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Stockwell College (Teacher Training)

Volume 929: debated on Tuesday 29 March 1977

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Tinn.]

8.55 p.m.

In raising the subject of Stockwell College on the Adjournment tonight, I wish to make clear at the outset that I accept the need for reduced provision of teacher training in view of the probable school population in the next decade as indicated by the present birth rate figures. However, I think it well to note that the birth rate projections for 1980 and 1990 indicate a gradual increase, which emphasises the need for flexibility in teacher training provision and the importance of ensuring that any reduction now will not prevent extensions at a later date.

Naturally, all hon. Members accept that some colleges will have to be closed —provided, of course, that they are not the colleges in which they have a particular interest. But my notives in discussing the position of Stockwell College are not purely parochial. I consider that the proposal to cease teacher training at the college has not been adequately thought out.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for coming here this evening at what, I know, is considerable personal inconvenience. I appreciate his coming from the West Country to listen to the debate and hear what I have to say.

The original proposals were announced in the House on 24th January. In the course of her remarks then, the Secretary of State said:
"The individual proposals will be the subject of further consultations with the maintaining authorities and providing bodies concerned."—[Official Report, 24th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 963.]
The House will note the reference to "further" consultations, the implication being that there have been some already. In fact, there has been no consultation at all about Stockwell College. However, I am glad to see that the Minister is willing to consult the authorities, and I hope he will be willing to receive representations from others closely involved. The professional staff, students and education authorities in a number of areas in South-East London and North-West Kent which use Stockwell College are anxious to ensure that their views are considered. I appreciate that the Minister cannot meet everyone who wants to see him, but I hope that if he is asked to meet a deputation representative of all interested parties he will be willing to do so.

The Secretary of State made clear that these are proposals, not final decisions. I hope that the Minister of State will confirm that that is so, and confirm also that the work of the college will go on as usual, with no delays in approving courses for the next academic year.

The case in favour of retaining teacher training facilities at Stockwell College is formidable. I hope I shall be forgiven for doubting that the Department gave it adequate consideration, since the letter to the director of education giving notice of the proposal was addressed to a director who retired more than six months ago, and in reply to a Question the Department apparently did not know exactly where the college was, having placed it in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt).

Be that as it may, Stockwell College was founded early in the nineteenth century in Southwark. In 1861 it moved to Stockwell, and it has been at Bromley since 1935. In recent years a number of new buildings have been added—most recently a fine library extension. Plans were formulated several years ago to merge the college with Bromley College of Technology and Ravensbourne College of Art and Design to form the Bromley Institute of Higher Education. That proposal was approved by the Minister in July 1975, a director has already been appointed and the merger is to take effect in September this year.

The new proposals by the Department, of course, completely overthrow those plans.

Yet one of the Minister's criteria for restructuring the teacher training system set out in a paper to her Advisory Committee on the Supply and Training of Teachers is—I quote from paragraph (a) of the relevant document—that
"Teacher education should be firmly integrated with other higher education."
Integration with other higher education is exactly what this new institute would effect if the proposed merger were allowed to go forward.

Stockwell College has trained more than 25,000 teachers, 5,000 of them in the last 10 years. It has a high academic record, with 33 per cent. of its teaching staff recognised as competent to take charge of the planning and implementation of degree courses. In 1976, 40 per cent. of students for the Bachelor of Education honours degree of the University of London gained first and second-class degrees, compared with 15 per cent. in the whole university list.

I have received many letters from ex-students testifying to the high quality of training that they received at the college. I shall not detain the House further by giving details of the quality of courses there because the professional deputation which I hope the Minister will agree to meet can speak with more authority.

Another of the criteria for restructuring the system was one proposing that
"the teaching force should progressively become an all-graduate profession and existing Certificate courses should be phased out as soon as possible."
Stockwell College was one of the first to provide Bachelor of Education courses and the numbers taking the course have steadily risen, with the results that I have described. The college expects to take its first all-degree intake this September, and if the proposals go through Stockwell College will produce its first all-graduate output at exactly the same time as it is due to close down.

Finally I turn to criteria (b) in the document, which states:
"Initial and in-service teacher education should be closely related and the institutions providing the former should have a major role in relation to schools and teachers in their area."
The document goes on to refer to the need for a good geographical spread of teacher training institutions.

