The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
The raising of the school leaving age has been welcomed on both sides of the House and I am glad that I have had the honour to put the proposal into effect. The order has now been approved and this is merely a take-note Motion. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) for that. He raised one specific point while other hon. Members have taken the debate wider and have asked a number of questions. [column 1840]
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) referred to the circular that the Department sent out to local education authorities asking them how their preparations for raising the school leaving age were going and asking them to report to the Department. Before I deal with specific points raised in the debate I would like to respond to my hon. Friend's invitation to give an idea of what the replies were to that circular. They have provided a wealth of material about the steps that have been taken and are still being taken in preparation for the reform. Apart from the essential business of providing buildings, to which the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing)is constantly referring, and teachers, these include the preparation of suitable curricula, careers guidance and collaboration with further education.
Shortly after Easter I will give a full account of the information received in the series of “Reports on Education” . But on the whole the resources which have been provided are being applied effectively and sensibly. There will be occasional local problems—it would be surprising in an operation of this size if there were not. But the general picture is favourable.
I will deal with just a few of the separate aspects and I start with buildings. Authorities were given power to use their allocations for the raising of the school leaving age as they thought fit. Almost 60 of them have chosen to provide special units based on the Department's building bulletin. Others have felt that the needs of the new fifth form pupils could best be met by incorporating suitable provision in secondary major building projects. In general, authorities have been planning all such projects in recent years with the raising of the school leaving age in mind. A few are planning some of their buildings in conjunction with Youth Service projects. My Department is keeping in close touch with any authorities—there are not many—which appear to have a practical problem of timing.
May I refer to teachers and the task they will have. Authorities are generally confident, and I know the right hon. Gentleman is interested in this, that their existing pupil-teacher ratio can be maintained and many plan to continue the [column 1841]improvement in ratio which has been taking place in secondary schools during the last few years. More than 20 authorities refer to their intention to appoint teachers to posts of special responsibility for the raising of the school leaving age. A few have emphasised the need to recruit experienced teachers for work with the new fifth formers. Some have also appointed education officers or advisers with specific responsibility for co-ordinating preparations and others mention that close consideration is being given to the implications of the raising of the school leaving age for their school welfare services.
There is one especially interesting aspect: reports from most authorities did not refer to anticipated behavioural problems as being a major issue. One authority even went so far as to say that there was a need to offset the harmful effects of national publicity on the subject. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge and Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) that there will be problems. We all know that there will be problems of truancy and discipline. They are not sufficient to prevent us from implementing this major reform.
My hon. Friends also referred to the curriculum. Schools Council working papers and projects have formed the basis of about 80 authorities' preparations in this field. There are now 480 teachers' centres throughout the country and many have full-time wardens. Most authorities report that their teachers' centres are the focus for training and discussion. Many new courses, some involving examinations and some not, have emerged and some authorities are preparing programmes involving short residential courses. Many reports emphasise the increasing importance of careers advice, and almost 100 authorities have referred to close co-operation with careers guidance officers.
About 90 reports refer to the use of my Department's publicity material. More than 100 authorities are already concentrating on publicity through the schools either as a supplement to centrally-provided material or instead of it. Very few authorities omitted to mention this important aspect of preparations, but we are asking those which did to let us know what they have in mind. Letting the parents know about this move and [column 1842]what it will mean for their children is extremely important. All told, there are grounds for confidence that the reform will be constructively and effectively implemented.
Now I should like to turn to some of the specific points, apart from those in the circular, which the right hon. Gentleman and others have raised. The first major point, which was the subject of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, was the educational maintenance allowances. The right hon. Gentleman argued that they should be available to children under the statutory school leaving age. He said that those who received it now should continue to have the maintenance allowance when they were over the new school leaving age. May I make one thing clear. If a child is now the subject of an educational maintenance allowance, that allowance will continue to be received after the order; it will not be taken away. The reason is that once a child has passed the compulsory school leaving age he cannot go back to it by virtue of an intervening order. So those who at present attract educational maintenance allowances will continue to receive them.
But that, I believe, was not the right hon. Gentleman's real point, which was that the allowances should be payable to children below the statutory school leaving age. At any rate, that was what the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) wanted. I have one figure relating to Newcastle that might be of interest. The right hon. Gentleman gave some figures. I do not have his with me, but according to the information received in January, 1970, and published on 15th February, 1972, only 310 pupils were attracting the allowances in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The hon. Gentleman might have some later figures.
The North-East Council of Education Committees revised the scales in July, 1971, and recommended them to the local authorities in the area. I think most of them adopted the revision—certainly Newcastle did. I do not have any figures for the numbers of children receiving the allowances, but the totals being paid out that I gave were. I think, correct.
I should like to make it quite clear that the scales are a matter [column 1843]for the several local education authorities. There are no nationally laid down scales.
I should like to continue on the right hon. Gentleman's point that educational maintenance allowances should be available to children under the statutory school-leaving age. This was not a point put forward by the right hon. Gentleman's Government when the school leaving age was last raised and children of 14 ceased to be eligible for maintenance allowances. The circular sent out then, Circular 189, issued by the then Labour Government, reminded local education authorities that
“Such allowances are not intended either for the general relief of poverty in the home or to take the place of earnings which the child might otherwise contribute to the upkeep of the household.”
