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Education (Tayside)

Volume 977: debated on Tuesday 29 January 1980

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

11.28 pm

I raise this debate on the Adjournment out of serious concern about the declining provision for education and out of worry over the effects of the recent curtailment in the number of teachers and the quality of education in Tayside region. I also have fears about the effects of the next round of education cuts, especially in the light of the outdated but sinister needs survey conducted by the Treasury that has received so much publicity.

The argument that I wish to develop is twofold. First, Tayside regional council has handled education in a rather catastrophic manner. It has gone far further than the Government suggested. The council has supported cuts. It has gone ahead with cuts in staffing that other regions have not attempted. There is real doubt whether the standard of education in Tayside. and particularly in Dundee, can be maintained. I wish to ask the Minister whether he will use his influence, or constraint, to prevent further disruption in the education services.

My second objective is to show the Government the harm that can be done by ill-considered and unjustified cuts. I have no idea, especially after the debate to which we have just listened, what nature of hell's brew has been concocted by the Treasury for the Budget. What is known is that Tayside regional council was thinking of a 7·8 per cent. budget cut in real terms in the education sector. Already, in the region, particularly in the city of Dundee, substantial public reaction has manifested itself, apart from reaction among the teaching profession. One parent in my constituency stated:
"Whatever happens to children now will very seriously affect them for the rest of their lives. We cannot expect them to fight their own case. So we must do it for them."
Last Thursday there was a one-day strike in the city of Dundee, which meant that 25,000 out of the 32,000 pupils at Dundee schools lost their education for the day. The cause of the strike was that the regional council, without consultation, had rushed ahead with cuts in staffing. Unlike the Minister who called for staffing cuts, early this month, through wastage, Tayside region went ahead and terminated the short-term contracts of 130 teachers. Seventy-three of them worked in the city of Dundee.

Only two other local authorities, so far as I am aware, have attempted to make cuts. They are Strathclyde and the Borders. Both have contented themselves with cuts in ancillary matters. None has attempted making staff cuts. It was this factor, together with lack of consultation, that provoked a dispute in relation to Greenfield primary school at Whitfield, in my constituency, and subsequently the one-day strike to which I have referred.

All that members of the staff received was curt notes of dismissal a few weeks before Christmas. The regional council showed no thought for the interests of the children affected, let alone the teachers whose jobs were being lost.

The effect of the cuts made as a result of the termination of those appointments was real. The EIS has said that 27 of those teachers have since been reinstated, but 20 have been transferred compulsorily to other schools. As a result of the changes, virtually every primary school in Dundee and some primary schools in Perth and Kinross and Angus have had to make mid-session changes in timetabling and class organisation. In some schools, the changes have been drastic. One school had to telescope 19 classes into 16 and most of its pupils returned in January to find that they had new classmates and new teachers.

In many schools, composite classes—that is, mixed year groupclasses—had to be formed for the first time. Visiting specialist teaching was seriously reduced. Educational priority area schools had their staffing advantages whittled away. In one school, at least, special provision for the teaching of immigrant children was entirely removed. What worries me considerably is that 13 teachers in remedial subjects lost their jobs. This means that children, backward in education, have lost the opportunity of catching up with their peers in the same age group.

I am informed that between 1,800 and 2,000 children in the city of Dundee have been affected by the changes. I should like the Minister to indicate the position of the 30 posts under the circular 991 scheme designed to provide for additional staffing in schools in deprived areas. These 30 posts are funded by the Government under the rate support grant arrangements at least until 31 March 1982. They form part of the national staffing standards in the primary schools. By its decision to phase out these posts, and by absorbing the teachers concerned into its normal school staffing, Tayside regional council has departed from national staffing standards and may well have forfeited the rate support grant that it would have received in respect of those posts.

The chairman of the education committee apparently was under the impression that the rate support grant was available under circular 991 and could be transferred to normal primary staffing, but the EIS takes a different view, and I should like to know the actual position from the Minister.

The effects of the cuts were recognised by the director of education, Mr. David Robertson. I wrote to him on 14 December 1979 asking what was likely to happen, and I received a reply on 14 January in which he sent me a copy of the report that he had sent to his education committee. In that report the director said that his purpose was to advise the committee that there had been a substantial reaction to the recently imposed expenditure cuts. The effects of these were beginning to be felt and the public had become sensitised to the possibility of further cuts in the education service during the 1980–81 financial year. He said that there had been protests, including requests for staff whose fixed contracts had not been renewed to be re-engaged from teacher organisations, school councils, school staffs, parent-teacher associations, individual teachers and parents, community councils and other groups. When education officers had been asked to account for the expenditure cuts, the explanations had been given along the lines of a rationale, a copy of which was sent to me.

