HL Deb 12 July 1984 vol 454 cc1100-8

7.20 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Education Support Grants Regulations 1984 which were laid Before this House on 22nd June be approved.

We had valuable debates in this House about the Education (Grants and Awards) Bill earlier in this Session. Since the Bill received Royal Assent there has been full consultation with the appropriate local authority associations. On 12th June, in a written parliamentary Answer, I recorded that the expenditure supported in England in the 1985–86 financial year through education support grants would not exceed £30 million in cash, involving a maximum of £21 million being paid in education support grant. In that same parliamentary Answer I set out the purposes which the Government envisaged will be supported through education support grants in 1985–86 in England, a provisional assessment of the amount of expenditure to be supported for each purpose, the provisional assessment of the number of LEAs to be supported and the likely length of support.

I should like to say a few words about each of the purposes set out in the schedule prior to commenting on the regulations themselves. So far as the proposed £1 million of expenditure is concerned on the management and appraisal of school teachers there are shortly to be consultations between the department and the local authority associations about the composition and balance to the consortium of local education authorities who would draw on past experience, current practice and interest to develop new assessment and management practices in their areas.

The proposal to use ESGs to build on progress already made in improving the quality and relevance of the teaching of mathematics in schools has been widely welcomed both in this House and elsewhere. The local authority associations felt strongly that ESGs could valuably be used to support projects designed to improve the effectiveness and relevance of science teaching within primary education. The suggestion that ESGs be used to provide microelectronic equipment designed or adapted for use by children with special needs was, like science teaching, also stongly supported by your Lordships.

The proposal to use ESGs for pilot projects for records of achievement has been welcomed both here and in the other place. The purpose of such projects will be to establish educationally satisfactory and cost-effective ways of recording achievement by pupils and students in secondary schools. The intention is that pilot projects to improve the quality of education provided in primary schools in urban areas will involve enabling teams in assisting the head and staff of selected urban primary schools in raising pupil performance.

The aim of supporting four pilot projects concerned with improving the quality or range of the curriculum provided in primary schools in rural areas is to encourage examination of what are the most cost-and educationally-effective ways of providing an adequate curriculum in small isolated rural schools which have to be retained. The local authority associations thought that education support grants had potentially a valuable part to play in encouraging projects designed to meet the needs of ethnic minority pupils and students, to promote racial harmony or in other ways to equip pupils and students for life in a multi ethnic society. Hence the addition of this item to the original list.

The proposal to assist LEAs to mount re-training and up-dating courses directed towards the needs of industry and commerce was not one of the possibilities discussed when the enabling Bill was going through Parliament. It has been added, as the initial costs since setting up PICKUP courses are high, and may present a barrier to the desirable expansion of such courses which, once established, can be self-financing.

The activity we envisage receiving most grant is the proposal to support £13 million of expenditure to extend the use and awareness of information technology in non-advanced further education courses. The programme involving expenditure on hardware, staff development and courseware is aimed to assist authorities in providing courses which take account of increased use of information technology and the world of work. Another addition to the list of possibilities is the proposed use of grants to support projects directed towards identifying and assessing the educational needs of the adult unemployed and assisting authorities in co-ordinating and redeploying existing resources so that these needs are met as effectively as possible.

The use of ESGs to promote the adoption of management information systems in institutions of further education is a further suggestion put forward by the local authority associations which seems to us to be a sensible use of education support grants.

The last item in the schedule, Developing the knowledge and appreciation of the heritage and culture of Wales, applies only to pupils in schools in Wales. This has been added following consultations between the Welsh Office and the Welsh Joint Education Committee and the Welsh Counties Committee. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be responsible for the operation of ESGs in Wales. He envisages that £2 million worth of expenditure will he supported through ESGs in the 1985–86 financial year on this and the other activities listed in the schedule to the regulations with two exceptions.

To turn now to the details of the regulations themselves, Regulation 3 limits the education authority expenditure which can be supported by the grants to expenditure incurred for or in connection with any of the educational purposes specified in the schedule to the regulations which has been approved for this purpose by the Secretary of State. Regulation 4 specifies that grant shall be paid at the rate of 70 per cent. of approved expenditure, which is the maximum rate allowed under Section 1(3)(b) of the Act. I hope that your Lordships will acknowledge that the use of a standard rate of 70 per cent. responds to the concerns expressed when the Education (Grants and Awards) Bill was going through this House. Regulation 5 is concerned with the time and manner of the payment of grant and with the conditions attached to payment. These important details have been the subject of careful consultation with the approriate association.

