HC Deb 10 February 1981 vol 998 cc730-4
6. Dr. Mawhinney

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the education of 16 to 19-year-olds in the light of the publication of his Department's report on this subject.

7. Mr. Dormand

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what discussions he proposes to have on the document "Education for 16 to 19-year-olds".

8. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what plans he has for reducing the role of the sixth form and transferring A-level courses to colleges of further education and other relevant establishments; and if he will make a statement.

18. Mr. Thornton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he expects the recommendations recently published of the committee chaired by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) to lead to the phasing out of school sixth forms.

Mr. Mark Carlisle

I welcome this joint review, and am grateful to the elected members and officers of local education authorities who took part in it. I believe their work will greatly assist authorities as they consider the pattern of provision that is most suitable in the light of their particular circumstances. The group itself recognises that in some areas sixth forms will continue to be appropriate, although in others it may be right to develop sixth form and tertiary colleges. We will be discussing aspects of the review in the course of our normal consultations with the bodies concerned.

Dr. Mawhinney

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Can he assure the House that it is not the policy of his Department to encourage the disruption of perfectly good secondary schools by the removal of their sixth forms in order that sixth form colleges may be set up, perhaps only for the reason that they are administratively convenient?

Mr. Carlisle

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is not the Department's policy. The report itself made clear that it believed that there was a continuing role for sixth forms in certain schools.

Mr. Dormand

Will the Secretary of State make absolutely clear in all his discussions that the Government are prepared to contribute their share of resources to such fundamental changes? In particular, will he bear in mind the need to make adequate grants to 16-year-olds to stay on in full-time education? Is he aware that in the Northern region fewer pupils stay on because of the inadequacy of family finances and that, among other things, that is a terrible waste of talent?

Mr. Carlisle

The provision made by the Government is part of the general provision in this area. It must be looked at in contradistinction to the type of institution which it is right to have in a particular area. I cannot give any promise that we are considering educational maintenance allowances at the present time, because I do not believe that we are in a position to do so. I am, of course, aware that the participation rate in some areas of this country is still lower than we would wish.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, as a general principle, the adult atmosphere of a further education or technical college is a much healthier place for 16-plus education and that it would have the advantage of bringing people on academic courses together with people on non-academic courses? At the same time, it could save some of these colleges from the devasting attacks which the Government are making on the non-mandatory sector of education.

Mr. Carlisle

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's blanket assertion that the atmosphere is necessarily far better.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Visit some of them".] I have been in various ones. I was about to say that opinion differs in various parts of the country. For what it is worth, my own impression is that those in the sixth form and tertiary colleges like such places. My impression is also that those in sixth forms of schools like those sixth forms.

Mr. Thornton

Will my right hon. and learned Friend acknowledge the concern which has been expressed by many parents and teachers about the possibility of sixth forms being abandoned in certain areas? Will he urge upon local education authorities the need for consultation within their areas before undertaking any such changes?

Mr. Carlisle

Certainly. I believe that there should be the widest consultation. Where there are effective viable sixth forms, I hope that local authorities will continue them. In other areas of the country, where the numbers have dropped greatly, it may be that a sixth form or tertiary college is the correct answer. I believe that the solution will be different in different parts of the country. What the House cannot ignore is the fact that over the next few years there will be substantial reductions in the number of pupils in that age group, which means that local authorities ought to review their provision.

Mr. Foster

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is widespread disappointment with those sections of the report which deal with vocational educational and training? Does he also accept that because of the large reductions in the youth service and further education, education authorities are unable to make the contribution to the youth opportunities programme which they should? Does he further accept that there is widespread frustration at his own Department's puny efforts in its discussions on the content of the youth opportunities programme?

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman has gone off at a slight tangent. I accept that the document refers to vocational training, but it mainly looked at full-time education between the ages of 16 and 19. As to the youth service, I can only repeat what I said in answer to an earlier question. As far as relevant expenditure is concerned, we have assumed no reduction in the expenditure on the youth service next year as against the present year. I accept that in the end these matters are decided by local authorities and I realise that they are under pressure generally. I have never disputed that. However, at a time of high youth unemployment, the youth service is an important aspect of their work.

Mr. John Page

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, on the few occasions when I wake up in the night with a terrible start, it is because I feel that he might be paying attention to trendy educationists? Before he makes any change in any traditional system, will he think retwice about changing from a very conservative attitude?

Mr. Carlisle

I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend ever has need to think of me in the middle of the night. In general terms, I agree with him. I do not believe that one should merely go along with the most recent fad. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) apparently recommending that all education at 16-plus should now be undertaken in tertiary colleges. I do not believe that that is the right answer. I believe that we should retain some of the sixth forms.

Mr. Armstrong

Does the Secretary of State recognise that his answers are somewhat complacent in view of the great urgency involved in this issue? The education of 16 to 19-year-olds is perhaps the most important issue in education today. Crucial decisions are now being made by local authorities throughout the country. Will he recognise that the provision of resources is vital, because right across the board children are now leaving school as a result of the economic circumstances of their parents and are unable to continue their education? This is an urgent matter.

Mr. Carlisle

Of course I realise that this is a vitally important area of education. Indeed, it was for that reason that the committee, to whose report we have referred, specifically urged local authorities to review their provision in order to ensure that as full a range of opportunities as possible should be accessible to all in each locality. I hope that they will do that as a matter of urgency.

I am afraid that I can give no promise at present of further resource provision in that area, other than that which has been assumed in Government plans for the coming year. However, contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman said, I believe that there are signs that in many areas of the country the participation rate beyond 16 is actually going up.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

While regretting the discourtesy of the Department in failing to notify a Member of this House that his question was being linked to a much earlier one, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend what credibility he places upon assurances given by a local education authority that under reorganisation full sixth form facilities would be provided at a new secondary school, when in the event the local education authority in question is liable to back track on that assurance, which was given to parents who had little chance to complain about this change in policy?

Mr. Carlisle

I think that I know the case to which my hon. Friend has referred. In the first place it is a matter for the county council concerned and not for my Department. I am sorry if he feels in any way insulted or offended by my Department. I would have thought that it was reasonable to link questions up to No. 20 and to assume that hon. Members who had tabled those questions would be present.

Mr. Kinnock

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that I said that tertiary colleges were the only acceptable form of post-16 education, he is either myopic or he has been in hibernation with his hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page). Is he not concerned that Britain continues to have a much lower proportion of young people aged between 16 and 19 in systematic full-time or part-time education than any other comparable economy or modem society? If he is exercised by that fact, does he not think it possible to have a significant extension of opportunities for these young people when he is cutting non-advanced education by £12 million more next year and advanced further education by £25 million more, thereby further reducing the opportunities which currently exist?

Mr. Carlisle

Of course I am aware that the figures for full-time and part-time education in Britian for those beyond the age of 16 are lower than for any other European country. I am in contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment about training opportunities for those beyond the age of 16. On the question of those in full-time education, it is important that we get rationality into the system which will provide the widest possible opportunities.

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