HC Deb 15 March 1982 vol 20 cc172-80

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

12.47 am
Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), for coming to the House this evening to answer a debate on what is an important matter for us in the county of Hereford and Worcester. The importance of this matter is underlined by the fact that my hon. Friends the Members for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) and Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) are present. In addition, I have a message from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), who sends word from Brussels, where he is busy on ministerial negotiations on the agricultural price review, that he wants to be kept informed as to what is happening and is watching very closely the position of education in the county.

It is probably an understatement to say that parents and many others in the county are shocked and confused at what has taken place over the past few weeks about the prospects for education in our county. It is right that parents should be concerned for the quality of the education that their offspring will receive. It is important that there should be the fullest possible understanding of decisions taken by the county council and the reasons for them. It is also important that parents should be reassured that the thrust of education policy is towards the maintenance and development of the quality of their children's education.

Parents are confused because at the same time as they are told by the local newspapers that the number of teachers is to drop by 200, over and above the reduction of many more through falling rolls, that music tuition is to go by the board, that the provision of hot school meals in the primary schools is to end and that school allowances for books and equipment will not be increased to take account of inflation, they are also told that the country rate will be going up by 16.4 per cent.

I have scanned the local press to try to find out what is happening. If that were all that I had to go on as a parent with a child at a primary school in the constituency I should be as confused and angry as my constituents. The local evening paper, in a rare page one editorial comment on 12 February, summed up the position succinctly: Will someone … please stand up and tell the poor bemused public what on earth is going on? People are fed up to the hind teeth with the term 'government spending cuts.' Neither do they want woolly explanations wrapped up in statistics they don't understand. They want simple answers to simple questions. WHY, if it's all the fault of the government, is every education authority in Britain not in the same boat? WHY has the county education committee been allowed to overspend its budget in the past? WHY was the present crisis not foreseen and the public alerted long before now? The ratepayers suspect the worst. They suspect that there is an excessively high ratio of administrators to teachers. They suspect that councillors have been hiding their heads in the sand, hoping that the evil day would never come. They suspect that bureaucracy has got the upper hand. They suspect these things because councillors have not explained in a simple and straightforward manner why the present situation has arisen. That is good fighting stuff. Those may not be the right questions to ask, but they provide a starting point.

In fairness to councillors, I must point out that a little privileged research makes it clear that the answers are not simple and are certainly not straightforward to explain. Despite the earnest endeavours of councillors, the questions posed by the evening paper are no nearer being answered, though the statement of the county councillor for Ross-on-Wye, Miss Anthea McIntyre, published in the Ross Gazette, deserves a wider circulation.

What becomes apparent as the ogre of the piece is the £2½ million that the county council was told as late as 19 January was required to be paid into the advanced and further education pool, over and above what had been anticipated by the council when it drew up its budget in December. The county council tells me that the extra impost came as a massive shock. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the county treasurer turned an indelicate shade of green. Having tried to find out what happened, I have considerable sympathy for him.

It seems that the county council began to become aware in early December that Government decisions were being taken which would have implications for the advanced and further education pool distribution and the rate support grant settlement. It must be borne in mind that the county council estimates were to be completed by 15 December.

The first sign that something extra might be required came on 17 December as the result of a letter from the Association of County Councils concerning a meeting the day before between ACC representatives and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to discuss proposals for Local Authority expenditure on Education—including Advanced and Further Education pool and tuition fees—and the contraction and quality of the teaching force". The county council can perhaps be forgiven for not being too perturbed at that time, since, as a net payer to the advanced and further education pool, it could have expected a reduced contribution being required for a reducing pool. When the Secretary of State announced details of the Government's education expenditure plans for 1982–83, including the quantum for the advanced and further education pool, he was not able to say how they would affect individual authorities.

Another spanner in the works at that time was the late announcement of the rate support grant. It is worth noting that the county council had to go to Birmingham to collect the rate support grant notification from the regional office of the Department of the Environment, so as not to lose time. I appreciate that this is not my hon. Friend's responsibility but it is a facet that has to be borne in mind.

The actual notification in detail of DES pooling, with its full financial implication set out, was not received by the county council until 19 January, nearly a full calendar month later. It is true that it was dated 12 January. Unfortunately, the envelope, with its postmark was not retained. Suffice to say that this major bolt did not strike county council consciousness until 19 January. It showed a major change in the method of advanced and further education pool distribution and a change in tuition fee policy with a major knock-on effect.