Regulation 6 enables grant to be paid in support of payments by authorities to other bodies, providing that the expenditure incurred by such bodies is for or in connection with one of the purposes detailed in the schedule. Regulation 7 provides for the aggregate amount of expenditure which can be approved (under draft Regulation 3) in respect of any one financial year, to be determined by reference to the amount of planned current expenditure on education specified in the rate support grant reports for England and Wales relating to that year.

The aim of education support grants is to encourage local education authorities to redeploy a limited amount of expenditure into areas of particular importance. It is our view that they will have an important contribution to make to promoting continuing improvements in the education service and in assisting local education authorities to respond to changing needs. The list of activities to be supported in 1985–86 has been carefully prepared. It takes account of views expressed both in Parliament and by the local authority associations. We hope therefore that these regulations will be welcomed by this House and that each LEA will consider carefully the most constructive way in which education support grants can be used to promote continuing developments in the education service within its area.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd June be approved.—(The Earl of Swinton.)

7.30 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl the Minister for giving us the explanation of the regulations. I have to say that he did so at a rather fast speed, so that if I ask some questions to which perhaps his speech gave the answers, I apologise, but it was difficult to keep up. Although both the local authority associations and the Opposition maintain their dislike for the Education (Grants and Awards) Act in that it takes rate support grant money away from the local authorities, I have to admit that the Government have kept to the timetable which was proposed for consultation and for the laying of the regulations—at least, to within a week or two. I understand that there have been full consultations with the local authority associations, and that some of their objections and suggestions, if not all of them, have been paid heed to; for instance, the pilot projects to meet the educational needs of those from ethnic minorities were added to the list, but the projects to improve the quality of education provided in primary schools in urban and in rural areas, which the local authorities disliked, the Secretary of State insisted should be kept in.

I should like to ask one or two questions about the sum of £30 million. I do not know whether the Minister can tell us what percentage of rate support grant that is supposed to be: it was half of 1 per cent. in the Bill, but I take it that it is not that amount. At the Committee stage I think it was said that the expenditure would be likely to increase from year to year; that it would start at a low level and would become higher as the years went by. I presume that is still the position.

I should like to make a few general comments. I am glad that the grant will be payable at the rate of 70 per cent. of approved expenditure. This we tried to make sure of when discussing the Bill, but our amendments were not accepted. We were then told that the rate would he between 50 per cent. and 70 per cent., so we are pleased about that. As to the payment of the grant, is it to be paid in advance or in arrears? The explanatory note refers to expenditure, "incurred or to be incurred". If it is to be paid in arrears, are the local authorities happy about that?

As for the projects proposed, I am surprised by the number. It was 12 in the Written Answer of 12th June and in the draft circular, and it is 13 in the draft regulations, where the development of the knowledge and appreciation of the heritage and culture of Wales has crept in. I was slightly surprised by this. When we were discussing possible activities during the Committee and Report stages, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, criticising our proposals at col. 86 of the Official Report for 5th March, said: there is a danger that a predetermined commitment to an excessive number of projects will lead to a fragmentation of funding, with insufficient money to do justice to all the projects deemed appropriate for financial support". The Minister himself said at col. 89 of the Official Report: There is a need to restrict the number of areas of the education service which might receive assistance through education support grants, if we are to make the most cost-effective use possible of the limited resources available. Hence my right honourable friend did not include science education among the possible areas for support. I am sorry that we do not have the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, with us now. I thought she was here earlier, and I hoped that she might be here to comment tonight. However, we do have the teaching of science as part of primary education as one of the categories, and there does seem to have been a change of opinion about the total number to be supported. I wonder whether the Minister can explain to us the reason for that change of opinion since the Bill was discussed.

