HC Deb 28 July 1980 vol 989 cc1236-48

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

1.43 am
Mr. Gerry Neale (Cornwall, North)

First, I apologise to the Minister for keeping him until this late hour. I appreciate the great work that he does on behalf of education in this country and also the sympathetic ear that he always gives to hon. Members on matters of this kind.

I wish to deal with the problem of voluntary aid and services in State schools which I first raised, as the Minister will recall, in my speech on a Ten-Minute Bill on 25 March of this year. On that occasion the Bill received a majority vote that it should be printed and read a Second Time. It sought to establish the lack of clarity in the Education Act 1944 over the statutory ability of local education authorities to accept voluntary aid and services in State schools, and the need for the law to be put right by establishing clearly that those local education authorities would then have the right to accept any form of voluntary aid.

Arising out of that Bill, I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and asked him two things in the alternative. I asked him if the conclusion that I had reached was, in his view, right, to confirm by circular to all the local education authorities that they may accept all forms of voluntary aid from then on. I asked him, on the other hand, if I was incorrect, in his view, to confirm that arrangements would be made for the law to be amended to permit such voluntary schemes to fall expressly within the powers of education authorities.

I accept that Ministers are not permitted to express an interpretative opinion of the law. However, the reply that I received from the Minister of State in another place was interesting, if not to say naive. It was dated 10 May. The fact that it repeated the doubt discovered in my researches, which I outlined in the House in March, did not take the issue any further forward. A definition referred to in that letter is worth a comment. It relates to the free provision of education, and states: It is generally widely considered in the education service that the provisions relate to activities and facilities forming part of the ordinary school curriculum, with the implication that things outside that curriculum may be open to charging or voluntary contributions. Prior to my Ten-Minute Bill, parents in Oxford were paying for an extra teacher, and parents in Cambridgeshire were paying for extra classrooms—hardly matters outside the ordinary school curriculum. That definition makes the schemes illegal, in my view. The local education authorities would be acting ultra vires in accepting them.

I hasten to add that I do not for one moment wish to contest the merits of the schemes. On the contrary, I wish to champion them, and I hope to see them extended. I am concerned about their lack of apparent legality and their vulnerability to legal attack by those determined to restrict educational provision to local education authorities, or by those concerned to ensure that the bureaucratic integrity of local education authorities is maintained.

I wish to make it plain on behalf of the voluntary schemes—estimated recently to exceed £20 million—that the present law is bad, and the danger to voluntary aid schemes increases the longer that the doubt is left. I assume that the Minister and the Secretary of State agree with the merits of the schemes.

Since March I have had reason to reinforce my argument in the House in the hope that the Minister would promise a speedy amendment of the law. I wish to expand two points briefly. First, the evolutionary process of voluntary aid is increasing in momentum, making clarity of the law even more urgent. Secondly, there should be more of what I would call privatisation of threatened State schools. Dealing with the evolutionary process, I recalled in my Ten-Minute Bill the way in which and the reasons for, the development of voluntary aid had progressed since 1944.

It is now clear that since March 1980 the process has been even more dramatic. First, the Secretary of State has gone on record as promoting parental voluntary aid, especially for the funding of school books. I am most grateful to him for his support to parents, despite the fact that it further begs the question of legality. Secondly, all over Britain more and more schemes are being started which, with impunity, I can claim so invade the Minister's definition of the free provision of education as to leave it in tatters.

Perhaps the most comprehensive evidence of all was the survey conducted by The Times Educational Supplement of schools in Suffolk. The report of that survey makes it plain that a quarter of all primary schools are buying textbooks out of parental funds. There are examples of them buying exercise books, pencils and stationery. There are examples of them providing for two extra classrooms, two internal partitions, damp-proofing for roofs and various other matters. One headmaster said that it was imperative to have a large school fund to meet essential curriculum needs—that is, a fund raised out of private donations.

As public expenditure savings are effected, and as parental enthusiasm for local schools increases, so the degree and intensity of voluntary participation will multiply upon itself. The Minister must be prepared for that evolutionary process to carry with it the increasing risk of court action which, if successful, could bring to a halt schemes on which thriving schools are now dependent. It would be irresponsible to allow these doubts to continue for longer than is absolutely necessary.

