HC Deb 16 February 1981 vol 999 cc23-68 3.38 pm
Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

I beg to move, That this House, having regard to the importance of adult education in providing opportunities for re-entry into the education system, urges local authorities to make appropriate provision in planning the allocation of resources. Anyone who is fortunate enough to top the private Members' ballot is well aware of his good fortune, and he is also aware of the muttered threats about what may befall him if his good fortune is repeated. I hope that I have selected a subject which my hon. Friends will agree has been under-exposed in parliamentary terms and which deserves greater attention, and that many hon. Members will feel able to contribute to this debate.

On a personal note, I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, who I believe will reply to the debate. He was my Member of Parliament, and I am sure that the lines on his face will disappear by the hour now that I no longer live in his constituency.

In answer to a short debate on the subject in December, my hon. Friend's predecessor said that the facilities for adult education are part of civilised society. But many aspects of that civilisation are showing signs of strain, and in some cases they are near to collapse.

The numbers of students involved are impressive. Seventeen per cent, growth in 1978 brought the figures up to more than 2 million. Although there was a decline in 1979 and a further drop in 1980, that can be shown to be almost exclusively the result of a policy that has led to the most prodigious percentage increases in fees for many adult classes throughout the country.

The Institute of Adult Education published a survey in November 1980 which attracted answers from 98 out of 104 local education authorities. They showed conclusively that where there is a substantial increase in fees there is a corresponding major reduction in enrolments.

The question of fees is a matter for local education authorities, and quite rightly so. I do not suggest that the matter should be arranged in any other way. But many anomalies are involved. Indeed, the same survey highlighted the fact that no fewer than eight local education authorities were charging higher fees for O-level courses than for non-vocational courses, so there is an obvious area that should be examined by a number of local authorities.

I recognise that many education authorities make reductions for those in receipt of supplementary benefit, those who are unemployed, and those who are handicapped. But this, with respect, cannot change the position, which is growing, that a considerable number of people who seek adult education are now in danger of being priced out of achieving that aim.

Fees are not considered in isolation; they follow decisions taken on national expenditure. Here the figures are very illuminating and very depressing. At 1979 prices in England and Wales, we have gone from a position where £52 million was provided in 1975–76 to a position in which, in the current year, £39 million is planned, and there will be a further cut back of £5 million in the following year.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), put it the other way round: In 1980–81, the amount included in the rate support grant for adult education"— he recognised, of course, that that money is not necessarily spent on adult education— was cut by 25 per cent. Over the next three years, the cut will average out at about 33 per cent."—[Official Report, 19 December 1980; Vol. 996, c. 1103.] All this is taking place but a few years after the Russell committee reported in 1973. That committee was set up by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science. It was the first report since the 1919 Smith report on adult education. At that stage, only 1 per cent, of the total educational budget was being devoted to adult education, and it was suggested that in order to meet the demand that figure should be doubled.

A report that will be coming out in the near future from the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education will show that not only had that figure fallen to 0.6 per cent, of the total budget by 1975–76 but that for the current year it is likely to be down to 0.4 per cent. So much for the report of the Russell committee. Not only has the figure not been doubled; it has been more than halved. That is perhaps not so surprising when I am also advised that the Russell report highlighted several areas that had been mentioned in the 1919 report as still not having had action taken on them.

I turn from the general to the specific. In a survey on education in Leicestershire—a county with a very good record in education, including adult education—Dr. Hutchinson took the comparison of the expenses between 1974–75, and in particular part-time tutor salaries and fee targets, and compared them with 1979–80, having set off the percentage of such expenditure that was recovered through fees. He showed that whereas in 1974–75 the balance chargeable to rates in that year was £216,000, in 1979–80 it was £26,000. During that time pay rates for part-time teachers had approximately doubled, and the amount required in 1979–80 to maintain a provision equivalent to that in 1974–75 would have been £720,000. That is a measure of the fall—from £720,000 to £26,000. I stress that this is a good education authority.

Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

I was intending to mention Leicestershire in my speech. I am glad that my hon. Friend is raising this issue with the Government, because Leicestershire last winter cut its cash grants in half, as well as its funds for the adult literacy scheme. That came within only a week of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), stating that It is essential that local authorities do not cut so near the bone that we cannot get the situation going again once we put more flesh on."—[Official Report, 16 January 1980; Vol. 976, c. 1840.]

Mr. Squire

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for supporting what I am saying. The problem—I suspect that this will come up during the debate—is that whatever we say in this Chamber, and whatever Front Bench spokesmen say, the responsibility still lies with the local authorities. But I do not believe that it is fair to blame them totally, because ultimately they must have the ammunition, the money and the funding to meet the demands made on them.

Nobody in this House can be unaware of economic restraints, and it is only proper that we should see education paying its share. But in adult education we are dealing in figures which perhaps need even more underlining. Graham Mee, in his book "Organisation for Adult Education", spelt it out very succinctly. He said: Taking £100,000 out of the schools budget might mean delaying a building project or cutting back sharply on new textbooks and equipment—the overall result is a marginally less effective service. Take the same amount from adult education budget and you are likely to cripple or even destroy the service. We have had increasing evidence that in different parts of the country the spectre of that destruction is apparent. In Nottinghamshire—another county with by no means a poor record—it is estimated that at least 80 per cent, of the adult education services have recently been cut. These figures have not been dreamt up. This is the reality behind the cold statistics of adult education that I gave a moment ago.

This self-same crisis is also reflected in residential adult colleges. I know that this subject has been raised before by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who has taken such a strong and continuing interest in adult education. At the time of the Russell report there were about 33 colleges, which were described then as being insufficient for the needs of the population. Seven of them have been closed in the last 18 months, and I am advised that up to five more are threatened with closure. They are in a peculiarly difficult position in that they are serving a region while being financially accountable to a local authority. It is perhaps inevitable that, relative lack of political thrust which adult education still carries, it is among the first areas to suffer at moments of restraint.

Standards of teaching must also be regarded as being under threat. The adult education service relies heavily on part-time staff, even more so now, for since 1973 approximately 2,000—or 25 per cent, of the then full-time staff—have been lost from the service. It is harder to train part-time tutors because of the cutbacks and that must inevitably raise in our minds the fears of a further drop in quality.

It is difficult for part-time tutors to look more than one year ahead in regard to their employment, and any suggestion to full-time staff in adult education that they have a proper career structure would at the present time be greeted with more than an element of derision.

This has happened, first, as I said a moment ago, because there is an obvious lack of political muscle in adult education. It does not carry the same punch as primary, secondary, university and further education. Secondly, there is obviously no national system. There appear to be about 104 separate authorities which are in many ways operating along their own lines, with a rather restricted amount of co-operation and no central organising or co-ordinating body to handle them. I am sure that this in turn is reflected in the lack of push.

The public image of adult education is a very distorted one. Most people have heard of the Open University. They may not know that much of the preparatory work for the Open University is carried out at adult education centres. I do not intend to spend a lot of time now in discussing the Open University beyond reaffirming my belief in its value, because I recognise that it has somewhat stronger political clout than the other areas that I am discussing. [Interruption.] If we think that the Open University does not have political clout, we should think back on some recent publicity. I am concerned to emphasise the areas which have not been covered so strongly.

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for mentioning the Open University. Is he aware of this contradiction? If it depends on anything the Open University depends upon the ethic of self-help and self-reliance. One would have thought that the Government which he supports would support that. However, graduates and students of that university are now badly off because of the Government's recent insistence that the Open University should take into account an increase of fees this year from £64 to £98 per course.

Mr. Squire

I respect the hon. Member, who is one of the Open University graduates. He therefore speaks with a particular knowledge of the subject. I shall try not to follow him down that course, which introduces—albeit unwittingly—elements of a party political nature, which I am strongly endeavouring to avoid.

When we are considering the public image, the other problem is the feeling that adult education deals with cake decorating, bridge classes, basket weaving, and so on. Of course it goes much wider than that. That image overlooks the critically important message, which is the need to bring back into learning those who have lost the art of learning or who have never had that ability. Many people can be brought back only with such classes. We are doing ourselves and adult education a disservice when we try to make facile comparisons between vocational and non-vocational courses, when the prime purpose should be to educate as many people as possible to the limits of their abilities and to encourage them to reach out in whichever way they can. That is the justification for causes which might otherwise seem frivolous.

Only those who gain from mandatory education—primary and secondary education—can move smoothly into further education. If we do so little for adult education, we find that the people who suffer the first time round are being penalised twice over, as they are not helped back through the only way open to them.

The overall system is best summed up in an article by John Wilson, the principal of Gravesham adult education centre. He wrote in The Times Higher Education Supplement of 1978: The 'overall picture' shows quite clearly the disturbing direction of adult education today as dictated by elected authorities: that financial returns are increasingly the criterion of viability rather than that of educational need; that the service is increasingly being regarded as a luxury privilege for the better off and that the poorer sections of the population are dropping out except those who are let in freely or at reduced rate as a charitable gesture towards their illiteracy or other disadvantage; that there is little or no commitment by many local authorities or by the Department of Education and Science to the concept of continuing education for all, irrespective of their ability to pay. However, while that is taking place we see a changing world in which there is perhaps an even greater need for adult education than ever before, not just because we may face higher structural unemployment but as a result of the advantages and disadvantages of the microchip revolution and all that it entails. However one sets the scene, potentially more people will came back into the adult education system and seek assistance. It is only in further education that one can find not only much greater flexibility but, by any standards, relatively low cost. Some might argue that the cost is scandalously low.

I challenge any other form of education to be as flexible as adult education. There are many examples, of which I shall quote one. The London borough of Barking was approached when a number of Vietnamese refugees came to this country. One month after their arrival in Barking they were taking English classes. That is an impressive speed. Ironically the cost of the classes had to be met by cutting other classes. The Government could give no assistance. However, it was an example of the flexibility that adult education enjoys.

Last year it was said that the average cost to the State per student was £22. By any standards, that must be the education bargain of the century. In reality, is it not hopelessly disproportionate when it is set against the many hundreds of pounds which we properly accept should be incurred on behalf of a student in almost any other form of education? Adult education effectively enables a big growth in our national skills to be undertaken voluntarily, at minimal cost to the taxpayer.

There is a growing question in our society of meeting the education needs of women. I am aware that, whilst I may not be challenged on that statement in the Chamber today, I may receive letters in a week's time from those who peruse Hansard. They may say that I am suggesting that there is a inherent difference between men and women, and that that has to stop. There is a difference.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

Hear, hear. Vive la différence.

Mr. Squire

I was not referring merely to that difference.

The essential difference in education is that most men have access to training, either through their job or, if they are made redundant, through one of the arms of Government or local government, the MSC, and so on. Most women are still working part time, or they are at home as housewives and mothers. Those options are not open to them. If they seek training, retraining or further education, only adult education can meet their needs.

It has been estimated that by the late 1980s about 25 per cent, of the population will be retired. There may be a massive area of assembled skills waiting to be tapped. Adult education provides an opportunity for those people to be able to use those skills and spread that knowledge, if they so wish. There is a growing necessity for adult education to pick up the tab of educating those who have failed to be properly educated in primary and secondary education. It is depressing but true that the numbers of people requiring education who are wholly or partially illiterate is rising.

It is right that I should pay tribute to Government policy in this area in providing funds for local education authorities. I wish that I were not appearing to suggest that it was like a beacon on what was otherwise a fairly gloomy, grey picture.

There is a need for a form of threshold service to set out what adult education needs. That should begin with a statutory definition for adult and continuing education to replace the much-abused, outmoded phraseology of section 41 of the Education Act 1944. It might be modelled on aspects of the Youth and Community Bill. I was one of the sponsors of that ill-fated Bill. My hon. Friend for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) may remember the Government tabling a clause calling for a comprehensive range of facilities to be made available. That would seem an ideal way to adapt and present a similar Bill and a similar clause for adult education. That is what is needed.

An improved counselling service from the Department of Education and Science is needed. The Secretary of State, addressing the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education in July 1980, said: If a healthy stock of adult and continuing education is to be preserved, from which future developments can grow, authorities need help and advice on how best to deploy their resources. That is exactly the point, and I could not put it any better. Adult education currently receives a mere fraction of the advice and information that is passed out to the other sectors of education from the centre. Moreover, at least three different bodies are working in adult education—the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education and the others that I have mentioned—and no comprehensive picture is emerging. Each is doing good work. Each in its own right is doing what it can with its resources. There is a need to bring them together, and surely the Department of Education and Science is best placed to do that.

There is a need to reassess the impact of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, which, while covering adult education, could be excused for at present regarding it very much as a junior element of its overall responsibilities.

To say that there must be much greater use of community buildings is almost to use a catch-phrase, and perhaps in a sense I should apologise for saying it. However, over the next 10 years, with a big growth in the number of buildings that will not be needed for primary and secondary education, and which could previously be considered only in terms of shared use, premises will become available with potentially exclusive use for adult education. It would be wrong—even criminal—to let slip an opportunity here which may not recur for many years.

I have mentioned the need for training for both part-time and adequate full-time staff. We must pay attention to a fuller implementation of the ILO convention 140 on paid educational leave, which currently is restricted, by and large, to industrial relations courses. I am sure, as happens in other countries, such as France and Germany, that there is greater scope for us to implement this convention.