Stockwell College is the major training institute in outer South-East London and North-West Kent. A high proportion of initial teacher students come from the area and 50 per cent. live at home and travel daily to the college, a number of them being mature students.

The Minister admitted, in a Written Answer to a Question on 21st February, that if teacher training ceased at Stockwell there would be no facilities available in the London boroughs of Bromley, Bexley or Croydon or throughout North-West Kent, since Dartford College is an Inner London Education Authority institution. Had the debate begun at the usual time as was expected, several hon. Members representing constituencies which include the boroughs to which I have referred would have wished to add their weight to the representations I am now making.

Serious as the discontinuation of initial training would be, perhaps even more serious would be the discontinuation of in-service training. Stockwell College has the advantage of being easily accessible by public transport from a large area of Kent as well as the three London boroughs and inner South-East London, and accessible from an even wider area by private transport.

It is estimated that the college serves 1½ million people, 700 schools, 13,000 teachers and a quarter of a million schoolchildren. I have been very impressed by the number of letters I have had from teachers over a wide area who benefited from in-service facilities at Stockwell. The number of such teachers on in-service courses is running at more than 1,000 a year. In addition, a lot of work is done by tutors visiting schools on a consultancy basis. At present they are spending anything up to 500 hours a week on this, and it is increasing.

All of this would go if teacher training at Stockwell ceased. I accept that there would still be some facilities in the ILEA area, but they would be needed for ILEA requirements. If the ILEA has to meet the needs of South-East London and Kent on the scale indicated, that would be to the disadvantage of the ILEA.

It is not good enough for the Minister to say, as he said in his reply on 21st February, that if Stockwell were closed
"arrangements for in-service training will be a matter for consideration by the local education authorities concerned."—[Official Report, 21st Feb. 1977; Vol. 926, c. 475.]
I am sure he must realise that local education authorities do not have access to the financial resources or the professional expertise to enable them to provide facilities comparable to Stockwell College.

I have restricted myself to a brief summary of some of the main arguments against the proposal to close teacher training at Stockwell. I hope the Minister will agree that they are valid arguments and that they merit closer examination. I began by accepting the need to reduce the volume of teacher training but not to close the particular college in my constituency. I am not therefore urging that others should be closed.

I invite the Minister to re-examine the geographical spread of teacher training facilities in the light of his own criteria. He has proposed reduced intakes in some institutions and the closing of others. I suggest that, by only a modest reduction in the proposed intake of some of the other institutions in the region, it would be possible to retain Stockwell and still keep within the overall figures which those proposals are designed to meet.

In that way, not only my constituency but Bromley, Bexley, Croydon and a large area of Kent would continue to enjoy the facilities and the high standard of teaching courses offered by Stockwell College. If the original proposals are implemented, however, a large part of the South-East Region will find itself, in educational terms, immeasurably the poorer.

9.7 p.m.

The hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) spoke eloquently of the virtues of Stockwell College and argued against my right hon. Friend's proposals to cease teacher training at the college.

He made certain kind remarks about my somewhat hurried return from Exeter in order to reply to this debate, but I think that the hon. Member is entitled to have a Minister to reply to the debate, since he has tonight scored a hat trick. In my experience it is rare for an hon. Member to be able to present a petition and, immediately afterwards, be able to raise the issue in an Adjournment debate—and to do both on Budget night. The Gentleman should be congratulated on that score.

I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern, which he has represented to me in letters, about the closure of Stockwell College. I have so far received 240 individual letters about the closure of the college and 80 printed forms that emanated from a local newspaper, which also objects to the closure of the college.

I am certainly prepared to meet the joint education committee, which has already presented a detailed case to me concerning the closure of the college and its objections to that closure. I feel certain, knowing the great concern of the hon. Member for Chislehurst about this matter, that he will be present at the meeting and that I shall meet him as the constituency Member concerned when I meet the joint education committee to discuss the matter.

It may help the House to understand the reasons for my right hon. Friend's proposals and some of the difficulties in which we find ourselves if I explain some of the background to the proposals for restructuring the teacher training system that were announced on 24th January.