Coincidentally, in this Session we have processed through Parliament highly commendable proposals on so-called privatisation affecting the. National Freight Corporation and British Aerospace. We have carried through proposals to enable private and voluntary funding of the National Health Service. We would be inconsistent if we did not place education firmly in the same category. We should promote the idea of a degree of privatisation in our State schools, especially those threatened by closure for whatever reasons.

Parents have long since demonstrated their willingness to raise funds and to provide voluntary aid and services to advance the education of their children. Parents at St. Wenn, a village in my constituency, attempted to achieve a partnership in privatisation with the Cornwall county council. They failed because the council claimed that the 1944 Act prevented such an exercise. That constituted the most tragic rejection of community involvement. It flew in the face of the highly commendable efforts of the rural advisory committee of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, a body which has done a great deal to promote the future and well-being of village schools.

Village schools form an integral part of rural communities. It is not enough merely to pay lip-service to them. If we cannot afford village schools, we should not indulge in a cover-up and say that for educational reasons the schools should close and the pupils transferred to schools some distance away. We should first be honest and admit to the parents that we cannot afford to continue them, and invite voluntary aid by parents.

We should be prepared partially to privatise such schools. Failure to do so can lead to the most remarkable results. In Henstead in Suffolk parents have taken a lease on an old State village school. They run a private village school that is part fee paying and part community funded in the same premises and within the laid down requirements that cover, for example, inspectors. That is a terrible indictment of that local education authority and the system that we operate. It is a tremendous commendation of the potential of parental aid.

I ask my hon. Friend to recognise the tremendous voluntary efforts of parents to aid and advance education in State schools. Let us applaud those efforts. Let us admit as a matter of principle that there should be no limit to the scope of voluntary aid or services provided by parents as a result of arrangements made freely with local education authorities. Let us admit that there is a lack of clarity on this subject in the Act that warrants a change in the law as soon as possible.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend to accept that we must prepare for, and not prevent, closer participation and the joint voluntary sponsorship by parents and local education authorities of schools that otherwise would be doomed to failure.

1.54 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) for giving the House an opportunity to discuss voluntary aid for schools. It is an important subject, and there has been a good deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation lately of the Government's view.

I know how much my hon. Friend has done to encourage voluntary effort within schools. That is something that the Government commend. I was privileged to visit my hon. Friend's constituency before he became its distinguished Member. We rejoiced at the great victory on 3 May 1979, and congratulate him on the way in which he has looked after his constituency ever since. That applies not only to education matters but in all other respects. I know that he has been involved not only in his own constituency, but in Milton Keynes, where he was a distinguished mayor in an earlier incarnation.

Like my hon. Friend, I heartily applaud the efforts of parents and others to raise extra funds for their local schools. Nothing but good can come of the greater involvement that that gives parents in the life of a school. The issues with which we are concerned are basically matters of common sense. They should be looked at realistically, rather than become the subject of political point-scoring or legal quibbling. We are all concerned to maintain, and indeed improve, the standard of education, and this requires the best efforts of authorities, schools and parents.

My hon. Friend spoke about the degree of parental involvement. This is something about which we as a party are concerned. In the Education (No. 2) Bill which went through the House this Session we enfranchised two parents at least on the governing body of each school, and we enfranchised choice of school. We believe, not in a production-controlled society, but in a consumer-controlled society, and, after all, parents act for their children as representatives of the consumer in education.

My hon. Friend raised the question of what the law says. Let us be clear about this. Section 139 of the Local Government Act 1972 empowers local education authorities to accept gifts of money or property for the purpose of discharging any of their functions. However, in accepting gifts or voluntary contributions authorities have to be conscious of their duties under the 1944 Act—to which my hon. Friend referred—which lays on them the responsibility for securing the provision of sufficient education and defraying the necessary expenses, which includes the cost of maintaining their schools.