We need to end the isolation of adult education from the rest of the education service. It is no matter that the rest of education may have assisted adult education in the past. Perhaps adult education wished to have its isolation. However, there can be little doubt, as we see the effects in financial terms, that it is regarded as a soft option by politicians locally and nationally, and it pays the appropriate price. It must come back into the education system in toto.

It is not a question of suggesting that a fixed percentage of the budget should be set aside for adult education. In broad terms, the amount of money needed is the amount necessary to secure what I have just described. By these steps we shall emphasise that education is a life-long process—not one that ends at 16 or 18, or after university—and that we have responsibility so to arrange education in this country that those wishing to may slot in at any time in their lives, as easily in the autumn of their years as it was in the spring. In 1953 Sir Winston Churchill, addressing the TUC, said: There is perhaps no branch of our vast educational system which should more attract within its particular sphere the aid and encouragement of the State than adult education. I have no doubt myself that a man or woman earnestly seeking in grown up life to be guided to wide and suggestive knowledge in its largest and most uplifted sphere will make the best of all pupils. In conclusion, I wish to lean to a slightly more romantic quotation, which is from the final sentence of Andre Maurois's biography of Disraeli, when he was described as a symbol of what can be accomplished in a cold and hostile universe by a long youthfulness of heart". If we can combine that "long youthfulness of heart" with the thirst for knowledge that adult education can satisfy we shall bring the richest of legacies to all our people.

4.4 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) has done the House a double service, first, by introducing for debate the subject of adult education. Many educational subjects cry out for debate, and this is one of them. There are others, such as the creation of a national body for higher education, that should be brought before the House. The hon. Member is right to have presented adult education today.

The hon. Member's second service, in an excellent contribution, was to give a full account of the needs of adult education. I hope that he will accept it as a compliment when I say that he could have made his speech from the Liberal Bench with, I hope, greater approval than may be forthcoming from other parts of the House. His comments clearly commanded assent on both sides. I hope that those of his hon. Friends who are inclined to be more scornful of adult education will read his speech in Hansard tomorrow—since they have not been here this afternoon to hear it—and recognise its worth.

We on the Liberal Bench have a particular concern for adult education and for continuing education, because we see it as essential to a society in which people ought to be given the opportunity to make decisions, whether through the democratic processes in the community or, in their places of work, through wider democratic participation. The process of widening the scope of decision-taking clearly requires wider education. We have that concern also because we want to enhance the opportunities available to people, and that cannot be done without widening the education that is available to them.

We believe in adult and continuing education because it is manifest that people often discover how great is their need of education when they have had some experience of work. People who may well not have got the best from their school years can often get a great deal out of later educational opportunities. As someone who taught in university and in adult education, my experience was that the highest motivation was often to be found in those who had been at work and had recognised what they needed. They would put to shame many of those who came into higher education at the age of 18 simply because that was where the escalator led them and who had no great commitment to the educational course upon which they were embarked.

We also believe that adult and continuing education is vital because of the nature of change in society—particularly technological change, which calls constantly for new skills in work, for the updating of skills, for changes of job and, therefore, for complete changes of educational need, and which will create a great deal more leisure time and time in retirement.

One of the problems facing our society is how to distribute that time so that it does not result in one section of the community having no gainful employment and no feeling of serving the community while the other section seems to have the opportunity to work as hard as it likes, with as much overtime as possible. That is a problem that we have yet to solve. Clearly, the nature of technological change is likely to lead to more free time being available to people, and we want to see that time used in adult education. That clearly requires access for adults to the education system.

A number of points worry me about that access and the current limitations on it. Increases in adult education fees are clearly having a severe impact. I am not one of those who argue that all adult education courses must have rock-bottom fees, and I recognise that it is appropriate that students should make a reasonable contribution to many kinds of courses. However, in the past year or so, with local authority cuts, many authorities, while increasing fees heavily, have ceased to provide remission of fees for those on low incomes or for the handicapped. Clearly the rise in Open University fees, much higher than the current rate of inflation, will place a barrier at the gates of the Open University to many people who would otherwise have benefited from it.

Mr. Graham

Will the hon. Gentleman take on board that at the last meeting of the council of the Open University it was reported that 2,000 students who were expected to have enrolled and who would have taken courses in 1981 had decided, because of the increase in fees, not to take them? That is the situation this year, and it will get worse.

Mr. Beith

That is confirmation of the fears of many of us about the barrier erected by the new fees.

On the question that goes wider than money, I am worried about the rigidity of a system that makes it relatively easy for people of 18 to get higher education, while making it extremely difficult to get it later in life. There have been many occasions when I should have liked to say to an 18-year-old "Do not worry. You do not need to go to university if you do not feel ready for it. Get a job, and later you can take the opportunity, through adult education and greater access to university, to get what you then find you need." I would not, however, say that to an 18-year-old person. It would be dishonest to do so, because his chance of getting what he wants at 18 is so much greater than it would be later in life. The possibility of his re-entering the education system is reduced later in life, when the financial barriers are so much greater. That is clearly something that we have to change.

Adult education has a notable history in Britain, and many pioneers are associated with it. That has brought about a wide disparity of bodies providing it. Those involved include local authority provision in colleges and local schools and community centres, university extramural departments, and the regular departments of universities which provide part-time courses for adults. There are institutions, such as Birkbeck college, through which many have obtained degrees after part-time study over many years, the Open University, the WEA and many other voluntary agencies, which receive public support. Adult education is provided through the Armed Services, industrial training, special Government programmes, such as those of the Manpower Services Commission and the adult literacy programme, the broadcasting authorities, and private institutions such as correspondence colleges and language schools, which play a larger part than is often recognised.

Because the range of bodies is so wide there is a diverse interlocking of factors, such as grants and finance, which affect students. There are grants to institutions and voluntary bodies. There are grants to students, assistance such as paid leave, day release, fees and the remission of fees, recoupment between one local authority and another, and rate support grant. All these different financial provisions interlock. There is a danger that at a time of general cuts the whole edifice could crumble away. It is a fairly delicately balanced system, in which the items that I have mentioned, such as remission of fees and recoupment between authorities through the rate support grant and grants made to voluntary bodies, are related one to another. If one starts removing or reducing substantially one or another of those items, the whole house of cards can come down.

Inevitably, in present circumstances we must lay particular emphasis on the role of the central Government and local authorities and their financial responsibilities. But perhaps we should consider the position of local authorities. The impact of cuts is clearly heavy in the schools. The report of the findings of the inspectors of education, published last week, before the latest round of cuts, is severely critical of what is happening in schools because of the cuts.

The reaction of local authorities will necessarily be to concentrate efforts further in schools, for three reasons. First, their statutory obligations towards the schools are more precisely set out, are more familiar, and are more often repeated than the limited statutory obligations that they have towards adult education in the 1944 Education Act, which cannot be ignored—as I hope those few local authorities that attempted to wipe out adult education altogether have now found. There is no doubt that the nature to the obligations in the schools is such that in present circumstances local authorities will concentrate on them.

Secondly, there is greater public pressure towards maintaining standards in the schools than in higher education. Parental pressure, rightly, is concentrated on achieving higher standards in schools.

Thirdly, it is clearly easier to make rapid cuts in adult education than it is in the school system. In many cases courses are organised on a year-to-year basis, the tutors are often part-time, as has been pointed out, and a local authority trying to cut its budget finds it all too easy to drop a whole range of adult courses rather than to make further cuts in the programme, which it is anxious not to do.

Mr. Mellor

I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), but I wonder why he accepts so readily the argument that standards in schools depend and rise according to the amount of money spent. He has quoted one inspectorate report. I shall quote another on the ILEA which, if anything, proves the contrary.

Mr. Beith

I do not think that I shall enter into the argument about what has happened within the ILEA, except to say that although it is possible to waste money it is also possible to face, as the Inner London Education Authority does, very severe problems in some of its inner city areas. There is no doubt from both the report of the inspectors of education and the comments of the chief inspector of education, when she appeared before a Select Committee, that the impact of present cuts on authorities that have no record of being profligate or of over-spending is to reduce educational standards. The Government can no longer deny that that is the effect. I am not seeking to enter a debate upon that, except to say that it can be demonstrated quite objectively that in response to that situation most local authorities will concentrate their efforts on holding together their commitment to the schools and that adult education will therefore tend to suffer.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has referred to the inspectorate's report published on Friday, no doubt he will go on to say that it was not only critical of the standards in schools—with the possible effects that he has mentioned—but that it said specifically that adult education remained the area most seriously affected by expenditure cuts. The criticism is there already.

Mr. Beith

I intended to mention that reference, although I, like many hon. Members, have seen only the newspaper reports and extracts of some of these comments. They are clearly comments of inspectors deeply worried about what will happen. The comment that is quoted in the press is that positive changes of policy will be required if the tendencies that they see are not to become very serious. They call for positive commitments. Adult education is obviously one of the areas in which those positive commitments must be made.

The Government have rested much of their case for education cuts on two grounds. The first is falling rolls. I remain of the view that falling rolls, in so far as they enable some savings in expenditure, present an opportunity, which we must not miss, for education standards to be improved. That opportunity will not be presented again. Education Ministers must resist the desire of other Departments to prosper at the expense of falling rolls in education. So much needs doing in education, which they should know.

The second part of the Government's case for education cuts concerns the economic needs of the nation. The adult education case cries out for investment on behalf of the economic needs of the nation. The country cannot prosper unless we develop an adaptability to changes of work and skills, and an ability to come to terms with change. None of those can be secured unless we have an adult education system that is readily accessible to people and from which they can gain. At the moment, we do not have that, although we have much of the basis. It requires a commitment on the part of the Government if we are to have it.

4.8 pm

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

So far I am in general agreement with both the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). I was interested in a phrase that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed used, namely, that education gives widening decisions. I entirely agree with that. Choice must depend upon knowledge. I raise an extraneous point because it is for that reason that I have always supported the publication of examination results, because unless parents know as much as possible about a school there must be a limitation upon the choice that they can make. There must otherwise be a lottery. I agree with some other remarks that the hon. Member made, to which I shall return.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch on having raised this subject. I was taken aback by some of the figures that he quoted. I noted that at the time of the Russell report about 1 per cent, of the total education budget was spent on adult education. In 1975–76 it was about 0.6 per cent, and now it is probably less, about 0.4 per cent. Over the last 30 years the percentage of the gross national product spent on education in total has doubled, and the amount spent in real terms has probably doubled. The drop in percentage figures in real terms is therefore probably not as dramatic as these percentages might indicate. Nevertheless, it is dramatic.

I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and the Government are under cost pressure. We know from the recent report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate that education is under cost pressure. But, as in all these matters in politics—indeed, in businesses and in life—it is a matter of striking the right balance. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch is asking for the needle to go not from 0 to 10, but, more probably, from 4 to 5 or from 5 to 6 or whatever it might be. I think that the balance should be looked at. I know about the problems of buying enough books for schools. I think that if we had to choose between books and adult education, we should should choose books. However, there are other ways of slightly moving the needle.

I appreciated the suggestion put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch that there should be a statutory definition of adult education. It never occurred to me before that there was not one. But, reflecting on it, there is no statutory definition. This leads to a degree of ambiguity among people when discussing adult education.

I think that adult education can be separated into three categories: first, leisure; secondly, literacy and numeracy; and, thirdly, what might be described as work-orientated adult education.

On the leisure side I must declare a certain family interest. My wife attends a sewing class. I asked how much the course cost her. It is costing her much less than I suspect it costs the country. I would find it difficult, in this time of world recession, to complain bitterly that the country is not subsidising my wife's sewing class to a greater extent. I know that the wives of other hon. Members are similarly being subsidised. After reading the most recent HMI report on education I would find it difficult to make an impassioned plea that the leisure side of adult education should be further subsidised by the taxpayer.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

If people are already paying via rates and taxes and we put up the direct price, we cut out the poorer sections of the community who make use of adult education and they end up subsidising the richer people who continue to attend these classes. Is not that the problem?

Mr. Shelton

Yes, I accept that point. However, most councils make special help available for old-age pensioners and the less well-off members of the community. That is only right. To some extent, that meets the hon. Gentleman's point. In London old-age pensioners pay a lower fee than others for adult education classes.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his wife's sewing class is providing a useful leisure activity also for old-age pensioners and other groups? As class numbers fall, classes will be abandoned. Therefore, everyone's opportunity to attend sewing classes will be removed.

Mr. Shelton

Yes. I am not sure how productive my wife is. I think that she has made a skirt in the last year. However, she enjoys attending the class, where she meets and makes friends. I do not wish to poke fun at or to cast aspersions on the leisure aspects of adult education. I know that they give a great deal of happiness to many people.

This is a matter of balance. I do not suggest that fees should be increased. However, I should find it difficult to make a strong case for greater subsidies or lower fees for that aspect which I have arbitrarily called the leisure side of adult education.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

My hon. Friend implied that his wife's productivity was very low. Of course, he is the judge of that. However, does he agree that for some people the production of a skirt in two years would be a superb achievement? Does he agree that such people gain enormously from adult education?