The complexity of the interaction of this with the rate support grant is charmingly and drily understated by the county treasurer in the opening words of a memorandum that he wrote for the chairman, stating that the effect of the rate support grant and the council's grant related expenditure is very difficult to follow through".

Having tried to follow the correspondence through, I agree heartily with him.

My confidence in the basic fairness of the way in which the sums have been calculated is undermined by the admission of DES officials at a meeting with officers of the county council on 29 January. The report of the officers said that the resultant distribution for 1982–83 was to some extent arbitrary due to various assumptions on date source and the method of splitting advanced further education and non-advanced further education expenditure in the historic base year 1980–81. At this meeting and another on 27 January at Worcester, it was confirmed by DES officials that it would not have been possible for the county council to have been aware of the detailed figures until notified by the DES. The important thing is that this lack of time made it extremely difficult for the county council to take a proper, cool and measured approach to its budget for 1982–83.

I have dwelt perhaps for longer than I should have done on the problems arising from the AFE pool but I shall look forward to what my hon. Friend has to say about the matter. The side-effects are such as to worry parents who cannot be blamed for their concern when they read letters in the local press indicating that the county's education is apparently below average in various league tables. It is just possible that those who quote such statistics are doing so not for the proper enlightenment of parents but rather to score political points and exacerbate the agonies of a sorely pressed education authority.

It is not sufficient to quote selectively from various tables and to say, for example, that pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools in the county rate 80th out of 97 for all English counties without saying that they are 6.5 per cent. above the average for English shire counties—a measure of comparison far more meaningful because of the comparable nature and number of schools. Nor is it sufficient to say in respect of secondary schools that the ratio lies 74th out of 97 when the average is 4.7 per cent. better than the average for English shire counties.

I distrust this league table approach to comparison because of the opening it gives to selective quotation and the consequent confusion that it can cause. All the tables should be visible to enable a proper swings versus roundabouts comparison to be made.

What I found interesting when I studied comparable expenditure on education—primary, secondary and further—was that Hereford and Worcester county council's net cost per resident was almost exactly the same as the average for the English shire counties at £180.87. I should like to question whether spending in itself is a valid criterion for comparison. If the spending of the county council on secondary education is 5.7 per cent. less than the average for the shire counties but the results are up to the mark, it is perhaps the case that the county council is providing better value for money than higher spending authorities.

The real purpose of raising this matter tonight is to try to get simple answers to questions that perhaps are not so simple, to draw the attention of Government Departments to the problems that can and do arise when major decisions are made with little time for their implementation, to show the consequence in terms of people understanding what is happening to them and why, and the concomitant erosion of trust and confidence for the future of their children.

I posed earlier the questions asked by the Evening News. The other questions reasonably being asked are as follows. What is the basis of this enormous extra sum to be contributed? Why could not it have been foreseen? Why was it not possible to know how much it was until 19 January? Why could not the authority accommodate the extra when the increase in rates of 16.4 per cent., with its dire consequences for industry and commerce, is far beyond the increase in resources of most ratepayers? Above all, bearing in mind the trauma that that has caused and the element of arbitrariness admitted by the Department, what safeguard have we that this cannot happen again?

1 am

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

I should like to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) has said about the puzzlement of parents, particularly about music, the provision of schools and the closure of rural schools. Because of the lateness of the decision, the county education committee was forced to take a rough and broad brush approach. It has had to contemplate abandoning the provision of instrumental tuition.

It is all very well to say that orchestras can continue, but, if children cannot be given the instrumental tuition, it is not easy to see how a school orchestra can function. In that context I ask the Minister whether there is any prospect of reversing the High Court decision of last year, involving the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) and a mischievous plaint. In my experience, most parents are happy to contribute to individual intrumental tuition.

The other issue involves the provision of school places. Because there is such a vast and rapidly growing population in my area, in the north-east of the county, we have lagged behind in every type of provision with disastrous effects in the less populated areas. That has included the closure of rural schools, even though they are above the target levels for keeping schools open. My hon. Friends will know what a deprivation that is to rural life.

