THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION
In education probably more than in most other areas of Government there is inevitably often a long period between the time when a Minister takes a decision and the time when the results of that decision take effect. Thus, for example, although one of my very first decisions on becoming Minister was to concentrate more help towards the modernisation of older primary schools it was only in the present financial year starting last April (1972) that the rebuilding commenced.
Soon after the last Election, therefore, I decided to set in hand a major review of the way in which practically the whole of the education system should develop over the next ten years, and the decisions taken as a result of that review were published last December in a White Paper ‘Education: A Framework for Expansion’. It sets out a strategic framework for future action, the first produced by any Government since 1944, and it deals in detail with five aspects of education that I felt to be of special importance—nursery education, school building, staffing standards in schools, teacher training (including in-service training) and higher education.
Over the past few years educational research has provided increasing evidence to show how much children can benefit from nursery education and I have decided, therefore, to implement the recommendation of the Plowden Committee on Primary Education that part-time nursery places should be made available for all three and four year olds whose parents want them. The Plowden Committee estimated that places would be needed for 90 per cent of four year olds and 50 per cent of three year olds, and our aim is to provide enough places to meet these forecasts over the next ten years. In the early years we shall be giving priority to the deprived areas, and already the Government has approved some 13,000 extra nursery places in these areas under the Urban Aid Programme.
I would stress, however, that, although the expanded nursery programmes should provide great social benefits for children from inadequate backgrounds, there is also a very strong educational case for more nursery places. For nursery education provides a more systematic stimulus to children than they are likely to receive at home, it helps them to develop their basic skills, and it gives them an early introduction to the whole process of learning. It should also make it easier for us to identify children with special problems at an early stage and to take remedial action before it is too late.
As I have already mentioned, one of my first actions as Minister was to concentrate more money on the rebuilding and renovation of out-dated primary schools, as conditions in them were much worse than in most secondary schools. The programme for modernising these schools is now well under way and by 1975–6 a record £215 m. will have been spent in modernising nearly 2,000 of them, and it will then be possible to start dealing with some of the worst secondary schools. I have, therefore, decided to allocate an extra £10 m. in both 1975–6 and 1976–7 to this purpose as the first stage of what will be a rising secondary school programme.
Obviously, however, even the most up-to-date school buildings will not compensate a child for poor teaching or for inadequate attention because classes are too large. This is why I lay great emphasis in the White Paper on the need to improve teacher training and to reduce the pupil/teacher ratio. My ultimate aim is an all-graduate teaching profession and I am proposing the development of a new three-year training course leading both to qualified teacher status and to a BEd degree. Improvements will also be made in the arrangements for newly qualified teachers' probationary year so as to give them much more help and support during this time and to provide them with some continuing training; in-service training facilities for older teachers will also be expanded so that eventually every teacher will have the chance of spending one term in every seven years on a refresher course.
Both the expansion of nursery education and the improved system of teacher training and in-service training will clearly require large numbers of extra teachers, but even after allowing for these I am planning that by 1981 the teaching force will be 10 per cent above the number needed to maintain 1971 standards. This should lead to an improvement in the overall pupil/teacher ratio from 22½:1 in 1971 to 18½:1 by 1981, and the smaller classes that will result should enable teachers to [end p1] concentrate much more help on individual pupils.
Finally, higher education and here I am planning for the rapid growth in student numbers to continue, so that by 1981 there should be some 750,000 students in higher education and places should be available for about 22 per cent of the relevant age group as compared with 15 per cent in 1971 and 7 per cent in 1961. The most rapid expansion during the next ten years will be in the polytechnics and other non-university institutions, and by 1981 these and the universities should each contain half of the total numbers in higher education. I also make it clear in the White Paper that I believe that more effective use could be made of staff in the higher education institutions, and I am now examining what steps could be taken to encourage many more students to live at home while studying. Improvements in both these areas could obviously help to keep down the costs of higher education.
Inevitably, however, the costs of all the proposals contained in the White Paper will be expensive and will involve substantial increases in public spending. In the schools sector it seems likely that this increase will amount to about 3 per cent per annum over the next decade, and in higher education it will probably be about 5 per cent per annum. These planned growth rates, which compare with 2½ per cent and 6½ per cent per annum during the previous decade, clearly demonstrate the very considerable importance that the Government attaches to the expansion of the education service and they show too the Government's decision to adjust the balance of spending to favour the schools. These expansion plans for the seventies are, of course, in addition to the major expansion in education that has already taken place during our first two and a half years in Government in which our main achievements included a record school building programme, the massive increase in the primary school improvement programme, the raising of the school leaving age, the approval of thousands of extra nursery places under the Urban Aid Programme, and the continuing expansion of the whole of the higher education sector.
Yet, important as it is to expand our educational provision, what is equally important is that we should improve the quality of the education that we provide. This we are planning to do in a number of different ways. Thus, in the first place the Government is providing more resources for the replacement and improvement of old schools. Secondly, we are improving the quality of books and equipment etc., in the schools by providing money through improvement factor in the rate support grant. Thirdly, by continually reducing the pupil/teacher ratio classes and teaching groups are becoming smaller and it becomes possible for teachers to give more help to individual pupils. Fourthly, the plans for improving teacher training and for providing more in-service training should help to raise further the standards of teaching in the schools. Finally, I would stress that by increasing the period spent in education, the educational opportunities available to children are being greatly increased, and by extending the range of choice in higher education it should be easier for students to find courses that are appropriate to their needs. In all these ways then I am seeking to improve the quality of education and to raise the educational standards of those attending our schools, colleges and universities—the aim that, as Secretary of State for Education, I regard as foremost.