HL Deb 27 June 1985 vol 465 cc851-8

4.27 p.m.

Baroness Cox rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 23rd May be approved. [24th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, 1986–87 will be the second year in which education support grants are available. Of a total of £30 million of expenditure planned for in 1985–86, expenditure of £29.5 million has been approved for support. Ninety-five LEAs in England are receiving grant support in this financial year. These draft regulations, which amend the Education Support Grant Regulations 1984, extend the purposes in support of which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science will pay grant in 1986–87.

My right honourable friend has had full consultations with the appropriate local authority associations about the programme for 1986–87 and on 22nd May announced in a written parliamentary answer that it was intended that the expenditure to be supported would amount to some £40 million cash in that year. Of this total, he indicated that £18.8 million would be accounted for by the continuing expenditure arising from projects first approved in 1985–86 and roughly £21.5 million would be available to support expenditure on new activities and the extension of existing ones. As last year, grant will be paid on this expenditure at a rate of 70 per cent. Thus the Government are envisaging that £40 million of expenditure be supported through £28 million of education support grant in the 1986–87 financial year in England.

In the same parliamentary answer, my right honourable friend specified the new and extended purposes which he envisaged will be supported through education support grants in 1986–87, and offered provisional assessments of the amount of expenditure to be supported for each purpose, of the number of LEAs to be supported and of the likely length of support.

I should like to say a few words about each of the new activities which they add to the schedule of purposes on which it is proposed grant should be paid. The use of education support grants to develop and appraise pilot courses of initial training designed to improve the effectiveness of newly appointed school governors, carries forward the proposals for new arrangements for school government set out in Better Schools.

The aim is to enable participating authorities not only to produce suitable materials but also to assess the effectiveness of different training methods and techniques in equipping new governors to participate effectively in the work of governing bodies.

The Education Act 1981 re-enacted the duties of local education authorities to make provision for children under five with special educational needs. The education support grant is intended to encourage the adoption of a multi-professional approach, based on the so-called "Portage" model and underpinned by the guidelines of the National Portage Association, which has been found to be highly effective in promoting the development of children with all forms of handicap, even the most severe. We envisage over the period of the programme that the use of education support grants will enable every local education authority to initiate this service.

The use of education support grants to support the provision of computerised learning aids at further education establishments for students with special educational needs aims to assist LEAs to exploit recent developments in computers as aids to learning in order to open up higher and further education to handicapped people. The grants will enable LEAs to build up staff expertise and a bank of micro-electronic equipment specifically designed to facilitate the participation of such students on mainstream courses in further and higher education establishments.

Projects aimed at strengthening college-employer links should enable local employers both to identify and to articulate what they want of non-advanced further educational provision, and also to secure greater responsiveness from colleges to employers' needs. We envisage that grant will be used primarily to appoint project leaders who will draw on the extensive experience already emerging from the college employer links project in order to promote good practice and remedy deficiencies.

We also propose the use of education support grants to support action to combat drug misuse as one element in the Government's developing strategy to tackle this crucial and difficult problem. The aim is that the grants, which it is intended will be available to every local education authority should support the appointment or secondment of a full-time member of staff whose task will be to stimulate and co-ordinate action within the education service to prevent drug misuse. This might take the form of advice to local authority schools, colleges and the youth service; the development of appropriate training for local authority staff; and the building up of co-operative links with other local and national agencies. The level of funding being offered to each authority is intended to cover some operating overheads—for example, in arranging training courses and for the purchase of materials. Where a local education authority, perhaps one which already has in hand some action along the lines I have outlined, proposes alternative action, we shall be willing to consider its case.

In addition to supporting these five new activities in 1986–87, my right honourable friend has also decided that a further slice of new expenditure should be supported in respect of seven of the activities in the 1985–86 programme which were oversubscribed, or where considerable scope for further development exists. The table attached to my right honourable friend's parliamentary Answer of 22nd May gives further details. I do not intend to recapitulate them now. Nevertheless, I should like to mention changes to two of the activities set out in the amendment regulations.

