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Education (Sefton)

Volume 986: debated on Thursday 19 June 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

10.38 pm

I wish to speak of the consequences of the rate support grant cuts in Sefton on the education in that metropolitan district area. I should like to say something about how the rate support grant was cut, the general situation as far as the cuts in Sefton are concerned and the effect that the cut is having on the education services in the metropolitan district of Sefton, of which my constituency of Bootle is a part.

I say at the start to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science that he and his Government are responsible for the cuts in the rate support grant. Ministers have claimed that the rate support grant has not been cut but that there has been a 61 per cent. allocation. That claim is deceptive and untrue, because the allocation allows for an inflation rate of only 13 per cent. and does not allow for the kind of pay awards that the Clegg Commission provided for and which employees in local authorities such as Sefton have been receiving. It is strange that Ministers who espouse the cause of public expenditure cuts as a virtue attempt to hide the cuts when they make them.

In Sefton we were faced this year with a Conservative council receiving reduced rate support grant and as keen as the Government to make cuts. The Conservatives in Sefton are so enthusiastic about cuts and so Right wing that they make even the Under-Secretary of State appear to be a wet. They had to make cuts because they refused to increase the rates by an adequate amount—namely, £2½ million. They decided to take £1·3 million from the education budget. None of the cuts would have been necessary if there had been a 2½p extra rate increase. The children of Sefton and of Bootle—my constituency—would thus have been saved from vicious cuts that have been introduced in the education service.

It would not have been such a terrible thing if the rates in Sefton had been increased by a larger amount to compensate for the cut in the rate support grant that the Government introduced. The average rate less domestic relief in 1979–80 in the metropolitan district of Sefton was £78·66. That is the lowest figure for any metropolitan district in the country.

The Wirral had an average rate less domestic relief for the same year of £90·80. That is far greater than Sefton's average rate, and the Wirral is not noted for having a Socialist council that spends. Indeed, it is Conservative-controlled. The two famous councils in Greater Manchester—Stockport and Trafford—which are famous for cuts and for being frugal Conservative councils, have had much higher rate increases and have much higher rates than the metropolitan district of Sefton, which must go down as the meanest metropolitan district in the country.

In saving the £1·5 million that had to be taken from the education budget because of Sefton council's decision, school meal charges were increased to 45p. Only children whose parents were in receipt of DHSS benefits or family income supplement received free school meals. School milk has been snatched from the children, and 12 infant and junior schools that are separate schools—12 sets of two, making 24 in all—are to be amalgamated. I know that the Minister has criticised the idea of split sites in the secondary sector. We are to have primary schools in the Sefton area on split sites. They are amalgamated to save money.

There have been cuts in the youth service, and the excuse of falling rolls is being used to threaten the closure of secondary schools, such as the Countess of Derby school in my constituency. It is being used as an excuse to plan the reduction of courses in our secondary schools. The comprehensive principle is destroyed and certain options for certain courses are to be removed.

The three most serious cuts to be introduced as a result of the reduced rate support grant have fallen on the Hugh Baird college of further education, on swimming pools in the primary education sector and, most unkindest of all, on a special school in my constituency for the educationally subnormal, which has resulted in its closure.

The cuts in the Hugh Baird college of education were so vicious that vocational courses were cut. It is in an area of deprivation where unemployment is running at 20 per cent. and more. People need vocational training to plan the possibility of a future life in employment.

Because of the cuts at the Hugh Baird college of education, the staff even went so far as to pass a unanimous vote of no confidence in the chief education officer of the local authority. They said :
"Because of the cuts in the Sefton education budget the teaching staff of the Hugh Baird college will be reduced by 14 full-time teachers in the next academic year.
As a result, the college has been forced among other things to :
  • (1) Reduce the provision for G.C.E. evening classes by 50 per cent.
  • (2) Cancel a full-time course in engineering and to inform young students who had already been accepted for the course that it could no longer be offered.
  • (3) Cancel some vocational courses for part-time students."
  • It will be no surprise to the House and the Minister, because I have raised the issue before, when I say that there is a feeling in Bootle that the cuts made in the education service have fallen unfairly on the part of the local authority area that my constituency covers and that the area of Southport, in the Sefton metropolitan district area, has been protected from the cuts because that is where the Conservative councillors who run Sefton council and govern Bootle and Litherland, in my constituency, come from.

