HC Deb 22 July 1986 vol 102 cc279-85

'The Secretary of State may by regulations make provisions requiring local education authorities to provide educational maintenance allowances for pupils aged 16 to 19'. —[Mr. Radice.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Radice

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am afraid that I am slightly overcome by the victory. It is right that, in a Bill which has considerable pretensions, we should he able to debate important education issues. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will right hon. and hon. Members who are not staying for the debate on new clause 1 kindly leave quietly?

Mr. Radice

In the 1970s, the case for educational maintenance allowances was argued in terms of widening working class participation in full-time and higher education. The staying-on rate in Britain is extremely low and compares very poorly with our continental rivals.[Interruption]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leave quietly, please? It is unfair to the Oppostion Front Bench not to do so.

10.15 pm
Mr. Radice

In the 1970s, we argued that despite the expansion of higher education working class participation had risen only marginally. I know that in my constituency a number of young people have been deterred from staying on at school or in full-time education. One of the main reasons for that is finance. In strongly working class areas such as Tameside and Durham, 25 per cent. of pupils with 5 O-levels or equivalent do not stay on at school. The comparable figure for leafy suburbs such as Harrow is about 10 per cent. Clearly, there is a major problem and it is related to factors other than ability. We seek to explore those other factors today.

I do not argue that lack of money is the only deterrent. Clearly, there are other factors, such as the kind of institutions that schools are, the prospect of other kinds of work and the youth training scheme. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that the financial considerations are important.

The case for educational maintenance allowances is even stronger in the 1980s with the growth in youth unemployment [Interruption.] I appreciate that Ministers, reeling from the result of the last Division, have other things to discuss, but perhaps we could continue with the business. Youth unemployment is extremely high, especially in areas such as the north, the north west, Scotland and Wales. Youth unemployment in this country is higher than in many other countries. The YTS has also been expanded. I believe that we should have a youth training scheme, but the YTS presents a problem in that it carries an allowance whereas remaining in full-time education carries no reward at all.

The proportion of pupils staying on in full-time education is actually declining and is lower than in most other western European countries. We believe that those who stay on should receive educational maintenance allowances, first, because it would encourage more people to stay on and, secondly, because it would recognise the importance of education and the fact that its contribution to the economy is as important as that of training.

For those reasons, we believe that there is a strong case for educational maintenance allowances. I accept that there are cost factors and that in the first instance we may need to target such allowances towards regions or local authorities that are worse off or individuals who are most deprived.

We recognise that this Government, particularly in their dying hours, are not likely to accept the case for educational maintenance allowances — [Interruption.] "Dying moments" is perhaps a more accurate summary. However, even after the excitement of what has just happened, when we voted to abolish corporal punishrnem, it is right that the House should have the opportunity to discuss educational maintenance allowances as a trailer to the real thing when the next Labour Government introduce their own education Bill.

Mr. Chris Patten

We come back to rather more mundane matters. It is ironic that those who have tabled the new clause, who are usually so resistant to anything that hints of central Government restriction of local authority freedom, should now be trying to increase the control that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can exercise over the action of local authorities.

Although we are flattered by the concern of the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) to increase the influence of my Department, we must resist the new clause. I see no need whatsoever to interfere with the existing discretion of local authorities over maintenance allowances for 16 to 19-year-olds. Our policy in this respect does not differ from that of previous Governments of both political persuasions. Young people in non-advanced full-time education have traditionally been regarded as primarily dependent upon their parents for financial support until their 19th birthday. As such, child benefit is paid in respect of these students, and local! education authorities can add to this with discretionary grants—for example, to those in financial hardship.

This policy is sometimes contrasted with the Government's policy on financial support to higher education students, where local education authorities are required by law to provide grants. Courses for 16 to 19-year-olds at the non-advanced level are, however, much more concerned with meeting purely local needs than is higher education. The Government recognise that the latter is more of a national service, by paying 90 per cent. of the cost of mandatory awards through a DES specific grant. For non-advanced courses, local education authorities are in the best position to judge need in the light of the individual circumstances of both the student and the course—which may vary quite considerably and to weigh this against other priorities within the local education service.

