HL Deb 19 January 1984 vol 446 cc1154-9

3.25 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill was considered carefully by Members of the other place. Its main purpose is to enable my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education to pay a limited amount in education support grants to local education authorities for purposes to be defined in regulations. My right honourable friend, in introducing the Bill, described it as, an important change in the financing arrangements for education that is within the responsibilities of local education authorities."—[Official Report, Commons, 14/11/83; col. 637.] However, he emphasised that it was not a radical proposal and would not alter the fundamental relationship between central and local Government within education. He emphasised that it was concerned with a small proportion of local authority expenditure. Local authorities would remain free to determine their priorities within education and between education and other services, taking account of their statutory responsibilities, local needs and circumstances and the policy priorities of Government.

Specific and supplementary grants are widely used to support local authority expenditure on services such as police and transport. As long ago as 1977 a Green Paper issued by the then Government had proposed that a slightly higher proportion of the Government grant going to authorities in support of education should be directed through specific grant. The impetus towards introducing a limited specific grant power was given added force by the Select Committee on Education. Science and Arts in the other place which recommended in a recent report that: The DES should have the ability, or use existing powers where it has them, to fund direct such new developments on a temporary basis as may seem to it to be desirable". Some grants paid under other Government schemes—for example, the urban programme—do go to support local authorities' expenditure on particular aspects of education. The MSC is also making an important contribution through the technical and vocational education initiative. Yet the scope of these existing grants is limited. Although in certain cases they have been used to assist Government policies for education, they were not designed specifically to enable the Government to encourage developments and improvements in the education service. This Bill provides a direct and limited method of encouraging developments in education which avoids the use of indirect means of direct funding which have blurred the important relationship between the DES and local education authorities.

The Bill recognises that education is both a national and a local service with local education authorities having the responsibility to respond to local needs and circumstances, and central Government having a responsibility to identify national needs and to encourage the meeting of those needs. In short, the intention of the Bill is to make it possible to help in developments in areas of national importance by funding them directly, while leaving the financing of the vast majority of local authority education services unchanged.

I know that there have been reservations expressed about the Bill by some local authority leaders. However, the Bill does respond to genuine local authority concerns by incorporating a number of checks and safeguards. Clause 2 places an upper limit of one-half of 1 per cent. on the proportion of the Government's plans for expenditure by LEAs on education that could be supported by education support grants. Should Parliament agree that such a limit should be included in the Bill new primary legislation would be necessary if any future Government wished to increase the limit. Secondly, the purpose for which the grants are to be used would be determined by regulations, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses, to ensure that Parliament will have an opportunity to debate each activity for which the grants might be used. The Bill also ensures that the appropriate local authority associations will be fully consulted about the operation of the grants. including the activities to be supported. This all adds up to, in the words of the journal of the local education world, Education, a Bill which "bends over backwards to allay local authority sensibilities".

I should like now to say a little about each of the clauses in the Bill before talking about the issues of resources and the activities that might be supported by education support grants in 1985–86, the first year in which it is intended that education support grants be paid. Detailed notes on each clause will be available in the Printed Paper Office tomorrow.

Clause 1 of the Bill empowers the Secretaries of State for Education and Science and for Wales to pay education support grants to local education authorities for England and Wales. The activities eligible for grant will be set out in regulations made under this clause, which also specifies that the rate of grant paid on approved expenditure for each activity will be determined in regulations, subject to an upper limit of 70 per cent.

Clause 2 places a maximum limit on the total amount of expenditure in support of which grants could be paid. The proposed limit is half of 1 per cent. of the Government's plans for local authority expenditure on education. If this statutory ceiling had applied in 1983–84, the maximum amount of expenditure that could have been supported by education support grants would have been a little over £45 million. This is the amount of expenditure in support of which education support grants could be paid. The actual amount of grant paid would be significantly less than the level of expenditure supported, depending on the rate of grant. The maximum amount of grant that could have been paid in 1983–84 would have been just over £30 million if all the activities had been supported at a rate of 70 per cent.

Clause 3 deals with the making of regulations under the Bill, the main features of which are the requirement that regulations defining the activities to be supported by the grant be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses, and the Secretary of State would be obliged first to consult representatives of the appropriate local authority associations before the regulations are laid.

Clause 4 of the Bill deals with a totally separate technical issue. This clause is a technical measure necessary following the merger of the Business Education Council and the Technician Education Council into the Business and Technician Education Council. Full-time courses leading to the Higher Diploma of the TEC and the Higher National Diploma of the BEC have hitherto attracted mandatory awards. To ensure that courses leading to the comparable qualifications of the BTEC will continue to do so, it is necessary to substitute a reference to the BTEC in primary legislation in place of the present references to the BEC and TEC. This is all that the clause does.

