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Student Grants (16- Ti 18-Year-Olds)

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 14 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what action is being taken to assist more young people to stay at school after 16 years.


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether it is her intention to introduce a system of mandatory educational maintenance allowances.


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will make a further statement on her plan to introduce grants for 16- to 18-year-olds remaining in full-time education.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science and Paymaster General
(Mrs. Shirley Williams)

:As my hon. Friends know, the Government are committed in principle to introducing a statutory system of awards for students aged 16-18 in full-time education with the aim of encouraging more young people, particularly from less-well-off families, to stay on at school or college. As I told the House on 3rd November in the debate on the Address, it is not a question of whether to do this but of when; and this must be considered in the light of other proposals for major increases in public expenditure. The Government are giving the matter very careful attention.

:Will my right hon. Friend confirm that providing financial help for youngsters, especially working class youngsters, to stay on at school beyond the age of 16 remains one of the highest priorities of her Department? Will she redouble her efforts within the Cabinet to have the scheme introduced at the earliest opportunity, in the knowledge that it has the full support of hon. Members on the Labour Benches?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I assure him that I regard the matter as a very high priority for education expenditure. Nearly four in five of the children of professional and managerial families stay on at school past the age of 16 and under one in five of the children of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled mothers and fathers.

I shall call first those hon. Members whose Questions are being answered.

:Is my right hon. Friend assured that her fellow members of the Cabinet are fully aware of just how deplorable the British position is in the provision of education beyond the age of 16? Will she assure us that she recognises that a discretionary scheme could not possibly meet the need at present?

I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says. It is shocking that the participation rate over the age of 16 in this country is lower than that in any other country in Western Europe, except Spain, Portgual and Italy. I do not regard that as a very attractive record.

I note what my hon. Friend said about discretionary schemes. The Government have that very much in mind.

What advice would my hon. Friend give to my constituents who read the headlines about her announcement back in June or July of a scheme to start from 1979 and decided to go back to school this year, knowing that it would be financially very difficult for them and their families but expecting to receive some grant for next September? Would she now advise them to leave school, draw supplementary benefit and continue their A-level studies on a part-time basis?

I recognise my hon. Friend's feelings, but I cannot be responsible for the interpretation put on my remarks by the newspapers. I have checked back on every remark I made, and have established that what I said was that the scheme could not possibly start before 1979, because legislation was necessary. In fact, I specifically answered —and have the answer on record—a member of the press who inquired about 1978. I made it quite clear that there was no possibility of a scheme starting then. My hon. Friend will discover that I said the same to him in my reply of 12th May, which he will find in Hansard.

:Will the Secretary of State resist the idea of a scheme that is discretionary to local authorities, in particular because such a scheme would tend not to be implemented by quite a number of Conservative-controlled authorities within whose areas some of the children of greatest need are?

:I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says about that. He will know that I very much regret that the local authority associations have altered their views on the whole question of discretionary awards for young people between the ages of 16 and 18. I am sorry that they have found it necessary to change their attitude.

Is not one of the problems that the scheme which the right hon. Lady has proposed is too broad and that the priority now is not to encourage young people to stay in sixth forms, which might not be best suited for the non-academic child, but to use whatever money is available to offer incentives for these young people to go into skill or craft courses in further education colleges?

I accept what the hon. Member said, but he will know that the scheme which I discussed with local authorities was one which would make awards both to young people going into full-time further education as well as to those who stayed in school. It is interesting that where awards are being offered—for example, by Sheffield, Inner London and Wakefield—there is evidence that some young people are staying in full-time further education who might otherwise have found it impossible to remain in college.

:Is my right hon. Friend aware that many local councils are buying places in independent schools and paying people to go there at an estimated cost of£35 million this year? Should not she take steps to divert this money into the provision of financial support for all pupils between the ages of 16 and 18?

Yes, Sir. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that there has been a 40 per cent. decrease this year in the number of places taken up in independent schools financed by local authorities and that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I have made it clear that the only basis upon which new places can be taken up in independent schools is either where there are inadequate places in the existing maintained system—that is a very small number—or where there are denominational schools which are proposing to reorganise in the next couple of years.

:Although it would not have the effect on reducing unemployment which is clearly part of the aim of the Secretary of State, would it not be better to introduce scholarships for bright but needy children? Would not that not only be less expensive but much more easy to implement?

The scheme that we are discussing is not far removed from that. As the hon. Member will appreciate, first, for reasons of resources it would have to be a means-tested scheme and, secondly, it would be for teachers to advise pupils whether they would benefit from staying on in education, so that on both bases I think that this would be a scheme coming close to what the hon. Member has in mind.

:In view of the lack of job opportunities for 16-year olds, does my right hon. Friend agree that her scheme should be brought forward and linked with the youth opportunities programme? Surely it is better for youngsters to stay in further education than to join the dole queues.

I am sure that that is right and, of course, the purpose of the youth opportunities scheme is to offer young people an opportunity in education or in a work experience scheme or in a short industrial course. I am anxious, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, to make sure that every unemployed young person is offered one or other of those alternatives.

:Is the right hon. Lady aware that, although I would never accuse her of wickedness, I think that it is not totally unfair to suggest that she has led sixth-formers up the garden path of disappointment in this respect? But since the path has been barred by the Treasury Cerberus, will she use this pause to rationalise the whole provision for the 16- to 19-year olds about which Opposition Members are deeply concerned, as I know the right hon. Lady is herself?

Let me say to the hon. Member first that, as he knows, the Government have announced their intention to produce a White Paper next spring on the position of the 16- to 19-year olds. However, quite frankly, I have resisted the idea of a major inquiry. I regard this matter as so urgent that I do not believe that we can wait the two or three years which the inquiry would take.