The concept of a free education system—which is basic to the 1944 Act—is something to which the Government remain committed. We all pay for education indirectly through our rates and taxes, and there is no question in the Government's mind of demanding direct payment from parents for their children's schooling or for essential materials. What we are talking about are voluntary contributions. It is up to the school and the authority concerned to make sure that in making use of them they are within the law; that is, that such contributions are acceptable under the provisions whereby the authority can accept gifts. That is a question that arises under section 139 of the Local Government Act. At the same time, that must be consistent with its duty as a local education authority to maintain the schools.

It is not up to me this evening to comment on individual cases. Reference was made to one, and I might return to that, because my hon. Friend made it quite famous. These cases have to be looked at carefully, and ultimately they are matters for the courts. However, where difficulties occur it would seem to us to be a rather heavy-handed approach to turn straight to the law. I do not think that it would be right or necessary for the House to legislate on the line between the responsibility of a local education authority on the one side, and on the other side the rights of parents to add voluntary extras. Education should be a co-operative venture, in which we welcome the involvement of parents not just because of what they add to it but because of their continuing interest in the education of their children. It is common sense that needs to be applied, not statute law.

Let me give an illustration of a local authority that asks for voluntary—and I stress voluntary—help with books. With all the talk that there is these days, one would think it astonishing that what I said at the last education Question Time happens. I remember what happened years ago when I was a headmaster and we wanted to do a certain science course. The capitation allowance had gone. We raised some money from parents. Nobody considered it remarkable then, and looking back I do not consider it remarkable now. It seemed sensible to say to parents "We want to introduce this course"—not the parents of the children who took the course, but the parents' association—and they raised the money for some very expensive textbooks that were required for the sixth form.

Coming back to the illustration, if those books, purchased with parental help, supplement the basic provision, that seems to me a legitimate use of extra money. One could argue in the case to which I referred that a number of A-level subjects were already being done, but the books were required for additional A-level subjects which were supplemental to basic needs. If the parents are asked to pay for basic provision, without which the syllabus could not be pursued or the normal course of education continued, that would seem to be wrong.

It is unreal to think that Ministers or the House should pronounce on where the line should be drawn. In many cases the law follows experience. One of the traditions of this country is the building up of case law. That means that one moves to a situation and the law eventually catches up, instead of running before one. As my hon. Friend said, there has been a considerable movement of voluntary help in schools in recent years. But where the line is to be drawn is a local matter which the local education authority and the school should examine and, where necessary, explain to parents.

One may take the case of an authority that is considering a charge perhaps for extra music tuition or swimming lessons. It is important that such an authority should have a clear policy whether the provision is basic education which its pupils are expected to have, or voluntary extras which are optional. The legal position between these two cases may be quite different, but it is a matter for the authority, not for the Government, to decide.

The same is true of the suggestion sometimes made—my hon. Friend referred to this happening in one school—that parent-teacher associations or others might take over the costs of employing an additional teacher, whether it be in a small rural school with restricted staffing or to supplement a large school's curriculum. I think that authorities must be particularly mindful of their statutory duty. Every case would have to be looked at on its merits, but there is a clear possibility that action of this sort could leave the authority open to the challenge that it was no longer meeting its obligations under the Education Acts. That point was referred to by my hon. Friend.

However, to take the difficulties further, regardless of these statutory considerations, the employment of a teacher by any body other than an education authority raises practical difficulties. There are contractual problems. By whom would the teacher be employed? For instance, what would be the position with regard to redundancy payments or compensation for unfair dismissal? Against whom would the teacher exercise his statutory right to remuneration? If a group of parents took responsibility for a teacher's salary they might not wish to make any commitment beyond the time of their children's attendance at that school. That is obviously one problem.

Such a group of people certainly could not bind their successors, and it seems unlikely that individuals would be prepared to give such guarantees. Other considerations with regard to superannuation and cover in the event of sickness only serve to emphasise the problems involved in such a scheme. I know that such a scheme was offered, but not accepted, although it was in another case not in the same local education authority. An arrangement of this kind would seem therefore to expose both the authority and the teacher to an unacceptable degree of risk and uncertainty.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, West)

Is my hon. Friend saying that a parent-teacher association is able to raise money for a swimming pool or something like that but is not able to fund a teacher even if it accepts all the conditions that he has just put forward?

