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Volume 932: debated on Tuesday 17 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what reply she has made to representations from the National Union of Teachers about the level of education spending in Oxfordshire.

The level of education spending in Oxfordshire is a matter for the local authority to determine, and it is to the authority that the NUT's recent representations have, quite properly, been made. I understand that a meeting took place last month between members of the National Union of Teachers and representatives of the Oxfordshire authority.

Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that a certain confusion has been created in the county by the contrast between her informal remarks—I think on two occasions during the last year—about the need to maintain education spending in Oxfordshire and the action of her colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment, which has forced the county council, through the rate support grant, not only to introduce substantial economies but to raise the rates by 40 per cent. more than the national average? Will she now use her influence to dissuade the teaching profession from taking strike or other action, which would only harm the service that it is trying to protect?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have made clear on more than one occasion that the Government would regard the very highest priority in local government expenditure on education as being the maintenance of pupil-teacher ratios. In the last few weeks Oxfordshire has, in practice, found another £250,000, which arose unexpectedly as a result of a mis-estimate of the effect of the Burnham negotiations for teachers, with the result that a substantial number will be able to be retained. I hope that it will be possible to retain more of those at present under threat.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that at a time of very severe cuts in public expenditure, and more especially in education, many authorities—Tory authorities in particular—are going far beyond what they should do? Will she therefore take steps to try to curb them from carrying out these cuts in order to help other aspects of conduct by taking more and more money from education?

I follow my hon. Friend by saying that I am worried by the fact that in some local authority areas education does not have the priority that I believe it should have. That is particularly true where there is what is sometimes called corporate management. However, the Government have made it as clear as they can that their first priority is the maintenance of the pupil-teacher ratios, and that will continue to be their position.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that for several months before the recent county council elections the teachers attracted headlines in all the local newspapers attacking Oxfordshire County Council and that when the results of the elections were declared it was clear that that campaign had had no effect, because the Conservatives won 61 out of the 69 seats in the county?

Is the Secretary of State aware that if there are cuts in Oxfordshire most people will consider that they are due to the results of her Government's policies on the rate support grant, which this year was cut in Oxfordshire by 8 per cent., as compared with 4½per cent. for the rest of the country? For the last three years Oxfordshire County Council has done worse than any other authority in this respect, due to her Government trying to move money from Conservative-controlled country authorities to the Labour-controlled city authorities.

I would take the hon. Gentleman's strictures a little more seriously if it were not the case that there had been a very substantial increase in local authority expenditure for independent places, for no good reason that I can discover.