Mr. Shelton

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I referred to my wife. I hope that she does not read at least this issue of Hansard.

Mr. Greenway

I do not want to get my hon. Friend into trouble.

Mr. Shelton

I have no wish to denigrate what many people are doing on the leisure side. Because of the economic pressures which are resting so heavily upon our education service—I have read only newspaper comments on the HMI report—I make a distinction in my mind between what I have arbitrarily called leisure activities and literacy and numeracy and the more work-orientated side of adult education.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

The hon. Gentleman's argument, taken by itself, is valid, but does he not consider that his wife's sewing class or someone else's macrame or embroidery class is part of the whole programme? Within the location, whether it be a skillcentre or an adult education centre, there is an element of cross-subsidisation. If we remove those elements of the programme which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting may be of the least value, the whole infrastructure of adult education may be in danger of crumbling. Is that not the argument?

Mr. Shelton

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I confess that I do not know the answer. I do not know to what extent the different courses or classes stand or fall by themselves in terms of cost and income or to what extent there is cross-subsidisation. Perhaps the Minister will mention this aspect when he replies to the debate. I accept that there must be some cross-subsidisation, but it does not move me from my principal argument that there is a distinction between these three types of enterprise in adult education.

Literacy is a subject about which I feel most passionately. I am sure that all hon. Members who have had the opportunity of talking to someone who is illiterate and innumerate will agree with me on this matter. Some time ago I visited some adult education classes. I chatted to a man who was studying reading and writing because he was illiterate and innumerate. I asked him "Why are you doing this? Why do you wish to learn to read and write?" I suppose he was in his thirties. He replied "I want to get a job with my cousin who has a cafe. I want to work in the cafe. My cousin told me that if I could read and write, I could work in the cafe." I said "If he owns the caf., why cannot he employ you, even though you cannot read and write?" He looked at me and said "I cannot read the menu and I cannot add up the bill".

It came home to me then that a person who is illiterate and innumerate suffers from the kind of handicap from which one might suffer if one were blind, deaf or dumb. He lives in a different world from the world of those of us who have all our senses. Literacy and numeracy are almost a fifth—or perhaps sixth—sense. It is a crime to allow any child who has the mental ability to read or write to leave school illiterate or innumerate. I feel very strongly about this. Therefore, I abhor any reduction in money spent on teaching people to read and write who wish and have the capability to learn to do so.

It is more than what we usually mean by deprivation; it is almost a deprivation of one of the senses. A distinction must be made between funds that are allocated for what I call leisure activities and what I call the literacy and numeracy activities of adult education. I am sure that there is general agreement in that regard. If there were a statutory definition of adult education, it might become clear that there should be levels of priority. Perhaps this is what I am asking for.

The third area is what I shall call work-orientated leisure, and here I agree with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. It has become apparent during the last 100 or 200 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that those who say that new technology destroys jobs are profoundly wrong, in the large sense. Yet that is what people say. The ostlers who were put out of business in the last century by the invention and development of the steam engine were in a very small minority compared with those who found jobs in building the new railroads, building the new steam engines, digging the coal for them and running the system. Technology creates far more jobs than it destroys.

New technology will not necessarily create more leisure. There may be more choice of leisure if, during the remainder of this decade and the first part of the next, the standard of living rises to such an extent—I hope that it does—that people can choose voluntarily to forgo a certain increased standard of living because they have sufficient already and spend more on leisure. In that case, of course, there will be more leisure. However, I do not believe that people will be forced to do that because of lack of job opportunities. One has only to look at the unfulfilled demand that already exists in the world. At Question Time, aid to India was mentioned, and nearer home is the unfulfilled demand in this country. It is highly improbable that in the next 100 years we shall have fulfilled all demand without technology and that people will be obliged to accept more leisure than they require. If that does happen, it will be because of bad organisation, or a fault in the system.

I see an increasing galaxy of jobs springing from the new technology. It started only in the last decade. Look how far it has taken us already. By the end of the century and the first quarter of the next century there will be jobs as undreamt of today as the job of a television technician was 50 years ago. I am profoundly optimistic about the future of jobs in this country springing from the new technology.

I recently read a report about what is happening in the United States. It said that the average working man there has three different trades in his lifetime. I do not know what the situation is here, but I should be very surprised if the average Englishman had more than 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4 different trades in his lifetime. In the States it is already three, and we shall have to move in that direction. This is the burden of what I am saying.

On the eastern seaboard of the United States—a traditionally declining area of American manufacturing industry, although States such as Maine and New Hampshire are attracting as much new technology as they can—between 20 per cent, and 30 per cent, of the companies go out of business either through inefficiency or because their products have been made redundant in the lifetimes of their working force. More jobs are recreated in different spheres of activity by the products that made the earlier products redundant.

If we are moving in that direction—and whether we like it or not we must do so, because we are a country of high labour costs—it is inevitable that over the next 20, 30 or 40 years we shall lose a great many manual jobs. People who have no skills will, unhappily, find themselves with involuntary leisure thrust upon them. However, the gate will be open to the people with skills.

That brings me back to work-orientated types of adult education. I am not talking about skill training. Here I must congratulate the Government on the funds and organisations that they have put into retraining facilities. If there is one word that will open the door to the new technological future, it must be retraining. People will lose their jobs two or three times in a working lifetime in this country, as in the United States, and they will need and want to be retrained for the new jobs that develop. Any Government who do not take action in this regard will fail in their duty towards their citizens who, through no fault of their own, will find themselves in redundant manual jobs or working in companies whose products have been made obsolete by the new products that are coming along. Retraining is, therefore, vital. More is being done now than previously, but still more needs to be done.

I do not suggest that adult education should be a form of retraining for the technological age, but a lack of education is a barrier to retraining in skills, at least to some extent. I am sure that it is more difficult for a person who lacks education to be offered and to accept retraining than it is for someone who has reached a reasonable and acceptable standard of education. Many of our citizens are tethered in areas of high unemployment by the fact that they live in council houses and are therefore sacrificial victims of the council house regulations. People who have not achieved a certain level of education, sometimes through no fault of their own, are equally hindered in moving towards training in new jobs and new skills. As much as anything else, it is almost an attitude of mind. It is a matter of wider choice and knowledge.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Can British private enterprise be trusted to engage in the volume of new training that will be necessary according to the vision that the hon. Gentleman has sketched?

Mr. Shelton

I wish that I could answer that question with confidence. I honestly do not know. I am not sure to what extent what we are talking about, and what I have been saying—which is common and accepted knowledge to hon. Members present—is generally recognised. If one is running a business, and especially if one is experiencing hard times and it is not a very big business, it is very difficult to lift one's eyes and look to the future. One finds it much easier to get on with raising enough money for the payroll at the end of the month. I hope that British business will rise to the challenge, and I hope, too, that any British Government will encourage it, because this matter is so important.

Therefore, on the three areas of adult education on which I have touched—leisure, literacy and work training—I draw a distinction between them. Of immediate and profound concern is training for literacy and numeracy. Also of profound importance for the future of this country is the need to look to adult education, which will enable people to grasp the opportunities for retraining when they are presented to them.

4.41 pm
Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on bringing this extremely important matter before the House. As he said, until the late 1970s there was continual growth in adult education. That growth in supply was in response to a growing demand for it. As I see it, that was perhaps a reflection of the increasing complexity of our lives.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if some of my later remarks seem slightly political. I accept that the problems did not start with the present Government. In the latter years of the Labour Government problems were already cropping up in adult education. Course fees were already increasing to what I would regard as unacceptable levels. Numbers on some courses were already falling. One or two courses had been eliminated because of falling numbers.

However, whatever problems existed then have been dwarfed by the vicious attacks of the present Government on the whole education sector. There is little doubt that when the whole of education is being besieged, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) put it so eloquently, it is always held that the mandatory sector must come first, and the non-mandatory sector tends to suffer.

The present attack on adult education is particularly unfortunate, because, for various reasons, there is a need for a vast increase in this area. There is increasing complexity in both work and leisure. In spite of what the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) said about technology, there is no doubt that in the foreseeable future—all hon. Members must agree about this if they are honest—the average number of hours of work per individual will fall. Thus, there must be increased leisure. One of the great problems will be to make better use of that leisure. We have problems with early retirements and training for retirement, all these things call for adult education.

In addition to that, there is the need to retrain people several times during their lifetime. It has been said that adult education today is a life process and that that is becoming truer as the years pass. For all these reasons, it is particularly unfortunate that we face a devastating attack on the structure of adult education.

I should like to quote one or two figures. The Government's expenditure White Paper of March 1980 included a planned reduction of £15 million in expenditure on adult education. That is more than 30 per cent, of the total expenditure on it. In addition, we have had the rate support grant settlement and, again, further impacts on the educational sector. Even on the question of school transport there is talk of clawing back some of the money in some way. All these things must have their impact on the non-mandatory sector.

Mr. Mellor

I am sad that the hon. Gentleman is bringing party politics into this matter. Did he vote against his Government when, between 1976–77 and 1977–78, they cut education spending by £351 million in one year? That cut was larger than anything that the present Government have done in one year, and it had a considerable effect on adult education, as on everything else. If he did not vote so, should he not confine himself to making the point that some of us are making—namely, that too much is being done in adult education—without being just a little hypocritical about the Government?

Mr. Roberts

I do not think that it is a matter of hypocrisy at all. I was critical of my Government during that period. On many occasions, although I am not sure about this issue, I voted against my Government on various issues.

We must be realistic about this matter. At present, for doctrinaire reasons, we have from the present Government a global attack on public expenditure and a devastating attack on adult education in particular. The situation is such that a number of education authorities are cutting out adult education completely or are pruning it down to a very small rump. There are communities, particularly rural ones, that have been deprived of any possibility of adult education. About 85 per cent, of adult education is still in the hands of LEAs, and these are subject to the impact of the Government's expenditure policies.

As many hon. Members know, this attack is leading to considerable difficulties for those employed in adult education. Large numbers of part-time staff, and quite a number of full-time staff too, have already been made redundant. I am told that Leicestershire has declared redundant all its adult education staff and that a number of other local authorities, predominantly Tory-controlled have wiped out their adult education provision.

It will be difficult for adult education to recover from the damage that the Government's policies are doing to its whole structure. Some of the fundamentals of adult education are in danger of being destroyed. There is need for a change of heart by the Government. Ministers must fight for the education corner, and particularly the post-16 corner of education. They have to face the budget policies being imposed on them.

We need also to look beyond the present difficulties. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Hornchurch that the greatest need is to begin with some statutory definition of adult education. Section 41(b) of the 1944 Act is pretty airy-fairy and means very little. I suggest the type of definition that is supported by those who have expertise in this sphere. It is suggested that the Act should be amended in such a way that it would be the duty of every local education authority to secure out of public funds provision for its area of adequate facilities for further adult and continuing education, full-time and part-time, for people over compulsory school age, including provision of facilities for vocational, general, cultural, recreational, social and political education for all those who are willing and able to profit by such education, and to meet the needs of individuals and the community.

There is a need for a much wider statement of the role of adult education. Everything depends, in the end, on the will not only of the present Government, but of their successors. This means the will to ensure that adult education plays a vital role in the community. I ask the Minister to stand firm in the present difficulties and to examine the need to define adult education in the manner that I have proposed. There must be the will by the Government and their successors to ensure that adult education has a worthwhile share of national expenditure. There has been reference to the use of buildings and resources. All these matters come into the reckoning. The great need is the will of the Government and of local education authorities to provide what is necessary.

4.53 pm
Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) emphasised the fact that the problems we are debating did not begin in May 1979. I take the point further. The dilemma in which we find ourselves—it is not confined to adult education—lies in the fact that a succession of Governments since 1944 have failed to understand, or begun to think, what is the strategy of the educational system as a whole.

Although welcoming, in many respects, the debate proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), I must say that in some respects I regret it. One of the deep-seated problems in education is that competition for priorities has reached the point where people become obsessed by one area or another. I am my party's liaison officer for higher and further education. I endeavoured to make clear, in a recent speech at Coventry to the National Union of Students, that I look at further and higher education in the context of the system as a whole and not as a specialised and privileged part of the system.

I welcome the debate in another sense. I hope that hon. Members will try to take the subject wider than merely that of adult education. We have 3 million adult illiterates in this country, which is a fairly sombre commentary on the system as a whole. I recognise that not all of them have been through the British education system. It is, neverthless, an alarming and disturbing statistic. The figure for innumerates is, of course, unknown. From my experience, I suspect that it is very large.

We are faced in adult education with the remedial task of trying to rectify the inadequacies of certain schools and certain areas. One danger, of which all hon. Members are aware, is to make too wild generalisations about the education system as a whole. We know certain schools in our constituencies that are particularly good and those that are inadequate. In the country as a whole the problem becomes magnified.

We must accept the increasingly important remedial role for adult education. It is, however, only a short-term measure. It is not the solution to the real problem. The real problem lies in the uneven quality of standards within the State education system. Concern about cuts in education, however inescapable and necessary, is not confined to one side of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch referred to retraining and the Government's important contribution towards that aim. Another aspect of adult education lies much more in the area of voluntary retraining. This would involve people who, recognising their own inadequacies or the future of their particular speciality and industry, would wish voluntarily to take up a new skill before a situation developed that could lead to their becoming redundant.