Then there is the number of the authorities expected to participate: the majority in the case of the teaching of maths; about half in the case of the provision of micro-electronic equipment for use by children with special educational needs; a substantial number for the pick-up courses and for the provision of data processing equipment for use in the management of further education establishments; about half for the educational needs of the unemployed; down to four for improving the quality of the curriculum provided in primary schools in rural areas; and a small number for the pilot projects to meet the educational needs of the ethnic minorities. I am sorry about that. I am mystified as to how this distribution came about. Is it firm, or may it, too, be changed according to the bids coming in from the authorities? Fragmentation, which was feared, seems a very real possibility. On the other hand, of course, as we did not like the idea of money being taken from every authority to be handed back to some, I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that a very large number of them will get some of their money handed back.

Most of the projects proposed are worthy and acceptable, although I would certainly query the propriety of helping some primary schools in urban and rural areas at the expense of the totality of primary schools. What does surprise me, as I thought the objective of the ESGs was to improve the standards in schools, is that four categories do not apply to schools, and two of those four do not even apply to further education establishments. Should these grants really be used for training for employment? As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading: The purpose of the Bill is to influence the deployment of resources in education by local education authorities".—[Official Report, Commons. 14/11/83; col. 634.] Should there not be an additional and separate fund for the education and training of the unemployed? Indeed, I know there is one, but should that not be expanded rather than taking the money from the local authorities for this?

Is not PICKUP, a pilot project set up already by the Department of Education and Science, an innovation and an area where surely the Manpower Services Commision should contribute? Could the Minister give an explanation why £13 million—nearly 40 per cent. of the total—should be allocated to Item J on the list, for the development of the use of information technology at further education establishments by providing equipment, course materials and computer software? It seems a very large percentage of the total. How many colleges of further education will benefit? The majority of local education authorities are assessed as likely to be supported, so one would suspect that the number of colleges would be small; but I should like to have an answer on that.

Speaking generally, one has the fears which the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, expressed in Committee, at col. 137 of the Official Report for 14th February: that this Bill is taking away a certain amount of resources … from the less enterprising authorities and giving it to perhaps the most enterprising". Will the more innovative local education authorities apply for grants, probably for things they are doing already, and the less innovative, the ones that really need help and a spur to change, be content to sit back and let things go on as they are? Finally, I ask: what criteria will there be for deciding on the activities and on the authorities to be chosen as the recipients of these grants?

7.37 p.m.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we, too, should like to thank the noble Earl for explaining the regulations. Certainly the most noticeable thing about them is that the shopping list has become considerably longer than was envisaged when the Government introduced the Bill. The question therefore arises whether the funds will be adequate to satisfy all these aspirations.

The complaint when the Bill was before the House was that this was not genuinely new money, but money taken from the rate support grant and redistributed by central government. Does the noble Earl agree that this is the moment to consider whether there should not be some genuinely new money on the table? The noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to the allocation of a very large proportion—£13 million—to the development of the use of information technology at further education establishments. We would certainly not disagree with the Government that that is a very important aim, but would the noble Earl not agree that it would be more appropriate to make that expenditure under the Government's general information technology campaign, rather than load it on to the programmes which are covered under the Bill?

What I am suggesting to the noble Earl is that if he is going to stick to £30 million, then that £30 million should be allocated among the other projects with which the Government have come forward, and that the £13 million which the Government have proposed for the development of the use of information technology should not be drawn from this fund but should come from the monies which the Government have allocated for the general promotion of information technology in this country. Will the Government give consideration to that?

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, I think that the regulations illustrate the point which several of us made when the Bill was being discussed: that, really, the money for the projects ought to be new money and not money taken from local education authorities. Now that we see the way it is going to work spelt out, that point becomes even more clear. However, we have discussed that and I do not want to develop it further here. In addition, I have only one question to ask. It has probably an extremely common-sense answer which I ought to know, but I am afraid that I do not. Regulation 5(3) describes what is to happen to applications relating to approved expenditure during the quarters commencing 1st April, 1st July and 1st October. What do you do about applications for the other quarter of the year?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I feel that this matter has received a welcome, albeit a somewhat lukewarm one, from some of the speakers. Nonetheless, I should like to thank them. As the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, said, the question of, as it were, new money was something that we went into in great detail at all stages of the Bill and I am not going to be drawn on that except to say that of course it is all government money—it is all taxpayers' money anyway—wherever it goes; and I thought I stressed that when the Bill was going through. So I have not really anything to add to that, except that I am afraid there is no question of the Government finding a lot of additional money for these projects at the present time.

