HC Deb 29 June 1993 vol 227 cc942-8

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

11.8 pm

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I am especially grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the future of outdoor education centres and to thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Schools for his kindness in coming here to reply to the debate.

This debate arises from a meeting that I had on 11 June with the Association of Heads of Outdoor Educational Centres in the Lake district centre, which included a number of the centres in the north of England. I met 17 heads of outdoor education centres, 15 of whom were from centres supported by local education authorities and 12 of whom were from Cumbria, which is where my constituency is. Eight of them—almost half—were from centres in my constituency.

May I begin by saying how important those centres are to the economy of Cumbria and my constituency. The 12 local education authority supported centres in Cumbria employ 150 full-time staff—plus, I imagine, a good many part-time staff. They provide no fewer than 160,000 bed nights for young people and others who come to enjoy their facilities. Most importantly, they inject £3.25 million a year into the local economy of Cumbria.

The centres exist in areas far beyond the Lake district. There are more than 100 centres throughout the country, of which some two thirds are run by local education authorities. I am grateful for a note that I have received from the Sports Council, which says: 2–3 million young people per annum take part in a vast range of outdoor education programmes arranged by statutory, voluntary and private sector providers". The national curriculum quite rightly now recognises the importance of adventurous activities with an inherent element of risk, such as rock climbing, white water canoeing, and expeditions on land and sea. Although the whole House will commend those activities, the recent tragic incidents in Lyme bay are not far from our minds. Outdoor education centres must be run safely. I do not wish to discuss what happened in Lyme bay. The lesson thatat safety must be paramount has been well learnt by OECs throughout the country.

A key word in the work of the centres is "success". Many young people fail in formal education as they may not be good at exams or the analytical thinking required by many school subjects. They also sometimes fail at home or among their own social circle. The OECs often provide an opportunity for those young people to succeed, develop self-esteem and grow in self-confidence. Learning involves the whole person. It is relevant to other aspects of life; it encourages personal response and responsibility.

The centres encourage good citizenship. They unlock talents that remain hidden in formal teaching. Young people experience challenging situations which invllve problem solving, group co-operation, negotiation, creative thinking and decision making. It is common for teachers and leaders to comment on the improved levels of motivation and achievement which are often taken back into the classroom or the workplace. For those and a good many other reasons, the centres provide help for all sorts of young people.

A centre in my constituency, Bendrigg lodge, provides help for disabled young people and those from disturbed and difficult backgrounds. Many of the centres play a significant part in the fight against rising youth crime. it is clear to me and to many people that the centres do a fine job in offering good education and value for money, but they are most concerned and anxious about certain aspects of the development of education policy. That is particularly true of those financed by local education authorities, although I knowe there are anxieties at many others, including those in my constituency.

Many centres are run by local education authorities in the north-east of England, Yorkshire and industrial Lancashire, but there are also a number of very distinguished privately run centres. For instance, the YMCA runs a fine centre which various Ministers have visited, at Lake Side on Lake Windermere. There is also the Outward Bound movement in Cumbria. We have an extremely distinguished centre at Brathay hall, again on Lake Windermere. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), the chairman of the organising committee at Brathay hall, in his place. My hon. Friend may have the chance to make a brief intervention when I sit down.

The problems being encountered are that the local education authority OEC provision is finding its funding eroded to the extent that there is serious risk of reduction, if not wholesale removal, of that valuable service. Although the Government have allocated more money to the national education budget, changes to the distribution network have meant that the amount of money delegated to outdoor centres has been greatly reduced.

I want to highlight the value of outdoor education and the threats to quality and safety and to suggest to the Minister some ways in which that high quality provision can be safeguarded as I believe it is worth safeguarding. I am told that 50 local education authority centres are facing imminent threat of closure or major reductions in funding. Seven centres face closure this year, and 70 centres face imminent staff reductions and in some cases are down to skeleton staffing levels. Most centres are reviewing charges to pupils, in many cases up to the full break-even level.

The amount in the overall education purse has not been reduced, and it might be expected that grant-maintained schools would buy back the services previously subsidised by local education authorities. Likewise, schools that, under the local management of schools scheme, enjoy budgets almost wholly delegated should buy in the service. In practice, head teachers, faced with increasing demands on available resources, are showing a tendency to direct any additional funding at maintaining the service provided by the school rather than support an outdoor centre.

If centres are compelled to increase fees and pupils are required to pay the full economic rate, that will be educationally and socially divisive, and will certainly discriminate against the very pupils who might benefit most from the unique personal and social education experience that only a residential centre can offer.

