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Education And Science

Volume 980: debated on Tuesday 4 March 1980

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Education Vouchers

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what discussions he has had with local education authorities on the education voucher scheme.

None, Sir.

In thanking my hon. Friend for his reply, does he accept that parents who sacrifice to send their children to private fee-paying schools are, in effect, paying twice for their children's education? In any future discussions with local authorities on implementing a voucher scheme will he ensure that such schemes include the private sector?

Any local authority that wishes to consider the voucher scheme would obviously assess whether it should merely apply to the State sector or be extended to the independent sector. That will be a decision for the local authority. It is a matter on which we might be consulted, but the decision would be for the local authority. On my hon. Friend's other point, the assisted places scheme will open the door for many children who cannot afford to go to independent schools to do so, once it is in operation.

Does the Minister agree that all parents, particularly those with children attending schools in the maintained sector, will be making sacrifices in the future as a consequence of school meal charges and transport charges? Will he refute the suggestion made by his hon. Friend for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) that sacrifices will be made only by those sending their children to private schools?

Certain independent radicals would consider all taxes a sacrifice. People do not get back simply what they put in. One appreciates that, in certain cases, parents pay extra because they consider the matter important. We are concerned, as a Government, to extend parental choice not only for those inside the independent sector but for those inside the State sector.

Does my hon. Friend's answer mean that the proposed pilot scheme in the county of Kent has now vanished?

Not at all. The proposed pilot scheme brought forward by Kent is entirely at the discretion of Kent. It is for Kent to decide when the scheme should be brought into operation. There is nothing to prevent Kent from bringing it into operation at any time, at its discretion.

Will the Minister recognise that a difference in educational opportunity which arises because of a difference in the size of a parent's bank account is a barbarity in these days? Will he not waste his time on the voucher scheme but give his attention to the real problems in the education service?

If every difference in income in this country is a barbarity, barbarism will be with us for a great length of time. If parents have books and watch BBC 2—which, presumably, has educational programmes—this is discriminatory within the terms of what the right hon. Gentleman says. What we want is not to cut down opportunity for those who have it, but to extend opportunity for those who do not have it.

May I express the hope that my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for the voucher scheme has not diminished as a result of elevation to his present high office, particularly bearing in mind the importance of that scheme for extending freedom of choice to parents?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I pray regularly about the matter every evening. The decision whether to introduce the voucher scheme is for local authorities. We have always said that we would look on with interest and would not oppose any experimental voucher schemes in Kent, or anywhere else.

May I press the Minister about his attitude to local authorities introducing a voucher scheme? Is he saying that his Department would advocate such a scheme and would not provide any barriers to its introduction? Does he know of any local authorities which are actively considering this step?

The decision whether to introduce a voucher scheme is for local authorities. We would obviously not prevent this from happening. It is well within the powers of local authorities, whatever hon. Members may say. It is entirely up to them. Many of us will look with interest upon such a scheme, as would parents in the area.

Meals And Transport Charges

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals he has for monitoring the increases in school meal and school transport charges to be imposed by local education authorities as a result of the Education (No. 2) Bill.

My Department is maintaining a close interest in these matters and in the progress being made by local education authorities towards decisions on the issues.

Is the Minister aware that the proposals already announced by some local authorities mean that many poor families just above the supplementary benefit and family income supplement levels will have to meet extra charges of between £5 and £10 a week? What steps is he taking to try to persuade the more reactionary Conservative-controlled local authorities to modify their policies?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has indicated the features that he would like local authorities to regard as good practice. During the passage of the legislation it was emphasised strenuously in Committee and on the Floor of the House that local authorities must determine their own course of action. We are confident that local education authorities and head teachers are aware of such families. Supplementary benefit and family income supplement is taken into account and the local authorities have power to add to that help.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not just a matter of good practice but of new practice in the provision of school meals? Does my hon. Friend agree that counties such as Somerset, which have run schemes alongside the State traditional scheme, operating at greater cost, have experienced a bigger take-up and that parents are prepared to pay for alternative types of food? Will my hon. Friend take steps to spread such schemes to other authorities?

It is not my right hon. and learned Friend's practice to lay down strict guidelines about the precise content of meals and what form they should take. Somerset has given us a fine example of how catering can be diversified. Somerset is not alone. Hon. Members will be aware of what happens in their constituencies. The cafeteria or snack type convenience foods are the hallmarks of many young peoples' eating habits and are popular.

