HL Deb 17 December 1991 vol 533 cc1263-8

7.35 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness rose to move, That the draft regulation laid before the House on 12th November be approved [3rd Report. from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: The draft regulations amend the Education support Grant Regulations 1990. Their main purpose is to allow for the new activities that we want to introduce in the 1992–93 programme. All activities supported by ESG have to be specified in a schedule to the 1990 regulations. These amending regulations add our new activities to that schedule.

The draft regulations also remove from the schedule certain purposes for which grant is no longer payable. Finally, they provide for a technical change in respect of the audit certificate we require at the end of the year to confirm that grant has been used properly.

Let me outline to your Lordships how we will use these regulations in 1992–93. We intend to introduce four new areas of support to which we attach particular priority. First, £6.6 million of spending will assist schemes to raise standards in inner city primary and secondary schools which face particularly severe problems. This is the first DES specific grant focused exclusively on such schools. We expect to fund initiatives to strengthen delivery of the curriculum, especially reading, as well as measures to encourage parental involvement. The Government's programme of education reforms is designed to raise standards across the country. This targeted action demonstrates our determination that any special difficulties in inner cities should not be a barrier to that aim.

Secondly, we have earmarked £2 million of supported expenditure to help develop courses designed to increase the number of adults from inner city areas entering higher education. The Government are committed to widening educational opportunities for adults, and these courses will give a route into HE for entrants without traditional qualifications.

A third activity, supporting £2 million in 1992–93, is designed to encourage LEAs to develop regional provision for deaf-blind children. It has become increasingly clear that the low incidence of deaf-blindness was preventing the development of effective and suitable education for them. This new grant will encourage LEAs to work together to develop imaginative approaches at regional level, which can then be disseminated across the country.

Fourthly, we have included a new activity to help schools to offer vocational qualifications as part of their sixth form provision. This activity is a reflection of our aim to provide high quality further education or training to all 16 and 17 year-olds, and to raise all-round levels of attainment. It will support £3 million of expenditure in 1992–93. The funding will support the purchase of hooks and equipment for the new courses, and will allow school staff to undertake short secondments to industry or FE colleges. Those are the new activities we intend to support in 1992–93. Your Lordships may be interested in how they fit into the programme as a whole.

As your Lordships may know, ESGs and the LEA Training Grants Scheme have been brought together in a combined programme of Grants for Education Support and Training, or GEST. In 1992–93 we plan to offer grant support on total spending by LEAs of £377 million in England, mostly supported at a grant rate of 60 per cent. of spending. Total supported expenditure will be £13 million higher than last year. That is an increase of some 3.6 per cent. We have therefore broadly maintained the level of the programme in real terms.

For 1992–93 we have grouped together certain related activities into three broad areas—school management and appraisal, basic curriculum and assessment, and further education. LEAs are generally free to transfer their allocations between activities in the same broad area. Last year your Lordships commented that there should be more flexibility in the programme. These new arrangements will allow LEAs increased freedom to respond to local needs and priorities. In this way we will ensure that resources are used in line with both national and local priorities.

We have also encouraged LEAs to involve schools and colleges closely in implementing projects. We particularly welcome the indications received that many LEAs are increasing the extent to which they devolve in-service training funding to schools and colleges. This will give schools and colleges greater freedom to target their own funding.

As in 1991–92, we have decided that our main priority for the 1992–93 programme is to help schools, colleges and LEAs to implement the education reforms. Of the £377 million total programme, some 70 per cent. is directly related to those reforms.

Over £170 million will be allocated on activities related to the national curriculum. We are again making available funding to support national curriculum assessment; and we are ensuring earmarked funding for equipment for the national curriculum, to set alongside the continuing activity for national curriculum books.

Within the area of school management we are increasing the funding available for governor training and teacher appraisal, areas to which we attach particular importance. We believe that the extra support for these activities will make a strong contribution to improving the morale and performance of both teachers and school governors.

That still leaves over £110 million for activities which, although not directly related to the education reforms, are also high Government priorities. To give just one example, the programme will continue and increase funding for projects to improve teacher supply. This grant is an important element of our wide range of measures on teacher recruitment and its success is reflected in the much improved teacher supply figures. By January 1991 the number of teacher vacancies in England had fallen by around 20 per cent. compared to January 1990. Recruitment to initial teacher training courses has also improved dramatically. This September the intake is 21 per cent. higher than that in 1990. More students started courses this year than at any time since 1976.

I said earlier to your Lordships that we have also taken the opportunity in preparing the regulations to remove from the schedule certain items for which grant is no longer payable. ESGs have never been intended to provide permanent support for any activity, however worthy. It is right that authorities should eventually have to take their own decisions about how they wish to proceed with the activities, and what level of funding they wish to devote to them from their own resources. The benefits of the grant will not be lost. In most cases ESG projects will provide a foundation for mainstream work for years to come.

The final change made by the proposed regulations is to remove a requirement that the audit certificate covering each LEA's expenditure must be unqualified. In most cases the auditor is able to report without qualification. If there are problems, however, then we of course must know about them. If the auditor qualifies his certificate, the department will then seek any further assurances it needs that grant has been properly claimed.