The hon. Member for Durham, North referred, perfectly understandably, to the post-16 participation rate—

Mr. Radice

To the staying-on rate.

Mr. Patten

I accept that paying maintenance allowances to all those staying on in full-time education might have some effect on the overall participation rate. The question is whether that would be sufficient to warrant the expenditure involved in paying such allowances. The limited studies that have been conducted suggest that the effect on the participation rate would not be that great, but we know that the expenditure would be. The net additional cost of paying an allowance of £27 a week to all 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education—as recommended from time to time by the Labour party—would be around £600 million per annum in England alone. That would be deadweight expenditure. It would be paid in respect of young people who would stay on in full-time education anyway, and I personally can think of far better ways than that of spending £600 million.

Mr. Radice

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this matter on different occasions, and have done so before the television cameras. I pointed out to him on that occasion that to begin with this would not necessarily be introduced for all students and that it might have to be concentrated. Obviously, that affects the cost. It would not initially have the deadweight factor that the Minister has been talking about. He accepts that it may have some impact on the participation rate.

Mr. Patten

I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman would avoid the deadweight factor by introducing this scheme in a limited way, or how he would propose targeting it to avoid the deadweight factor. If he will forgive a moment of uncharacteristic controversy on my part, I find it curious how his price tags go up and down according to the conversations he has had recently with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). Sometimes his policies are more expensive and expansive than they are on other occasions.

The expenditure would not be justified, and we expect the participation rate to increase overall in the next few years when the number of those aged 16 and above will be falling, for demographic reasons. That argues the case strongly for taking a more coherent view of our 16 to 19-year-old provision in education and training. It does not argue the case for the new clause, which was moved in a spirit of euphoria by the hon. Gentleman, who was buoyed up by the proceeds of a three-line Whip.

Mr. Freud

One would have thought that the Government, having been let off the hook by one vote in the Division, would now lean forward to accommodate the Opposition and let some small, useful measure, such as the educational maintenance allowance, have a fairer wind than they intended.

The Minister said that £600 million was a deadweight expenditure in that it was paying children to stay on at school who would anyway stay on at school. He is wrong.

Mr. Chris Patten

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that none of those who would receive the allowance would anyway stay on at school? That is what the words "deadweight expenditure" mean.

Mr. Freud

No. The Minister knows perfectly well that there is a disincentive for many children to stay on at school. He knows that jobs for 16-year-olds are hard to come by. The average 16-year-old has three choices: to stay on at school, to go into training or to receive unemployment benefit. I am saying that without an educational maintenance allowance the financial attractions of unemployment benefit outstrip those of staying on in education or taking up training.

Obviously the great majority of those children would stay on at school anyway, but a proportion of children leave school for the greater financial security of unemployment benefit. That is wrong. The Child Poverty Action Group has looked into the matter, and there is no question but that the Manpower Services Commission would not now be doing a survey on payment to 16 to 19-year-olds if that were not relevant.

Staying in education involves a double cost for poorer families, in that they already have to pay for school materials, such as books and trips, and they lack the contribution to the family income from the young person who would otherwise be at work or in training. I hope that the Minister will consider, not giving away a deadweight £600 million, but formulating a structure whereby the most attractive financial option for a child will not be to become unemployed.

There is room for argument about the best way to act, but the case for some sort of allowance is absolutely clear. I realise that the Minister is at present discussing with the Whip what time he will go to bed, but I hope he will realise that for thousands of young children between 16 and 19 an educational maintenance allowance is crucial.

10.30 pm
Mr. Robert M. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Conservative Members have complained that successive Governments have maintained the existing system of discretionary awards to maintain young people who continue their education after school leaving age. I regret that that complaint has been made. It is true that nowadays young people find it more difficult than ever before to take the alternative at 16-plus-one which was available under previous Governments—of taking up a job.