All centres have made significant expenditure cuts in recent years. Most are now full to capacity throughout the year, providing courses for their local community and all other groups, to maximise the use of their facilities. It is now felt that all reasonable cost-cutting has been effected without compromising safety—which must be paramount.

It is apparent that, to provide a safe and effective quality course for the full range of pupils, a base level of subsidy is still required.

Subsidies range from £50,000 for small centres to £200,000 for larger ones, and should ideally be channelled through local authorities. Ways should be investigated of allowing the Government to provide centres with a base level of subsidy. I am told that there may be two ways of doing that. First, local education authorities or local funding councils could be allowed to provide properly accredited and monitored centres with a low level of funding calculated on throughput. Secondly, local councils could be given an incentive to provide that low level of funding. Agreement would have to be reached between local and national Government on ways of giving priority support to that vital service.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give those matters further thought, and to consider whether there are ways in which those centres can continue their wonderful work. Britain has the most extensive network of outdoor and environmental centres in the world. Centres based on the British model are being established throughout Europe. It would be tragic if our own centres of excellence were threatened and subjected to wholesale closures.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to publicise those problems, and to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to do his best to help these worthwhile ventures in the time that lies ahead.

11.23 pm
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and to my hon. Friend the Minister for this opportunity briefly to support the case that my right hon. Friend clearly and ably put on behalf of outdoor centres.

I speak from a lifetime's involvement with Brathay hall in the Lake district. It was one of the earliest independent centres, founded and funded by charitable trust. It has existed for almost 50 years and is well known for its reputation in education to staff at the Department for Education.

I know well the difficulties of funding such centres. They have been well explained by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. The danger is that if funding does not continue to be available, at worst the centres will close and at best they will inevitably be driven to seeking adult trainees who can pay higher fees if they are supported by their companies. It will take the centres out of youth education, which is their fundamental purpose. That would be a great loss to the country.

I re-emphasise the importance of the type of education offered to young people by outdoor education centres. I have witnessed it over a long period of involvement in such activity at Brathay hall. The experience of success is hugely important, as is the experience of residential living. Learning through exciting activities—although not dangerous activities, because the safety net is there—enables young people to learn to be responsible and to be dependent on each other. That learning option is not always available in school; but in residential centres, doing challenging, difficult and exciting outdoor centres, it is.

Children learn leadership and responsiveness in the group. They learn many social skills of living and working together which are the very skills that we all need when we set out in the outside world. Some of the most disadvantaged youngsters need such education most of all. It is provided at such centres.

As my right hon. Friend said, Britain has more outdoor education centres than anywhere in the world. It certainly has more centres than anywhere in Europe per head of population. That is an aspect of our education system which we certainly should not put at risk of diminution. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will encourage us to be confident of the future and consider some of the issues in the longer term.

11.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) on obtaining the debate and thank him for his comments. I recognise and pay tribute to his vigorous and persistent representations to the Government, to me and to my fellow Ministers in the Department on behalf of outdoor education centres, which are so well represented in his constituency and the surrounding area. I join my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) in paying tribute to the extremely valuable work that is done and has been done for some years by the outdoor centres in all the ways that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend described.

Outdoor education centres make a valuable contribution to the requirements of the national curriculum and, beyond it, to helping young people to see a wider world and understand more possibilities within themselves and in the context of their education. Therefore, we can all readily agree on the important role that has been played by the centres and, I sincerely hope, will continue to be played by them.

My right hon. Friend made it clear that one of his anxieties is the future viability of such centres, with particular reference to local management of schools. I understand that anxiety. It arises from the rapid move from total control of education funding by local education authorities towards local management of schools.

I emphasise that LMS is well established and has been widely welcomed throughout the education world by LEAs and schools. The process of delegation of responsibility for funding from local authorities to schools brings in its train great changes in attitudes and the extent to which priorities are set. One of the ways in which the changes take place arises because authorities can no longer absolutely determine the way in which moneys are spent. Those decisions are now increasingly being made, as my right hon. Friend recognises, at school level.

We placed a great deal of emphasis, correctly I believe, on the importance of giving school governors, heads, teachers and parents much more say in the way in which the funding available at school level should be spent. One of the effects of that is that it will be for schools to decide in which way they spend their funds. As a result, it is vital that outdoor education centres are able and prepared to market their services and their excellent contribution—so ably set out by my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks—directly to schools.