So far I have focused on the GEST programme in England. The GEST programme in Wales will support expenditure of some £25 million in 1992–93. The activities to be supported broadly match those in England. As in 1991–92, support in Wales will be available for Welsh in the national curriculum.

The regulations before us will allow us to continue funding important and beneficial developments and to extend our programme of education reforms to raise standards in new areas. I commend them to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft regulation laid before the House on 12th November be approved [3rd Report from the Joint Committee]—(Lord Cavendish of Furness.)

7.45 p.m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanatory remarks on the education support grants which have been introduced in the form of regulations made under the Education (Grants and Awards) Act 1984. It is worth noting that this is a positive statutory instrument. Noble Lords should realise this is not the most frightening procedure imaginable. It is not quite as worrying as people sometimes appear to suggest. In the context of total education expenditure, the sums we are discussing today are small sums. However, no one doubts that they are useful sums.

If I were to put on my economics hat, I could say that the sums this year do not maintain expenditure in real terms by any measure that comes to my mind. However, I do not particularly wish to debate that issue this evening. I regard the four new areas to he supported as worthy areas. I am particularly interested in the funds for promoting provision for blind-deaf children to enable the relevant authorities to work together. We on this side of the House strongly approve of that and we are delighted to see the department giving a lead in that area.

We are also happy about the other three areas. The four new areas are undoubtedly worthy. However, I wonder whether there were other worthy areas where the department decided not to proceed because of lack of funding. It is interesting to consider why these four new areas were chosen. I am not suggesting they are not worthy areas, but presumably originally there was a longer list of new areas and these four were chosen from that list. I should be interested to know whether the choice was made on educational grounds or simply because there is not enough money to fund all the new areas the Government would like to fund. I hope the Minister can comment on that.

The Minister was right to say that we cannot assume that everything one does in the education support grant area must continue forever. However, it is interesting to note that three of the five areas that are being dropped concern language in one form or another. The activity that aims to broaden the range of languages available is being dropped. A project concerning Welsh is another such area that is to be dropped—I know I should never get involved with that issue—as is the training of teachers to improve pupils' use and understanding of the English language. Is that being done because the department considers those areas have been given a good start and they must continue by themselves, or are they being dropped because, after reflection, the department considers the money was not well spent?

One cannot assume that all projects will work perfectly well. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that one or two projects will not turn out to be good investments. I hope the Minister can comment on that matter. However, I do not ask any of these questions in a mean spirit. I do so merely because I am genuinely interested in the answers. If the Minister does not have the answers, I shall be perfectly happy for him to write to me at a later stage.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, from these Benches I wish to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, for having explained the regulations so clearly. The Joint Committee of both Houses appointed to scrutinise delegated legislation has, I believe, considered the regulations and has determined that special attention does not need to be drawn to any of them.

Similarly in another place the regulations were accepted without controversy. We see no reason why the four further areas referred to by the Minister should not be added to the educational activities qualifying for support grants. The noble Lord told us that a number of areas no longer qualify for direct funding for this purpose. I too understand that those areas concern mainly languages. I also believe that the teaching of mathematics in schools is similarly affected. Like the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I hope the Minister can tell us, if possible, what criteria were used to determine that those areas would no longer benefit from education support grants.

It is not a contentious issue. If the Minister is not able to answer now the points which have been raised, perhaps he will send me a copy of any letter which he sends to the noble Lord, Lord Peston. On behalf of my noble friends, I am happy to accept the regulations.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, for the way they have received the regulations, and for their constructive remarks. I believe that there is a measure of support for our specific grants programme. Individual opinions of priorities will vary and the programme cannot cover every conceivable activity. However, I believe that we all agree that the GEST programme continues to provide key support in order to ensure that the education service can continue to respond to changing needs and to raise standards.

A number of points were raised. I did not expect to be asked why the four new activities had been selected, but I think that I can respond in broad terms. If I am wrong I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The subjects will have been drawn from a list of priorities. The aspirations of education are without limit.

Regarding the subjects which were dropped, as I indicated in my introduction, the ESGs were never intended to provide permanent support for any particular activity. They are the main pump-priming grants and run for periods of no longer than five years. New needs and priorities continually emerge and new grants will take the place of those which end. That was always the intention.

The Government consider the size and the shape of the programme each year. Each year we have to make a decision about the most effective pattern of support within the cash limits of the programme. The 1992–93 GEST programme includes more than £170 million for activities related to the national curriculum. Items which are to end, such as the teaching of mathematics, which was mentioned by noble Lords, projects to improve the curriculum in rural primary schools and the training of teachers to improve pupils' use of English, will be eligible for grant support as part of the wider activities of the national curriculum. It is believed that some of those activities are feeding through into the main educational arena. It will be for local authorities to decide the precise use which will be made of the funding.

I hope that I have responded to the questions which were raised. 1 firmly believe that the new ESG activities in the GEST programme for 1992–93 will offer valuable support to schools and colleges where it is most needed. The overall programme will allow us both to build on previous successes in established areas and to encourage new activities. I commend the regulations to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.