Voluntary retraining would also include increased specialisation for those who wished to become more specialised in the work in which they were already engaged. Those are exactly the people whom the Government and the State should be assisting as much as possible. I recognise that this proposal goes beyond existing retraining schemes. I believe, however, that it gives adult education particular significance at a time of recession and profound social problems.

A category which, slightly to my surprise, has not been mentioned is disabled people. It tends often to be thought that disabled people are disabled from birth until death. The vast majority of disabled people are disabled during their lifetime or during their working life either through illness or accident. It is in this area, during the International Year of Disabled People, that adult education becomes especially important both as remedial education and for retraining.

With certain glittering exceptions, higher education and further education appear relatively low in local education authorities' priorities. Far fewer people are involved. They are less politically popular. The money, it is often felt, could be used in other areas. Cambridge is a university city. It also possesses, however, a college of further education and the Cambridge technical college. I spend more time and effort on those two than on the university, which does not face problems of similar magnitude. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State knows these problems only too well.

It is absurd that there should be such a difference between the amount of grant given to a student at one institution compared with another, the degree of financial support, the overlapping that occurs increasingly between polytechnics and universities and the increasing confusion about the roles of the three separate parts of the further education system.

Like the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I am one of the few in this place who has served in higher education. After the sad death of John Mackintosh, I think that I am the only hon. Member entitled to call himself "professor", although I do not do so. I wish to emphasise strongly what the hon. Gentleman said about mature students. I have had responsibility for a number of them, but I shall not refer to individuals. If we regard mature students as a whole, their motivation is intense and the number who fail to complete a course is virtually nil. The standard that they reach is very high. For teachers, they make a refreshing contrast to certain other categories of student who take the whole thing for granted and regard it as a sort of birthright. We should encourage the mature student as much as is humanly possible.

I agree with what has been said about the Open University. I was honoured to be its guest at the recent degree ceremony. I support the Government's initiative for the Open tech.

In the debate there has been no reference to Northern Ireland. If any area in Britain is in profound need of further adult education and mature education and retraining, it is Northern Ireland. It often surprises me that when the House debates subjects of this sort Northern Ireland Members do not attend and Northern Ireland is not mentioned. It seems as if Northern Ireland has only its problems and that we have only ours. Northern Ireland higher education is linked closely with higher education in the rest of the United Kingdom, and any differences are matters only of degree.

I am worried increasingly by the difference in opportunity available to individuals who happen to live in different counties when it comes to the award of discretionary grants. There are certain counties—I am sorry to say that Cambridgeshire is one of them—where it is becoming almost impossible to get a discretionary grant.

There is a serious anomaly about law degrees. One can obtain a grant for three years but not for the fourth year. That seems absurd. If we are investing public money in a course we are not investing in only three-quarters of it.

As the House knows, I am strongly opposed to any proposal to replace first-degree grants with loans. However, there is an area in which supplemental loans could be introduced for certain categories of adult education and subsequent courses. In my experience, the amount of money involved in many instances would not be very great. There would be no considerable problem about repayment, Such a scheme would remove part of the dilemma but the principal part would remain, namely, discretionary grants.

A subject that is close to my heart is the need to bring industry business and commerce much closer to higher education. In Cambridge I am doing all that I can to initiate serious discussions and links, which have been developing and which will develop further. It is an initiative that could be a model for a much wider involvement of industry and commerce in higher education.

At present industry regards the education system merely as a provider of finished products which it can take and look after. It should be much more concerned with and involved in the system instead of merely complaining when the results are not entirely to its satisfaction.

I warmly commend the motion.

5.4 pm

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I am glad to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). I, too, wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on introducing this topic and on his great understanding of the problems of adult education. My hon. Friends and, for all I know, many Conservative members, are interested in the topic because of the need to spread education opportunity very much further.

It seems that if there is to be a great leap forward in the spread of education opportunity, it is likely to come in the education of 16 to 19-year-olds. That is one reason why I have of late been pressing the Under-Secretary of State to take a much greater interest in the youth opportunities programme. It seems that his Department is seriously neglecting the great opportunities that are there for it to play a full part in developing curricula. If the great leap forward is not to be in the 16 to 19 group, it will be in adult and continuing education.

It has been said by many hon. Members that there are many who do not discover their abilities and the possibilities for themselves until later in life when they have begun to work or when they assume the responsibilities of a family. Sometimes at that stage a career suddenly begins to open up to them. The tragedy for so many is that when that occurs the doors to further adult and higher education are effectively closed. We must realise that the concept of higher education beginning, inevitably, at 18 is outdated. We should consider a much more varied pattern of entry into further and higher education. We should make it much easier to pass through the doors of adult and further education at whatever age is most convenient and useful to the individual.

It is important that people have the correct motivation to enable them to benefit greatly from their educational experience. There are many who would dearly love to spend just one year removed from their place of work—provided that they did not lose any income—so that they would be enabled to pursue their own interests or to further their careers. When they returned to their jobs they would be able to undertake them much more efficiently and to much greater benefit to themselves, their families and the community.

I have been delighted to hear many of the comments that have been made about adult education. However, it strikes me forcefully that we cannot mouth beautiful sentiments about adult education and at the same time vote for a severe reduction in the resources to be made available for it. It is impossible to leave party politics out of this issue just as it is impossible to do so when discussing other issues where resources are necessary.

Before I entered this place I had a measure of responsibility for administering adult education. I learnt only too painfully that perhaps nowhere in the country did an education authority devote more than 1 per cent. of its resources to adult education. In many instances it was considerably less. Primary and secondary education and further education had a much greater share of the resources, and much greater political clout.

When it comes to deciding upon an education budget, especially in an atmosphere of retrenchment, there is a good deal of hassle. That applies to local education authorities as well as to the Government. At such times the areas that are most vulnerable suffer the most. It is a fact that most adult education courses are staffed by part-time workers, and for that reason alone they are much more vulnerable. It is easier to make part-time staff redundant than it is to make full-time staff redundant.

Adult education takes place in community centres, school complexes on colleges of further education. I am in favour of a more intensive use of school buildings. It makes sense when community buildings are restricted. However, it is expensive to use school buildings more intensively. Does anybody think of the extra caretaking costs or the extra cleaning costs, the extra heating and lighting costs, or the extra staffing costs? About five or six years ago I discovered that in my area it was costing about £150,000 a year just to use our school buildings more intensively. Let us not imagine that school buildings can be used more extensively without substantial extra cost, which has to be borne by a local education authority. Let us not imagine that we can achieve an extended provision on the cheap.

I agree that we must consider our priorities in adult education. Who can deny that basic adult education—by which I mean adult literacy and numeracy—must be given the greatest priority? In the past few years I have been delighted to see the greater resources being devoted to literacy and numeracy. I am particularly pleased that volunteers have been used to good effect. I am not the type of Socialist who believes that there can be a spread of public services only by full-time staffing. There is a place for volunteers in the extension of such services. However, let it not be thought that volunteers can be used without cost.

Volunteers have to be properly supervised and trained and brought within a solid framework. Let it not be thought that it is possible to extend adult literacy and numeracy teaching much further entirely by the use of volunteers. They have a role, but a cost is involved in the use of properly trained staff to train and supervise volunteers.

The education of the disadvantaged, particularly of the disabled, must be given greater priority. Do we ever consider the extra cost of providing access to education buildings? When we surveyed the access to buildings for the disabled in my authority's area I was appalled at how much it would cost to enable equipment and premises to be used by the disabled in schools and colleges of further education. Let us not fool ourselves that we can make progress on the cheap.

I turn to the question of paid educational leave. This is the only way to expand adult education in the foreseeable future. There is a proliferation of agencies, even though local education authorities account for 85 per cent. of provision. We need a strong underlying structure, involving an advisory service and a means of access and entry for large numbers of people. Without those three improvements we cannot make the necessary leap forward in adult education.

When somebody considers embarking upon a course he encounters a proliferation of agencies and an even greater proliferation of courses. People who would not be seen dead in an education institution find the problems formidable. People in the priority groups must be encouraged to gain access to the system.

There is a need for an advisory service such as that provided by some forward-looking authorities, often in cooperation with the Open University, in some parts of the country. Until people are guided through the multitude of agencies and courses and given good sound advice about the best course for them, we shall not make much progress. Until there is easier entry, and until we can ensure that people are not prevented from taking a course that is just right for them because they do not have the requisite number of A-levels or other qualifications, we shall create hurdles that are insuperable for many people.

We should make it possible for people to go from agency to agency and from one module of a course to another, gathering credits, in a similar way to that used by the Open University, but within a wider framework. People feel that a qualification at the end of a course is well worth working for. It enables them to take the next step and to progress further in the course of instruction. Some such system of accreditation should be considered. It will be difficult, but it is necessary if we are to create a firm structure.

I turn to the question of the community college or school. This idea has fallen out of favour lately. There is a strong feeling that the comprehensive school, college of further education, or both, can provide an important educational resource for the whole community. It is possible to give people of all ages within that school or college the whole range of educational, leisure and recreational experience. That is particularly important for working-class communities when the cost of public transport is important.

In many areas the cost of public transport is becoming prohibitive. Leisure activities are often concentrated in town centres a long way from centres of population. It is possible to devise a system that is properly supervised. It is important to have proper supervision, otherwise costly equipment and premises will not be available. Without responsible supervision it is ludicrous to expect that the doors of schools will be thrown open and that the population will be invited in to take part in leisure or educational activities. With proper supervision and staffing, and by ensuring that caretaking, cleaning and so on are taken care of, we can use our valuable educational resources in schools and colleges much more intensively and productively for the benefit of the whole community—but I repeat the warning that it will cost money.

I am delighted to have been able to participate in the debate. I repeat that we need more resources. I hope that the Minister will take my lecture to heart. We cannot make progress without an initiative from his Department. I do not mean only that it should issue guidance fo local education authorities, which are working under great difficulties. Progress cannot be made without some extra resources.

5.20 pm
Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

The debate is bringing forth a chorus of praise for my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). Had it not been for his good fortune in being drawn first in the ballot and his good sense in choosing this subject, we should not have had the opportunity to debate adult education. I welcome the way in which my hon. Friend introduced the motion. Before coming to the House my hon. Friend was leader of the London borough of Sutton council and played his part in administering an education service. He speaks with authority on the topic, which involves the powers of Government and local authorities. The House is fortunate that in the recent intake there was someone as experienced in the ways of local government as he is.

Adult education is a Cinderella subject. That is surprising. With the numbers involved in adult education, one would think that it should have more political clout. My constituency lies within the Inner London Education Authority area. In 1979, in the area there were 347,500 children of school age—that is, from 5 years to 16 years—and 254,000 adults involved in adult education. The numbers are similar. There are not many hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate. For a debate on secondary education, two or three times as many would attend.

The lack of interest is one reason why adult education is being unnecessarily singled out for cuts. That fact emerges crisply from the debate. Coming from Wandsworth, I am well aware of the difficulties of local authorities in making ends meet. The Opposition could not resist the temptation to blame the situation on Government cuts. We are in the House to be realistic. Until our economy revives, we must work within the constraints of falling expenditure. Under the previous Government there was a dramatic fall in expenditure of £351 million between 1976–77 and 1977–78. Under this Government there has been a steady fall and it is projected to continue through to 1984. Underlying the remarks of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) appeared to be the assumption that the situation could be changed by a change of Government. That is nonsense. Any Government will be bound by the constraints.

The message of the debate is that if the will exists there is room even within a falling budget for better provision to be made for adult education. Where increasing aid is beneficial it can be found even from a declining budget. The Government have decided to increase the money available to the adult literacy unit by £200,000 in real terms. That is a sign of the Government's continuing interest in that crucial problem.

It is sad that the Russell report of 1973 is yet another report from a Royal Commission set up by Government that lies mouldering on the shelves for ever and a day. It recommended that 2 per cent. of local authority educational expenditure should be on adult education. I know of only one local authority where that is so. Most started the present round of savings on the assumption of spending only 1 per cent. on adult education.

People should pay realistic charges for the classes that they attend. Much as I admire the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham), I do not agree that after several years without any increase the increase in Open University fees is discreditable. It is perfectly reasonable. However, there is a limit. Some local authorities have gone far too far in increasing the charges that they seek to levy. I believe that Cambridgeshire has even required some of its courses to make a 25 per cent. profit. That is utterly wrong. The latest statistics indicate that 20 per cent. of local authorities—and the number is growing—are seeking to make the costs of all their adult education classes balance. On the face of it, that is attractive, but it fails to recognise that many of those who most need adult education are least able to pay for it.

I do not understand why balancing costs in that respect is so popular. To their shame, three local authorities suspended adult education in 1979–80, but they would not have dreamt of cutting public libraries. What is the difference between going to a public library to improve one's education and seeking to enrol in a course for the same purpose? A reasonable contribution to the price of the course should be made by those who participate in adult education, but the cost should not reflect the belief that the only basis on which the course can be run is if it is self-financing adult education courses should have an element of community financing, in the same way as libraries. I am sad that that obvious distinction has passed unrecognised by many otherwise sensible local authorities.