    The members of the staff of the Hugh Baird college point that out. They say :
    "The facts speak for themselves.
    For the past five years the budget accounts presented to the governors of the Hugh Baird college have indicated a policy of no expansion in the further education colleges. This policy, which has been loyally and meticulously followed by the principal and governors of the Hugh Baird college, has resulted in the number of students at the college remaining constant since 1975. At the other end of the borough, however, the situation has been entirely differ- ent. During the same period of time numbers at Southport have been allowed to increase to such an extent that the staff of the Southport technical college has grown by 67 per cent. i.e. from 112 in 1975 to 187 in 1979."
    When the cuts are made in further education services in the borough of Sefton, they will fall hardest in the Hugh Baird college of education in Bootle. The Southport college is protected from the cuts. This provides another example of a local authority area which is the most deprived but the most in need of the facilities and courses that the Hugh Baird college was providing.

    I turn now to the cuts that were made in swimming pools and swimming lessons in primary schools throughout Sefton. In my view, thas can be described only as robbery. What is happening is that seven school swimming pools are being threatened with closure. These school swimming pools are at St. Benet's, Nether-ton, Woodlands, Formby, Hatton Hill, Litherland, Netherton Moss, Netherton, St. James', Bootle, Woodvale, Formby, and Hudson, Maghull. They were provided from money raised by parent-teacher associations in the schools. The parents collected the money by voluntary effort on the understanding that if they rased the money and provided the swimming pools for the schools, the local authority would continue to maintain them and keep them open. Now, that undertaking is being withdrawn by the Sefton council.

    There is great anxiety, particularly in Bootle, because of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, which runs through the constituency, where there were many drownings in the past but none recently. It is felt by parents in the area that the lessons that were given in these swimming pools have had the result of preventing people, especially children, from being drowned in the canal.

    I think that, although it may not be illegal for these swimming pools to be closed after they have been provided by the parents and teachers, it is certainly morally indefensible that the pools should be stolen from the children after the parents and teachers have raised the money to provide them.

    Councillor Roland Ball, chairman of the education committee in Sefton, is known now in Sefton as Sefton's educational Jack the Ripper. He is going around cutting everything. He met the parent-teacher association and told it to raise money itself towards paying the contribution for keeping the pools open. A lot of effort has gone in and a lot of money has been raised, but in some instances the full amount necessary to keep the swimming pools open has not been raised. They are still threatened with closure. That is not self-help ; it is self-financing. I believe that the Government should intervene and say to the local authority in Sefton that these pools should be kept open, because it is morally indefensible to close pools that were provided by the parents and teachers.

    The cuts have caused the closure of St. Paul's special school for the educationally subnormal. Seventy pupils will be bussed some considerable distance from the community in which they live to another school in Crosby. Prefabricated classrooms are being constructed at the school in Crosby, which is a special school for the physically handicapped and not built or equipped to deal with the pupils from St. Paul's. St. Paul's is a community in itself. The parents are happy that their children are educated there. It is a good school. It is disgraceful that cuts in education should be made in a way that hits the handicapped.

    I draw to the attention of the Minister and the House a letter from Mrs. Turner, the mother of one of the children at St. Paul's. Perhaps the Minister can answer the points that she has raised. She states :
    "I should be most grateful if you would give me some guidance concerning the Education Act 1980.
    As parent governor of St. Paul's Special School E.S.N.(M), Bootle, I represent, and write to you on behalf of, the parents of the a/m school whose children are being required for September 1980 to travel by bus approximately 6 miles to a school in Crosby because of the resolution of the LEA to close our school against our wishes.
    We consider it perfectly ridiculous to expect ESN children to effect regular attendance in these circumstances. We know that at present some children are made to wait up to 40 minutes in exposed, unsheltered places for the bus. The extra distance involved would exacerbate the situation.
    We wish to know whether we, as concerned and caring parents, have the right under the Education Act 1980 to send our children to local county schools albeit in the remedial departments. Our ability to do so would relieve us of great anxiety."
    I raise that matter as a serious point which the Minister should answer.

    I draw attention to the uncaring way in which the Sefton Conservative Party has closed that school. I have drawn attention to some of the worst cuts that have been introduced into the education services in Sefton as a result of the Government's rate support grant cuts. I hope that the Minister will use his influence with the Government and with other Ministers to restore the money that local authorities need to provide a decent education. I hope that he will also use his influence with his Conservative colleagues on the Sefton council to get them to think again about some of the bad decisions that they made in trying to compensate for the rate support grant cuts introduced by the Government.