The director of education went on to say that the main burden of the protests had been in relation to the non-renewal of fixed-term contracts. This had caused
"considerable disturbance with changes of primary class teachers in mid-session, and the reduction of support from visiting teachers of music, needlework, art and physical education."
There had also been complaints about larger classes, composite classes, reductions in curricular options, increased teaching loads for promoted staff, less remedial help for less able pupils, increased timetabling difficulties when staff were absent, less staff release for in-service training, alleged erosion of educational standards and insufficient consultation. That was the director of education emphasising and repeating some of the things which the EIS had already said.

There is also clear evidence that Tayside has been run by a group of educational philistines who apparently place the education of young people at a low level of priority, regardless of the fact that a sound education is one of the main factors which will help to rescue the Tayside region, particularly the city of Dundee, from the economic doldrums in which it is at present.

Although the region denies that it is the second lowest spender on education, a recent analysis by Mr. J. K. Morrison, printed in the Dundee Courieron 24 January, brought out certain facts. First, all departmental spending, bar education, has risen faster than either the total regional budget or the cost of living index, and central administration has been far and away the most extravagant spender.

Secondly, within the education budget, administration costs have risen faster than all the others. Thirdly, the greatest savings have been made on supplies such as textbooks. In this area there has been a 26 per cent. increase compared with the total educational budget increase of 48 per cent. I have noticed that myself. My elder daughter, who attends a school in my constituency, does not bring home textbooks as I did when I was young. She gets duplicated sheets. Apparently this is customary throughout the region now because the amount of expenditure on textbooks has not kept pace with inflation. A survey has shown that there has been a 100 per cent. increase in the cost of books, but expenditure on them has increased by only 26 per cent.

Mr. Morrison has drawn the conclusion from this study that the proportion spent on education by Tayside is declining. He said that at the start of regionalisation when the different education authorities were amalgamated into one, the total expenditure was 60·4 per cent. However, at the end of the period of the study it had declined as a total of the budget to 57·7 per cent.—a very substantial drop. If one-half of 1 per cent. had been taken from central administration—[Interruption.]—I hope that you will check the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser), Mr. Deputy Speaker. If he were interested in the subject he should have sought an Adjournment debate himself. Had one-half of 1 per cent. been taken from the central administration costs, it would have avoided this mid-sessional dismissal of fixed-term contract teachers and averted the strike and the overall effects that have reduced educational provision in Dundee.

It is not surprising to me that in these circumstances the Tayside education committee has begun a rethink. It now wants to approach the policy and resources committee with a view to restoring the budget for 1980–81. So far we have been talking about the very abrupt and quite unheard-of changes that have taken place in the middle of a session. It now wants to shield the service from the worst of the cuts.

The committee is trying to pull back as a result of the protests from the community in Dundee and other parts of the Tayside region. I think that it is time for the Government to make clear where they stand in relation to education in the region. I know that the Minister has savaged Lothian regional council, but he must accept that the Tayside regional authority has gone far beyond even the target that was set by his own Government. To make mid-sessional changes of that order is quite unheard of in educational practice. The disturbance to the education of the children, to which I have referred, as a result of the regional authority's action and that of his own Government—if they have given encouragement to Tayside region by their general policy—is the responsibility of the Government.

I want, here and now, to hear from the Minister that, in view of the fact that there may be further disturbances if action is not taken in relation to the problems that have emerged, he will try to persuade the Tayside regional authority to reinstate the teachers who have lost their jobs and to maintain the educational budget. What the Minister is attempting, in general political terms—in a year when £2,090 million will be paid from the Scottish sector of the North Sea in oil revenues to the Treasury—together with the Tory-controlled local authorities is to allow the educational provision in Tayside to deteriorate and to allow the same thing to happen in other parts of Scotland.