Another reason why adult education has been a popular area for local authority saving is that there appears to be no statutory obligation to provide it. The Education Act 1944, because of the length of time that it has lasted, is held in high esteem. However, the closer that a lawyer looks at what it says about adult education, the more confused he is when seeking to see what obligation it places on the local authority.

Section 1 of the Act provides that the Minister has a duty … to promote the education of the people of England and Wales … and to secure the effective execution by local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive educational service in every area That is further defined in other sections. Section 7 describes "three progressive stages" of primary, secondary and further education. It also imposes a general duty, this time on local education authorities, by providing that it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education throughout those stages shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area. The use of the words "the community" and the population of their area might lead one to suppose that the draftsmen of that Act had in mind education in the broadest sense. But that is not how it appears to have been understood. It is a source of sadness to me that there has been no definitive court case to determine precisely what the duties of a local authority are, particularly having regard to some of the actions that have been taken recently.

Mr. Whitehead

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great attention. I think that he is taking the interpretation of section 7 contained in the Russell report. As a lawyer, would he say that Humberside, for example, was in breach of the Act?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that I have used as my starting point paragraphs 156 to 158 of the Russell report. Having cast my eye over that—I shall not weary the House with the details—I had intended to go on to consider section 41 of the Act, and how far section 42(2) detracts from the provisions of section 41. I believe that it is an open question, but I cannot imagine that it was ever the intention that it should be left as open as it is. I believe that it is genuinely what the sports commentators would call a "fifty-fifty ball".

There was a good deal of sabre-rattling last year about this, and one would have liked to see some attempt to have the matter properly examined. I agree, however, with paragraph 158 of the Russell report which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, indicated that the committee was surprised, but nevertheless had to accept, that it might not be unlawful for local authorities to suspend their adult education altogether. The committee had in mind the occasion when this happened in 1968. I recommend that year to those who believe that there is a party aspect to this, because we all know who was in power in 1968. It came back to haunt us in 1979–80.

I believe that it would be useful, perhaps imperative, for the Government to look again at the provisions of the 1944 Act to see whether there should be a wider definition of education than is provided in that Act and an obligation upon local authorities to provide adult education.

I say that for the following reason. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science—my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson)—who is now present, has spoken with great eloquence on this subject in the House. He knows the high regard in which I hold him. Before taking on his present burdens of office, he spoke on many occasions of the crucial importance of people being able to come back into education. A large number of people either fail to recognise the importance of education at the time when it is made available to them, or feel the imperative need to broaden their education even if they took up what was on offer at the time when they were within the education system.

In the latter category, I think particularly of language studies. As recently as 15 years ago, when I was still at school, the British grammar school did not bother too much about languages: foreigners always spoke English, so why should we worry? One of the great advantages of the increase in Continental travel has been that people have suddenly become aware of the need to speak at least one other language. In my view, one of the great triumphs of adult education is that it has met that need, not necessarily by academic teaching of languages, but by teaching based upon the need to be comprehended when one goes abroad.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has spoken on this subject in at least two Adjournment debates. In one of them, he said something with which I think we should all agree: It is essential that local authorities do not cut so near the bone that we cannot get the situation going again once we put more flesh on."—[Official Report, 16 January 1980; Vol. 976, c. 1840.] The tragedy is that within a few days of his saying that Leicestershire halved its cash grants as well as its funds for the adult literacy scheme, and other local authorities followed suit, taking decisions which I believe went far further than the situation warranted. In my view, even with the shrinking budget, there is no need for such dramatic savings to be made in adult education.

In view of the clear indication given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—which I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane), the other Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, will also give—that the Government also believe that it is not necessary for savings to be made on such a scale, one must ask the Government whether it is time to look again at the amount of control that the Government exercise over what local authorities do in adult education.

One appreciates, of course, that local authorities must be left with some power to decide certain things locally. One also appreciates that they are answerable to their electors in the same way as we are. But is there not a terrible gap in our educational law as a result of the identifiable gap in the 1944 Act; and is not that the real reason why adult education is always the first thing that a local authority wishing to save money easily will cut? If this debate serves no other purpose, the fact that that has been brought home in my view justifies the very wise decision that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch has made.

5.37 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

A month or two ago a group of London Labour Members discussed the possibility of raising in the House the question of adult education. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) has beaten us to the draw, and I congratulate him. He has tabled the motion in terms that I find attractive, although I hope that he will not consider it nitpicking if I say that I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Aukland (Mr. Foster) that we need a structure that must come from the Government and not just from the local authorities. Nevertheless, this debate is necessary and long overdue, and I am glad to participate in it.

It has been said several times today that education is a lifelong process. That has become something of a cliché but it is an important one, which we need to consider in more detail. One of the reasons why it is a cliche' is that, having said it, we go on to think about education as taking place between the ages of 5 and 16 or, alternatively, between the age of 5 and the early twenties, when a person goes to university. We must get away from that and think far more about the periods on either side. The under-fives constitute another area of concern, which should be debated on another occasion. On this occasion we are thinking of those who left school before university or who have failed the system in one way or another.

Having said that, I should perhaps declare an interest. I am a product of adult education. I hope that that will not put the Government off making a generous response today. I suspect that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House—certainly I know of a number of Opposition Members—left school early and wandered through a wide variety of experiences wondering what those places called universities really were, and what happened when one went to them. I left school at the age of 15, from the lowest form possible in a secondary modern school.

This is important, because it gives an indication of how people feel on this subject and how they struggle later on. I continued going to night school simply because I had been told that education was a good thing. Until the age of 21 or 22, I failed every examination bar one. After that, I passed every examination bar one or two. My education included an honours degree and a diploma at another university. That may say something about our examination system, about the problems of late development, or about the structure of our education institutions. I am not sure.

I remember receiving the little cards telling me of my O-level failures. This was about 25 years ago. A little form came back, marking the result from 1 to 10—I being absolutely marvellous and the best possible result, and 10 meaning total failure. I always got 10, particularly for history, although on one or two notable occasions I rose to 9. I then discovered that the examiners did not really want to know the names of the kings and queens of England, or of the battleship that went to Agadir in 1911. I remember agonising, in one examination, over the question whether it was HMS "Leopard" or HMS "Tiger".

I suddenly discovered that more subtle things were required in examinations. Having discovered that key, I suddenly found that passing examinations was not so difficult after all, and that it was something that could be achieved. However, it indicates the difficulty of doing so, particularly if one is working at the same time, and even more so if one is working, as I was at the time, in casual employment that requires working long hours into the evening and at weekends. As a result, one's opportunity to study is greatly reduced.

The question of access to adult education is vital. As well as that, there is a great deal of variation in the form of education. In recent years I have had contact with people from the TOPS course on adult literacy, and even with those who I believe are called outreach workers, who go into the community and set up their classes in specific areas. The people involved in those schemes are doing good work. The Open University is another example.

I want to refer to a few courses that struck me as particularly important. I was struck by the importance of "drop-in numeracy", as I believe it is called, which is often provided for people who need to brush up their mathematics for the TOPS course. These classes are provided in my area by the Addison institute and the Hammersmith college. They are useful for people who need basic training before they can undertake other education. It goes without saying that literacy and English as a second language are also vital.

Another course that is increasingly important—I believe that it is run by the Lambeth adult education institute—teaches job-finding skills. I remember that when I worked as a probation officer, many young people were totally unaware how to present themselves at an interview. Quite often they were unable to use the telephone effectively in order to set up the interview in the first instance. We are fundamentally wrong to dismiss these as academic or unimportant classes, because they are important and basic to a large percentage of the community.

Another course, increasingly important in the light of the current economic situation, is concerned with becoming self-employed. The course is run by the Addison institute. It is not easy to become self-employed. It is full of pitfalls and traps for the unwary. If one is unsuccessful, one gets into considerable financial difficulty with the tax authorities, social security people, and a whole range of other people. Here again, some skill is necessary, and it can be taught.

Courses in leisure activities are also important. Some people say that these are not necessary, but people now live much longer than they used to and they are often much fitter. When one considers their problems in adjusting to retirement, one appreciates that it is not easy for them. One often finds such people becoming a charge on the State, whereas if the money were put into education in the first place—particularly into courses on leisure activities and on how to use one's retirement—we could head off many of the problems that elderly people face. At present, retirement is often accompanied by a feeling of being thrown on the scrap heap, and that one's working life is over. It should not be like that. It is not necessary for it to be like that. Adult education has an important part to play in that respect.

There are also fresh start courses, which are offered in a couple of places in London and elsewhere. After years of work, a person may need to reacquire basic study skills. They can be taught, and are taught. Those are some of the areas that I think of as being particularly important.

The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) spoke about subsidising and payment. I must emphasise the fact that we all pay for education out of rates and taxes. The problem of putting up the price is that we deter entry, particularly for people on low incomes, even through the people who are deterred continue to subsidise those on high incomes who continue to take the courses. Obviously, a balance must be struck. In respect of many of the courses for the less skilled and less able people in our community, my view is that the entry bar and cost should be minimal. Such people should not be asked to indulge in the worst form of subsidising known to us—the poor subsidising the rich, which is what often happens at present.

I turn to the problem of unemployment. It is my view and the view of many others that a great part of our present unemployment problem is due to the Government's economic policies. The Government would no doubt dispute that. However, I leave that argument to one side, because I accept that another large part of the unemployment problem would exist regardless of who now governed the country. We now have an unemployment problem precisely because we do not have control of our economic structure, and to some extent our economic future is out of our hands. Therefore, there would be an unemployment problem regardless of the economic polcies that are pursued.

The crucial question is what we do to soak up that unemployment. It is not just a matter of creating new industries, although that is important. It is also about education. When I consider our economic problems 1 am struck by the comparison with West Germany and Japan. Indeed, the comaparison can go much deeper. Both those countries have spent more on education in the past than we have done. That is particularly important in view of their development as great economic Powers.

A number of Conservative Members have argued that we cannot afford to put the money into education. That is not strictly true. As always in politics, there is a question of choice. I do not wish to go too far into the argument, if we compare education and defence, the Government would say that we must spend the money on defence in order to safeguard the country. On that argument, they would justify the spending of £5,000 million on the Trident missile. I do not agree. I happen to believe that the Trident missile will endanger peace rather than preserve it. But that is another question. What is not at question is the fact that that money could be used for other purposes.

I suggest that education is almost as crucial as defence; indeed, it may be more crucial. If we do not guarantee continuing rising education standards, sooner of later we shall decline as a relatively powerful nation State. There are no "ifs" or "buts" about that, especially if we do not catch up with other countries that are spending more on education than we are. We must ask whether we can afford not to spend more on education. My answer is "No, we cannot". It is one of those areas, like housing, which has a hidden-opportunity cost. If we do not spend money on it there is a cost of not doing so, and although we cannot measure it we should never underestimate it. It is vital.

In the long run, we must set our sights rather higher than our current economic difficulties. We must set our sights on the day when people are able easily to leave a job and go into full-time paid education for a number of years. I believe that we are entering the age when it will be fatal to assume that a person will leave school, sooner or later get a job, and stay in it for the rest of his life. We must put those days behind us. That means that there must be access to adult education at a variety of times during one's life.

We should make that very much easier to achieve, and that requires an economic input. I am not saying that it can be done tomorrow morning, but we ought to start planning for it. There will always be declining industries. It will be far easier to deal with people who lose their jobs if we are able to offer something more than redundancy payments and the prospect of the dole queue. One of the things that we should be able to offer is education, which should be paid for at a rate that is not significantly lower than what the family has come to expect.

It may be argued that that dream is a long way off, but my counter is that it must not be a long way off, because if we are really moving into an age in which high technology results in this sort of turnover, there will be areas in which industry is declining and in which no alternative jobs are popping up quickly enough, as a result of which there will be large pockets of unemployment.

The Government and the Conservative Party must face the social disturbance, stress and, eventually, the social breakdown that unemployment causes. They have always said that inflation is Enemy No. 1 because it destroys society. I agree that inflation can destroy society, but so can unemployment. If the present rate of unemployment continues, and if it is combined with other factors such as relatively high inflation, the Government will be in serious trouble very soon.

In the longer term we can soak up some of the problems by adult education. As my hon Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland said, Government action is required and not simply requests to local authorities to do more, particularly when they are being told to cut back generally. I ask for a structured response to these problems from the Government, and preferably a section within the Department that recognises the importance of adult education and gives it the power, weight and clout that it needs.

People must have the freedom to choose courses. That is particularly important, because it is difficult to justify telling people what courses they can or cannot take. It was said earlier that sewing classes were a luxury. What is a luxury depends very much on a person's situation. They may not be such a luxury to a person who is handicapped or isolated in the home. Adult education for the handicapped is important.

I ask the Government to make a full and positive response to the report of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education. If we can get the structure right we can build on it, our dreams will become reality, and we can move to different types of education throughout our lives. The college that enable me to get out of the trap of not having an education was the new Battle Abbey college, in Midlothian, Scotland. During the early 1960s it took students at the ages of 65 and 70. I do not know whether it still does so, but that was a positive step, and something that should be more widely and readily available.

