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School Leaving Date

Volume 887: debated on Tuesday 4 March 1975

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8.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what progress he is making in his consultations about introducing greater flexibility into the school leaving age.

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he is now able to make a statement on his policy on the school leaving age.

20.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he is now in a position to make a statement about legislation on a common summer leaving date for school leavers.

I stand firmly by the raising of the school leaving age to 16 and have no plans to alter this. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) on 4th February—[Vol. 885, c. 450.]—there is no prospect of legislation in the current Session affecting the summer leaving date this year. I am still studying the question in relation to future years and will make an announcement in due course.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there are thousands of teachers who have borne the difficulties arising from the raising of the leaving age—I think that the Secretary of State concedes this—and who are very anxious for an early announcement indicating that at the very least it will become possible in 1976 for 15-year-olds to leave school immediately after taking the examinations? Is there any prospect of the Secretary of State making an announcement to that effect in the near future?

I am considering all the advice I have on this from teachers' organisations and many other quarters. The advice does not all point the same way. It is a complex question. I shall make an announcement as soon as possible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the position in regard to the raising of the leaving age will stabilise itself and be accepted as time passes? Does he agree also that it is characteristic of Tory Members that, although they would never dream of lowering the school leaving age for their own children, they are constantly trying to lower it for the mass of the people?

I agree with my hon. Friend that already this year the raised leaving age is more acceptable to the age group concerned than it was 12 months ago, and in successive years the raised age will become accepted as a matter of course. I believe that the lesson of the first year that the majority of children benefited from the extra year at school, but in so far as mistakes are made in some areas experience will teach the schools how to recover from those mistakes and we shall see an improving result from this long overdue reform in the future.

Does not the Secretary of State agree that since economic conditions and Government policy together are calling for a massive reduction in the rate of increase of public expenditure—local authority expenditure particularly, and notably on education, from which my county of Leicestershire is suffering—economies have to be made? Would it not be sensible to look again at the question of the raising of the school leaving age, which I accept is a commitment but which is a mixed blessing? If the Secretary of State goes back on this commitment in the light of economic conditions, will he accept an assurance that this will not be regarded as welshing?

I believe that all the parties were right to enter into the commitment. It is a great pity that we had to wait so long before that commitment was implemented. It would be a very retrograde step ever to go back on it, and it is no part of my policy to consider doing so.

I entirely support my right hon. Friend's stand against any fiddling about with the school leaving age. Does he agree that there might be more flexibility between schools and further education colleges in teaching children of the age of 15 or 16?

Yes. There has been some welcome progress in this direction in recent years, and I hope that it will increase. I strongly agree that there is great scope in many areas for greater co-operation between the further education system and the schools.

Is the Secretary of State aware that at a recent consultation between the secretaries of schools and headmasters in my county of Buckinghamshire the growing truancy in schools was attributed largely to the increase in the leaving age? Although the headmasters concerned would not wish the leaving age to be reduced—here I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—they nevertheless thought that the times at which 16-year-olds can leave should be reduced from twice a year to once a year—namely, in May of each year—which would ease the problem.

I do not exactly regard Buckinghamshire as the major source of enlightenment on education matters. Nevertheless, I take the point that teachers all over the country are discussing the practical implications of possible flexibility in the school leaving date within the summer term. In reply to earlier supplementary questions I said that I was giving urgent consideration to this matter.