Paragraph 1 of Regulation 2 extends the scope of the activity aimed at improving the effectiveness and relevance of primary science teaching to additional authorities and takes in technology. Grants will be available to authorities who were not offered support for work on primary science in 1985–86. Authorities who have already accepted support for primary science in 1985–86 will also be able to bid for additional resources. These may be used either to expand the scale of the existing plans or to take in the technology dimension.

The effect of paragraph 2 is to make explicit reference to educational guidance as among the educational needs of unemployed persons on which expenditure may be supported by grant. This reflects our view that more relevant and better adapted guidance services are central to extending the educational opportunities and participation in education of the adult unemployed. Equally, we recognise that the development of guidance services intended solely for the unemployed is not necessarily the right way to proceed.

On the whole, the needs of the unemployed are likely to be most satisfactorily met through services which are also designed to be used by the community at large. Paragraph 3 therefore provides that where under this activity provision is made for educational guidance, grant may also be paid in respect of guidance for other adults. Our intention is that authorities who are receiving support under this activity in 1985–86 should, if they wish, now be able to submit proposals specifically concerned with the development of guidance services with the needs of the unemployed particularly, though not exclusively, in mind: while other authorities will be able to submit proposals of essentially the same kind as were invited last year.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales is responsible for the operation of education support grants in Wales. He plans for £2.61 million worth of expenditure to be supported through £1.83 million of grant in 1986–87. The programme of activities in Wales will be similar to the one in England, but of course there are some differences reflecting the particular circumstances in Wales. It is intended that of the five new activities introduced for 1986–87, four should be included in the programme for Wales, the exception being the activity concerned with the provision for children under five with special educational needs, for which provision is made elsewhere.

We believe that, taken as a whole, this is a constructive and well-balanced programme, carefully prepared and reflecting our consultations with the local authority associations. It will facilitate a further modest redevelopment of expenditure into areas acknowledged as of particular importance and assist LEAs to reflect on, and to make, improvements to provision which changing circumstances demand. The education support grant programme enables the education partners to collaborate on a programme of experiment and innovation whose fruits will ultimately be shared with and benefit the education service as a whole. I commend these amendment regulations and the list of purposes to be supported in 1986–87 to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 23rd May be approved.—(Baroness Cox.)

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for her explanation of the amended regulations. As the noble Baroness well knows, neither we nor the local authority associations much like education support grants. Local education authorities would prefer to be left to decide on how they should spend their own money. Indeed, I have to make that point every time we talk about them. However, having made it, I should say that the items which have been added to the list seem to be worthy items even though some—8A, 11, 14 and, perhaps 12—do not have to do specifically with schools. We were certainly given the impression when the Bill was going through the House that these grants were intended to improve the standards in schools. However, I do not want to make an issue of that.

I cannot resist commenting on the length of the list as it now stands. There are now 15 items. I do not think that any have been cut from last year, but I may be wrong about that. Item 5 really consists of four separate projects. Therefore it may be said that there are 19 projects from which to choose or for which to bid.

We were reprimanded during the Committee and Report stages for making suggestions for additions to the list. It was the noble Baroness herself who, when she was not in a ministerial position, said, at col. 86 of the Official Report of 5th March, 1984: 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". We now have many more projects than were suggested during the passage of the Bill and I should be interested to hear the comments of the noble Baroness today.

I understand that now £40 million is to be the total expenditure this year and that £28 million was the total last year. We were told by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, last year that there would be an addition this year, and indeed we have that addition. I should like to ask whether it is to be extended to £50 million perhaps next year, which was the sum to which we were told it might rise, and whether the half per cent. of education expenditure, which is the statutory limit that the Bill allows, has been reached this year or whether it is expected that it will be reached. Is that money in fact taken from the local authorities even if it is not fully returned to them? I am aware that some figures were given in a Written Answer in the House of Commons Hansard of 22nd May but I am not sure how final those figures were, and whether there have been any changes between 22nd May and this date, a month or so later.

