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Teachers (Supply)

Volume 886: debated on Tuesday 11 February 1975

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10.0 p.m.

It is not my purpose in this debate to call in question the reasoning in White Paper Cmnd. 5174 or the subsequent Circular 7/73 about national teacher training requirements in the coming years. My purpose is to bring to the attention of the House the special problems of Bedfordshire, especially South Bedfordshire and my own borough of Luton.

We have an immediate problem. Since the beginning of this term 2,400 children in three Luton schools have received less than full-time education. That figure was given in a Written Answer on 4th February. Two high schools are still on short-time schooling. The reason is simply that there are not enough teachers. To make it worse, this is not the first time that many of these 2,400 children have been denied their right to full-time education. Many of them had a late start to their school career in 1967 because at that stage there were staff shortages.

There is good reason for believing that the real size of the problem is a good deal worse than the figures indicate. A number of children are being taught in amalgamated classes of large size. If normal ratios were being properly observed in all cases, it might well be that far more children would be on four-and-a-half-day schooling in Luton.

Officially Luton is short of 83 teachers but, again, the real figure may be higher if the number of places actually being advertised is counted. Even if we take the official figure of 83, Luton schools are 5 per cent. understaffed. In other words, if present ratios were properly observed well over 1,500 Luton children would be without teachers—and that represents the size of a fairly large comprehensive school. Short-time working is becoming all too familiar in certain industries. In Luton, thank God, we may have escaped that, but it is our children who are suffering a similar fate.

This may be dismissed as an unfortunate temporary phenomenon which will soon pass, but the figures do not support such a hopeful prognosis. In this year alone 2,500 young people will be leaving secondary schools in Luton and 3,200 will be entering them. There will be 700 more children in secondary schools, and 30 more teachers will be needed to teach them even at 1971 national pupil-teacher ratios for all schools, and beyond this year the picture does not improve.

According to the 1971 census figures for Luton, there were 43,760 children in the 0-to-4 age group inclusive. In the 12-to-16 age group inclusive there were 33,565. The 12-to-16 age group of 1983, assuming a balance of immigration and emigration into and out of the area, will therefore be 30 per cent. higher than it was in 1971. The assumption that as many children will leave the area as come into it is probably optimistic. Unless all past trends are halted or reversed, there will be a net immigration figure.

Admittedly, the peak year in the 0-to-16 age group in the 1971 census figures for Luton was the six-year-olds with 9,225, and below that age there is evidence that the birth rate has fallen in Luton, as it has in the rest of the country. I do not wish to claim that we are the only place which is out of step, but the indications are that our total school population is unlikely to decrease in the years up to 1981 and that our secondary school population will grow by much more than the average for the rest of the country.

There is a tiny village in Bedfordshire which has a sign warning drivers that "Tingrith abounds with children." What is true of Tingrith is true of Bedfordshire as a whole. We are top of the non-metropolitan county league for children. Over the next five years we shall need in Luton—merely to maintain existing ratios, let alone improve them—over 200 more teachers in our secondary schools. The question is, where shall we get them from?

The argument of Cmnd. 5174 and Circular 7/73 is that we can cut back on teacher training and still improve pupil-teacher ratios. As Nelson expected every man to do his duty, so my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects every local education authority to do the same, Bedfordshire included. The agreed pre-1974 annual student intake for teacher training in the county was 490. The 1974 figure was cut to 410. The 1975 figure was cut to 310—nearly 27 per cent. down on the pre-1974 figure and, incidentally, well below the figure for the rest of the South-East Region.

Fortunately my right hon. Friend partially relented, and the revised 1975 figure is now, I understand, 360. This is a welcome if small recognition of Bedfordshire's special problems.

I am well aware that the reply to the argument will be that teacher training must be planned on a national scale. My right hon. Friend said as much in reply to a Question of mine last Tuesday, when he said:
"My hon. Friend will be aware that the teacher training plans in one locality are not designed simply to provide teachers for that locality. Looking at the national situation, it is clear that we shall have a school population falling off in numbers in the years ahead. We are trying to achieve a sufficient supply of teachers to improve staffing ratios, at the same time trying to avoid the risk of teacher unemployment."—[Official Report, 4th February 1975; Vol. 885, c. 1122.]
That is a perfectly right and legitimate attitude given one simple assumption: the perfect mobility of teachers. If there are enough teachers nationally, the assumption must be that if any area is short of them the surplus teachers in other areas will automatically go there. Unfortunately that simply does not work—at least, it does not work for Luton. For some reason, teachers are not attracted to our fair metropolis. We are, after all, noted more for our factories than for our culture or the beauty of our buildings. We seem to score high on the cost of living, particularly the cost of housing, and low in aesthetics.

I would agree that that is hardly the fault of the Department of Education and Science. There is, however, one practical point on which the Department's help might be sought. I speak of the London allowance. Teachers in Luton find it hard to understand why their colleagues in Tring or in the rural fastnesses of Haslemere get the allowance when they themselves do not. There are not lacking teachers who live in the very shadow of Luton schools and who prefer to take a trip of a few miles every day over the border into Hertfordshire to get the extra cash.