How many local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have decided not to introduce school transport charges? Will the Minister commend those authorities?

I shall answer the question put from a sedentary position. My Department is maintaining a close liaison with the local authorities to find out precisely what their charges will be once the legislation has completed its passage. Not all local authorities have yet taken the full council vote. A number of recommendations have been made. It is as simple as that. I shall notify the House as soon as possible and I shall write to the hon. Member as the situation develops.

Does not the Minister's reply mean that he has not a clue what the changes wrought by the Education (No. 2) Bill will mean in terms of charges on parents, access to schools and the injustices that will be perpetrated as a result of the new charges? Has he not a responsibility to children and parents throughout the country? Is this not a desertion of that responsibility?

The hon. Member disappoints me. His synthetic indignation has occurred too early this afternoon. Not all the plans are known by local authorities. The hon. Gentleman obviously misunderstands, because the Bill has not completed all its stages. Clauses 22 and 23 were contentious and it will be some time before local authorities reach their decisions.

Comprehensive Reorganisation

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many schemes for reorganisation of schools on a comprehensive system he has rejected since May 1979.

Does the Secretary of State agree that his decision on 18 February to reject the Kirklees authority's proposals for comprehensive education at Batley reveals that the Conservative promise to back local choice and to back comprehensive schools—where they are chosen—is a sham? Why did the Secretary of State not give a single reason for that rejection, either to me or the local authority? Does he accept that that was a high-handed way of treating local opinion since the parents, councillors, the Member of Parliament and all the teachers supported the proposed scheme?

Normal practice is just to announce the Secretary of State's decision. That was done in this case. The real difference between the hon. Member and myself about the Kirklees proposal is that Labour Members were determined to force local education authorities to go comprehensive and to close grammar and secondary modern schools, irrespective of local circumstances, whereas Conservative Members are determined to assess each case on its merits. We are determined to assess each case on educational, social and financial grounds and to attempt to make a fair assessment of the genuine views of local people.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his decision about north-east Kirkless has been received with great relief by the overwhelming majority of parents, thousands of whom signed a petition which I delivered to his Department? Is he aware that they signed that petition, whether they approved of comprehensive education or not, on the basis that the proposed scheme was out of keeping with the educational interests of the children in the area?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In rejecting the proposals by the Kirkless authority we were acting on educational and financial grounds and on our assessment of the views of local people.

Does the Secretary of State agree that when he talks about freedom for local authorities he means that local authorities should be free to implement the cuts that he is forcing on them? When it comes to basic decisions, such as that involving Kirklees, is he not overriding local authorities and not allowing them the freedom that they should have? The Secretary of State says that he rejected a case because it lacked merit. How are local people to know the demerits if he will not give his reasons for rejecting a proposition? Surely that makes it a political decision?

It was not a political decision. The decision was taken after an assessment of the merits of the case. If section 13 is to mean anything the Secretary of State must have the responsibility to assess not only an application but the objections to it. My responsibility is to do my best to take a view about what is the correct decision.

Later:

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply that I received from the Secretary of State for Education and Science regarding the reorganisation of secondary schools in Batley, I give notice that I shall seek an opportunity to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Further Education

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will bring forward proposals to help those students who, for various reasons, discontinued full-time education before gaining academic qualifications.

A range of opportunities already exist to help such students obtain academic qualifications. My right hon. and learned Friend has no new, additional proposals in mind.

Is the Minister aware that the planned savage reductions in university intake next year will hit particularly hard those who, because they are talented, deserve a second chance at higher education? Does he share the enthusiasm of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment for expanding the Open University to give such people second chances at degree level courses and below?

I always share the enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Government appreciate the need for people to be able to return to education when their circumstances and needs make that appropriate. The Government are staunch supporters of the Open University principle. The Government acknowledge the importance of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education. The House will be aware of a number of other initiatives which the Government have taken with such people in mind. However, there are no firm proposals at present.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the disgraceful treatment that his colleague the Under-Secretary of State received at the hands of London School of Economics students last week? Would he care to recommend that the grants of the offending students be withdrawn?