I was a lecturer in colleges of further education for a quarter of a century and I know that the granting of awards by local authorities varies considerably from one area to another. The young person of 16 who lives within the compass of a generous local authority will find that discretionary grants are available. But if he lives in an area that is covered by a less generous authority, which wishes to keep down the level of the rates for its better off ratepayers, he will find that they are not available. In the north-west, the Liverpool education authority under successive party regimes was always more generous than Chester, which was miserly over a long period.

As I have said, for many years the alternative to further education, that of getting a job, was available to young people. In my constituency and in many others in the area which I represent, that alternative is all too often denied to young people. The time has come for something more than YTS. The schemes lack real training and at the end there are only Mickey Mouse qualifications. These qualifications normally have no value to most employers. The youngsters are denied the right to gain the academic qualifications for which many of them are qualified and acceptable to colleges. It is the colleges and schools which should determine whether a pupil or a student is to be dead weight. They will decide, because they have the qualifications to be able to determine whether someone is qualified or otherwise to benefit from a course. "To benefit" is a term that should not be confined to the passing of examinations because a young person can benefit without passing exams.

The discretionary grant system has no uniformity. Some local authorities, such as Chester, were unwilling to provide grants to young people taking O and A-levels on either a part-time or full-time basis. Since the arrival of the Tory Government in 1979, authorities have become increasingly unable, not unwilling, to provide the education maintenance grants for young people. The system has become sporadic and uneven.

The Education Act 1944 enabled local authorities for the first time to make regulations which provided pupils with the advantage of being able to take education courses without hardship to themselves or to their parents and to make the most of the facilities available to them. But discretionary grants have provided no surety.

It is no use saying that young people who may be the products of disadvantaged homes or whose parents may be elderly or disabled, can turn to social security. Very often, when young people who have continued their education full time have gone to the Department of Health and Social Security and obtained benefit, as soon as it is discovered that they have been attending a school or college-especially a college of further education-that benefit has immediately been stopped.

On the one hand, local authorities have not been able to provide all the discretionary grants that are necessary. On the other, as soon as the young men or women who are not prepared to sit complacently at home and receive benefit from the DHSS cross the portals of a school or college, they find that social security is not open to them.

It is nearly 30 years since the Weaver committee on educational maintenance allowances stated: The object throughout was to make it possible for any pupil to take full advantage of the facilities for full-time education open to him. The value of a longer school life was recognised and, as a means of ensuring that full value was obtained from secondary education, it was held tha maintenance allowances ought to be related to the child's wage-earning capacity. The committee felt that those were good principles.

The Weaver committee was set up to review a wide range of local authority practice and to recommend a more rational basis for support on a national scale. Nearly 30 years ago, the committee recommended that there should be educational maintenance allowances at a rate of £65 a year for a 16-year-old boy or girl. That was about 25 per cent, of the then annual wage. Today, that would be about £2,000 a year. The Weaver committee believed that there should also be £20 a year for other welfare benefits such as free milk and meals.

It is no use the Government talking about £600 million. That sum would be well spent if it were spent on training people for real qualifications and if we were providing young people with the wherewithal to widen their scope for work in the community when the day comes — no doubt only with the next Labour Government — when jobs are available again. My advice to any young person, even under the present Tory regime, would be to do his or her best, during a period of unemployment, to get an education. I do not mean the Mickey Mouse education of the YTS, but real education.

In Japan, 91 per cent, of youngsters continue their education beyond school leaving age. In this country, according to the national child development study, the figure is 71 per cent, of ordinary children but only 41 per cent, of disadvantaged children.

Mr. Chris Patten

The hon. Gentleman has twice referred to the Mickey Mouse qualifications of those who graduate from youth training schemes. I hope that he does not speak for the Labour party, because that remark strikes me as a disgraceful slur on the tens of thousands of young people who have acquired very good qualifications through the YTS. I hope that the hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues on the Labour Front Bench will make it clear that that is not the Labour party's view on those tens of thousands of young people and the worthwhile qualifications that they have achieved.