The proposals represent one of the last stages in a process that has been going on for some time and that has two main aims. One aim has been to reduce the number of teacher training places from the peak figures of the early 1970s to something related to the prospective needs of the 1980s.

The other aim, which may have been lost sight of during the discussions about numbers, has been to reform the nature of teacher training following the findings of the committee under Lord James, which reported in 1972, and the subsequent White Paper "Education: A Framework for Expansion". Incidentally, I should say that although not every proposal put forward by the previous Conservative Government was accepted by Labour Members, we think that these proposals are very sensible and wise.

The aims were that the choice between teaching and other careers should be deferred as late as possible in a student's studies; that prospective teachers should be educated alongside other higher education students as far as possible; and, in the longer term, that the Certificate in Education should be phased out in favour of a new type of Bachelor of Education degree that would be deliberately developed not only as a teaching qualification but as a degree that would be generally acceptable for other employment outside the teaching profession. But we are trying to carry out these reforms against a background of reduced demand for numbers of teachers, which in turn derives from the fluctuations of the birth rate.

The number of births each year began to fall after the initial post-war "bulge" and fell steadily at first, until 1956. Thereafter, it rose again until 1964, but since then it has fallen again. On the evidence so far available it is still falling. The consequent fluctuations in the numbers of pupils and students have implications for the services for which my Department is responsible, especially for the provision of school buildings, further education colleges, and—most important—the training of teachers. The increased number of births between 1956 and 1964 meant that obviously there would be more pupils in the schools through the 1960s and into the 1970s, and that more teachers would have to be trained to deal with them. The demand for teacher training places was also increased by the decision to introduce the three-year training course in 1962 and the continuing aim of the Government to bring down the size of classes. Thus, there was a massive expansion of the teacher training system in the 1960s, as part of which Stockwell College grew from about 200 to 1,200 places.

It was obvious that at some time this expansion would have to stop and that there would even be some reduction in numbers, which would relieve the pressure under which many colleges were working. What was not foreseen—and I freely admit it—was the scale of the reduction.

The factor that is basic is the number of births. When they began to fall in the mid-1960s the first assumptions, based on data from the past about the age at which women had borne children and the size of families, was that this was a temporary phenomenon and that the birth rate would soon begin to rise again. The data from the past, however, did not and could not take into account the new factor of widespread contraception, especially the contraceptive pill. The number of births has fallen each year for the past 12 years and as a direct consequence the number of children in school will begin to fall dramatically from this year and for each year ahead for a considerable number of years.

In the current school year there are about 9 million children in school. By 1981 that will have fallen to 8½ million and by 1986 it is expected to fall to 7½ million and not to rise above that figure until the 1990s. That is one reason why there has had to be a change of plan. The authors of the 1972 White Paper estimated that by 1981 we should need a total of between 75,000 and 85,000 teacher training places outside the universities. Even that would have been a substantial reduction from the 117,000 places then available in the system. In asking local education authorities and voluntary bodies to prepare plans for reorganising their colleges, the Department recognised that there must be serious difficulties.

Since then, two major revisions of the forecasts have been necessary. In March 1975 the then Secretary of State announced that the teacher training capacity outside the universities would have to be contracted to a total of about 60,000 places by 1981. It was on that basis that planning proceeded and the plans that had been submitted under Circular 7/73 were considered and most of them approved.

It was in this context that the plans for Bromley, including Stockwell College, were approved in July 1975. Clearly, while the country was being asked to take a cut of about 50 per cent. in teacher training, Stockwell College could not escape some reduction. But the Secretary of State recognised the merits of the college, which have been so well described this evening, and the advantages of the plan for combining it with the college of technology and the college of art and design to produce a mixed institution of higher education strictly in accordance with the Government's policies. Within the total of 60,000 teacher training places then expected to be available it was possible to retain teacher training in this institution and to allot about 500 places to it.

However, by the autumn of last year it had become clear that in view of the revised projections of school population and the financial situation that was likely to slow down the rate of improvement in school staffing standards and the expansion of in-service and induction training, 60,000 places was a considerable overestimate of the need.

