HL Deb 28 March 1990 vol 517 cc869-72

2.50 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they plan to change their policy on charging for educational field trips, theatre visits and other visits in the United Kingdom and abroad.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Department of Education and Science is commissioning a survey of school visits over the past two years. If there is evidence that pupils are being denied valuable educational opportunities because of the way the law is being applied the Government will be ready to consider ways of improving the position.

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging Answer. However, is she aware that many people in education are most concerned about the effects of the present policy, particularly in relation to modern languages? Evidence from head teachers and modern linguists to the EC sub-committee on the teaching of foreign languages say that there has been a great reduction in activity by w£.y of visits and exchanges. I hope that the monitoring will continue.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right: there is concern on many fronts about those activities. However, it is important to wait for the results of the survey. It is likely that other factors must be taken into account. For example, many teachers are now concentrating their energies on bedding-in the new policies in the Education Reform Act.

Sadly, there is also evidence to show that the industrial action where teachers are working to rule is having an effect in that area. Another factor is the press highlighting of particular tragedies making teachers feel understandably vulnerable for the safety of their children. In addition, the pressure on family budgets will also have an effect. However, I assure the noble Baroness that the survey will take into account all those factors and perhaps we can return to the Question later in the year.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, may I draw the Minister's attention to a report already published on this subject by the association of governing bodies? That has reached the conclusion that there is an overwhelming case to be made for the department to change its policy on this because many schools are already suffering because of the present policy?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that it is something of an overstatement to reach such a black and white conclusion. There is some evidence of considerable buoyancy for the more cultural and educational activities. There has been a distinct falling off—and I think this relates to the point made by the noble Baroness—in the number of trips abroad. A distinction needs to be made between those which are cultural/educational and those which are purely pleasurable trips. All those points will be taken into account when the study is carried out.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those establishments which provide a proper educational service for schools are finding evidence that school visits are not declining but are sometimes improving? Is not the answer to those who complain to improve their services to schools and provide a proper service rather than just jolly outings?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for making that point. There is considerable buoyancy for those providing a quality service and it is for schools to make a judgment about the service being provided. However, I take on board that there is concern on this matter and that is why the study has been put in hand.

There is also concern about those families who cannot afford to make a contribution. There is an obligation on local education authorities to safety net those particular children so that they do not lose out when educational opportunities are offered.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Arts Council has been receiving reports from all round the country of cancellations of school visits to theatres because some parents cannot afford to pay? Is she also aware of the survey by the Royal Opera House which shows that charges are having the worst effect on those schools where there is less parental support for visits to the theatre, the opera and ballet? In those circumstances, does she agree that charges are widening the gap between privileged and less privileged pupils?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we are aware of what is said by the Offices of Arts and Libraries on this issue. That will also form part of the survey. However, it is fair to say that, as regards visits to the theatre or ballet, they are very important in educational terms to all children. However, it is only reasonable, when priorities are having to be determined by both schools and education authorities, that, when it is possible for a family to make a contribution, it should do so because if the service was free to all children then the position would be severely limited.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the noble Baroness be good enough to ensure that the survey is completed as quickly as possible? I sense that she is not unsympathetic to the points which have been made. It is the case that a number of regional theatres which depend heavily on school visits are complaining that they are already feeling the draught. Therefore, from the other side of the picture, as well as the educational side, this is a matter of some urgency.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have given an assurance that this survey is in hand. However, the point of the visits is not to prop up the theatres but for the children themselves to benefit.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, as regards children who visit the Palace of Westminster—and most of us have shown children round in our time—very few are compelled to write an essay or to take notes on the visit, which makes them concentrate on what is being said and learn from it. It has sometimes become too much of a jolly outing. The children are chatting to each other and are not listening to the lecture which is taking place.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as always, my noble friend makes a very pertinent point. However, I have very painful memories of having a pleasurable day out and then having to write an essay on it.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, have we abandoned the procedure that we take a question first on one side of the House and then on the other? This afternoon we have had two noble Lords speaking from one side of the House and then two from the other. It becomes extremely confusing if we do not keep to the rules.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness on that. Does not the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, that we should introduce some discipline into visits to the House of Lords? I am sure that the noble Lord would be the first to be willing to mark the essays.

More seriously, does the noble Baroness recall that during our discussions on the Education Reform Act 1988 we clarified the question of charging and we supported the Government in their endeavour to make it clear that free school education meant free school education? Can the Minister give us any indication of how her right honourable friend the Secretary of State is now thinking about these matters? Is it not possible that we should go back from the clarification and reintroduce some obscurity, because things seemed to go quite well when the matter was obscure?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I think that some of us would agree with that but unfortunately cases were often referred to the courts in order to resolve a particular problem. However, it is true that schools were imaginative in providing visits for the children.

We all want our young people to benefit educationally from outside visits if possible and for some of that to take place within school time. Some visits will be directly relevant to the curriculum and others, however important, will be outside it but will nevertheless entail a widening of a child's experience.

I shall not comment on the marking of essays except that it is important and perhaps pertinent to say how much we appreciate the work done by the guides in the House, who specialise particularly in the service which they offer to our young children.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, the noble Baroness has said that the views of the local authorities will be taken into consideration by the department. Will the views of the many voluntary organisations concerned with this aspect of education be taken into consideration together with those of representatives of the teachers' associations?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that I can give an assurance that all those factors will be taken into account. Voluntary activities on the part of schools, teachers, parents and sometimes even the children form a comprehensive part of that provision for our young people.