    10.53 pm

    I know that the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) feels strongly about this issue. He has raised questions in the House at Question Time and he has put down written questions on the subject.

    In general terms, the Government were elected on the issue of controlling the amount of expenditure—to cut national and local government expenditure, or, in other words, to cut our coat according to our cloth. I refer to that now, and I shall refer to its again at the end of my speech. It is something we said we would do and which we must do.

    At the same time, I make the point that there is no automatic relationship between the amounts spent on education and education standards in Britain. Simply by spending more money, we cannot take for granted an improvement of education standards. We inherited increased public expenditure, which was built into the programme before the general election and which we had to do something about.

    I wish to stress the point about there being no automatic relationship between the amount being spent and education standards. During the past 25 years there has been a constant increase in education expenditure in Britain as a percentage of the gross national product. Between 1968 and 1978, despite the fact that we raised the school leaving age from 15 to 16 years of age in 1973–74—which means that all 16-year-olds are in school and can sit O-levels or CSEs, which they could not do in 1968 because more than half left before reaching the age of 16—the number of children as a percentage of the age group obtaining five O-levels or grade one CSEs increased only from 8 per cent. to 9 per cent. The number obtaining one A-level was exactly the same in 1978 as it was in 1968. Therefore, it is not true that by the pumping in of more money standards will improve.

    We have concentrated the reductions in education expenditure on the ancillary areas of school meals and milk and on the subsidisation of overseas students' fees. Secondly, because the substantial fall in the size of the pupil population offers scope for reducing expenditure without undermining standards per pupil, the Government have allowed for diseconomies of scale as numbers fall, so that the reduction in school expenditure over the period 1978–79 to 1983–84, over a five-year rolling programme, is about 6 per cent., despite the fact that the fall in pupil numbers is 13 per cent. Therefore, the actual expenditure in real terms per pupil increases over those five years.

    Under the previous Labour Government cuts were made in 1976–77 and 1977–78, at a time when the falling birth rate was not with us to the extent that it is now. It is interesting that whilst this year we have asked for a reduction of 2 per cent. in local government expenditure, that is exactly what the Labour Government asked for in 1977–78 as against the figure for 1976–77, when pupil numbers were not falling as they are now. Looking at cuts in capital expenditure, one sees that those of the present Government have been 14 per cent. as compared with 25 per cent. then.

    When the Labour Government faced economic problems in the middle of their last term of office, they had to take exactly the same measures as we have had to take—not facing necessarily the international brokers coming in, but because we knew that if we did not balance our income against our expenditure we would be in serious trouble.

    As pupil numbers fall, some contraction in the numbers of teachers in the teacher force is inevitable. The teaching force in England and Wales is thus expected to decline from 471,000 in 1978–79 to about 412,000 in 1983–84. However, notwithstanding this contraction, because of the fall in pupil numbers this smaller teacher force will still be sufficient to allow, nationwide, for the broad maintenance of pupil-teacher ratios at their best-ever level of 18·6 pupils per teacher. I stress that the ratio that we had in January this year—under the present Conservative Government, despite the shouts from certain people throughout the length and breadth of the country—was the lowest that it has ever been. We are committed to retaining that figure.

    Furthermore, the Government have also made some allowance for the diseconomies of smaller scale as pupil numbers fall and for in-service training and induction schemes for new teachers to be maintained at the present level. I repeat that we intend to maintain the ratio of 18·6:1—around that figure—over the five-year period.

    On non-teaching costs, the Government's plans allow for an increase in expenditure on school running costs, other than teachers' salaries, beyond that required to maintain expenditure per pupil. Thus, for instance, the plans provide for a 2 per cent. growth of expenditure in this area per pupil in the current financial year as compared with that of 1978–79. Additionally, between now and 1982–83 the Government's plans allow for new expenditure of some £35 million on books and materials, reflecting our recognition of the needs that exist in this area, partly due to rapidly rising costs, as we all know, over recent years.

    Let me move on from the national picture to the local circumstances. I think that I have said enough about the Government's spending plans to persuade hon. Members that much of the talk about swingeing reductions in school expenditure is, to say the least, exaggerated. In general, local authorities should be able to protect standards of provision in schools if they reflect the Government's priorities in their budgets. However, since we believe in local democracy, it is for individual local authorities to decide precisely how to implement the Government's expenditure plans in the light of local needs and circumstances. The Government's plans reflect our view of national priorities and of what would be possible nationally if local education authorities collectively acted in accordance with the Government's priorities.