I certainly do not consider it my duty to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) how he should handle insults at meetings. We can perhaps learn from him. I acknowledge the important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle) but I do not believe that it is up to us to interfere with the grants of those particular students.

Common Core Curriculum

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what action he has taken on the findings of the secondary schools survey undertaken by his Department on the common core curriculum.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate's surveys of primary and secondary education, and the Education Department's review of local authority curricular arrangements, have now been followed by proposals for a framework for the school curriculum published in January, and a view of the curriculum published by Her Majesy's inspectors, Consultations are now under way on the framework proposals.

While agreeing in principle to the idea of a common core, may I suggest to the Secretary of State that he proceeds with caution in the matter? Does he agree that the present shortage of specialist teachers in, for example, mathematics, the sciences and modern languages, makes it impossible to introduce a common core? Does he further agree that the cuts in public expenditure affect this issue, and that both of those factors are likely to be with us for some considerable time?

The consultations arise from the desire on the part of the Department to reach agreement, both with local authorities and the teaching unions, as to what should be the general principles covering a core curriculum. Of course, I am aware of the effect of the shortage of teachers in certain specialist subjects on our ability to implement that core curriculum. I am concerned about this. We are trying to persuade the teacher training colleges to give shortage subjects priority within their training systems. We are continuing for a further year the scheme for re-training teachers in the shortage subjects.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend move speedily with the consultations, recognising the importance of implementing the new ideas as soon as possible? Will he turn his attention especially to the imbalance in the curriculum at many teacher training colleges, where not enough attention is paid to teaching practice and too much attention is paid to educational theory?

I shall certainly move as speedily as possible. Overall, the proposals set out in our framework for the curriculum have had a very welcome response.

Were the National Association of Schoolmasters and the Union of Women Teachers, among those giving a welcome to the proposals? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise the validity of what they were saying, namely that it is impossible and implausible effectively to introduce a core curriculum unless he is willing to commit the necessary additional finances—which are substantial—to make that an effective change in the provision of schooling in Britain? Will he provide that finance?

I do not accept that. As have said already, the shortage of teachers in specialist subjects is an important matter when considering what can be included in the core curriculum. I believe that one can make improvements in the curriculum in schools, and improvements in the standards without such improvements being always necessarily dependent on the spending of resources.

While approving of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's desire to press ahead with the issue, may I ask whether he is aware that the curriculum and the examination system are inextricably mixed? Is he further aware that his recent decision to make one group, the GCE boards, solely responsible for grades 1, 2 and 3 in a particular examination, and a wholly different group, the CSE boards, responsible for grades 4, 5 and 6, is a recipe for lunacy and cannot work? Will he re-think his examination proposals?

Our proposals for common certifications and common gradings, and an agreement of the national criterion of a common core for the syllabus for examinations, fits in totally with our proposals for a common core curriculum.

Social Work (Qualification)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received during the last six months about the need to make discretionary awards for the certificate of qualified social work mandatory.

My right hon. and learned Friend has received about 30 letters on the subject, mainly from hon. Members of this House and organisations with a particular concern for social work.

Does not the Minister agree that, as the Government have complete control over the number of places that are available for training in social work, it is crazy not to ensure that there are awards for all the students who are allocated one of those places?

I appreciate the point made by the hon. Gentleman. He has raised the matter before. If, at the present time of financial restraint, we were to extend mandatory grants to social workers—which would cost about £1½ million—they would have to be similarly extended to training for other vocational courses, and that could cost more than £10 million a year.

School-Leaving Regulations

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he has any plans to change the school-leaving regulations, particularly in respect of those wishing to take up apprenticeships.

The present leaving arrangements are governed by section 9 of the Education Act 1962 as amended by the Education (School Leaving Dates) Act 1976. Any changes would require legislation and my right hon. and learned Friend has no plans at present to introduce amending legislation.

Is my hon. Friend aware that that is a disappointing reply? Does he not agree that it is quite absurd that a boy who reaches the age of 16 in October, and who wishes to take up a genuine apprenticeship, is not allowed to leave school at Christmas but has to stay until the following Easter? Is not that quite ridiculous, and is it not time that we operated the regulations more sensibly and flexibly?

I understand my hon. Friend's depth of feeling on the matter. The reason why there are two leaving dates—some teachers would prefer one leaving date—is that teachers can at least teach coherently throughout the year, which could not be done if youngsters fell out every Monday and Wednesday throughout the year.