Mr. Wareing

In the area that I represent, the youth training scheme is seen as the Tory party's attempt to provide slave labour for employers. All too often, progressive local authorities have had to step up wage payments in order to give young people a reasonable living wage. What better qualifications can YTS offer which national certificates, O and A-levels or even the GCSE which the Government are introducing cannot?

Whereas in 1978–79 only 11 local education authorities made no awards of educational maintenance allowances, in 1982–83 no fewer than 26 made no such awards. There is no reason to believe, from the cuts that have been taking place in local government expenditure as a result of penalties, targets and punitive grant-related expenditure sanctions against progressive education authorities by the Government, that the number of local authorities providing reasonable discretionary grants has increased.

The Child Poverty Action Group has recently shown that, of 72 local education authorities in England and Wales, 13 awarded fewer than 100 grants annually, and the average maximum amount was less than the then £5.2:5 child benefit.

The Government are not concerned with the general run of young people aged 16 and over. They want to return us to the time when only those with money in their pockets could afford private education and a public education for those over the school leaving age. Only they will be catered for. The real talents of the next generation are being sacrificed on the altar of the class prejudices of the Prime Minister and her minions on the Government Front Bench.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I support the new clause. 1 accept the Government's challenge that the Labour party's problem is that it has to weigh up the considerable deadweight expenditure, but my experience is that a considerable number of pupils in their fourth and fifth years at school are being pushed into working, in particular in shops on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Some of them are working to such an extent that they are not getting the full benefit from their studies. If some of them received an educational maintenance allowance, they might be persuaded not to work, which would then allow others who are unemployed to take on some of those jobs.

But if we have a problem in justifying what is called the deadweight cost, the Government must address themselves to the problem that not enough youngsters who get good, qualifications are staying in education.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Loughborough)

The hon. Gentleman has posed a real problem. Is the Labour Front Bench committing the next Labour Government to the immediate introduction of educational maintenance allowance of the type that has been described as desirable and something that should happen?

Mr. Bennett

It is clear that we are committed to introducing educational maintenance allowances. We are firmly exploring the practicalities of those and the problem that the Government addresses, which is that they are expensive. We accept that, and that is why we are looking for solutions. Just as the Opposition are looking at ways of meeting those costs, the Government must offer an alternative and perhaps a cheaper way of solving the first problem which is that many youngsters who receive good qualifications at 16 do not stay on at school. In my constituency, 24 per cent. of those who received five or more 0-levels and who would benefit from remaining in full time education, leave. That is a brain drain which the country cannot afford. We must find solutions to persuade the majority of those youngsters to stay on at school or at college to further develop their skills and abilities for their benefit and for the benefit of the country.

10.45 pm

Clearly there are not enough youngsters from working class backgrounds staying on in education. The Government must also consider the fact that until 1983, more youngsters remained in education each successive year, while in the past three years youngsters have started to opt out of education at 16. There must be a reason for that. We believe that the reason is that if these youngsters go onto a youth training scheme—inadequate as some are and good as others are—they receive an allowance of £27 plus. They prefer the allowance to staying on at school.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) said, YTS is a Mickey Mouse scheme for many youngsters and it does not lead anywhere for great numbers of people. If these youngsters are lured away from education by the money, if the Government make YTS a two-year scheme and start to make the schemes work in some places in terms of providing qualifications, then more youngsters will leave school and go on to YTS. The Opposition will have to address the difficult problem of finding the resources for educational maintenance allowances, but the Government must provide an alternative solution to persuade more youngsters from areas such as Tyneside, the north-east and other areas where the proportion of those staying on in school is still too low, to stop on at school.

The Government must also consider the fact that YTS allowances are drawing youngsters into schemes away from school. I am certain that the House will return to this issue in the future on many occasions over the next few months. There is a feeling in the House that we want to make progress now. I suspect that if my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) can catch your eye Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the next moment or two, I am sure that he would seek leave to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Radice

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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