frequently, the disorganisation of schools. We have for too long ignored what goes on inside the classroom. This obsession with structure reached its peak in the Education Act 1976, which is now, happily, well on the way to repeal.

It would be churlish of me not to recognise that in the last year or so of their period of office the Labour Government belatedly realised that all was not well with the quality of education, and I readily acknowledge the initiative of the hon. Member for Flint, East in seeking to tackle some of the serious problems which we have faced in Wales in regard to examination achievement, standards of literacy and numeracy, truancy and so on.

But a death-bed conversion is no substitute for a basic lifelong commitment to maintaining and raising education standards. That commitment is right at the heart of this Government's education policies. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not run away into irresponsible opposition, claiming that only by the injection of resources can standards be improved. If he does, he will betray the only constructive episode of his ministerial career.

In conclusion, I would say that whilst I appreciate the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman, I cannot agree with his approach to the matter. These are difficult times. Difficult and painful decisions have to be taken by central and local government alike if this country is to set itself on to a new course.

We as a Government have established our strategic national priorities. We have sufficient confidence in the integrity and the sensitivity of local authorities to leave them to make the essential decisions on priorities in their own fields. Here lies the contrast between Government and Opposition. The Opposition know that they had to make cuts, and we have to make cuts, but now that cuts have to be made they argue in Opposition that the Government should say to each authority exactly what it should do. That is why they are running here on every occasion demanding debates on the mere sight of a headline saying "52 schools to be closed". That is why we went through all the trauma of last Monday, and all the exciting headlines which were to be garnered from the Welsh press, only to find that the local education authority of Clwyd made a totally different decision.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman exercises in future a little caution before he rushes in where angels would fear to tread.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes past Twelve o'clock.