My right hon. and learned Friend is asked, from time to time, to consider legislating to allow early leaving for those with offers of jobs or apprenticeships, those who wish to enter the Armed Services or those who wish to pursue a course of further education. A working party is currently considering the educational provision for 16 to 19-year-olds and will consider again the posibility of early transfer to courses in further education.

Will not the Minister admit that from the inception of education in this country the Conservative Party has been trying to trundle our children out of school into the factories as early as possible? [Interruption.] The noise that Conservative Members are making now proves that I have made a point. Will he not further admit that it is our children that Tory Members want to get out of school quickly and into the factories, and not their children, to whom they are about to give £60 million of our money, while cutting down education for our children?

The £60 million mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is not going to "our" children, the children of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is going to parents who cannot afford to send their children to fee-paying schools, I wish that the hon. Gentleman would read the scheme and note the maintenance level. It might be interesting if the hon. Gentleman strengthened his knowledge of history by looking back to see who raised the school leaving age from 15 to 16.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency a boy who was 16 on 1 September could have left school a year earlier if he had been born a day earlier, on 31 August? He had a job to go to and was disappointed—as were his parents—that he was unable to leave school and take up employment. Cannot my right hon. and learned Friend legislate for some sensible and flexible policy?

I understand my hon. Friend's depth of feeling on the matter. However, if we moved the date to 1 September someone whose birthday fell on 2 September would then grumble. It seems that it is something that parents will have to consider in the future at the moment of conception.

Will the Minister confirm that there is very little demand from vast areas of Britain for any alteration to the school regulations about the leaving age simply because there are no apprenticeships available for youngsters?

I appreciate that at a time of high unemployment it is more difficult for those leaving school to find jobs. We are concerned to build up the standards in the basic subjects so that those leaving at the age of 16 are ready to take apprenticeships when the upturn comes in our economy.

Microelectronics

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he is now in a position to make a statement on education in microelectronics at school promised in the Official Report, 5 February, column 141.

With the agreement of his colleagues, my right hon. and learned Friend has decided to initiate a development programme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland starting in 1980–81. A separate programme is being mounted in Scotland. The programme will give schools and colleges a better understanding of the potential applications of microelectronics technology by commissioning new development projects and building on existing work in this field. A sum of £9 million at November 1979 prices will be made available for this purpose over the next four years.

Expenditure Cuts (Educational Standards)

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what effect the recent cuts in education expenditure will have on standards in educational institutions.

The Government's planned reductions in expenditure on education in 1980–81 have been concentrated in areas not directly concerned with teaching in the classroom so as to ensure that standards in educational institutions can be maintained or improved.

If the Secretary of State is seriously intent on improving standards, will he provide more money to employ more teachers so as to reduce class sizes in the State schools, which cater for the vast majority of children, instead of proposing to put £60 million of public money into the pockets of the minority of parents who want to buy extra privileges—real or imaginary—by sending their children to private, fee-paying, selective schools?

I cannot offer more money for teachers at present. My proposals for 1980–81 assume an overall reduction in expenditure of 3½ per cent. at a time when the number of pupils will drop by 4.7 per cent. On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he knows full well that the assisted places scheme has no relationship whatsoever to the year 1980–81. It does not start until 1981–82, and then at a cost of £3 million.

May I urge my right hon. and learned Friend not always to listen to those who want to reduce class sizes? Will he consider using any extra money that may be available to pay teachers more so that more qualified people enter and stay in the profession?

We are certainly anxious to have a highly qualified teaching force, and that is why we are moving slowly to an all-graduate teaching profession.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the effect which the Government's policy is having on the service which local authorities throughout the country provide? For example, is he aware that in the city of Leeds, which has a Tory-controlled council, school meals will be increased by 5p, any school swimming parties that require transportation will be cancelled during the summer, free school milk will be cancelled for children, except those who have medical qualifications to obtain it and overseas students' tuition fees will be increased by 100 per cent? Is he further aware of the problems that that will create for many of our constituents? Will he also take into account the fact that the cutback in the youth service programme will amount to £75,000 in Leeds, and that young people in industry need youth clubs and facilities?

