HL Deb 13 January 1976 vol 367 cc69-75

5.35 p.m.

The PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE, NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge) rose to move, That the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, laid before the House on 20th November, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this Order is threefold. The most important proposals are to increase from 80 to 85 per cent. capital grants payable to certain voluntary schools in Northern Ireland, and to give the Northern Ireland Department of Education power to alter the school-leaving dates. At the same time the opportunity has been taken to include provision for other Amendments to the parent legislation—the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972—the need for which has arisen from experience in working the Order since it became effective on 1st October 1973. Some of these Amendments are to correct minor defects and others to clarify ambiguities.

I shall deal first with the proposed increase in capital grants to voluntary maintained schools and voluntary grammar schools. Maintained status was first introduced in 1968. The Education (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) of that year introduced important changes in the relationship between the voluntary primary, secondary and special schools and the local education authorities, now the Education and Library Boards. Maintained schools are managed by a Committee of at least six persons, of whom one-third are appointed by the Education and Library Board for the area. The Board is responsible for the maintenance and provision of equipment of the schools and grant of 80 per cent. is paid by the Northern Ireland Department of Education in respect of approved expenditure on the provision or alteration of the premises. The success of these arrangements may be judged from the fact that of approximately 630 voluntary primary, secondary and special schools in Northern Ireland, 600 are now maintained schools. It is for these schools, and for those voluntary grammar schools which have a number of members on their governing bodies appointed by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, that provision is made in Article 13 of the draft Order to increase the capital grants on the provision or alteration of premises and, in the case of the grammar schools, on the provision of equipment.

This provision parallels the provision of Sections 3 and 5 of the Education Act 1975 which increased the rate of grant payable on building work at aided and special agreement schools in England and Wales from 80 to 85 per cent. The increase in grant in England and Wales was introduced in the light of representations from the voluntary school authorities concerning the financial difficulties facing them. The factors which necessitated the increase in England and Wales—that is to say, increased building costs and high interest rates—equally affect voluntary school building in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that the cost of the increase will be approximately £200,000 in the current year.

The increased rate of grant will be payable only on projects on which work commenced on or after 6th November 1974. While the bodies consulted have welcomed the proposal, a number asked that the increase should apply to all work done after that date regardless of the date of starting the scheme, but this would mean that voluntary schools in Northern Ireland would be in a more favourable position than are the aided and special agreement schools in England and Wales under the Education Act 1975. I think the House will agree that it would be wrong to make more favourable proposals for Northern Ireland than those which are already effective in England and Wales.

The second main purpose of the draft Order is to give the Department of Education power to alter the school leaving dates. Article 36 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 provides for two dates in the year on which pupils are treated as reaching the upper limit of compulsory school age and therefore free to leave school if they wish: first, pupils whose 16th birthdays fall between the 1st September and the 31st January may leave school at the end of the spring term following; and secondly, those whose 16th birthdays fall between the 1st February and the 31st August may leave at the end of the summer term. The present leaving dates in Northern Ireland are the same as those in England and Wales. A Bill to bring forward the present summer term leaving date in England and Wales from the end of the term to the Friday before the Spring Bank Holiday was presented in the House on the 11th December last. It is hoped to make the change this year. This change would mean that pupils whose 16th birthdays fall between 1st February and 31st August in any year would be free to leave school on that Friday.

Since the school-leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972, some pupils who in earlier years could have left school on finishing the certificate examinations are no longer free to do so, though it is in fact impracticable to seek to enforce continued attendance for the brief period between the examinations and the end of the term. The raising of the age has also meant that pupils who do not take these examinations and who previously would have left school at 15 are now required to remain at school over the period when many of their fellow pupils arc taking examinations and when normal school work is affected. Both these instances of unwilling children being kept on for the short period involved seem to us bad and unnecessary. While in Northern Ireland the problem is less serious than in England and Wales in that the summer term ends some three weeks earlier, consultations indicate there is general support for bringing the leaving date in Northern Ireland forward to the Spring Bank Holiday. Article 4 of the draft Order empowers the Department of Education to make the necessary amendment to the 1972 Order by means of an order which, under the temporary provisions for Northern Ireland legislation, would be subject to annulment by Resolution of either House at Westminster.

I now turn to the remaining provisions of the Order. Your Lordships will appreciate that once the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, which runs to 127 Articles and 16 Schedules, came into operation, it was to be expected that a number of modifications would be seen to be necessary. The proposed amendments are of a minor, in some cases technical, nature, correcting flaws and clarifying ambiguities. None involves major shifts of policy, and I do not think it is necessary to mention each provision at this stage, but I shall be glad to deal with any queries which may arise in the course of the debate when I come to reply. My Lords, I commend the Order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, laid before the House on 20th November, be approved.—(Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge.)