It can no longer he assumed that their excellence is known and understood by local education authorities and that they will automatically direct their funding and pupils to the outdoor centres. In future, the centres, separately and, I hope, co-operatively, will sell to the schools, which are becoming increasingly independent in their funding and decisions, the excellence of their service and the relevance of what can be done for pupils. That will require changes of attitude, approach, policy and technique, and I suspect that we are seeing only the early stages of that.

I have heard my right hon. Friend's positive suggestions. I cannot immediately respond to them as positively as he would like, but I want to look carefully at them. They seem to revolve around a continuing element of central Government subsidy, either through local education authorities or directly to schools.

In all honesty, given the real constraints on public expenditure, central Government funding of such centres, by whatever route, could be provided only by taking money away from revenue support grant to local authorities. My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is for each local authority to determine its own budget and to decide how that budget should be allocated. As funds are increasingly delegated to schools, it is for governors and heads to decide which local authority services to support.

Where a local authority has reduced its centrally held outdoor education service or decided not to provide such support, the money may not be available to transfer. Where a local authority has decided to maintain its support, it could not be required to pay what would, in effect be a levy, to support similar services elsewhere. Therefore, there are problems associated with the approach suggested by my right hon. Friend. However, I do not want to totally rule out his suggestions at this stage. I want to see whether any of his suggestions are practical or possible.

I should like to take up the challenge laid down by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. The other concern often expressed is about the limitations placed by the Local Authorities (Goods and Services) Act 1970 on local authorities not trading beyond their margin of capacity where an increasing number of schools become grant maintained. I do not want to go into the details of what constitutes a margin of capacity, because that will be determined by finance officers, authority by authority.

Even where margins of capacity are reached or exceeded and the restrictions begin to apply to local education authorities' involvement, I believe that for outdoor education centres and other services hitherto provided by local education authorities, new possibilities exist, and I hope that they will explore them.

There is the possibility in the Education Bill of the Secretary of State designating a further two-year period of continuation of the service. It may be that the staff who provided the service until the margin of capacity was reached could look at management buy-outs where existing employees, perhaps those already in a business unit, would form a company to take over the service and provide it on a more flexible and widespread basis. The current providers could seek out a private sector partner and leave the aegis of the authority to give them flexibility beyond the constraints of the 1970 Act, which may bite on the increasing number of grant-maintained schools.

We are already aware of examples of that in other similar areas of service that have been provided hitherto by local education authorities. It is entirely possible, and is almost certainly the way ahead. Outdoor education centres should be urgently investigating the different possibilities—not seeing themselves constrained, as hitherto, by being local education authority-owned or provided, but seeing themselves in a much more open and flexible context, perhaps marketing services differently and looking to a different marketplace altogether.

Outdoor education centres might, as an interim stage, set up trusts whereby income provided by the authority decreases over a specified period, requiring increasing independent income generation so that the move to full independence, under which constraints on provision are removed, is smooth. A number of local authority services have, indeed, already achieved total independence from former authorities, such as the Cambridge Education Personnel Service and Kirklees Music Service Educational Trust—the latter being a company limited by guarantee with charitable trust status that trades as the Kirklees Music School.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met representatives of the school, who spoke with great commitment of their success in taking this very different approach and selling services in a different way.

I have received representations in addition to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends from a number of interested bodies about outdoor education centres. I am acutely aware of the problems. I hope that the matters with which I have dealt—I can give my right hon. and hon. Friends more details if they require them—provide interesting and revolutionary new ways ahead that could be explored by these excellent centres. I hope that they will take up this opportunity to explore them all, and if they do we shall give whatever help we can.

That is the positive way ahead, and the pessimism that has prevailed among the centres is unjustified. If they look at the ways in which other parallel services have been developed, they will find that they can take a much more optimistic approach to the future.

Although I well understand the reservations, hesitations and unhappiness that have been expressed by the centres, I hope that they will reconsider the possibilities for the future—that they will look not backwards to the traditional way in which services have been provided under local education authorities, but forwards at new and different ways in which they can work in the new environment that is being created by the increasing grant-maintained sector and by the changing role of local education authorities.

That is the way ahead, and I hope that with these few words I have been able to offer some idea of how we can move forward. Officials in my Department and I are always prepared to help in identifying how the centres can move forward and free themselves of the unhappiness and hesitation that they have understandably felt up until now.

I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will continue to play his part in forming a bridge between the centres, my Department and local education authorities, where they have a continuing role to play. In that regard, I hope that the debate has been a positive sign to my right hon. and hon. Friends and the centres to which they are so dedicated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to 12 o'clock.