I am fully aware of the need to reduce public expenditiure overall, because if we do not do so, and if we cannot put more money back into the private sector, in the end we shall not have the wealth to provide the public services in this country.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the problems is that people are convinced that only by spending more money does one achieve a higher standard? Does he further agree that what we should do is, for example, to improve teacher training so that we are using the money that we are able to provide more effectively in the schools of Britain?

I totally agree. As I have just said, one of the purposes of our proposals on the core curriculum is to try to improve the standard of what is taught in schools.

Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman's view, which has been expressed in the House and elsewhere—that cuts can be made outside the classroom—an absolute misconception of what is taking place? Has he noticed the views of the British Educational Equipment Association, the National Book League and the Educational Publishers' Council, which show that this year there will be a £4·5 million cut in capitation on books, a £1·5 million cut in spending and the equivalent in real terms of a 26 per cent. cut in expenditure on books in our schools? Can he really still say that the cuts will take place only outside the classroom and that they are not eating into education standards?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, all that I can do is to provide through the rate support grant for relevant expenditure. As to non-teaching costs, which includes books, we have assumed a 2 per cent. increase in expenditure in that area. But I repeat, against a reduction in the number of pupils of 4·7 per cent., we are looking for a 3·5 per cent. reduction in expenditure. A few Question Times ago, the hon. Gentleman said that if we achieved that it would be good husbandry.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance? In view of the fact—

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to indicate that he will raise the matter on the Adjournment?

Very well. The hon. Gentleman will seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.

Teachers' Trade Unions

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he intends to meet officials of the National Union of Teachers.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects to meet representatives of the teachers' trade unions.

Mr. Mark Carlisle : I am hoping to meet representatives of the Association of Principals of Colleges later today, and I hope to attend the Easter conferences of the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers.

I hope that the Minister does not get a roasting at that conference. Does the NUT accept his proposition that the quality of education has not been affected, and will not be affected, by the cuts that have already been made in public expenditure and the cuts that will come in the future? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that, if the quality of education is to be maintained, local rates will inevitably have to be put up very substantially? Will he agree with the NUT if it puts pressure on the local authorities to increase the rates so as to maintain standards?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes to me when I attend the NUT conference. I realise that the NUT does not accept the arguments that I have put forward. However, let me give the hon. Gentleman one fact, which is that at present we have the lowest pupil-teacher ratio that we have ever had, and we envisage a continuation of that.

When the Secretary of State does meet the teachers' unions, and I am sure that he will receive a courteous reception, will he explain how he can afford to introduce an expensive assisted places scheme when education authorities such as Cheshire county council, as a result of a shortage of cash, have to axe sixth-form provision in a brand-new comprehensive school at Padgate in my constituency?

I can only repeat that the cost of the assisted places scheme does not start until the year 1981–82, and it is assumed that it will cost about £3 million out of a total education budget of £8 billion a year. That £3 million will go towards assisting individual parents whose children we believe will benefit from the opportunity of the education that they will be able to obtain.

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets the NUT, will lie diplomatically point out that his proposals for a common examination system have met with universal acceptance elsewhere?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sorry that the NUT was the only body which appeared to be out of step with the general reaction to the proposals that we have made.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many NUT members fear increasing friction between the voluntary and county schools within the maintained sector, partly through falling rolls, partly through the Education (No. 2) Bill and partly because of the action of certain churches, particularly the Church of England in respect of Twyford school in Ealing? Will he bear that in mind when he considers the section 13 application that is now before him?

I repeat that section 13 proposals will be looked at on their merits. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I am also concerned with the interests of parents. I believe that parents have the right to choose between both Church schools and maintained schools within as wide an area as possible.

When my right hon. and learned Friend meets officials of the NUT will he discuss with them ways whereby unauthorised absenteeism can be monitored on a county by county basis in order to eliminate school truancy as much as possible?

When I meet the NUT I am sure that many things of different natures affecting education will be discussed.

When the Secretary of State next meets the NUT does he expect to have any good news for it with regard to the transport clauses in the Education (No. 2) Bill, bearing in mind that the NUT was vigorously opposed to those clauses? Has his Department reconsidered its position with regard to those clauses, or does the right hon. and learned Gentleman intend that the Department should ride roughshod over the other place in the same way as he has ignored opinion in this House and outside on this issue?