5.53 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

There is an unfortunate tendency—at times it has been observable in this debate—to equate adult education almost exclusively with remedial or basic education for those who did not attain a satisfactory grasp of the basic subjects at school. Such a view is false to the true philosophy of adult education, and diminishes its value.

The true philosophy of adult education is that education is most valuable when it is sought voluntarily by men and women who have attained adult status, who are living independently and making an adult contribution to society, but who choose to devote effort in their free time to study or to the pursuit of a skill. That study or skill may be practised at a very high level. For instance, in London, where for many years I have been both a teacher and student in the splendid ILEA adult education organisation, with its 300,000 adult students, the literary institutes specialise in study at an advanced level. It is particularly fitting that I should mention in this Palace of Westminster that the new stained glass windows in the Lord Chancellor's State Room were designed and made by the students in the stained glass class of the City literary institute in Drury Lane, working under their tutor, Amal Ghosh.

On 25 February students from the music classes at the same City literary institute will give the evening concert in the Purcell Room on the South Bank. Their performance will be judged by the criteria that are used to judge any performance in that distinguished concert hall.

Morley college, in Westminster Bridge Road, is an adult education literary institute, and I need not speak of its reputation as one of the great centres of English music. Its work in the arts and humanities is serious and important enough to attract tutors of the calibre of Margaret Drabble, the novelist, and Maggi Hambling, the resident artist in the National Gallery. The ceramics circle of Morley college, formed of students from the ceramic classes, is one of the leading learned societies in that area, attracting experts from all over the world to its seminars.

The Mary Ward centre in Bloomsbury is another adult literary institute, which distinguishes itself by a high level of involvement in its local community. For example, it conducts a legal advice centre which employs three solicitors full-time, assisted by the advice of 20 barristers. On the basis of the experience gained in the centre, seminars and courses are conducted which are invaluable to people working in the community. But one can get more than legal advice from the Mary Ward centre. One can learn to play the pipes, learn Sanskrit or study a whole range of skills and subjects.

We must not make the mistake of imagining that the student bodies of the literary institutes are composed of the educational elite. Students range over the whole socio-economic spectrum. There may be many students in the institute who left school at 14 or 12, just as—it may be surprising to learn—there may be an occasional company director in the literacy class or the occasional graduate in the spelling class.

In case some people still have a prejudice at the backs of their minds that adult education should concentrate solely on the plight of the educationally disadvantaged, I should like to point out two facts. First, the special approaches to the teaching of adults learned in the "mainstream" of education have been the basis of recent successes in the development of techniques of adult remedial or basic education. Secondly, it is more dignified for adults in need of basic education to attend for study in adult centres where busy crowds of adults throng to study the whole range of adult interests.

A major problem in providing continuing education, particularly if it is directed towards a national audience and involves distance learning techniques, is the provision of the working capital to finance the preparatory work.

I commend the proposed series of nationwide training programmes on health and productivity for livestock producers and other animal owners, in which the professional expertise of the Royal Veterinary College, in collaboration with two other university veterinary schools, veterinary and agricultural organisations and local agricultural institutions is to be combined with the educational technology pioneered by the Open University. Substantial basic support has been provided by trusts, the veterinary profession and industry, and overall the series is expected to be self-supporting. This venture is a classic example of initiative and of collaboration between institutions and organisations to meet a national economic need. However, it is costly and each programme has to be prepared over a period of one and a half to two years before the extent of enrolment is known or any fee income is received. A pump-priming grant to provide some of that working capital is therefore essential.

In this House we have an all-party committee on adult education, of which I have the honour to be chairman. Since its inception about 14 months ago our committee has dealt with all areas of adult education. We have been particulary impressed by the need to provide adult education across the community, to look after the needs of pensioners and to make provision for the unemployed. I speak personally and strongly in saying that school buildings that become disused because of falling rolls could become centres for adult education and learning, either basic or advanced. I should like to see that.

I repeat a suggestion that I have made, that vouchers should be available through the Exchequer, via the Post Office, to the unemployed so that, at no cost to themselves they may go to adult education classes. For the long-term unemployed in particular, surely their one hope could be to get into an adult education class where they could be motivated to work, to study, to enjoy their lives, and to regain that self-dignity which can so easily go with unemployment.

Aids to illiterates and innumerates are essential. I have in mind the example of a man who was an assistant schoolkeeper at my school before I came to this House. He was a very fine man and worked well but he was refused long-term employment because he could not read and write and therefore cope with the desk work that went with the job of being an assistant schoolkeeper. In mentioning that very sad case, I call for a greater understanding of illiterates on the part of employers. They should not expect of illiterates work that they cannot do, and thus deprive them of their livelihood.

It has been in many ways a tragic year for adult education, with fees going up on average by 33 per cent. Enrolments this year are 10 to 12 per cent. down on last year. Some authorities have put up fees by as much as 68 per cent. In other cases, fees have gone up by only 10 per cent. But the average has been 33 per cent and it has been a severe factor in the curtailment of the numbers of people attending adult education classes. The numbers have fallen by 11 per cent. this year. They fell by 10 per cent. In the previous year. The fall is likely to continue, to the detriment of the adult population of this country.

It is essential to keep open, if possible, residential adult education centres, which provide for people across the whole country. They are centres of excellence and of hope in the lives of people. Without such centres, many lives would be severely diminished.

The rate support grant provided £32 million for adult education this year, as against £45 million last year. That is a severe cut. The average expenditure by local authorities on adult education at the beginning of the year was 0.66 per cent. It is now down to 0.40 per cent. That is a statistic that speaks for itself.

Like many other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I have a deep and sincere determination to see adult education survive and go forward to meet the broad needs of the community. I should like to complete the quotation that was so rightly brought before the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) from Sir Winston Churchill. The quotation ends: The appetite of adults to be shown the foundation and processes of thought will never be denied by a British Administration cherishing the continuity of our island life. No Administration cherishes our island life more deeply and dearly than the present one, and I commend to the Government those words of Sir Winston Churchill.

6.3 pm

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

I commence by adding my congratulations to those already heaped upon the head of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). He has selected a particularly important issue and has covered all the broad headings.

I see adult education as possessing three main strands: first, remedial; secondly, liberal studies; thirdly, retraining—that is, retraining for industry and commerce.

With regard to the remedial side, there are in Britain today, according to the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education, about 3 million adults in need of basic educaional skills—that is, 3 million of our fellow countrymen requiring additional education. The social isolation of any man or woman who cannot read or write to any real degree is difficult for us in this Chamber to comprehend, but it is a problem that is all too real for those who teach in the adult literacy classes.

The second strand, liberal studies, leads perhaps to greater misconception than is found in almost any othe area, but it is a fundamental mistake to imagine that liberal studies are always or necessarily frivolous. They are nor. all of the corn-dolly-making or help-improve-your-bridge-playing type. Very often these courses provide a real lifeline for the old. They genuinely improve the quality of life. They provide new horizons and broaden the mind. Indeed, the variety and depth of the courses are equalled only by the variety of those who participate in them.

All these courses help to develop individual and latent skills. The courses come into their own particularly for those who have just retired, those who have become unemployed or those who, for whatever reason, are taking forced leisure.

With regard to the third strand—retraining—I believe that further and higher education should be responsible for producing the new survival techniques for Britain—the new techniques OSC which can take over where the old left off. It should be the job of the colleges, of the polytechnics and of the universities to apply part of their minds and part of their resources to the problems that are encountered by local industry.

I have spent all my life in industry. I have worked on the shop floor, and I work in the boardroom. I can say with absolute conviction that over recent years education has moved away from the needs of industry. The bond that used to exist between education and industry has been severed. If education and industry are worlds apart, I accept that there are faults on each side. The educators should remember that they are responsible for services that are financed out of local rates and out of local taxation. They have a clear duty to see that the public get value for money.

This does not stop at producing students who are experts, for example, in the latest industrial design. Educators are in an ideal position to carry out consultancy work for local companies. They should attract contracts and use their specialist skills to solve industrial problems and develop new ideas. Industry should tell local education authorities what exactly it feels is wrong with the present system, and above all what it requires. If local companies want new schools for their employees, they should ensure that the local college or the local polytechnic has the understanding or the means to provide the courses.

Here I mention a Rugby proverb which has recently been invented. I shall acknowledge the author in due course. If industry makes a profit it must sponsor the profit makers. That is almost like one of the sayings of Chairman Mao. But the Department of Education and Science's consultative paper on adult and continuing education somewhat delicately refers to this as a "retention of fee income" I hope that when my hon. Friend replies to the debate he will perhaps not be quite so mealy-mouthed and will not be afraid to use that magic word "profit".

What is needed is a better input from industry into education. Here I speak as a director of several companies ranging across engineering, marketing and finance. We should set out to train people for the world as it is and as it will be, and not for how it was or how we should like it to be.

A new sense of realism is required, and that new sense of realism should reflect our present straitened circumstances. We must surely appreciate, on each side of the Chamber, that finance is becoming extremely tight. Most Members will agree that education does not reach down deeply enough into industry. Fortunately, attitudes are changing, and here I refer briefly to an exciiting development that is taking place within my own constituency.

Warwickshire county council, in conjunction with local industry—which has funded the experiment by £24,000 over two years—has formed a schools-industry liaison group. The group has a full-time director whose job it is to bring schools and industry together in order to promote a better and a closer understanding of each other's point of view.

However, I ask my hon. Friend to consider a different perspective on the whole subject of the debate. Is it not rigidity in education that causes us to look for opportunities for re-entry? Does it not strike my hon. Friend as unwise that we have closed and locked the door so firmly behind those who have completed their initial studies in universities, polytechnics and so on? Education should be a process of evolution that should continue throughout life, and the problem should not be how to enter education, but how to leave it. Those who leave our educational establishments should have guidance on how colleges can continue to help them throughout their working lives.

If my hon. Friend requires a slogan for his campaign, perhaps I may suggest one—Education is for life and life is for education.

6.11 pm
Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

Several hon. Members have talked about the way in which local authorities have cut back, sadly, on their adult provision. However, adult provision does not rest only in the hands of local education authorites. As some of my hon. Friends have mentioned, there is a murkiness about the statutory requirements for adult and higher education and the relationship between adult, higher and further education.

Local authorities cut back early on adult education in difficult times largely because of the image of adult education—the flower-arranging sort of image. Today the vital importance of adult and continuing education for the economic future of this country has emerged. It is education for those who missed the opportunities at school or who were ill-motivated. It is their second chance. Because of rapidly changing skills, we also need more opportunities for people to retrain.

In all Western economies, including the Australian economy, there is a falling off of the take-up of higher education at sixth form level, partly no doubt because of the economic difficulties in getting a job. That means that later on those people build up an increasing demand for courses, and to learn the skills, which they missed by not going to university. Those who are locked into jobs—possibly disappearing jobs—but who did not have the advantage of higher education, are under increasing pressure to gain qualifications to compete with the new generations coming through the educational system with higher qualifications. Therefore, there are powerful pressures on potential demand. It is vital to the economic prospects of this country that we see in adult and continuing education the means of tapping the potential of our citizens and developing the skills and qualifications that we need.

In our secondary schools there is now a bulge in the birth rate which will feed through the system. It is pertinent that the year 2000 is the year when that bulge comes through to middle age. The 40–45 age group will be at its peak in the year 2000. At its most productive time of life, that group will find there is a shortage of jobs. They will need to be retrained to gain the necessary skills.

However, at the same time the birth rate will have tailed off dramatically—by a quarter in a decade. It will leave the capacity in higher education to meet that demand, provided that we now set about producing a strategy. It must be a strategy of flexibility and of a co-ordinated joint approach—for example, co-ordination with the Department of Employment, which, in the TOPS programme, has one of the most pragmatic and useful ways of extending adult educational opportunities.

The universities have not been effectively considered today. They have the most resources in the system. It is important that the "poor neighbour" element of the university extra-mural departments, or adult and continuing education departments—is brought into greater prominence. When there is pressure on the universities because of a shortage of resources, there is an opportunity to offer a carrot: that if they adapt themselves and direct their attention to this key work, resources will be provided for them if necessary. The universities are vital to the area of adult and continuing education. We must give more weight in our allocation of resources to them at the expense—if necessary of our school system and the mainstream higher education system.

As the extra-mural adult departments are direct-grant funded—the only direct-grant DES-funded part of our autonomous higher education system—the Department can funnel some of its allocation to the universities not through the University Grants Committee, but direct into these departments so that they become "brokers". They can be used within the university to draw on the talents of all other departments and their staff, so that the appropriate courses are put on for the adults and firms in the community.

The essence of adult continuing education is that it is primarily vocational. In the United States and Australia, for example, in the 1970s there was a surge of adult and mature students. That was the key to the growth of their system and has no equivalent in this country. Older people have wanted occupationally geared courses.

Adult courses must be vocational, locally geared and in many cases part-time. We have lacked a strategy on all those fronts in this country.