Of course, wherever a line is drawn an anomaly is created. But if this particular line has to be drawn anywhere, it would be much more sensible to put it just north of the great conurbation of Luton and Dunstable rather than just south of it.

If we cannot attract teachers, the only thing to do is to train them ourselves. It was precisely this reasoning which led to the founding of the Putteridge Bury College of Education for Mature Students. That college has been outstandingly successful, not least in providing the Luton area with a supply of teachers. Some 70 per cent. of the teachers trained at Putteridge Bury stayed in the area. Yet it is that college which is being made the main victim of the cuts. Originally its intake for 1975 was to have been reduced to zero. If it is to have any future, the Department apparently sees it as being through amalgamation with the Bedford colleges.

A far more sensible future for Putteridge Bury would be amalgamation with the Luton College of Technology. That college is one of large size and established reputation in a number of fields. An amalgamation between the two would help to provide just that centre of higher education which Luton needs. It is a matter of great concern to many people in Luton that the proportion of pupils going on to higher education is low. Luton needs every higher education encouragement it can get. The amalgamation of Luton College of Technology and Putteridge Bury would provide a much-needed fillip to interest in higher education. This would be particularly true if the applications already made for recognition of Higher Education diploma courses and B.Ed. courses at the colleges were granted.

This must be considered along with a number of other arguments, such as the opportunity which Putteridge Bury affords to mature students to develop their abilities at a later stage than could otherwise be possible, and the obvious difficulties and disincentives to students involved in a shift of the centre of gravity to Bedford. If Putteridge Bury were allowed to develop in the way suggested, it could be precisely the kind of centre for in-service training on which the White Paper laid such great stress, and with the development of B.Ed. courses it would be a source of supply not only of primary but of secondary teachers, the very sector in which our major problems are occurring and will increasingly occur.

It is a hard task to compress such a complex problem into the few minutes of an Adjournment debate. I would plead with my hon. Friend the Minister to consider very seriously the present plight and future prospects for teacher supply in Bedfordshire, and especially in the south of the county. I would press upon my hon. Friend the urgent need to meet representatives of those concerned to discuss the whole matter in greater detail than is possible this evening.

We all wish to see an improvement in the standard of education and also a reduction in pupil-teacher ratios. I plead that Bedfordshire, and Luton in particular, will not be an exception that proves the rule.

10.14 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton. East (Mr. Clemitson) put a strong case in respect of a real problem that exists in South Bedfordshire, particularly in the borough of Luton. I assure him that any child who does not receive full-time education is a matter of serious concern to the Department and to the education service. As one who has always believed that a great number of our children have not had long enough in school, I very much regret any circumstances that compel children to be denied full-time and regular education.

I give my hon. Friend the assurance that I will carefully consider the figures which he has put before the House to strengthen the case which he made on behalf of his constituents and the area he represents. Three schools having less than full-time education and involving 2,400 children constitute a real problem. I want to help my hon. Friend, and the Department will do all it can to assist the area. We shall carefully study the evidence he has put forward and see whether there is anything we can do to help.

I have been looking up the figures because my hon. Friend has rightly been persistent in bringing to the Department's attention the problems in Luton. In January last year the pupil-teacher ratio in Bedfordshire in both primary and secondary schools was slightly better than the national average. I am aware that that gives no comfort to parents and children who are involved in schools where there are shortages.

In the current year the authority is employing its full quota of teachers—about 4,500. This year not only has the authority indicated that it will take up the full quota of teachers that it has been allocated, but has asked for an additional quota. That matter is being seriously considered. We welcome that situation, because we have heard of authorities which are finding difficulty in employing their quotas.

In the next educational year beginning in September the total school population in the area is estimated to be about 1 per cent. down on this year. The provisional teacher quota already agreed and accepted by the authority is more than 2 per cent. up on this year's figure. That means that there will be a modest improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio.

I think that my hon. Friend will agree that the real difficulty lies in attracting teachers to particular schools. We are willing to discuss this problem with the authority.

I remind the House that the Houghton Report, which has been accepted by the teaching profession, indicates a marked improvement in career prospects. It is to be hoped that this will mean that the entry to the profession will be adequate. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we are not complacent and that I share his great concern.

Turning to the London allowance, I freely admit that this is a thorny problem. I have had many representations from teachers, teachers' organisations, local authorities and hon. Member on both sides of the House. I must be frank with the House and with my hon. Friend. I cannot hold out any hope that the area agreed by the Burnham Committee—this matter was put to the Burnham Committee—in the recently concluded agreement for London weighting as it applies to teachers will be amended. The local authority associations represented on the Burnham Management Panel were fully aware of the fact that wherever the line was drawn, as my hon. Friend readily admitted, those on the ouside would obviously feel at a disadvantage compared with those on the inside.