The hon. Lady says that I have ignored opinion. There was a full debate on the transport clauses and they were carried by a majority vote of this House. If I had to tell the NUT conference that the transport clauses had been removed it would inevitably mean that savings would have to be found from elsewhere in the budget, which would have a far greater effect on the employment of teachers.

Assisted Places Scheme

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many applications he has now received from schools wishing to take part in the assisted places scheme; and whether he has ruled out any of the applicant schools.

In reply to the Department's letter of 6 December, 460 schools in England have indicated interest in the scheme on a provisional basis. These replies are still under consideration.

Is it not still the case that, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman has weeded out the schools that are not up to the standard that he has set for the scheme, he will not have enough places to meet his target? In view of the rather ungracious comments made by the Prime Minister about Lord Butler, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make it clear whether Marlborough has applied to become part of the scheme and, if so, whether it has been accepted?

I realise that there are certain schools that have applied which may be unable to satisfy the criteria that we have set. That does not mean that I am not satisfied that the number of applications that we have had will more than meet the numbers we are considering. In fact, 118 of the 120 previous direct grant schools have applied. I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. The whole purpose of the scheme is to give to a wider area of parents the opportunity of a higher academic education at certain of the old direct grant schools which were forced to go independent by the actions of the Labour Party.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend nail the lie that has been put about by the Opposition that the assisted places scheme is actually going to cost money by telling the House how many thousands of millions of pounds the country would save if every child in the country went on the assisted places scheme?

If my hon. Friend wants an answer to that question, he will have to table it. Those who will be covered by the scheme would otherwise be educated at the total cost of the taxpayer within the maintained sector.

Is it not a fact that far fewer schools have applied for the scheme than the Minister expected—indeed, massively fewer, if I may use that adverb. Does that indicate that, even in Tory areas, comprehensive education is now accepted as a high form of education? Is this not a reality with which he is having to grapple? Will he not have to weed out some of the schools that have applied, with the result that he will have still fewer than he expected?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I repeat that of the 120 direct grant grammar schools in England which are in the process of becoming independent, 118 have asked to join the scheme.

Dispute (South Yorkshire)

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will carry out an inquiry into the dispute in South Yorkshire which is currently causing some children to be deprived of classroom education as a result of the enforcement of maximum numbers for classes by teachers.

I am glad to be able to inform the House that this dispute has been resolved, and that the education of children in Rotherham is no longer subject to disruption.

Does the Minister agree that it is moss regrettable that children have had to suffer disruption of their education in the classroom because of a conflict between teachers and the local education authority? Does the Minister agree that we should send our best wishes to the two parents, the teachers and the education authority? Will he ensure that in future children's education does not suffer because of any conflict that arises? If a conflict does arise, will he issue some guidelines or advice to the teachers, the parents and the local education authority to ensure—

I concur with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. All hon. Members will be glad that, after 18 months, normal schooling has returned in Rotherham. The Department was by no means idle. My noble Friend the Minister of State met both sides. She was prepared to chair a meeting of both sides. However, now that the schools have gone back we hope that the good spirit will continue and that there will be no more disruption.

Business Studies

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he is satisfied that there is sufficient provision within the school education syllabus to encourage pupils to follow courses in business studies.

Nearly all secondary schools in England offer options in business studies. About one-third of all pupils in the fourth and fifth years are involved in some elements of business studies. The adequacy of provision is a matter for individual local education authorities and schools to consider in the light of local circumstances.

Is the Minister aware that the degree of expertise among the teachers of business studies varies considerably? Will he examine that with a view to upgrading the standard of teachers of business studies, so as to get better results from the puils who take the subject?

The argument that the hon. Gentleman advances does not apply everywhere. In many local education authority areas the teaching is of the highest calibre. However, I hope that the point that he makes will become increasingly more understood by more local education authorities, by chief education officers and by chairmen of committees so that it is generally ensured that the highest standard is maintained.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that business studies are generally more suitable for older children—for example, those over 18 years of age—and that those under the age of 18 years should master the three 'Rs' and general education first before taking business studies?

I do not necessarily entirely subscribe to that view. Surely it is a matter for the individual head teacher to decide. In certain circumstances those in the fourth and fifth years could benefit from some introduction to business studies at that stage. I endorse the point that the subject is, perhaps, more suitable for children of an older age, but there can be no preconception about this

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q 1.

asked the Prime Minister whether she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 4 March.