The model is the Open University, where, for relatively small sums of money, the tutors have been prepared to go out to teach in other colleges, schools, church halls and a variety of other places. We should use that model for the entire adult area. We shall also face a rundown in the demand for the existing colleges of higher education. Their capacity, their buildings and facilities could be used for adult learning, possibly drawing on the staff from nearby universities, polytechnics and colleges, for they all tend to coincide in belts across the country. There must be a flexibility and a joint use of resources on a scale that we have not seen before.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an assurance that, because of the urgency of this task and the looming importance of the year 2000, his planning unit in the DES will concentrate on how to develop a proper strategy to use existing resources. It is not a matter calling for huge dollops of extra cash from the Treasury. The Government should channel the resources and energies already in our higher and further education system to the needs of adult and continuing education.

6.18 pm
Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Like the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) and most other hon. Members who have spoken, I support the argument for giving a greater priority for continuing and adult education. I heed the warnings of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) and other hon. Members who have warned against beating the drum for this priority to the disadvantage of other sections of the education system.

We are indebted to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) for the way in which he introduced the motion, his exposition, and the tenor of the debate. It has not been a particularly partisan debate, but in every contribution it has been thoughtful.

In the past we have had some Adjournment debates on the subject, many of them initiated by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and replied to by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), who then had ministerial responsibility for this matter. They did not get us very far—about as far as the distance from Ealing, North to Brent, North. That is probably not the fault of either the hon. Gentleman or the Minister. It is a fact—this has been central to many of the complaints raised—that exhortation from the DES has often been ignored by local authorities, which, because of the financial and political pressures under which they have been placed have seen a soft option in the cutting of adult education. It is to that sad story that I must turn.

No one should be in any doubt that when we talk about continuing adult education, the emphasis is on the word "education". One or two hon. Members have suggested that it was a leisure activity, which was a kind of frill, which should be snipped away, together with the sewing classes that an hon. Member's wife attended, but I believe that we are talking about the emphasis on education for life, and throughout life. I declare my interest and bias in that direction, as my wife has just graduated from the Open University, as my secretary was retrained by TOPs, and as I have the background of lecturer for the Workers' Educational Association. I would not need persuasion in that element of continuing training and retraining.

Everyone has been agreed on the extent to which literacy and programmes for the disabled should be given priority in adult education. What is more at issue is the crisis of morale in the whole education service as a result of the cuts. As has been mentioned in Adjournment debates, the effects start near the base line. The cuts have been made not from a position of relative affluence but from Britain's position within the EEC, much nearer the bottom than the top of the scale. This has happened in a society in which comparatively few people have access to higher education and the relatively privileged circumstances that higher education brings and that have in some ways increased the inequalities in our society.

Adult education and, most profoundly, the Open University have in recent years made a gallant attempt, against the odds, to rectify the situation. Many hon. Members have mentioned the anatomical exercise in metaphor by the hon. Member for Brent, North about cutting too near the bone. The Government are cracking open the marrow bones in the part of the world that I represent. Adult education is in a serious position, and an over-emphasis on cuts or on privatisation within the financing of the system can only make matters worse.

Last Friday the report of Her Majesty's Inspectorate for 1980-81 was published. It does not seem to be available to hon. Members in the Vote Office. It was published at 3 o'clock on Friday afternoon, after we had left for the weekend. At that time it was not so easy to comment upon it. However, I have since been able to secure a copy. I refer the Minister to paragraph 70, which states, of further education: Adult education remains the area most seriously affected by expenditure reductions. Forty-nine authorities have further reduced their allocations for general adult education. Of these authorities nine are in the lower level baseline group. No examples of increase have been recorded. There continue to be overall reductions and concentrations of programme throughout the country". One point that particularly concerned me and I found elsewhere in the report—it is a matter to which I shall return on the question of Open University applications, which we should also be considering—was the degree to which that fall-off in part-time courses in particular came from those areas traditionally associated with heavy industry"— and traditionally associated also, at the moment, with the industrial recession.

When the Minister appeared before the Select Committee before Christmas—I was there to listen to him—he talked about that reduction being demand-led. He spoke about people coming forward for non-advanced further education courses. I am not so sure. If we examine the statements that the Government made last March, in reply to various protestations from both sides of the House, we see that the Secretary of State's expectations that the expenditure reductions can be achieved by an increase in fees rather than a reduction in the number of adults benefiting from provision"—[Official Report, 10 June 1980; Vol. 986 c. 117.] has not been fulfilled in the event.

It seems to me—and figures are emerging that will demonstrate this beyond peradventure—that there is now a major fall-off in provision and, therefore, also in applications, leading to a fall-off in fulfilment, also. This is happening in a society in which employment is reaching 2.5 million—a society that is facing the probability of deeply rooted, structural unemployment for many years to come, irrespective of which party is in power. That seems to me to indicate that we should, as a matter of priority, consider continuing education as a way of rectifying what will be a dramatic problem for our society, whatever happens.

The reductions that were made last March—some of them in rather a panic—have cut a swathe through further education. Humberside announced the suspension of all non-vocational classes. West Glamorgan cut its provision by 60 per cent. Hampshire suspended all evening classes for three months. The examples of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and East Sussex have already been mentioned. All of those examples have decimated the service in many parts of the country. Like the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), I seriously query whether the action of an authority such as Humberside was legal in the terms of sections 7,41 and 42 of the 1944 Act.

The latest figures from the National Institute of Adult Education, derived from its fees survey, carried out last October and November, although showing an enormous variation in the range of movement of those fees from an increase of 225 per cent. to a decrease of 36 per cent., indicated a mean increase of 51 per cent. The change in the number of students also varied, but the mean figure was a decrease of 11 per cent. Those figures have become available to us only during the past few days, but they indicate the way in which we are now moving as a consequence of the cuts. I am not yet used to speaking from the Opposition Front Bench. My experience is as a constituency Member of the Back Benches, and in that context I should remark that the East Midlands figures are particularly devastating to me, since I was involved with the WEA in that area.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

My hon. Friend mentioned the 11 per cent. fall in one year. Does he agree that the process is self-generating and that it is likely that in the current year the fall-off will be very much larger?

Mr. Whitehead

My hon. Friend makes my point for me. The process is cumulative and the position will become worse over the next year. The figures are already showing that. In Nottinghamshire an area close to my heart, courses are down by 70 per cent. on the 1975 figures. Lincolnshire has halved its residential accommodation and cut its teacher training centres, and enrolment is now down by almost 25 per cent. In Derbyshire, where I live, there has been the early retirement of five full-time teachers and a heavy increase in the fees for old-age pensioners, as well as for other people. Leicestershire has already been referred to. There the community colleges, to which hon. Members have tonight rightly paid tribute, are now under threat.

There is no saying how matters will move in the immediate future. We are not considering merely the inevitable consequences of the expenditure White Paper of March 1980, as they have worked through; we are talking about a further reduction in education expenditure, which the Secretary of State has conceded will take place over the coming year, with the assumed savings in school transport having to be found elsewhere in the education budget. Everyone fears that these cuts will also filter through into the standard of services in adult education.

Mr. Greenway

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Whitehead

I will not give way. I delayed the start of my speech to allow three Conservative Members and the hon. Gentleman to speak, and I must press ahead.

I have mentioned my WEA antecedents. That leads me on to the question of the position of the responsible bodies—the university extra-mural departments and the association itself. In many areas the LEA funding of those bodies has suffered heavy cuts. The recent report from the WEA showed the deficits were looming in the areas most affected by the recession. Those areas are Scotland, the North-West, North Yorkshire and the West Midlands. That indicates that a North-South divide is beginning to be created in this subject.

I turn next to the Open University. I have seen in the life of my family and of my wife the enormous increase in confidence and, therefore, in job potential, that results from a successful Open University course for people who failed the 11-plus and previously regarded themselves as educational drop-outs. The latest survey by Professor Naomi McIntosh and others at the Open University suggests that four out of five graduates believe that they have benefited from their courses personally and in terms of their jobs.

The problem with Open University is that the increase in fees of 46 per cent. over the past year will seriously affect the number of applications and admissions. The hon. Member for Putney was rather too complacent, in an otherwise good speech, when he suggested that the Open University should take such increases of fees in its stride. The fact is that those increases are being levied upon people having to pay for their own education. Unlike other students, they are not in the position where they are made to carry up to only 20 per cent. of the total cost of expenditure, which I believe is the figure that the Department of Education and Science is looking for. With the latest increases that figure has been raised from about 10 per cent. to 12½ per cent. I do not think that we should move down that road when we consider the damage that is being done to the intake of the Open University.

Last Wednesday I visited Milton Keynes and talked about its problems with a number of those responsible for admissions. Taking this week with the equivalent week in 1980, applications for the Open University are 2,400 down. There has been an 18 per cent. drop in applications from the North of England. There has been a 9 per cent. increase in applications from the South. But this is the North-South divide; the declining northern industry against the still relatively affluent southlands, to which I have referred.

It would be extremely serious if there were now to be a disincentive for those from the declining northern areas, where retraining is particularly necessary should the opportunities presented by, for example, the Open University courses be taken from them because the fees increase has forced the numbers down. It is also true that more people from the South than from the North are taking up the places offered.

We should have a better basis for funding the Open University. I do not have time now to go into that, but I mention it in shorthand terms to the Minister. The whole House is still waiting for a proper response from the Department about the criticisms of the present funding of the Open University that were made in the report of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts. It would seem to be almost impossible for the Open University to budget for the sort of programmes needed for the next few years, particularly in building up courses in science and technology, if it is being given a grant only on an annual basis and is being told only some way into the financial year what money it can have and how it may use it.

All that is damaging the adult education system. The Secretary of State has time and again said that: cuts can be achieved without affecting the standard of education in our classrooms. I do not believe that that is so in adult education.

We have now seen a devastation of the services available. Taking the three distinctions made by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey), I see that as applying equally to the three categories he mentioned. Training for leisure, which has been somewhat disparagingly referred to in the debate, is now as important as more strictly vocational training, or the training of particularly disadvantaged groups who may now be singled out for favoured treatment in the overall depression and gloom. In the near future we shall have to face a society in which many peoply will be asked to accept early retirement and redundancy, with the implications of retraining and all the pressures involved in that, knowing that unless they can gain access to further education their lives, and not just their prospects, will wither on the vine. All hon. Members have a responsibility to see that that does not happen.

The questions that I should like to put to the Minister are essentially related to the problems that I have tried to outline and the failure of successive Administrations to make sufficiently firm provision by updating the 1944 Act to put further education on a statutory basis. That would mean an amendment of the misleading phraseology of section 41(b), with its references to leisure time, organised cultural training, and so on. We should have a comprehensive definition of adult and continuing education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) referred to the possible new amendment that the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, among others, is discussing. Although it is not for us to consider what the precise form of the amendment should be, it is clear that the exhortation from well-intentioned Ministers has counted for very little with many of the local education authorities when cuts have been made.

During the Adjournment debate to which I listened before Christmas, the hon. Member for Brent, North assured his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North that his remarks about old-age pensioners would be taken seriously. Numbers of local education authorities and further education bodies are still charging full rates for old-age pensioners. There are many, such as mine in Derbyshire, which have put up the rates for old-age pensioners from one-third to one-half of the full fee. The full fee has also greatly increased. That sort of thing can happen. More importantly, we can see a whole range of cuts being made in services by various organisations where the Department is unable to do much about it. It was unable to raise a finger, had it wished to do so, in the case of Humberside. There should be a better definition in the legislation. Baroness Young was asked about this matter.

In another place, in a recent debate on education, She said; Section 41 of the Education Act 1944 gives every local authority the duty of securing, in accordance with the schemes of further education or at county colleges, the provision for its area and adequate facilities for further education". She went on: It does not seem to me that in the present position any local authority can be said to be breaking their statutory obligations".— [Official Report, House of Lords, Vol. 405, c. 1156.] I could give her the names of three or four. The conclusion that I draw is either that she does not understand the statutory obligations or that the statutory obligations need to be changed. I do not mind which interpretation we take, but I would settle for the latter.

The first question that I want to put to the Minister is whether, as his hon. Friends and many Labour Members have suggested, he sees a need to tighten up those sections of the 1944 Act.

Secondly, in the light of the recent cuts in rate support grants, does he propose to announce as a general principle that there will be an exemption, in DES funding at least, of the adult education system from further cuts in the financial year 1981–82.

As the hon. Member for Ripon suggested, it is possible for the Department through the direction that it applies to the funds under its control, to make an impact upon further education which, thus far, it has not done. I should like an undertaking on that basis.

Further, I should like to ask about the funding of the Open University in the middle term, and whether further increases in Open University fees are proposed for the next financial year. It is the Open University's feeling, as it is mine, that the second round of cuts hurts much more than the first and will increase and aggravate the trends to which I have referred.

Lastly, there are the institutions. I have mentioned the WEA. What will happen to the growing financial crisis in the WEA? The WEA deficits are growing to the point where in many areas they are equivalent to the funds in hand and the resources. What will happen to the organisation thereafter? Since the 1960s the proportion of support that the WEA has received from local education authorities has steadily and consistently fallen. In the present climate of attrition, the WEA is in an extremely serious financial plight. I should like to hear the Minister's suggestions.