We believe that the list of activities to be supported has the general consensus of those involved in education. The list includes suggestions made by the relevant local authority associations. Account has been taken of concerns expressed in Parliament in finalising the list of purposes to be supported, the rate of grant and various administrative details set out in the regulations and the circular.

Following what I thought were very constructive discussions with the associations, we believe that individual local education authorities will want to respond to the availability of education support grants in a positive way. The test now of whether or not the list of activities is right will be the reaction of the individual local education authorities. It will be up to them to decide whether or not to bid for ESG support.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, mentioned the timetable for this, and with the agreement of the local authority associations a draft of the circular setting out in some detail the purposes which the Secretary of State envisages will be supported through education support grants in England was sent to each local education authority on the 12th June. Copies of the draft circular were placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The final version of the circular will be issued early next week. As the local authority associations wanted decisions on bids to be announced prior to the settling of the 1985–86 budgets, the circular asked for bids to be back with the department by 1st October. It is then intended that decisions on which bids have been accepted will be announced in December on a similar time-scale to the announcement of details of the 1985–86 RSG settlement.

The noble Baroness also asked me about the percentage represented by the £30 million. The statutory limit of half of one per cent. represents about £50 million: hence, £30 million of expenditure represents about 0.3 per cent. of the planned expenditure on education. It will be slightly bigger than £30 million in 1986–87—I think the noble Baroness also asked me that—partly because some of the projects will not start until September 1985.

On the payment of grant, the associations have agreed the arrangements for payment in areas of the grant; but for the first three quarters the authorities can put their claims in before the end of the quarter. These arrangements were welcomed by the local authority associations.

I must apologise if I did not catch all the questions of the noble Baroness. I shall read with interest the points that she made and I will write to her about any points that I may have missed out. I think the noble Baroness asked me whether the £13 million being spent on information technology was not rather a large sum. I agree that it is a large proportion of the total, but of this we envisage £10 million being spent on hardware. We envisage that this would enable in 1985–86 about half of the FE colleges to purchase about £40,000 worth of equipment each. But much will depend on the number of bids received from the different authorities.

As I say, provision has been made, allowing them to support approximately half the colleges, and it is to be hoped that a similar scale of funding will be available for the financial year 1986–87. However, much will depend on the number and quality of the bids received for 1985–86. Acceptance of bids for hardware will normally be contingent on satisfactory proposals for staff training and the general development of IT across the curriculum in colleges. All LEAs may bid in respect of one or more colleges in their area to become centres for the provision of in-service training, but we envisage that only a relatively small number will be supported. Similarly, although all the LEAs may bid under the courseware development head, we envisage that only a relatively small number will accept it. As to how the colleges will be chosen, we shall rely on advice, particularly from HMI, to identify colleges which have already built up strength in this area.

The noble Baroness also made a strong point I think about spending money on small rural schools—against, I would admit, the advice though probably not of the strong objections of the local authorities—and we feel that there are some authorities that are doing extremely well in this area. Support for pilot projects on the enrichment of the rural primary school curriculum is not intended to shore up small schools where there is a strong case for closure on educational and financial grounds. One of the criteria to be used in selecting projects for support will be evidence of the policy in the authorities concerned for taking out of use surplus places in rural areas as well as urban areas. Nevertheless, in many isolated rural areas, small schools have to be retained because of the length of journeys to alternative schools. We feel that some work on this would be of extreme assistance.

I must admit that the associations showed some scepticism about the activity and the one concerned with urban primary schools as well. But we concluded that a limited number of pilot projects with closely-defined aims could produce worthwhile results. We originally had in mind that some projects would start in 1985–86, with some further projects starting in 1986–87. In response to the concern of the associations, my right honourable friend made it clear that there would be no presumption at this stage that further projects would start in 1986–87 and much would depend on the number and quality of the bids received.

The main point of the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, was again about the new money. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, for keeping him waiting: I am afraid the question has vanished somewhere in the pile of paper that I have before me. The answer, even though I do not have the question, is that this is covered by Regulation 5(4) and this covers payments over the full year, including the final quarter.

These are important regulations, setting out as they do the purposes to be supported by ESG in 1985–86, and they represent an important innovation by the Government but one that does not change the fundamental relationship between a partnership as between central and local government and education.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.49 until 8.5 p.m.]