In view of the sums of money—I know of the provisions of the Petroleum Revenue Tax Bill and I know that this is a Treasury estimate—that will be coming in, I ask the Minister to dissociate the Scottish Office from the general policy of the Government. I ask him to stand up for Scotland in this instance and also to make sure that the level of education in Tayside does not diminish for the reasons that I have given. I ask him also to prevent further disturbance to the education of many thousands of children who depend on a good education to give them a first-class start in life.

11.42 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) for raising the question of education on Tayside at this time. It is a pity that in the last couple of minutes of his speech he drifted into the nationalist propaganda that he, amazingly, still seems to believe in, in terms of North Sea oil revenues and other general economic matters.

The problems and difficulties that the hon. Member has set out with his customary clarity enable me to focus on two topics that are important to Tayside and to Scotland as a whole. These are the general economic situation, its implications, particularly for education, and the problems and opportunities presented by the sharply declining number of pupils in our schools. That is something to which I thought the hon. Gentleman might have addressed himself during the last 15 minutes.

In dealing with the general economic situation, I can do no better than echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in his speech on the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) Order on 16 January. The extremely difficult economic situation against which the problems of Tayside are to be seen is set out in the opening paragraph of the White Paper "The Government's Expenditure Plans 1980–81", Cmnd. 7746. The White Paper notes the long-term deterioration of the British economy and points out that under the previous Administration public spending plans were increased on assumptions about economic growth that were—and can now quite clearly be seen to be—quite unrealistic.

As a first step in bringing current expenditure under control, my right hon. Friend asked all authorities in Scotland to review their spending and to ensure that actual expenditure was held to the level assumed in the rate support grant settlement for 1979–80, which was, of course, the responsibility of the previous Administration.

He warned authorities at the same time that if they failed to heed his advice they would have difficulty in adjusting their programmes to the more realistic levels of expenditure that he had in mind for 1980–81 and future years. For 1980–81, after extensive consultations with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, my right hon. Friend set current expenditure relevant for RSG at only 3 per cent. below the figure planned by the previous Administration.

I shall give way in a moment. There are one or two matters to which I should like to address myself.

Yes, in my response to the prepared speech of the hon. Member for Dundee, East. It would have been an even more prepared speech had it been prepared by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson).

Within that figure there was a reduction in expenditure on education. That is the largest single programme and clearly cannot be excluded from the Government's expenditure considerations. The most important consideration to take into account here was the continuing decline in the school population. It would be irresponsible for the Government to propose increases in total expenditure having regard to such an obvious and steady decline in school numbers.

Staffing ratios in Tayside reveal clearly that there is no education crisis. The local authority is endeavouring to match its expenditure and its revenue. That might seem extraordinary to some Labour Members, but surely it is a most sensible thing to do. The attempts of the local authority to do that are in no way damaging the education provision in Tayside, as the pupil-teacher ratios for Tayside clearly illustrate.

Yes, I shall. I shall indicate that in primary schools at September 1979—these are the latest available figures—there was a pupil-teacher ratio of 20·3 to 1 compared with 21·1 to 1 at September 1978. Over that 12 months there was an improvement in the primary schools. The number of teachers employed at September 1979 was sufficient to meet the basic staff complements recommended in circular 1029, plus a flexibility factor of 16·4 per cent. The flexibility factor for primary schools in Tayside was 16·4 at September 1979 compared with the national average of 18·3 and an overall factor of 10 per cent. for which provision was made in the RSG. Therefore, it was 6·4 per cent. above the flexibility factor which was calculated and introduced into the RSG for 1979–80 as part of the previous Labour Government's order.

In secondary schools the pupil ratio was 14 to 1, the same as at September 1978. It is irresponsible to claim that there is an education crisis in Dundee. I know that there are some in Tayside who think that there is political advantage to be gained by stoking up the impression that there is such a crisis. However, it is an untrue assertion. The figures that have been collected from all the local authorities indicate clearly that it is a disservice to the regional authority, which can look after itself, and a disservice to the hon. Gentleman's constituents to stoke up the idea that there is an education crisis in Tayside.

There is concern among teachers in Tayside that there may be redundancies during the coming year. If the number of teachers in service in Scotland as a whole in 1979–80 had been more closely in line with the numbers planned for that year and provided for in the RSG order, I would not have expected any difficulty. The figures that I revealed earlier clearly confirm that point.

Does the Minister agree that while in Opposition the Conservative Party made it quite clear what its intention was if it came to Government? During the general election it made a strong point that public expenditure would have to be cut. Is it not rather cynical that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson), who contributed to the fall of the previous Administration, should raise the matter in the House?