For those reasons, and for the amplification of the arguments adduced by my hon. Friend, we seek the Minister's help in establishing the facts so that the public may have a proper explanation. When I took a delegation from the county council to see the Minister responsible for further education, we asked whether the incidence of the changes in the arrangements for the pool could be phased to mitigate some of the immediately adverse effects.

1.3 am

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

I appreciate the concern which is shown by the presence of so many hon. Members from Worcestershire and Hereford in the Chamber this morning. I have been privileged to speak twice in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and I have stayed with his wife and himself there. I know how well he serves that large constituency and of the high respect in which he is held by all his constituents.

There is no doubt that there is a problem for the education authority and the local authority about the possible overspending from last year. There are three financial problems. First, a deficit of about £1 million has had to be carried over from last year. That has to be put on this year's accounts, either through the rate support grant or the rates. Secondly, the authority did not receive what it expected from the balance on the pool. Thirdly, the change in the way in which the pool has been arranged this year meant that there was a volume cut of about £3½ million in the money going to the authority.

The change in the arrangement was made with the education authority's agreement. The pool is not easy to understand. It is rather like the Schleswig-Holstein case—one person is dead, one is forgotten and the other is mad. I do not wish to weary the House with the problems of the pool. Historically, the pool gave back to the people what they spent. I am sure that my hon. Friends, as good Conservatives and in self-help, will realise that that is not the best way of ensuring that one gets value for money. Ever since the Government came to power we have been concerned to introduce an arrangement whereby the high spending authorities were not automatically paid back but where, over a number of years of phasing, money was paid per course. The building may differ in cost, but the cost of the courses and the staffing should be more or less equivalent in any place. The same course in one authority, or one institution, could be almost twice as much per pupil as in another.

Worcester College of Higher Education's problem is that it is one the highest spending colleges in Britain. The very fact that the pool has now been checked—again, I would say, in self-defence this evening, with the agreement of the local education authority—meant that it has not received what it expected to receive based on previous years. A penalty clause has been built in because of the high spending of the college. In the long run, that is something my hon. Friend would agree with. It is most difficult this year because it is the first year in which the penalty clause for the level of spending has been applied.

The cut on money going this year into the pool throughout the country has averaged about 9 per cent. The economical authority has had a 2 per cent. cut. The most expensive authority has had a 15 per cent. cut. Hereford, almost the most expensive authority, has had a 13 per cent. cut. Therefore, compared with two years ago, there has been a 13 per cent. cut in the money that has come into Hereford's pool, compared with an average cut of 9 per cent. and a cut to certain authorities of 2 per cent. When one deals with the huge budget of these colleges of higher education, one can see that that is a large sum.

Mr. Shepherd

Is there any specific visible reason for Worcester College of Further Education's costs being higher than they might otherwise be?

Dr. Boyson

The only visible cost is on pay cheques. The average income per head of the lecturing staff is much higher there than in most other authorities. This is at the authority's discretion. It is one of the most expensive authorities because of staff-student ratios and—I think the phrase is—"contact hours" in the classrooms. Those costs will have to be watched by that authority and brought into a closer relationship with average costs in Britain.

It is a matter of paramount importance that lecturers—and teachers generally, because their salaries are being negotiated at the present time—should accept pay settlements within reasonable limits. A county such as Hereford and Worcester has enough difficulty in balancing its books in relation to the Government's properly modest pay assumptions. Lecturers and teachers there and everywhere else in Britain must understand that a higher settlement will only mean more jobs not being filled, more reductions in services, or, alternatively, an increase in the rates.

My hon. Friend referred to when the local authority learnt of the money it was due to receive this year. The general statement was made by the Secretary of State on 21 January. He said that the size of the 1982–83 pool implied substantial economies, and that With the agreement of the local authority associations, the principles underlying the distribution of the quantum for 1982–83 should reflect the judgment that the major point of securing the necessary overall economies should fall on the institutions with the highest unit costs. I shall not argue with my hon. Friend as to when the letter should have been sent or why it took seven days in the post, but I would at least say, in defence of the Secretary of State, that the statement was perfectly clear. Authorities such as Hereford and Worcester, which knew that they were spending more than other authorities, must have been aware, when they received the letter, that there would be a penalty clause. They would not know how much the penalty would be, but they should have been warned of what was being done.

