HC Deb 23 December 1981 vol 15 cc1027-32

1.1 pm

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Adult education is part of further education. It starts after pupils leave school at 16, at the earliest, and is part of the educational process which, if properly and soundly started, is life-long.

Adult education has two important functions—the enrichment of life and, especially important nowadays, helping to teach new skills. Both are of the highest importance at a time of increased leisure and unemployment.

I speak as the chairman of the parliamentary all-party adult education committee and I pay particular tribute to the contribution to that committee's work by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) and the hon. Members for Easington (Mr. Dormand) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), who are unable to be here today, but who support my remarks.

The committee has considered all aspects of adult education, including university part-time courses and the Open University. It has also considered life enrichment courses of all kinds, including choral music, philosophy, learning about Chinese cultures, and the study of prehistoric man and hundreds more. I have seen keep-fit classes in London and other courses which range from a few months' old baby learning to swim, to a 107-year-old lady keeping fit. Such is the range and cover of adult education. It is, or should be, a facility for everyone, whether the Lord Chief Justice of England following a course of his choice—as was the case with a recent Lord Chief Justice—or the adult illiterate trying to gain the primary skills of life, the better to establish his own life, access to work and dignity. Let us not forget that.

Adult education has a crucial role to play in training for new jobs. We know that modern technology forces change on everyone at an increasingly rapid rate. New skills to cope with that can be learnt through adult education, and access to a new type of work can be provided for those made redundant. That is of central importance.

I shall detain the House with a few facts and figures to illustrate the present situation. The numbers in the age range 25 to 40 will continue growing until the year 2000. Those in the 40-plus age group will grow for much longer. Those two groups of people will see change at an increasingly rapid rate. They will probably change their job twice or more in their working lifetime. Three-quarters of a million people—and the number is rising—have been out of work for a year or more, and 7 to 8 million people change their job each year. At least ½ million lost their jobs through redundancy in 1980, and many of them—although regrettably not all—have found new and different jobs. People will perhaps need training and re-training at least two or three times in their lifetime. Technological change and structural unemployment may continue to present us with a major challenge for the foreseeable future, and are likely to do so.

This is the context in which adult education finds itself in 1981. Nearly 2 million students enrol in adult education courses each year, 85 per cent. of which are provided by local education authorities, and 1 million more adults study on part-time courses in further education establishments. The influence of this area upon our daily lives and the lives of the families of this country is vast. It is essential, in the face of the challenge presented by technological change and high levels of unemployment, to go beyond the recreational/leisure image of adult education. It is potentially much more than that image suggests.

We need to recognise the valuable resources and expertise embodied in local authority adult education services. We must not continue to push it to the margin of educational provision as a luxury service for those who can pay. The adult education service should be given a vital and essential role in the education, training and re-training of adults. The service is already noted for its scope, flexibility and adaptability, and for its cost-effectiveness. It is cheaper than any other aspect of education. It already works in conjunction with schools, colleges and higher education in many areas.

The barriers between different parts of the education service must be eroded, as in the Open College of the North-West or in the proposed open college for South London, based on the Polytechnic of the South Bank, and in the further education and adult education establishments in Lambeth, which the Minister will know about.

Essentially we are talking about access to education and training, across institutional boundaries, for all adults, whether employed or unemployed. Adult education should be an integral part of all post-school provision, and it could play a vital part in the process of economic recovery.

I fear that in some areas cuts have eroded the infrastructure of adult education. A simple injection of more cash at some future date will not now produce a smooth recovery, although I would not say that I would not welcome the injection of such cash.

I note the 3 per cent. reduction in next year's rate support grant and the increasing trend towards self-financing adult education, which is partly to be welcomed. I do not say that those who can afford to pay should not do so, but the process can be two-edged, in that it can exclude those such as the unemployed who cannot afford to pay, and the steady decline in student numbers in the face of rising fees could exacerbate this trend.

With regard to cuts, I should be grateful to have an assurance from the Minister that the Inner London Education Authority and the outer London boroughs adult education services are not suffering from the present financial hardship.

I now turn to what I regard as the weak legal basis of adult education. Recently a discussion document prepared by officials of the DES and local government associations was issued, entitled "The Legal Basis of Further Education". That document rightly states that substantial elements of current so-called further education are almost ultra vires. Certainly, a number of Government-endorsed programmes of basic and continuing education could not be regarded as having any legal basis in law. That situation alone warrants the serious attention of this House, as, clearly, it is unsatisfactory to have ostensibly public services, endorsed by Parliament in their purpose and intent, requiring certain public money investments yet having no proper legal framework for their operation.