Dr. Boyson

I welcome the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle). I was saying that these were the difficulties involved. Somebody would have to be statutorily responsible for the employment of the teacher, and matters concerning pension rights, superannuation and redundancies are involved. I just mention that there are difficulties. I do not want to spend too long on this matter.

Mr. Neale

The point that arises in these situations is that, despite the contractual difficulties that exist, and are accepted to exist, when parents are faced with the prospect of having one teacher fewer they seek to establish a contractual position, however difficult it may be. There is one example that has proved to be satisfactory to parents and to the teacher concerned in a case that one could name. A number of parents' organisations around the country are waiting for guidance on this matter.

Dr. Boyson

This is a delicate issue, as my hon. Friend knows, with the supreme gentleness with which he pushed his little boat out further on this matter. The one authority that has done it has decided to do it no more. I do not want to go into details. I may not even know why it has not decided to do it any more. There is a certain degree of grey land here, a difference between the darkness and the sunlight, as to where it stands along those lines.

Perhaps I may move on, with the agreement of my hon. Friends—on which I am sure I can presume at this time of the morning. On the other side of the coin, however, I see no reason for restricting the use of voluntary funds in the way some have recently suggested. As my right hon. and learned Friend has said on several occasions recently, if parents are anxious and willing to assist their child's school by raising money, why restrict the headmaster as to how best to use that extra money? If the extra income can be used to buy additional musical instruments for the school orchestra, extra school apparatus or football kit, is there any reason in principle why it should not be spent on additional books for the library, extra books for the classroom, or more materials for the art room?

My hon Friend asked us to give encouragement along those lines. I am delighted tonight to give encouragement to parental involvement. I want shortly to mention some figures on this subject.

My hon. Friend has raised the question of keeping a village school open by means of voluntary aid funds. I should not wish to comment on this case in his constituency, which is for the local education authority to decide. I would say, however, that I appreciate the community interest in the local school. I think that there are great community advantages in village schools. There comes a point about their financial cost if it is being borne by a subsidisation from a larger area, and from bigger schools to smaller schools, but I realise, having attended a village hill school myself, a small Church of England hill school in one of the villages of Lancashire, how vital they are. A balance has to be struck.

My hon. Friend is right in welcoming and encouraging the voluntary contribution of extra funds to our schools, and extra parental help.

With superb timing—not the timing necessary for this debate this morning—on Friday a book came out entitled "Parental Involvement in Primary Schools". I thought "My hon. Friend is a wise man to have enough prescience to know that that book was coming out at that time". It is very interesting. This inquiry was done between 1976 and 1978, at a time when one could say that the dark cloud of Socialism, which apparently was supposed to provide everything for the schools and a glorious age, was in control of this country, yet at that time 96 per cent. of the schools in Britain took part in some form of fund raising.

At 80 per cent. of the primary schools over half the parents gave some money in fund raising as a vote of confidence in the schools their children were attending. About 78 per cent. helped with school visits. About 65 per cent. helped with sewing curtains for Christmas plays. That is an important activity. Also, 65 per cent. of parents were involved in minor repairs of equipment. The most fascinating fact to me was that major repairs and alterations in school buildings—defined as, say, turning a cloakroom into a classroom, or a classroom into a cloakroom, not necessarily on the same day but by a change at some period—were undertaken by parents of children at 10 per cent. of all schools.

At Highbury Grove a cloakroom was built in a corridor by parents in the building industry. Presumably the school became part of the 10 per cent. where major alterations were made with the encouragement of parents.

The Government believe, and I hope that the Opposition agree, that voluntary help is part of a free democratic society. We do not want to live in a society in which the State provides everything, and we just stand touching our forelock, holding out our begging bowl to whoever is in charge of us at the time. However, there must be a balance between the obligation under the 1944 Act to provide basic education free of charge and the right of parents, under the 1972 Act, to add to provision inside the schools.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has raised the matter, because in a free society parents should be encouraged to participate. Hon. Members on both sides of the House sometimes talk loosely about participation. What better participation is there than helping schools that one's children attend? That is a genuine form of participation.

It is the local education authorities' responsibility to meet the schools' basic educational needs, but the Government will encourage voluntary contributions—of help and funds—from parents, who thus show their confidence in the teachers and in the schools that their children attend.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Two o'clock.