My hon. Friend asked about the visible difference. I am sure that the authority is aware of the problems arising from what is called grade drift. I recognise that that is a terrible phrase. Once people are on a grade they are there, and as time goes on they become more expensive. I hope that my hon. Friends will be able to think of a better phrase than "grade drift" when they are explaining the matter to the populace of Hereford and Worcester.

I repeat that the statement should have been seen as a clear warning that the advanced further education college, unlike most of the rest of the authority's education service, was doing the equivalent of spending well above GRE. The share that is going on advanced further education is well above the GRE. Elsewhere, up to now, the authority has spent below the GRE. This year it is spending the GRE, but a lot of it is going unfairly, compared with the rest of the education services in Hereford and Worcester, to advanced further education there.

Whether the expenditure is reduced by doing something about grade drift or by tightening the staff/student ratios, or anything else, is the authority's business, but there should be scope for something to be done along those lines.

I should now like to make one or two general points. The authority also suffered this year on the increase of the grant-related expenditure. All over the country the increase was 8.9 per cent., but the increase in Hereford and Worcester was 8.4 per cent. That was a 0.5 per cent. lower increase of GRE than the average for the country. When an authority has an expenditure of £130 million, a mere difference of 0.5 per cent. represents a considerable sum—well over £1 million. Problems are bound to arise in an authority that is working on that basis.

The LEA this year is trying to spend up to its grant-related expenditure on education in 1982–83. As we all know, it represents the Government's broad assessment of what the authority needs to spend to provide a level of service in line with the Government's expenditure plans.

Within the total of £130 million, I understand that the authority must cover any deficit inherited from the previous year.

Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)

Will the Minister be able to say something in response to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) concerning musical instruments and private contributions?

Dr. Boyson

I certainly will. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) is concerned about it. I remember that he was sitting on the Bench behind me when we debated the matter about a year ago.

The authority could have responded by spending above its GRE and sending rates through the roof. Fortunately, the ratepayers of Hereford and Worcester are so well served by their Members of Parliament that the authority chose not to do so. The authority's precept will be increased by 16½ per cent., as has already been said. That is below the average for shire counties and little more than half the average increase for Labour-controlled shires, where the figure is now about 31 per cent. Therefore, in that respect I should like to congratulate the authority on its control of expenditure, despite the intense problems being faced by it.

The decision last year concerning music was, to say the least, an unfortunate one. In my school days in a grammar school in Lancashire it was always presumed that for woodwork, for domestic science, for individual music tuition and for games coaches, money was put into the till or a local canteen was run. In some way or other, extra money was put in. It went on all over the country. One of the most expensive items to be paid for was individual music tuition. It is often a nuisance on the timetable, and it is a costly item. Then last year, as a result of this case, it was found to be illegal.

The Department accepted that it was illegal to charge. We accepted the High Court's decision. So either the rest of the money will have to come from rates or Government grant, or legislation will have to be brought in to make the charges. They cannot be made now. Something will have to be done. The cost in Worcestershire is about £100, 000. Only £10, 000 has come in in voluntary amounts. So there is a loss of about £90, 000. There is also the threat that, if it is illegal to charge for this, it is illegal to charge for many other services in schools throughout the country—payments which have been paid willingly by most parents until this happened. I know that there is an attempt to set up a trust in the area to get round the matter, but share my hon. Friends' concern about the judgment, which has not helped Worcestershire.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I am glad to hear my hon. Friend express those sentiments, and we appreciate the problem, which was expressed, in particular, by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) about a year ago, The demand then for legislation, which is the necessary correction, is a matter for my hon. Friend and his Department. Can he say when action will be taken, instead of merely sympathising with the problem?

Dr. Boyson

I cannot say. I cannot foretell what will be in the Queen's Speech. However, I can pass on the sentiments that have been expressed here to the Secretary of State, and I shall do that tomorrow.

I want finally to mention some matters that have been done very, well by the county authority. There has been a decrease in the pupil-teacher ratio over recent years. The primary school pupil-teacher ratio in 1977–78 was 24.7, and it dropped to 23.9 last year. In secondary schools over the same years, it dropped from 17.8 to 17.3. So there is no doubt that the local education authority has tried to give a good service. Then there is the number of pupils obtaining five 0-levels. The average for England in 1978–79 was 20.6 per cent. of pupils who obtained five or more O-levels, whereas in this county it was 23.3 per cent.—3 per cent. more.

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

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen minutes past one o' clock.