This somewhat bizarre ultra vires issue is symptomatic of a larger concern—that Britain has not kept up to date and relevant its laws, its expression of national intent and its commitment to the continuing education and training of its people. We are still trying to run services on the basis of concepts and perceptions expressed in the early 1940s.

As I have remarked in the House on a number of previous occasions, the wording of some of the relevant sections of the Education Act is archaic. For example, among other things, section 41 refers to leisure-time occupation, in such organised cultural training and recreative activities as are suited to their requirements". However, the real nonsense prize goes to the latter part of section 41, which, after previously describing in the aforementioned archaic way certain duties devolving upon local education authorities, then states that none of the foregoing could apply if it was not contained within approved "schemes of further education".

Let me offer a modest draft for a new section 41. It is as follows: "It shall be the duty of every local education authority to secure the provision for their area of adequate facilities for further, adult and continuing education, that is to say full-time and part-time education for all persons over compulsory school age who are able and willing to profit thereby, such facilities to include general, basic, cultural, physical, social, civic and vocational education."

I am not a parliamentary draftsman, and I recognise that my suggestion would perhaps need to be drafted into suitable legal language, but I offer the Minister that wording as a start in redrafting the legal status of adult education. We must strengthen the legal basis of further education. It must clearly include adult and continuing education within any definition of further education and define the duties of local education authorities accordingly. Those education authorities provide and have a clear duty to provide.

We must also recognise the innovatory and facilitating role of the MSC and should welcome the new training initiative's inclusion of adults within its training proposals. That initiative calls for links between education and training and for the education services to play an important part. The lines between education and training cannot and, perhaps, should not be drawn, but while recognising the link between training and education for 16 to 19-year-olds, the MSC's draft plan for action on the new training initiatives sees employers, Channel 4 and the Open Tech as the main providers of training and retraining for adults.

Surely the education services—further, adult and higher—should have a crucial and expanding role to play in any effective strategy that will cater for the needs of employed and unemployed adults and contribute to the economic recovery of the nation.

As one who has had 17 years' experience of adult education at all levels, in all spheres of life, and in all kinds of courses—vocational, recreational, academic, and others—and as one who lives in a constituency that is deeply affected by changing technology—in Ealing there are more jobs in manufacturing than in any other London borough—I stress the need for this Government and future Governments to accept and strengthen the role of adult education in assisting people to cope with changing social patterns. Adult education is equipped to do that—indeed, no service could do it better.

1.15 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William Shelton)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) said, he is the chairman of the all-party committee on adult education, and I wish to express our gratitude for the work that he and his committee do. He has spoken in the House on a number of occasions about adult education, and he is knowledgeable and concerned about the subject, as his speech showed. We are grateful to him for raising the matter on the Adjournment, because the Government attach special importance to adult education, given the new forces in our society to which he referred. I shall return to that subject in a moment.

First, I want to say a few words about the Government's expenditure plans and some of the effects on adult education. The Government's original expenditure plans, expressed in Cmnd. 8175 last year, assumed that local authority expenditure during the next couple of years would be perhaps one-third lower than the planned expenditure in 1978–79 on adult education. It was reluctantly accepted by the Government that adult education should play a part in the general reduction in public expenditure. As a concomitant, it was reluctantly accepted that that could, in some cases, lead to higher fees and a rationalisation of some of the provision.

However, the situation has improved—as of a few days ago. Under the Government's revised expenditure plans for 1982–83, which were announced on 21 December, £52.3 million will be provided for adult education. That is considerable easing of the targets that were contained in Cmnd. 8175. In other words, the news is good for adult education: the Government have provided more money for next year than had been planned. I urge all local authorities to maintain a viable base for adult education in their communities, in view of the importance that those communities, the Government, and local authorities attach to the matter.

My hon. Friend asked for an assurance that adult education was not suffering. I wish that I could give such an assurance, but there has been a reduction in expenditure, and the consequences of that have been seen in one or two different ways. First, the average hourly fee has increased from about 25p in 1978–79 to 51p in 1981–82. Nevertheless, attendance has not dropped dramatically—far from it. In November 1977 about 1.7 million people attended and in 1980 the figure was 1.6 million. The drop in 1981 is estimated to be about 3 per cent. That shows, I think, that it continues to be extraordinarily good value for money. I am pleased that most local authorities are continuing to give substantial concessions to the elderly, the unemployed, and those who are following the basic studies of literacy and numeracy. That is important particularly in these days.

My hon. Friend spoke about the Inner London Education Authority and asked for an assurance that adult education was not suffering in its area. It is easy to give that assurance, but I must mention briefly the distressing scare campaign of which my hon. Friend, although representing an outer London constituency, is aware. It has been waged in a great many adult education institutes throughout the ILEA. It claims that Government measures will stop adult education in London. In some classrooms, there are scare pictures of tombstones with messages attacking the Bill of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, which has now been dropped. Leaflets, carrying this regrettable scare story, have been distributed London-wide. The campaign caused great distress to many people, including a number of old-age pensioners, who believed it. I have received many distressing letters to this effect.