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, this Order, which the noble Lord has explained, makes necessary additions to the principal Order of 1972, and on those grounds I support it. I should particularly like to support Article 4, about which the noble Lord spoke, which gives power to amend the school-leaving age. I agree with the noble Lord that, since the raising of the school-leaving age, it has become clear that one of the problems is that after pupils have taken the certificate of secondary education, and possibly in the case of some pupils who have taken the general certificate of education, many of them would like to leave school, and I accent that this power may he used to deal with that problem. I think it is worth remarking that Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of Great Britain, made the provision when the raising of the school-leaving age was put into effect that, if a pupil was entered for an apprenticeship course, he or she could spend the final year of compulsory education out of school and on their apprenticeship training. But, so far as I know, this was the only exception allowed for throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. I welcome the fact that the power taken under Article 4 of this Order will have the effect that the noble Lord explained.

There are two questions I should like to ask. Article 7deals with maintenance grants for pupils. I wonder whether the noble Lord has with him any figures for expenditure on maintenance grants and, in particular, for the average level of grant given to a pupil. Far be it from me to encourage the increase in public expenditure at this present, very difficult time, but I recall that when maintenance grants in England and Wales have been discussed the criticism has every often been raised that, really, if a grant is to be given to a pupil it ought to be worth while, and that the general level of grants in England and Wales, certainly a few years ago, seemed to be pitched rather low. I wonder whether the noble Lord has any figures about these grants in Northern Ireland.

Under Article 10 there is power to make payments to the chairmen of the education and library boards. May I ask the noble Lord whether this is a power to pay a salary, or is it a power to remunerate chairmen for the expenses of the duties which they discharge specifically as chairmen. Either way, I imagine that this arises from the considerable expenditure of time and effort which is required from education and library board chairmen, and I am glad to have this opportunity to be able to recognise that that is the fact. My Lords, I do not want to ask any questions about the voluntary schools. This is, as the noble Lord explained, in line with legislation for Great Britain which was passed last year. I think it is right and I support the fact that the Government are not making it effective if the work has not been started after the due date.

Finally—I shall not speak on the other two Orders, so perhaps the noble Lord would bear with me for a moment—may I say one word about part of this Order to which the noble Lord did not allude; namely, the interchange of teachers with teachers from outside Northern Ireland, which is dealt with under Article 9. When I read the Order I felt that, in principle, this was something which is most desirable, and I hope that every possible effort is going to continue to be made by the Northern Ireland Department of Education to continue with these interchanges. In these difficult times Members of this House may say, "Surely, this is a one-way traffic". My Lords, this is not so.

About two years ago a former President of the National Union of Teachers approached the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, offered his services and went to teach in County Tyrone. He had considerable difficulty in accomplishing this at all because he was retired and he did not fall within the ambit of the interchange scheme. When one considers that that man—I think he was 67 years old—exchanged retirement in the South of England for the disruption of moving both himself and his wife, together with the hazards which he could reasonably expect his new life would bring, I have always thought that his decision can only reinforce some faith in human nature. On the occasion of taking the first Northern Ireland Order for the year 1976, perhaps this is no had thing to remember.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his reception of this Order. He gave me notice of one or two questions, which consequently I am able to answer. Taking them article by article, I am very grateful for his support of Article 4. I think it is important, and I think it will ease the running of schools in this rather awkward period between 15 and 16. As regards Article 7, the maintenance grants, the total expenditure in 1975–76 on the existing clothing schemes is expected to be of the order of £400,000. The average level of assistance in an individual case is probably in the region of £15—as the noble Lord suggested, not very high. It is extremely difficult to be precise about this because the existing scheme provides for the reimbursement of the cost of items as determined by the education and library boards. This would be subject to some variation between schools and areas. Expenditure arising from the provisions of this article is expected to be in the region of £20,000 per year.

On Article 9, the interchange of teachers, I am glad the noble Lord noticed this. We shall certainly persevere in this. We think it is important. Not very much use is made of the facility, but we are anxious that more should be made. As regards Article 10—the payment of chairmen of education and library boards—all members of an education and library board, including the chairman, arc entitled to claim travelling, subsistance and attendance allowances. The rates payable are those applicable generally to local government service in Northern Ireland, and these, in turn, arc based on rates applying in England and Wales. In addition, the chairman of an education and library board is paid an honorarium of £1,000 per year. In determining the level of the honorarium, the Department of Education took into account the other allowances which were available. If the noble Lord is interested. the attendance allowances are £5 up to four hours and £10 over four hours in any period of 24 hours. I think that answers the noble Lord's questions. I am grateful for his support and I commend the Order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.