    I turn to the position in Sefton. As I understand it, the authority has done everything possible to ensure that education standards will be maintained. The proposals approved by the borough council will achieve savings of £1.3 million—about 2·9 per cent. of the borough's total expenditure on education. The authority was concerned that the effect on the individual child in the classroom should be minimised. The pupil-teacher ratio is to be maintained at the same level as last year, and there have been no cuts in the capitation allowance to schools.

    In the Sefton area, the number of pupils per teacher was 20·6 in 1977. That figure was reduced to 20·3 in 1978 and to 19–6 in 1979. This year the figure has been reduced further to 19·3. It is the intention of the local authority to maintain that pupil-teacher ratio.

    The pupil-teacher ratio and the capitation allowance should ensure that there will be no deterioration in the level of resources available in the classrooms. Falling rolls in some areas of the borough will allow a reduction in the teaching staff, but that will have no effect on the current pupil-teacher ratio, and no teachers will be forced to retire prematurely. I am informed that any retirements will be on a purely voluntary basis.

    I appreciate that further savings are to be achieved by the amalgamation of Sefton infant and junior departments in some primary schools, but that should also be seen in the context of a need to rationalise school provision in the light of the decline of the school population and the need to reduce the level of surplus accommodation.

    Sefton is facing a problem that most local education authorities—apart from those in expansion areas—are facing. Because of the falling birth rate, there is a problem of how to deploy the teaching force in order to get maximum advantage for the money being spent. Compared with other services in the Sefton area, education has come out relatively well. The cuts in amenities are 6·7 per cent., in environment 5·8 per cent., in libraries and the arts 7·4 per cent., in social services 5·7 per cent. and in tourism 6·6 per cent., compared with the cuts in education of 2·9 per cent.

    I am aware that there has been controversy over the decision to discontinue financial support for school swimming pools. I emphasise that it is the authority's responsibility to make decisions about school matters. The authority considers the education of the child in the school as its main duty, although it is regrettable that some children will no longer have the opportunity of swimming lessons as part of the school curriculum. But cuts have to be made somewhere. We are providing an adequate range of subjects in the school curriculum, and the teachers who are needed to teach those subjects must have priority over the maintenance of swimming pools, however desirable those swimming pools are. It should also be remembered that the authority is doing all it can to provide alternative facilities in public swimming pools.

    I refer to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the closing of a school in Bootle. I am informed that there is a surplus of special school places in the Sefton area, and there must be rationalisation. It is easy to spend as much money as we are given, but—if we go back to the old Egyptian scales of justice—we must balance one side against the other. When a person is the recipient, he has a different approach from that of the ratepayer or taxpayer.

    A balance must be struck locally and nationally between what is a reasonable amount to pay in rates and taxes and what can be afforded. The last Labour Government realised that there was a limit to how much one could tax. Much as we would all like all the things to which the hon. Member referred, it is important to balance expenditure with income. There is a need nationally and locally to cut our coat according to our cloth.

    The hon. Member raised a specific matter—the question of whether the children from special schools who have to travel further can be sent to local schools under the 1980 Act. Various parts of the 1980 Act are coming into force at various times. The recoupment clauses are coming into force this August. If the hon. Member writes to me, I shall answer his specific question. Similarly, if any hon. Member wants any specific information at any time, he should let us know and we shall do all we can to find the answers.

    This Government were elected on 3 May last year to bring economic sense back to the country. We cannot have economic sense if we fulfil every demand from every group that wants further expenditure. We asked local authorities at the time to cut expenditure by 2 per cent., and this did not seem unreasonable. It was exactly the same figure as that by which the Labour Government asked local authorities to cut back when they faced problems in the middle of their term of office. We must rely on local authorities to make the decisions that are right for their areas. After all, local authorities are elected. They are respon- sible to the electorate, and if they get too far from the electorate they will pay the price at the ballot box.

    In defence of the education committee and the education authority in question, I must say that by having, in January this year, the lowest pupil-teacher ratio that they had ever had, by keeping up the capitation allowance and by saying that any teacher reductions would be done voluntarily, they have acted very reasonably, considering the economic restraints.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.