I make two points in rebuttal of this regrettable campaign. The ILEA is a vastly wealthy authority. It spends about half as much again above that which the Government estimate it needs to spend to provide an average level of service. I shall not go into details about what many people feel to be extravagance, but I give as an instance the fact that 23 per cent. of ILEA expenditure in 1980–81 was on non-teaching staff. I compare that with three other cities with inner city problems chosen at random: Birmingham, which spent 16.1 per cent.; Leeds, which spent 15 per cent.; and Bradford, which spent 15.8 per cent. Any cuts or closures in adult education will be the decision of the ILEA, because it has given lower priority to adult education than to good housekeeping.

The Government hope very much that the ILEA will reduce its expenditure and give better value for money. Nevertheless, the ILEA is unique. It is spending so much that it has received no Government grant. That means that now there is no way in which the Government can control expenditure other than by banning supplementary rates. If we are to believe The Standard of 9 December, the ILEA has decided to defy the Government's pleadings for financial prudence, and London ratepayers will suffer in consequence.

My hon. Friend asked about the legal basis of adult education, and I am glad that he did, because it is rather a knotty problem. Adult education is part of "further education" as defined in section 41 of the 1944 Act. I accept that, in consequence of the phrasing of the Act, there is no firm statutory basis to support adult education. Therefore, I accept that there is no way in which the Government can intervene to prevent an authority from reducing its provision, assuming that the Government wish to intervene. With a statutory duty, there is always a difficulty about how much education of whatever sort will meet the duty. If the Government start to define in legislation how much is necessary to meet a duty, they find themselves in very deep waters.

As a consequence of these difficulties, a group was formed drawn from the Department of Education and Science and local authorities to review the legal basis of further education, and its report was published in the summer. Responses to it were asked for by the end of October. Officials in the Department are now considering those responses, and a decision will have to be made in due course.

There are two main areas of concern. The first is whether a duty should lie on local education authorities to provide adult education, or merely a power to do so. There was some discussion and initially some disagreement, but in the responses that we have received there seems to be general agreement that it should be a duty.

Mr. Greenway

Hear, hear.

Mr. Shelton

The second area of concern is the absence of a definition of adult and continuing education. The report decided that it was too imprecise, and the responses confirmed that. This, too, is being considered.

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot anticipate when or even whether these issues will be brought to the House until they have been considered by Ministers, but I accept that they are important. I assure him that I shall look carefullly at his suggested drafting and that it will be considered by the Department. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point and for the time and thought that he must have given to it.

It is in no way denigratory to say that adult education has tended to be seen as a way of passing the time for retired people, a way of enriching life and of helping people with their hobbies. May adult education continue so to be seen and used. It gives great comfort to many people, but it must do much more. My hon. Friend mentioned unemployment and technological changes, and he was right to do so. More and more people will find that they need to adopt a second career during their working lives. In the United States the adult worker already has about 2.1 or 2.2 careers in his working life, whereas in this country a person still does not have much more than one career in his working life.

As technology and the environment change, I am afraid that workers—perhaps it will be an opportunity for them—will have to find new careers. I hope that adult education will help in that respect. There is, therefore, a great need for adult education and it is more important than ever.

There is no doubt that adult education is responding to the challenge. I welcome the encouraging response by many local authorities to the stimulus given by the Government through the adult literacy and basic skills unit. It is clear that the initiative is having an effect. That is the way forward and the way in which adult education must play its part in the changes in this decade. Millions of people are being helped each year by adult education to meet the challenges that they face in their daily lives. It has a responsible role to play and I am glad to say that adult education is taking on that responsibility.

I do not wish to end my speech without returning to the all-party committee chaired by my hon. Friend. The Department is well aware of what is happening in adult education and of the difficulties being encountered as a result of the reduction in funding. We are grateful for the way in which most local authorities have overcome those difficulties. It is a matter of some gratification that the numbers taking up adult education have not declined, as some people predicted might happen with the increase in fees. We wish that we could fund adult education as generously as we would like to but my hon. Friend and the House will know that every aspect of public expenditure is under considerable pressure, and my hon. Friend will accept that adult education is not immune from those pressures.

I am glad that we have had this short debate. I hope that my hon. Friend's remarks and any reassurance that I have given will be circulated. I hope, too, that I have reassured those who wrote to me, to my hon. Friend and to the Department about the future of adult education in ILEA.