Would it be correct to assume that projects to do with the unemployed and children under five years with special educational needs, and with combating the misuse of drugs, will be open and available to all authorities? Those are needs which are great in the area of every local education authority. I believe that the Minister said that for the children with special needs that is going to be for every authority. I have a final question on the matter of bidding. Are all authorities going to be encouraged to put in bids, or is some guidance to be given?

On looking at the answers to a Written Question from my honourable friend Mr. Andrew Bennett on 17th December 1984, nearly every authority put in a large number of bids last time around; a good deal of officers' time must have been spent in preparing them, and officers' time is costly. With the pressures on finance it would seem regrettable and a shame that unnecessary and unproductive work should have to be done. I should welcome a comment on that when the Minister replies, and perhaps also some intimation of when we shall have some evaluation on any of the projects which have been supported to date.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, I too from these Benches would like to thank the noble Baroness the Minister for explaining the regulations to us. One can but approve the worthy aims of all of them. I should like to applaud particularly those which are designed to help the disadvantaged; the persons from ethnic minorities. I think this is referring back to last year, but I should like to ask the Minister whether this covers adults.

The linguistic problems of ethnic minorities can be great, as we all know, particulalry of adults. Children will learn in schools but the adults may well never learn enough English to be at home in this country. One appreciates the efforts to help the unemployed, and particularly what the Minister said a moment ago about the guidance which will be given to them.

I, having been personally concerned a great deal in this sort of work, appreciate the item which covers the helping of parents with the education of children under five. The vast majority of special educational difficulties resolve themselves into linguistic disabilities. Language starts in the home, and it is mother who teaches a child to communicate: to a lesser extent father and brothers and sisters, but chiefly mother.

If there is any sort of a problem, however slight, such as a slight hearing loss resulting from chronic or persistent respiratory difficulties, or if there is what we call an auditory imperception of any sort—that is to say, mishearing rather than failing to hear—these develop before school age, or become evident before school age if you spot them. If they are not spotted then you eventually get the child who is underachieving, and in their teens such children will be poor spellers, poor readers, and what is most difficult of all, they have a most inadequate vocabulary.

If these disabilities can be diagnosed early and helped in the nursery, that is excellent, and there is a great deal that parents can do, and I am sure are doing, under the scheme. By the same token, the provision of computerised learning aids for students with special educational needs seems to be a good thing, too. Often those who have linguistic problems can excel in technology where the skills are not verbal. 4.45 p.m.

I have certain queries. I should like to ask the Minister whether the project to improve the teaching of maths in schools can be extended to teaching maths to children with specific difficulties in that subject? The reading and writing disability has been pretty well publicised of recent years, largely thanks to some rather charismatic sufferers in the world of show business, but many children—and I was one of them—have a specific problem with maths. This problem has not been paid as much attention to as has the other. A project to do this would be worthwhile.

Could the Minister draw the attention of the Secretary of State to this problem with a view to considering it for a project for next year?

I do not feel I can make any further comments about the question of educating to prevent the misuse of drugs. That is obviously of vital importance. Anything that can be done in that direction will be thoroughly worth while. My only comment about it is that in the document "combating" is misspelt, in my copy at any rate. Perhaps the Minister would like to draw the attention of the Secretary of State to this.

On what basis does the department decide which projects shall be authorised for which LEAs? On looking at the statistics given in the Secretary of State's Written Answer to a Question in another place last December, to which the noble Baroness, Lady David, referred, I notice, for example, that Croydon education authority bid for support in 10 categories of activity and received approval for nine, whereas Ealing bid for support in nine and received approval for only four. One wonders why this was. Incidentally, I notice that Hounslow bid for none, and not unnaturally received none. Is Hounslow a cultural desert? I should like to know because I live there during the week.

Can the Minister give us any idea of the take-up of the various projects and their relative popularity? I may have missed out on this somewhere. Perhaps she would be kind enough to say a word about it. I find the details of the funding arrangements somewhat difficult, but the noble Baroness, Lady David, asked about this and perhaps we shall hear the answer from the Minister. These projects look superb on paper. It all depends on whether their fulfilment comes up to their promise.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady David, and the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, for their comments and for their, I think, qualified support, bearing in mind that I know and respect the reservations of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness about the principles of education support grants. It is reassuring to know that on the whole there is support for the new areas now being proposed.