Will the Minister take the opportunity to dissociate the Government from the remarks of the finance convener of Tayside regional council, in the social work department, that it was the declared intention of the Administration not to attain the level of grant allowed by the regional council? Will he advise his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of those remarks, and advise him that he should ensure that the Tayside regional council attains the level of expenditure allowed by the Government?

In fairness, I must point out that this is the Adjournment debate of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson).

The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) could hardly expect me to criticise the local authority for taking a prudent view of its expenditure in relation to its revenue. The hon. Gentleman is right that the hon. Member for Dundee, East did, to some extent, bring the Conservative Party into Government earlier than might have been anticipated.

It might be suggested that there is an inconsistency between maintaining that authorities must make their own decisions and determine their own expenditure priorities and then suggesting to them that they must reduce teacher numbers and thereby lower their staffing standard.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a little cynical of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) to make those points when he campaigned that Scots should make decisions in Scotland? Tayside is making decisions on education for Tayside.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is our policy that local authorities should be able to make these decisions in matters of education. The Bill that we debated earlier today—the Education (No. 2) Bill—extends the powers of local authorities to make decisions relating to their expenditure priorities.

Provided that authorities keep within the expenditure limits set by the RSG order, I agree that it is open to them to determine their expenditure priorities among services and within services as they think fit. But the proviso is an important one. Moreover, in a position where primary pupil numbers are falling steadily, it appears to reflect an unusual sense of values for teacher numbers actually to increase and to reflect, with a national pupil-teacher ratio of 20·3 to 1, staffing standards substantially in excess of those recommended in SED circular 1029. The ratio required in 1979–80 by these standards was a national one of 22·1 to 1. The difference between the two ratios accounts for about 1,900 teachers. I have said on a previous occasion that that is a cost of about £15 million, which is a significant part of the Scottish education budget.

The recommendations in the circular were made after extensive consultations both with authorities and with teachers' associations and were in line with the previous Government's expenditure plans for 1979–80. There is really no truth in the suggestion that there is an educational crisis in Tayside because of Government policy or that there is an educational crisis in any other part of Scotland.

The only educational crisis that we are facing is that a number of local authorities are not facing the expenditure implications for which they are responsible. They are not looking after the interests of their ratepayers as they should.

Certainly, the Government are doing everything in their power to persuade Scottish local authorities of their own responsibilities. In making their decisions, they must face up to decisions that are sometimes a little difficult and unpleasant. They should not duck those issues and leave them for central Government while they spend money in what they consider to be a popular way, although often it is in a spendthrift way.

It would be misleading to imply that adherence to the standards recommended in the circular to which I have referred would result in a lowering of standards or that there is some law of nature which provides that the size of classes must automatically go on getting smaller every year, even in times of severe economic difficulty when it is imperative to achieve a reduction in public expenditure by every possible means.

In fact, we have provided a more favourable pupil-teacher ratio in 1980–81 than was planned for 1979–80 in order to offset the staffing difficulties that obviously result from declining rolls. That point was made clear when the RSG order was presented. The hon. Member for Dundee, East shakes his head, but it is a fact that we have made provision for a more favourable pupil-teacher ratio in 1980–81 than was planned for 1979–80 in order to offset the staffing difficulties to which I have referred.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in the debate on the RSG order that where the basics of education are concerned—that is, the classroom work in our schools—we plan to maintain standards and to make sure that the local authoriites have the financial provision to maintain standards. Opposition Members have made some reference to the Education (No. 2) Bill. If cuts have to be made in education, which, as I have already said, is the largest spender of funds, surely it is wiser—difficult as those decisions might be—to make savings on the peripheral areas of education rather than on the classroom itself.

All expenditure reviews that have taken place have been to make sure that the classroom itself is protected. There is, therefore, both the scope and necessity for local authorities such as Tayside to bring their staffing levels within the agreed ratios. They can do that without damaging education standards and with out people in the area encouraging scaremongering and other types of activities that do nothing either for education or for the work that the local authorities have to do, whatever their political colour.

In considering questions of expenditure nationally, we would expect Members of Parliament to encourage local authorities to be responsible in their spending. From that point of view, I cannot really imagine what the hon. Gentleman is complaining about.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.