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School Leaving Dates

Volume 982: debated on Tuesday 1 April 1980

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5.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is his policy on school leaving dates.

After full debate Parliament passed the Education (School Leaving Dates) Act 1976, which determined the present arrangements. My right hon. and learned Friend is keeping the operation of these arrangements under review, but has no present plans to amend the law.

What discussions has the Minister had with the DHSS about the changes in the Bill that will take away the rights of school leavers to supplementary benefit, particularly as this may encourage many school leavers to leave at Easter rather than in the summer? Does he agree that if they will be £140 worse off by staying on at school for a further six weeks, that will cause educational problems?

These matters are constantly under review between the Department of Education and Science and the DHSS. I have nothing to add at the moment. The hon. Gentleman has raised several points that have frequently been raised on both sides of the House and in Committee. However, at present I have no further observations to make.

Will my hon. Friend consider a more flexible approach to school leaving dates, so that school leavers can leave in the term in which they become 16 if they have a permanent job or apprenticeship to go to?

That matter is constantly under review. My right hon. and learned Friend has made that clear on more than one occasion. The Department has received a number of letters over the years and requests for greater flexibility in the system. Any amendment to the 1976 Act would require legislation. I am at present chairing the 16–19 review—we hope to report in the autumn—and it is actively considering that aspect.

While the matter is under constant review, will the Minister, believing as he does, and as I think we all do, in the devolution of power from central Government, allow for an element of discretion to be used in the rigidity of implementation of the raising of the school leaving age?

Headmasters can now apply a certain amount of flexibility. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, and many people feel that while pupils are still working towards examination results at 16, an alternative permutation might be more attractive and for the benefit of the country. However, it should be made clear that the Government have no plans to reduce the school leaving age.

Does my hon. Friend recall the various statements made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), when he was the Opposition spokesman on education, suggesting that it would be advantageous to open various doors, through the 16-year-old leaving age, provided that pupils remained in some form of continuing education?

This is a matter that was frequently discussed when we were in Opposition, and it has been discussed during the past few months. The issue is under review, and I cannot tell the House any more than that at the moment.

The Minister has said on several occasions that the matter is under review. Will he clarify for the benefit of the House exactly what is under review? Is it simply the technical arrangements such as those referred to by Conservative Back Benchers, or is he considering the proposal of his hon. Friend to reduce the school leaving age to below 16? Will the Minister say when his review will be complete?

The hon. Lady perhaps was not listening, because I thought that I had made it clear a few moments ago that the Government have no plans to reduce the school leaving age. As the hon. Lady knows, the review is part and parcel of the 16-to-19 review which we began last year. I should not wish to be held to this in fine detail, but I hope that we shall have a report out by the autumn of this year. The options of allowing early leaving to enable pupils to take up apprenticeships or offers of employment, or to embark upon courses of further education, have been considered, and my right hon. and learned Friend intends to keep an open mind in these matters.