I know that one of the issues that will be raised about the Bill is the question of whether local education authorities will be able to afford to participate in the activities to be supported by ESGs. I have to say at the outset that the Government take the view that the grants should not in themselves lead to increased overall levels of expenditure, as the aim of the exercise is a limited influence over the deployment of resources. It is intended that the grants be paid first of all in 1985–86, and the Government's plans for expenditure by local authorities in that year will be set out in the public expenditure White Paper which will be published in a few weeks' time. The decision about the proportion of that expenditure to be met by aggregate Exchequer grant for 1985–86 will not he made until next autumn. The Government will take a wide range of factors into account, including the expenditure to be supported by specific grants, before making a decision about the level of grant for 1985–86. In arriving at their plans for expenditure in 1985–86 the Government appreciate the need both for continuing restraint in public expenditure and for the plans for expenditure within different areas within education to be consistent with the Government's educational policies.

The Government will not be expecting an impossibly rapid change in the deployment of resources by authorities. It is not the intention that the level of expenditure supported by ESGs should reach its statutory ceiling in the first year. Our present view is that the level of expenditure supported by these grants should build up over a period and that the level of expenditure so supported in the first year or two is likely to be significantly less than one-half of 1 per cent. of the Government's plans for local authority expenditure on education. In short, it is our clear aim to make a sensible and limited use of the ESGs for 1985–86 within a total for local authority expenditure on education which is consistent with the Government's education policies but which recognises that the overall levels of public expenditure must be contained.

Finally, I should like to turn to the activities that might be supported by education support grants in 1985–86. In his Second Reading speech in the other place, my right honourable friend set out a list of possible activities which he wanted to discuss in due course in some detail with representatives of the appropriate local authority associations. He has had some general discussion on several occasions with representatives of the AMA and the ACC education committees about the Bill. They have indicated their view that it would be inappropriate to consider with the Secretary of State the activities that might be supported by ESGs while the Bill is before Parliament. But it is anticipated that, should the Bill become law, discussions about the activities that might be supported by ESGs in 1985–86 would take place soon after Royal Assent. Subject to those discussions, the activities which appear to be the main candidates for support by ESGs in 1985–86 are as follows.

One strong candidate is the financing of a few pilot schemes for the development of records of achievement. It is recognised that some local education authorities have undertaken pioneering work in this area, yet it remains true that there is as yet little experience of compiling such records, and some further pilot schemes would enable different arrangements to be developed and compared and the resource implications to be assessed. A draft policy document on the development of records of achievement was issued by the Government during November. This document has received a generally warm welcome, with there being a consensus that pilot schemes in this area could be of significant value.

Following the Cockcroft Report, there is widespread concern about the need to improve certain aspects of mathematics teaching in schools. We attach high priority to action in the light of the report, and the grants could be used to support some of the chief priorities for bringing about change which the Cockcroft Committee themselves identified. For example, one possibility might be to encourage the appointment of additional teachers to act as advisers and to support development work within school.

Some primary schools in both rural and inner city areas face particular problems in providing their pupils with a rich and stimulating curriculum and environment. Some in similar circumstances achieve more than others. We believe that the grants could be used to promote the development of good practice. For example, one possibility might be to encourage experimentation in the use of peripatetic staff in specialist subjects to enhance the development of science, craft and music in small rural schools. Another possibility might be projects in inner cities to help less successful schools to benefit from the practice of more successful schools in similar areas.

The grants might be used to promote desirable developments in the management of the teacher force. Suggestions for improvements here were discussed in Chapter 6 of the recent White Paper entitled, Teaching Quality. We have received a number of suggestions about constraints which could inhibit action by local education authorities. Another obvious candidate would be their use to help in meeting special educational needs, possibly either through assisting with the establishment of resource centres or providing microelectronic aids for handicapped children.

Representatives of the local education authorities have already played an important part in contributing to the promoting of information technology within advanced further education through the auspices of the National Advisory Body for Local Authority Higher Education. The grants could be used as a means of encouraging similar initiatives within non-advanced further education—for example, to launch a programme of staff training or the development of courseware.

I would emphasise that at this stage these activities are initial candidates. I will listen carefully to the views expressed this afternoon by noble Lords on these possible activities and any others that they may wish to suggest as being suitable for support by education support grants.

I hope that this House will welcome a Bill which is intended to provide a limited means of encouraging at the margin local education authorities to deploy their expenditure in response to objectives of particular national importance. It is a constructive measure that is worthy of the support of all Members of this House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Earl of Swinton.)