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I hope to have an Audience of Her Majesty the Queen.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to consider the ways in which county education authorities are putting the main burden of education cuts on to city schools and city children? Will she consider how to convey to county education authorities, such as the authority in Leicester, the anxiety and the anger of parents and teachers alike at the cuts in nursery education, the cuts in ancillaries and the mean and dangerous cuts in the number of school crossing attendants?

I am not aware of any such tendency as that which the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned as far as county education authorities are concerned. I do not believe that they are deliberately putting cuts on the main cities in their areas. I am certain that he will take it up with his own authority if that is the case there. As for the general education budget, I can only remind him that the cost per pupil in the education service will continue to rise and be met under the education budget.

Will my right hon. Friend remind the country, British management and the trade unions, that orders equal production equals jobs equals profit equals investment equals more jobs, and that that is the basis of the return to a healthy industrial economy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting it so brilliantly and so succinctly. I wholly endorse what he says.

Is the Prime Minister and her party pleased with Mr. Mugabe's decisive election victory? Would it not be appropriate if the right hon. Lady publicly warned the South African authorities not to interfere in any way with the newly independent Government of that country?

I think that the most appropriate thing that I can do is to say that the arrangement of free and fair elections under all the circumstances has been an outstanding achievement, which many people a few months ago would have thought impossible, that the Governor is to be warmly congratulated as are the Army, the monitoring forces under General Acland and the police. The object was to arrange those elections. It was for the people of Rhodesia to say exactly whom they wished to have under those elections. The Governor has, of course, today seen Mr. Mugabe and asked him to set in train the processes of forming a Government. But it is now a time for reconciliation, of hope and encouragement for all of those who fought in the election to work together.

Did my right hon. Friend notice yesterday that sterling depreciated against the dollar by three cents? May I congratulate her on resisting pressure in the past few weeks temporarily to increase our minimum lending rate? Will she ensure that the Bank of England in the course of the next few weeks does not react to the depreciation of sterling by increasing our MLR?

I had, indeed, noticed the fall. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is never possible to have artificial restraints that will resist the market for long. I believe that the most important thing at the moment, if we are to get inflation down, is to control the money supply. That will be the prime objective of our policy.

Did not the Prime Minister make one strange omission from her list of congratulations? Should she not congratulate the new Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and wish him well in the difficult task that he is to undertake?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that we usually do that on the day when independence is given. Of course, we wish the whole of Zimbabwe well in forming a Government and in taking over the duties that it will shortly assume on independence.

Professional And Executive Register

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will take steps to disband the Professional and Executive Register of the Manpower Services Commission.

We shall take a decision on the future of the Professional and Executive Register shortly.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the steadily decreasing share of the market obtained by this service, and the steadily increasing cost in gross terms to the Exchequer? Is she further aware that the nationalised industries have refused to use the service, and that the private sector cannot afford to use it? In those circumstances, is it not time that the money was put to more effective use?

I am aware that only one in 25 people on the register secure jobs by means of the register. However, they must be registered somewhere, if they are to receive unemployment benefit. The future of the PER is under review, and the question is whether people should have to register under the general employment register or whether the Professional and Executive Register should be reshaped and restyled so as to be more economical, and people should still be able to register under it. I shall convey my hon. Friend's sentiments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Will the Prime Minister in her role as Minister for the Civil Service, tell the civil servants who work for the Manpower Services Commission that they are entitled to write to their Member of Parliament if their jobs are threatened? Is she aware that one of my constituents, a Mrs. Joyce Butler, has been told that if she writes to me again, disciplinary action may be taken.

I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that if that has happened I shall of course inquire into it, if he will give me the details. I have never found that those people, in the Civil Service whom I represent in my constituency do anything other than write to me if they have problems.

In view of the disturbing forecast that unemployment is likely to rise over the next two years, will my right hon. Friend confirm the report of the Manpower Services Commission that the Government will expand the youth opportunities programme so that no child leaving school this year will be without work or training?

As my hon. Friend is aware, my right hon. Friend made an announcement the other day about extending many employment opportunities. It is particularly our intention to help as many young people as we can.