In a few minutes I have tried to indicate that we face a double divide in adult education. In one sense the divide has been coming upon us for some time. It was identified in a book by Mee and Wiltshire some years ago, during the Labour Government, when they referred to a threat to the adult education system which they put thus: There is a real danger that adult education may be split into two segments: a heavily subsidised compensatory service for the conspicuously disadvantaged and an unsubsidised, and therefore highly priced, leisure service for the well off. We have moved a few steps towards that division.

I have tried to indicate two other divisions. The first is the division between those who can pay and those who cannot. That should not be the principle of access to adult education. The second is the division between the North and the South, which in this way, as in so many other ways under this Government, is dividing us into two nations today.

6.40 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) on what I think I am right in saying is his maiden speech at the Opposition Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman brings a degree of sincerity and understanding to these affairs, particularly the post-16 aspect, and the whole House will be grateful for his comments.

I echo the hon. Gentleman's sentiments to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). If I may introduce a degree of parochial interest, I am sorry that he is moving out of my constituency. However, I am happy that he will be staying as a councillor and that he will be returned as the Member for Hornchurch at the next election.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides will understand fully if I am unable to respond to all the points that have been made today, but I undertake to go through the debate tomorrow, or the day after, with my staff to ensure that some of those points are answered.

This, as many hon. Members have said, has been a constructive debate. Generally, surprisingly, it has been remarkably free of partisan feeling, and I am grateful for that. I think that there is genuine all-party concern about the infrastructure that we have created for ourselves in adult and continuing education. Indeed, those of us who have been closely associated with these matters in recent years might consider that the whole of the education world has created for itself a difficult infrastructure of bodies and organisations.

The hon. Member for Derby, North referred to Her Majesty's Inspector's report. I should like to clear up a misunderstanding. Some hon. Members referred to the report on the effects on education services in England of local authority expenditure policies in 1980–81. The draft of the document was sent to the ESGE at the end of last week for its comments and at the same time, consistent with the undertaking given by my right hon. and learned Friend, copies were made available to the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts. I have also asked that a number of copies be placed in the Library of the House, in view of the interest expressed by those who have spoken in the debate. The final version of the report will be published next week after there has been an opportunity for comments by the ESGE to be considered by the inspectorate. Copies of the final version will be made available through the Vote Office as soon as the report is published.

We have had a wide-ranging debate. Adult education, in general, covers an enormous range. It is difficult to be too specific. However, I am pleased that the subject has been raised on previous occasions by my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) and for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). I should like to pick out some of the points made today by hon. Members on both sides.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) mentioned that it is a sad fact that a proportion—far too high a proportion—of this country's adult population lack even the most basic educational skills which we would normally expect pupils to have acquired before they leave school. What is worse, despite our best efforts, this group, which may have missed, or been unable to take full advantage of, educational opportunities at an earlier stage, is constantly being augmented by current school leavers. The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) touched on his experience in this area.

Of these skills, the one first identified was illiteracy. One of the success stories of adult education in recent years—it has been referred to by hon. Members on both sides—has been the drive to remedy this lack of skill. About 70,000 people each year have re-entered education to receive help to enable them to attain this skill. I hope that this will acknowledge one point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch. It has certainly enabled people to attain the most basic skills without which they could not function adequately in our society and would have difficulty in even stepping on to, let alone proceeding up, the educational ladder.

If there is an element of gloom among some Opposition Members, we must acknowledge the tremendous work done by the adult education service throughout the country, whatever the financial problems facing the United Kingdom, and indeed most Western countries, at the moment. Work with adult illiterates uncovered a wide range of other basic educational skills which needed to be developed not only to provide a springboard for entry to further education, but to enable people to cope with everyday life, and particularly to apply for or remain in employment. The Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education drew attention to these points in its report "A Strategy for the Basic Education for Adults".

A number of hon. Members have referred to the cuts in expenditure. It is worth putting on record that some authorities have proposed very stringent measures. However, so far as I am aware, no authority has ceased completely to provide for adult education, nor made all staff redundant. The pressure of public opinion has caused authorities to revise their plans and to retain some base. It is certainly right for me to repeat words which my hon. Friend has quoted on previous occasions in Adjournment debates. Local authorities have to plan in a consistent way. They have to look at every responsibility within the education service and not take the scalpel immediately without looking at the all-important adult education.

The opportunities for re-entry into the education system provided by adult education at basic levels and for vocational purposes do not represent the complete picture. Much of adult education is concerned with personal fulfilment, and it provides opportunities at all levels for people to take up education again, to pursue interests started at school or to develop new ones, whether in the creative arts, practical hobbies, intellectual or physical pursuits. The range offered by adult education is immense in terms of both subjects and level.

A number of hon. Members referred to open and distance learning and to the Open University. I want briefly to refer to those aspects. I suppose it is inevitable that more use can be made of broadcasting and distance learning techniques. I should think that the hon. Member for Derby, North, with his experience before he entered the House, would be able to bring some experience to bear on this subject.

I believe that the fourth television channel offers a golden opportunity for many people to be drawn into further adult education in the home. An independent fourth channel should offer opportunities to expand the provision of education to a very wide audience. I hope that it will exploit the possibilities as fully as possible, co-ordinating carefully, where appropriate, with employers, local voluntary organisations, and so on, so that the most effective use is made of broadcast material, and that students, teachers and employers will be prepared to exploit these additional opportunities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North referred to the role of the voluntary sector. Voluntary bodies, such as community associations, women's institutes and the Workers Educational Association—I shall come to that later—and a myriad of other associations and clubs have much to offer in adult education. Their flexibility and responsiveness to need can be very valuable, and their work can help many that the local education authority cannot easily reach or afford to cater for. While they are not a cheap alternative to local education authority provision, I believe that the work of the voluntary bodies needs to be effectively co-ordinated. They often rely on local education authorities for accommodation and other facilities, for essential training of staff and for financial support.

Several hon. Members referred to the statutory basis and whether we envisage any amendment to the 1944 Act. The Act refers only in general terms to the provision of adequate facilities, but there is no generally accepted minimum standard for adult education provision. It is for local authorities, in the light of their own detailed knowledge, to determine that level of provision.

The whole legal basis for further education was mentioned by a number of hon. Members—in particular, the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson). Following the Government's response to the Warnock report, an integral part of my Department's functions is to review the role and legal basis for further education, which includes adult education. I hope that that will answer one of the questions that have been posed today.

I must issue a word of caution. There are dangers in attempting to provide too exhaustive a list of aspects of adult education. It is developing at such a rate that such a list could become rigid, inflexible and limiting. Hon. Gentlemen should understand that the definition of a minimum could give rise to reduced rather than to increased provision. We are prepared to consider in detail the whole legal basis of further education, including adult education, but it is too early for me to indicate today what the likely outcome will be.

I want to say a word about the Government's role. My right hon. and learned Friend and my hon Friend have indicated in speeches in this Chamber and elsewhere some of the resources on which LEAs can draw in providing adult education. They have pointed to the need to co-ordinate those resources effectively to provide a healthy base, capable of growth to meet the many educational needs, known and still being identified, of adults in this country.

We are continuing to fund the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education for a further three years in order to complete the important twin remits of comsidering the most effective deployment of resources available for this area and of developing policies for its future development. If we are to progress, we shall have to adopt priorities. That does not mean that we ignore other areas; we are simply trying to be practical. However desirable many aspects of adult and continuing education may be, priority in allocating resources at a time when the country is in urgent need of economic recovery is bound to be given to those areas of adult education that are particularly relevant to employment. I hope that what I am saying will strike a chord with the many hon. Gentlemen who have mentioned the matter today.

Priority must be given to acquiring literacy and basic skills, and we have indicated that clearly by our continued support and stimulus for developments through a Government-financed central agency. The Government have already funded the important work of the Adult Literacy Resource Agency and the Adult Literacy Unit. The Adult Literacy Unit ceased to operate in March 1980. Excellent work has been done by both bodies, but it is clear that they and the work that they have stimulated have by no means cleared the problem.

A conservative estimate suggests that there are about 2 million adult illiterates, and this number is fuelled continuously by illiterate school leavers. Up to 70,000 a year now receive tuition, but many drop in and out of class over a period of years, so it is impossible to calculate a cumulative total of people who have been helped to overcome the problem.

There is much still to do. Therefore, we are continuing to give some central support. The work in this respect has helped to identify a wide range of basic education which stemmed from it and needed to be developed. Illiterates need further help after learning to read and write to enable them plug into further educational opportunities and to cope with the complexities of our society. Otherwise, they are left dangling without further support.

The report of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education identified a wide range of different groups—ethnic minorities, the handicapped, prisoners, ex-offenders—for different stages of life when faced with particular problems—adolescence, new parenthood, preretirement—and for different skills and purposes—mathematical and number and life skills, including domestic management, work-related knowledge and knowledge of the main governmental and social agencies. There is a need to continue work in literacy and to expand it into related areas. At least 3 million are in need of help in these areas.

The Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit builds on the foundations and expertise of the Adult Literacy Unit. I am happy to say that we have set up that unit. It provides a central focus for work in literacy, numeracy and related basic skills. It sponsors basic development projects in collaboration with both voluntary and statutory bodies and helps innovation by providing new methods, materials, approaches and clients, and so on. It helps to develop teaching materials. It provides a consultancy and advice service. It helps to develop publicity and recruitment methods to attract students in need. It also stimulates and. provides teacher training in this field. That is an important requirement. Finally, it publishes information, handbooks, news letters to assist in training, and it raises the quality of provision and keeps individual workers in touch with developments.

The importance that we attach to this unit indicates the support that we seek to give to adult education generally. We propose to maintain in real terms the present level of funding for the responsible bodies—WEA districts and the university extra-mural departments. The work done is comparatively small, but it is an integral part of the provision for adult education locally. We hope also to maintain in real terms the level of funding for national associations, such as the National Institute for Adult Education, and to continue with support for bodies such as the National Federation of Townswomen's Guilds and the National Federation of Women's Institutes, both of which contribute in this area.

Many matters were raised during the debate. I apologise if I have not dealt with some of them, but time is the problem. I undertake to write to those hon. Gentlemen who raised important matters.

I believe that we have recognised the potential contribution of distance learning that I mentioned earlier. Many hon. Members referred to the role of the Open University. Clearly, the Open University makes an important contribution to continuing education, and it still receives funding of about 87–5 per cent. from Government funds. It is important in three ways. First, it is a second chance institution of higher education. There were nearly 61,000 registered undergraduate students in 1979, and 5,400 graduated in 1979, bringing the grand total of graduates since its inception to about 39,000. Out of more than 58,000 students following undergraduate courses in 1979, about 74 per cent. had no formal academic qualifications, 13 per. had completed their full-time education at the age 15 or under, and 18 per cent. at 16.

The second importance of the Open University is as a provider of vocational post-experience courses, both on its own and in collaboration with others. Its third importance is as an innovator of educational technology and as a centre of expertise in multi-media distance learning and teaching techniques.

The hon. Member for Derby, North asked about future funding of the Open University. I undertake to write to him on this and the related questions that he asked. Certainly, I can give no commitment now.

On the subject of the rate support grant for 1981–82, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to give him a reply from the Dispatch Box this evening and say what we might speculate about. However, I have taken note of what he said, and I shall make sure that he receives a form of acknowledgement. He may not be very happy with the acknowledgement, but I shall ensure that he receives some information from my Department.

Mr. Whitehead

One thing should be put on record today, and that is whether or not the Minister was shaken by the figure that I gave of the falling off in applications for the Open University.

Mr. Macfarlane

We had a recent Adjournment debate on that matter, and I do not want to go over old ground. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Our policy is to ensure that the heavy continuing public investment in the Open University—about £45½ million in 1980—is fully utilised in the national interest. Its post-experience course programme is regarded as the major growth area for exploitation by all concerned with vocational updating and retraining.

Another matter that was dealt with by hon. Members on both sides was our paper on "Continuing Education: post-experience vocational provision for those in employment". It is a matter about which many hon. Gentlemen feel deeply, and I share their anxiety about the need to develop and design vocational provision. That paper put forward for discussion a course of action designed to facilitate a more widespread response to the needs of industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) mentioned this, and I am grateful to him for what he said. That paper put forward a widespread response to the needs of industry and commerce for updating and refresher work, and for the acquisition of new skills—whether technical, technological or managerial—that are needed to cope with different responsibilities in a company or firm.

Despite all the problems, the Government have been accused of not doing enough for adult education. But neither we nor the local education authorities can succeed alone in securing the future of adult education. It requires a change of attitude among all potential students, employers, providers and teachers if any significant progress is to be achieved. I acknowledge the important role that all employers have to play. The role of industry, business and commerce must wake up to the fast-changing pattern of need for retraining, perhaps once, twice or three times in the lifetime of people who left school and education 15 years ago.

I am convinced that there is much that has been successful in recent years, but I urge the House to understand the complex infrastructure through which the Department of Education and Science has, understandably, to work. The 1944 Act devolved powers to the 105 local education authorities. Somehow, my Department, working with all those interested bodies, must come to some detailed arrangement whereby we can work together. It is too important a subject to be left to one group. It is, however, the most complex and diverse of all sectors of education. I think that Opposition Members will understand that. There is no one solution, and there is no panacea. We are faced with the need to expand, strengthen and improve the service at a time of severe economic constraint—

It being Seven o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.