I should like to respond briefly by reiterating the fundamental principles, which I hope meet the noble Baroness's concern. I know that some local education authorities, like the noble Baroness, are opposed to the concept because they perceive the requirement to bid for the approval of expenditure derogates from their discretion to deploy resources as they see fit in response to the local needs and circumstances for which they are responsible.

The objective of education support grants is to facilitate the redeployment of only a modest amount of expenditure into areas which by common consent are deemed to be of national importance, and therefore perhaps go wider than the immediate needs of any particular local authority. The sums of money involved are very modest indeed, taken out of the budget as a whole. The amount of expenditure that can be supported by grant is limited by statute to half of one per cent. of local authority expenditure on education.

As I have said, I am grateful that there seems to be general consensus about the programme for 1986–87. But I shall try to answer one or two of the specific questions which have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady David, asked whether the growth in the list would be met by the increased expenditure. As she herself has recognised, the amount is being raised from £28 million to £40 million, so I hope the increased expenditure will allow for the greater diversity of areas on which money may be spent.

The noble Baroness also asked whether three particular areas—education opportunities or guidance for the unemployed, education with regard to drug misuse, and education for children with special needs—are open for all authorities to apply and bid for money and the answer to that question is, Yes.

Baroness David

My Lords, if I may, I interrupt there to clear up that point. Of course, I realise that all authorities can bid, but will all the authorities have the grant to follow the project?

Baroness Cox

My Lords, not automatically because every bid is subject to assessment, to evaluation as to its appropriateness. The noble Baroness also asked me whether there has been any change since the Answer of 22nd May. I understand that there has been no change since then. Clearly evaluation is an important principle. The department's letter to local education authorities drew attention specifically to the importance of monitoring and has foreshadowed the Government's intention of requesting reports on the outcome of individual projects. Final arrangements for evaluation will, however, be a matter for consultation between individual authorities, the department and Her Majesty's Inspectorate, but we must have regard to the administrative burden which evaluation arrangements impose on authorities.

The noble Baroness also asked about administrative costs and whether the amount of information being sought overburdens authorities at a time of financial constraint. We are conscious of the need not to overburden authorities by requesting excessive information in support of bids for the education support grants, but at the same time sufficient information is needed on which to base a judgment about the comparative merits of different authorities' bids. A balance needs to be struck but we believe that the circular of guidance to authorities gets it right. We shall expect authorities in formulating their bids to be collating for their own purposes much of the information about objectives, resources and costs which we are seeking. If the noble Baroness asked other questions, which I have not been able to touch upon in my reply, I shall be glad to write to her.

I turn briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, and thank him for his general support for the programme as we have outlined it. He asked about the teaching of maths. I understand that the information relating to the kind of provisions he has in mind is to make specialist advisers available who will be particularly skilled at helping the teachers of children who have learning difficulties in that subject. The noble Lord also asked about how the bids are assessed and how decisions are made. Bids are assessed on their merits according to how far they meet both the general criterion of education support grants and the more specific criteria appropriate to the individual activities which come within the headings under which the bid is made. It is inevitable that education support grants will result in some reallocation of resources both within and between authorities, but they are assessed according to the merits of the objectives for which proposals are made.

I conclude by emphasising the exploratory nature of education support grants, because that perhaps alleviates some of the problems and concern expressed about them. The aim is to reward innovation and to foster constructive change. The Government wish to support the most promising ideas whatever their provenance. It follows therefore that authorities' bids, as I have just said, must be judged on their merits and that the redeployment of resources between authorities is an integral feature of education support grants and one for which the Government do not feel apologetic. I reiterate our convictions that the education support grant programme for 1986–87 embraces activities whose importance is widely recognised. I am confident that the local education authorities will respond constructively and I therefore commend these amendment regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.