These allowances, which date from 1945, are payable by the local education authorities at their discretion to the parents of children who stay on at school beyond compulsory school age.
Before 1945 local education authorities had powers to make various allowances in respect of children at school. The 1944 Act drew a distinction between some needs, for example travel expenses, meals and clothing, for which separate provision was made in respect of children of any age in school, and on the other hand the limited maintenance allowances which were to be made available henceforth for children over compulsory school age. It was made clear at the time that the purposes of these allowances was a very restricted one. Successive Governments have regarded them as additional encouragement to parents, who by law can remove their children from school, to allow their children to remain at school. They were not intended to compensate parents for lack of earnings which their children might otherwise be bringing home.
What were they for?
I quoted from the Labour Government circular on that point.
The right hon. Lady quoted from a circular issued 27 years ago. She is surely not holding me responsible for that.
No, but I am saying that it was not put forward last time [column 1844]the leaving age was raised and exactly the same arguments would have weighed then as the right hon. Gentleman advanced tonight. The maintenance allowances have always, from the time of their inception, been intended solely to prevent parents in the lower income ranges from becoming involved in expenses which they could not reasonably be expected to meet and which might force them to withdraw their children from school at an age earlier than they would otherwise have done.
I have the Act here. Where does it say that? Show me.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Act specifically refers to pupils over compulsory leaving age. The circular was sent out at the time of the Act based upon that construction, and the intention and purpose of the Act was quite clear, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that. Specific provision was also made in the Act for the other allowances to be payable at any age, and I have referred to those.
Mr. Bob Brown
I concede that this was missed the last time the leaving age was raised, but the right hon. Lady must concede that the 15–16 age group is different from the 14–15 age group. Would she further concede that those who are caught by accident of birth will have to stay on until they are 17 not 16?
The arguments that the right hon. Gentleman advances could have applied last time, and the arguments which he and the hon. Gentleman have advance would apply to children of almost any age at school and are not limited to one year below the leaving age. The arguments the hon. Member was advancing were rather different from those put forward by the right hon. Gentleman. If I were to concede the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend, educational maintenance allowances would become a general contribution to family resources, and that would be a long way from their original purpose. Since the time of the original Act there have been social security measures under successive Governments, including the F.I.S., which provides a new injection of State assistance for the first time to families earning comparatively low wages. This is a totally new social benefit and an extremely valuable [column 1845]one. It was this kind of benefit which was meant to help with the general expenses of the family.
Like other benefits, educational maintenance allowances will have to be looked at in the light of the tax credit scheme proposed for further consideration by A. Barberthe Chancellor on Tuesday. This could be a radical change. All payments of this kind must be looked at in conjunction with that proposal. Family income supplement was introduced last year at a cost, then of about £8 million. Already provision has considerably increased in terms of social security benefits. That is the point that my hon. Friend John E. B. Hillthe Member for Norfolk, South was getting at—that there are other ways of helping families with very large expenses.
Maintenance allowances are at the discretion of local education authorities both in the scale at which they operate and in the amounts they give to those who apply. There are approximately 20,000 people receiving them, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I have not the figure as a percentage of the 15–16 age group, but it works out at 2.6 per cent. of all children at school who are over the compulsory school leaving age.
So I think that the right hon. Gentleman would not merely be amending the Act by three words; he would be altering the entire purpose of these allowances in a way that was never intended. They have always been intended to help or encourage parents to leave their children at school beyond the compulsory school leaving age. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman is fond of the sound of his own voice, but he expects other people to listen to him, and they usually do. I wish that he would extend the same courtesy to others.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned other points. In particular my hon. Friends have mentioned the rôle of further education, which is an extremely important one. Colleges of further education have a positive contribution to make through the development of linked courses in which pupils still at school attend a college for part of their education. I have been encouraged by the reports that I have received from local education authorities. They show that 102 areas are already operating such courses and a further 22 are planning [column 1846]similar developments. The range of topics is very wide and often makes use of local opportunities. I believe that this kind of development goes a long way towards achieving the essential objectives of those who advocate a change in the law so that some pupils in their last year of compulsory education could attend colleges of further education rather than schools.
I recognise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Knox) made that the further education service has expanded more rapidly than any other part of the education service, and the development of linked courses has introduced many of these young people to further education courses and could possibly stimulate them to continue with their education beyond compulsory school leaving age, either on educational courses or the specifically vocational courses which are provided in these colleges.
The order has gone through, and I think that we would all join in hoping that this much-needed reform will now go through as smoothly as possible and ultimately prove of great benefit, especially to those children who would not otherwise have a chance to stay on at school.
With the leave of the House, I should like to say one more word. I regard the right hon. Lady's reply to my point as thoroughly unsatisfactory. It is quite disgraceful that in the week in which the Chancellor has given away £300 million to people with unearned incomes the right hon. Lady should refuse to give £30,000 or £40,000 to enable the poorest of the poor to retain maintenance allowances which they have at present.
This is typical of the right hon. Lady. It is in line with her decision on school milk and school meals. It is a thoroughly disreputable and disgraceful decision.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Raising of the School-Leaving Age Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st February.