HL Deb 10 June 1974 vol 352 cc231-5

2.57 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why children who have attained the school leaving age of sixteen years are required to continue to attend school until the end of the summer term.


My Lords, the school-leaving dates in England and Wales are governed by Section 9 of the Education Act 1962, the effect of which is that a pupil who attains the age of 16 between the beginning of September and the end of January cannot leave before the end of the following spring term. One who attains that age after the end of January cannot leave before the end of the summer term.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, which did not really add anything to the knowledge I already had of this matter. I would ask him whether lie is aware that there are children in schools who have taken examinations and who are serving no useful purpose in remaining there, and there are children who would like to leave school to seek employment. In the present situation, will the noble Lord accept that it would probably be more sensible to have some flexibility in this matter?


My Lords, when I read it, I suspected that my noble friend knew the answer to her Question. With regard to the second part of her supplementary comments, may I say that to permit pupils to leave on their sixteenth birthday, or indeed after they have taken examinations, would require new legislation. It would result in a constant disruption of classes and courses, and would clearly be prejudicial to the organisation of a fully integrated five-year secondary course, or a comparable course in a system of middle and upper schools.


My Lords, will the noble Lord consider very carefully the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips? The objections he has given are administrative and organisational ones, but is not the welfare of the individual still more important? Is it not a fact that before the school-leaving age was raised it was highly encouraging to see the steady increase in the number of those who remained at school voluntarily? But will the noble Lord also bear in mind that there are some youngsters for whom it is probably of no great benefit to be kept at school against their will after the age of sixteen?


My Lords, as I have indicated there is also a legislative programme. My right honourable friend is very well aware of the situation, which is not an easy one. Not all children take examinations, and if some are allowed to leave school earlier than others difficulties can also arise on that score. My right honourable friend has had consultations with local authorities and with teachers' organisations but I understand that there is no agreement at the present time on the present position or on what might be done to change it. My right honourable friend is studying the replies he has received, but he is certainly in no position to make any proposals. He is aware of the situation and has been consulted.


My Lords, while we believe that the raising of the school-leaving age to 16 was a very great reform indeed, may I ask the noble Lord to look at the points raised in these questions to see whether it is not possible to modify the Acts to which he referred so that a boy or girl aged 16 may leave when he or she is 16?


My Lords, I am very grateful for the noble Lords comments. I think we have to be a little careful before we rush into a decision. We have had the school leaving age of 16 in operation for only a year. It seems to be rather early days to be making final decisions.


My Lords, in supporting my noble friend, may I ask this question. Is not the extent of the impatience and the boredom of young people at school in their last year exacerbated by the fact that, although the raising of the school leaving age to 16 was a good principle in itself, neither the Conservative Government nor the Labour Government prepared for this? Is this not another reason for allowing children to leave school when they reach the age of 16?


My Lords, I should not wish to over-generalise on this because practice varies from local authority to local authority. My information is that in some areas it is working extremely well. At the same time, it would appear that some L.E.A.s were not as prepared as they might have been. I think all of us appreciate that the economic situation has allowed neither Government to spend all the money on all the things they would like to do.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell me what happens to the boy or girl who passes an examination, reaches the age of 16, and decides to leave at the age of 16? What would the noble Lord do—prosecute them?


My Lords, it is not for me to prosecute anyone. I would think this is a matter that can safely be left to the discretion of the boards of governors of schools.


My Lords. I should like to ask just one question that I think has not been raised. Would not the leaving of these children at this time, which has been so well argued, create vacancies in schools which are much needed? The plea of the noble Lord that there are difficulties seems to me pathetic. Are not difficulties made to be overcome?


Yes, my Lords, but if we acceded to the suggestion of the noble Lord I think we should probably be creating more difficulties than we were curing.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that although the school leaving age of 16 has been in operation for only a short period of time, there is a general anxiety whether the best use is being made of this last year at school, as enumerated by my noble friend Lady Gaitskell? Would the noble Lord have a word with the Secretary of State with a view to having some inquiries undertaken as to whether the best use is being made of the last year at school for these children, and eventually a report made on the findings?


My Lords, I shall be very pleased to do just that.


My Lords, if the noble Lord cannot assure us that he can give us an earlier leaving date birthday by birthday, can he work towards a single date earlier than the end of the summer term? Is the noble Lord aware that the disruption to which he refers of administrative inconvenience such as release birthday by birthday is more than equalled by the disruption caused by unwilling pupils in schools which do not have equipment and staff to deal with them? And may I inform him, as one who—


My Lords, I have a feeling that we are in danger of exaggerating the difficulties that exist. While I would not wish to minimise them, I would ask the House to he a little more patient before it passes final judgment.I have indicated that new legislation would be required. I had thought it common ground between the Opposition and ourselves that the school leaving age should be raised to 16; and it has been raised to 16 in the only manner in which the law provides. My right honourable friend is fully aware of the concern, and is giving constant attention to it. I am quite certain that if he feels it necessary to introduce new legislation, he will not hesitate to do so.


My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity of asking my noble friend the simple question: what proportion of truancy occurs among those scholars who are kept at school after the age of 16?


My Lords, I cannot give a figure for the country; it varies from area to area and from school to school. Such inquiries as I have been able to make indicate that the position has been exaggerated in terms of the national situation. It may well be that we shall have statistics later on, but as. I indicated in reply to a Question a few weeks ago, the statistics are not available, and have not been available, on this and sundry matters.


My Lords, having in mind a 6 ft. 16-year-old with an incipient moustache, does the noble Lord think it is in the interests of the youth or the teacher, or the class, that a youth of this kind should be kept on at school against his will?


My Lords, I am no expert on what to do about incipient moustaches, but it seems to me that some of these questions might have been given some thought before we all agreed to the raising of the school leaving age to 16.

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