The line was drawn in such a way as to produce the same boundaries for teachers as for local government employees in the APT and C grades, and any suggestion for redrawing those boundaries would have implications not just for teachers, but for other public sector employees as well. The fact that the teachers' allowances are stepped means that the disparity that would have occurred between teachers in inner London and those in the Home Counties outside the London allowance area has been reduced and that what is called the "cliff edge" is not so large as to create particular difficulty for those areas just outside the outer boundary, I understand the feeling of the authority, of my hon. Friend and of teachers who look at other places and cannot understand why those places get the allowance and they do not. It is a very difficult matter.

It is indeed a paradox that my hon. Friend has been talking about the shortage of teachers at the same time as the newspapers and other media are full of the talk of cutting down on the entry to teacher training. Nevertheless, we must face reality.

The planned entry of non-graduate students to teacher training courses this autumn will be 30,000, which is a reduction of about 2,000 on last year's figure. But my hon. Friend will recognise that these students who start their training this year will not be entering schools as teachers until 1978 or 1979. Therefore, the number of students admitted to training this year is irrelevant to this year's staffing problems.

Let me remind the House how much demographic changes will affect the situation by 1978, 1979 and later years. At present, the total school population is still growing, although only slowly. The number of teachers is also still growing, but much faster than the school population. Because of the continuing decline in the number of children born year by year over the past 10 years, pupil numbers in the primary schools are already falling. Secondary school pupil numbers should continue to rise during the rest of this decade, but will then fall as the ever smaller age groups born in recent years work their way into the secondary schools.

There can be very little doubt now about the number of pupils of statutory age who will be in school in 1981, because most of them have already been born. We can be almost certain that the total school population in that year will be about 500,000 below the 1977 peak, and we can expect that in the next five years up to the mid-1980s there will be a further fall of about another 750,000. If there is not the early recovery, both in the number of births and in the staying-on rate, which the latest projections have assumed, the fall in pupil numbers may be even more substantial.

In the light of those figures no Government could afford to ignore the implications of changes of this order. The prospect of a massive fall in school population—and that is what it is—creates the opportunity to make great strides towards better staffing standards, and this is an opportunity which the Government hope and fully intend to seize. But it would be irresponsible to deny that the prospect would also create a grave risk of substantial teacher unemployment if the potential supply of teachers were not reduced below the present high level.

I now come to the case of Bedfordshire and to the question of the college for mature students. In the case of Bedfordshire the proposed admission targets for 1975 were discussed with the authority in the light of its interim proposals under Circular 7/73, and an adjustment was made to allow flexibility as between the three colleges of education in its area pending the settlement of final plans. Final reorganisation proposals have recently been submitted by the authority, and are currently under consideration by the Department. My right hon. Friend will reach a decision on them as soon as possible.

Reference has been made to the needs of the schools in Bedfordshire. I emphasise—and my hon. Friend expected this—that teacher training is a national matter, but I readily recognise that teacher training colleges in the area are a great asset and a great source of supply. It is the total number of children in the country's schools which conditions the country's need for teachers. Nevertheless, I take on board what my hon. Friend said.

Regarding mature students, as a former schoolmaster I believe that the contribution of mature students to the teaching service has been a remarkable one. Therefore, in a sense my hon. Friend is pushing an open door in stressing that.

Putteridge Bury and the other day colleges provide for mature students, who tend to be recruited locally and to teach in the areas in which they have trained. The Department values the contribution that mature students make to the teaching profession. However, it is true that over the next few years the average age of the teaching force will rise in any case as a large number of married women and others re-enter the profession. The move towards an all-graduate profession means that courses leading to BEd degrees will call for higher entry qualifications for training. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall bear in mind the great contribution that mature students can make.

What I have said about teacher numbers is related to the period from the latter part of this decade onwards—that is, to the period in which teacher training plans are adopted now. Therefore, despite all the difficulties and the difficult decisions which have to be made, we feel that we must let the authorities and the colleges know what the future is to be.

There is great cause for concern now because of the pressure on local education authority resources. The Government have done their best to ensure a continuing growth in the number of teachers next year by making provision in the RSG settlement for the employment nationally of the full quota of teachers for the school year 1975–76. The Bedfordshire authority is among those wishing to employ more than their quota. A few returns from authorities are still outstanding, but it should be possible very soon to finalise the quota distribution and let all the authorities know where they stand.

We have the needs of Bedfordshire very much in mind. It is true that, because of the varying extent to which authorities' staffing plans have been constrained by the present economic difficulties, that quota will be less effective this year in distributing teachers equitably than in a normal year. But the plans of local education authorities collectively make it likely that the teachers seeking employment in the autumn will be able to find posts. Despite the difficulties that we shall undoubtedly face in the next two or three years, the prospect of an early and continuing fall in pupil numbers gives promise of good progress towards the very much better standards in the schools which we all hope to see.

As regards Luton and the schools where there are difficulties, I assure my hon. Friend that we shall keep a watching brief. If he likes to make representations, I shall be only too ready to see whether there is anything that we can do to resolve what we regard as a serious situation, because we want to ensure that all our children have adequate schools and that they receive full-time education.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o'clock.