Will the Prime Minister persuade the Manpower Services Commission to retain the Professional and Executive Register at least until after the next general election, when there should be an upsurge in demand for its services among existing Conservative Members?

It may be that even more Labour Members will be looking for a job then.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 4 March.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the country welcomes the resolve, expressed in her Airey Neave memorial lecture, to continue dispelling illusions about economic reality? Will she dispel, in particular, the illusion that the nation can afford to pay wages in the public sector in conformity with the rate of inflation? Will she bear that in mind when considering the doctrine of comparability, and any proposals emanating from the Clegg Commission?

I agree with my hon. Friend that none of us can automatically have pay indexed to inflation, because the country has to earn its keep. If we do not earn it, the pay is not there and the result will be inflation.

With regard to the point on the Clegg Commission, we are still picking up the tab for many pay claims that were referred to Clegg before the last election. The previous Government referred many cases from the public sector to Clegg, and we are honouring the awards that have been made.

Did the Prime Minister see the photographs of the recent National Front demonstration, and did she note the age of some of the participants? Some were of about school age. Will she ensure that local education authorities, such as ILEA, have sufficient funds available, over and above those funds that are already available, to eliminate the threat to the rule of law imposed by racialism?

The hon. Gentleman will know that if there is any contravention of the law, the matter will be for the police, and if there is any question of public order, the police have powers to deal with it. We have no sympathy with the aims and objectives of the National Front whatsoever.

Now that President Carter has apologised to Israel for the United States vote in the United Nations, will the Prime Minister consider this an appropriate time—now that the results of the Zimbabwe elections are known—to demand an apology from the United States for its hostile vote against the United Kingdom when Zimbabwe was being debated in the United Nations?

If he looks at the speeches that were made in the Security Council, my hon. Friend will see that the United States told other members of the Security Council that Britain did not need any lessons from the other members on how to conduct free and fair elections. The United States has been very helpful to us in our duties in Rhodesia.

How does the Prime Minister reconcile her Government's policy of encouraging exports to the Soviet Union with her advice to the British Olympic Committee?

The Government's policy on exports to the Soviet Union continues, except in two regards. We should not in any way substitute for the wheat which the United States is not providing, and we should attempt to reduce the amount of technology that we export to the Soviet Union, provided that our partners are prepared to do the same.

With regard to the Olympics, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to continue to hold the Olympics in Moscow would be taken as a tremendous feat of propaganda for the Soviet Government and for the Soviet system. That is something with which we could not possibly agree.

While on the subject of illusions, will the Prime Minister help to dispel the illusion that a 17 per cent. minimum lending rate helps to contain inflation, and has little or no effect on exchange rates?

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, no one could be more anxious to reduce the 17 per cent. interest rate than I am. As he knows, with his expertise, the best and quickest way to do that is for the Government to take less of the supply of money into their own coffers and to borrow less. Therefore we must reduce public spending.

Q5.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 4 March.

Will the Prime Minister indicate by what rationale the Government are now taking on 1,000 extra staff to check social security fraud—which is officially estimated to cost the United Kingdom less than £4 million a year—when there are only 270 tax fraud staff in the Inland Revenue, and when tax fraud is estimated by the chairman of the Inland Revenue to cost the country between £2,000 million and £3,000 million a year?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the Government's action in trying to track down fraud has been largely welcomed by the people of the country. As he knows, every time that someone takes money from social security by fraud the amount available for unfortunate people is reduced. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Inland Revenue must have around 79,000 or 80,000 staff, which should be abundant to track down fraud.

Will the Prime Minister accept that the House is disappointed by the decision of the British Olympic athletes not to boycott the Olympic Games? Will she congratulate the British athletes on exercising an option that was denied to the people of Afghanistan?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government can only advise, and people are free to make their own decisions. I do not believe that a final decision has yet been made. A number of people will delay that decision until the last minute—by which the invitation has to be accepted. I believe that that is much later. However, I hope that there will still be some delay before the final decision.

On several occasions during the last few weeks the Prime Minister has mentioned the right to work. Is there any level of unemployment that the Prime Minister would find unacceptable?

The greatest increase in unemployment in this country in the post-war period took place under the previous Government. Unemployment is no part of my policy whatsoever. We shall do everything that we can to see that it does not rise as fast as it did under the previous Government.