My right hon. Friend accordingly consulted the Advisory Committee on the Supply and Training of Teachers and secured its agreement to the proposition that the training system should be reduced to about 45,000 places. We cannot be sure that even this is the right number, since so much inevitably depends upon the unpredictable factor of the birth rate. However, in drawing up proposals for 45,000 places, what we have tried to do is to produce a system that is within the most likely range of demand, that can respond to minor fluctuations without being either wastefully unemployed or grossly overloaded and that is capable of fairly rapid expansion if the need arises for training substantially more teachers in the 1980s.

As a matter of fact, the design of the plan is for 45,000 teacher training places —35,000 for initial training and 10,000 for in-service training. We have tried to devise the capacity of the system so that if we are wrong that figure can be increased to 60,000 places in the 1980s. But that will depend on what the birth rate is in the latter years of the 1970s, which is a factor that we do not know at present. Statisticians tell us that it may increase, and that it has increased in the past. They have been telling us that for some years. But all our predictions and statistics show that consistently the birth rate is not rising or levelling out but is at present still falling.

We realise that the colleges feel that there have been enough changes of plan, so we have deliberately aimed at a figure that should not have to be significantly reduced again, with all the resulting misery of another round of cuts and closures. As a result, we have had to propose some very harsh measures indeed.

I appreciate that the college, and local people, will be disappointed and mystified at the proposal to take away teacher training, since the amalgamation of the colleges was approved so very recently and is in line with the Government's policies. I regret this as much as anyone. When I point out that we are making similar proposals in respect of three polytechnics and four institutes of higher education elsewhere in the country, this is not with any sense of pride but simply to illustrate the problems that arise when an operation of this sort is carried out in two stages and to underline the fact that Stockwell College has in no way been singled out for especially hard treatment.

We have been criticised because we allowed plans to go forward for the amalgamation of the Bromley colleges, even to the appointment of a director designate, while my right hon. Friend's proposals for reductions were being drawn up. This criticism, I think, illustrates our dilemma. Obviously a substantial number of colleges would have to give up teacher training, but my right hon. Friend did not wish to take any action which would seem to be prejudging the fate of any particular individual college.

I can assure the House that the future of every college was reviewed against the criteria presented to my right hon. Friend's advisory committee. A proposal to end teacher training at a particular college is not a reflection on the quality of the work of that college—indeed, one of the things that we regret most is the need to propose the end of teacher training at some colleges with distinguished records, such as Stockwell.

The dilemma that I am in, particularly with regard to London and the South-East Region, is that we tried regionally to arrange for a fair distribution of places. Greater London presents a particular problem. The provision of teacher training and higher education in and around the capital has been far greater than the needs of London and the region would justify, simply because of the special position that any capital city inevitably occupies. A strictly proportionate share of 45,000 teacher training places would allocate 5,560 to London and the Greater London area. The Secretary of State's proposals allocate 7,050. The hon. Gentleman will see the dilemma that I am in as a Minister in trying to deal with this position for the whole of England and Wales. I am dealing with what has become, because of the decline in the birth rate, an over-provision in the South-East and the Greater London area.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of in-service training. In my reply to the parliamentary Question to which he referred I said, as I inevitably had to, that this was a matter for the local authority concerned, because the question of where in-service teacher training shall be provided is one for the local authority and not my Department. I assure the hon. Member there is no reason why, from a departmental point of view, in-service training should not continue at Stockwell College. It may not be able to go along with initial service training if the proposals are carried out, but there is no reason why in-service training should not continue.

These are proposals put by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science at the instigation of the local authorities, which have said to the Government "We could never agree to this. You put your proposals and we shall fight over them." I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am more than willing to discuss this college and the other colleges. Since he has raised the future of Stockwell College so forcefully, with his petition and the Adjournment debate tonight, I say that in the light of these proposals I am willing to have discussions on the college with the joint education committee and the hon. Gentleman so that the full views of all concerned can be known before any final decisions are taken.

I do not know whether the final decisions will be in accord with the proposals. Some may be. The hon. Gentleman will agree that I could not prejudge the situation tonight before addressing him and his education committee or before I have heard the other representations concerning other colleges.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. He has done so by using every technique available to a Member and has ensured the presence of a Minister. I assure him that full consideration will be given to all his representations and to those which may be made by the joint education committee to me and the Secretary of State.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Nine o'clock