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Educational Initiatives (Government Funding)

Volume 173: debated on Tuesday 22 May 1990

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

9.17 pm

Something extraordinary is happening in the tiny village of Moore near Warrington, something unique in the United Kingdom. Something has been created by children aged four and upwards which displays so much creativity that the whole business has burst on to the international scene and has gained recognition in countries as far apart as Norway, Japan and even the Lofoten islands. That something is "In Our Own Words", a magazine started in one small school.

The magazine is written, designed, laid out and edited almost exclusively by the children. It began as a school project in the constituency of the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle), and he may try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to discuss the origins of the project. In five years the circulation of that magazine has grown from 1,600 copies, produced by six schools, to a total production last year of 300,000 copies with contributions from 1,000 schools.

The driving force behind the project is a school teacher by the name of Frank Melling. If enthusiasm and commitment were enough, the project would not be facing any problems. But it faces the problem of funding, which is on a shoestring. The project reflects great credit on Cheshire and Cheshire schools. I try to be as objective as I can about an authority of a different political nature to myself, but I find it hard to give the authority great credit for the attitude taken by its officials to the project, particularly when the county increased its precept by £82 million in the last year alone. Apparently officials in the county are planning to reduce the payment to Mr. Melling so that it covers only 60 per cent. of his salary, quite apart from the expenses that he has in introducing the magazine. In the following year, the threat is that he may get no salary at all. I understand that elected members of all political parties may be taking a more sensitive view of the project, particularly in the light of the Adjournment debate. We shall see whether it produces the result that we would all like.

Mr. Melling has with great ingenuity exploited many sources of plural funding. As co-author with me just before the last election of a Conservative Political Centre booklet, "The Arts—the Next Move Forward" my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I spent many hours of lucubration, will recognise the importance of plural funding. Mr. Melling has been successful in getting sponsorship from private companies such as Canon, which provides copying machines, BNFL and others. Unfortunately, it is not enough. As my hon. Friend knows, private sponsorship is obtained much more easily if private sponsors believe that official sponsorship is at the right level and that sponsorship is not being left entirely to private companies.

Unfortunately, the level of official sponsorship which we would all like to see is lacking. Mr. Melling applied to the Department of Trade and Industry for help, but it was denied on the basis that the project was art and had nothing to do with industry. So he went to the regional arts authority, North-West Arts, which thought that the project was very good but denied him sponsorship because it did not regard the project as art—or at any rate thought that it might be literature and thus not worthy of support. As a consequence, Mr. Melling cannot get help from the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts. To qualify for that scheme, a project has to be recognised as art.

Mr. Melling approached the Department of Education and Science, which thought that it was a good scheme but denied it support and recommended that he go to North-West Arts, where he had already been. The Department also recommended that Cheshire might apply for section 28 funding. I gather that the project already receives an element of such support in terms of supply teachers. That support is not suitable for direct funding.

I ask my hon. Friend to reconsider some pump-priming support from the DES. The project is talking the Government's own language, and it is cultivating excellence in the arts. I do believe that literature is an art form. The project is based on self-help and on a partnership with industry. It is developing vocational skills and it is raising standards throughout the whole school community. In addition, it is within the spirit and the letter of the national curriculum at every key stage that I can identify. It has a remarkable fit with a number of the requirements of the national curriculum.

"English in the national curriculum—No. 2", which was issued in March, refers to key stage 4. It states:
"Pupils should have opportunities to write in a wider range of forms including … newspaper articles … consider features of layout e.g. headings, side headings, the use of columns of indentations etc."
In the section on standards of attainment at level 6 it talks of the importance of pupils being involved with computer printouts, computer graphics and desk-top publishing. At level 8 there is a reference to the necessity for children to produce additional columns for a broad sheet newspaper and a tabloid. The project is fully in tune with the most modern and exciting developments in education today. It encourages and promotes the use of English, not only nationally but internationally. It deserves and needs official recognition so that it can flourish and grow.

To be fair to officials and Ministries, they seem to appreciate the value and creativity involved in the project. However, because of its formulation it seems to be falling between all stools so that it is all too easy for officials to claim that, much as they like it, it is not their ministerial responsibility but some other Ministry's responsibility. I hope that my hon. Friend will adopt the project and bring it in from the cold.

9.22 pm

I am deeply indebted to the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) for allowing me a few minutes of his Adjournment debate. He has done so because, while the project is now in his constituency, it started in mine at Bewsey high school in 1985, albeit in a modest way, and its popularity has grown.

I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about the project director, Mr. Frank Melling, and would extend that to the staff who work on the project with such enthusiasm. Not only was the project successful from its small beginning in Bewsey, and moved to a school in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—it spread throughout Cheshire and, indeed, throughout the country. It also spread internationally to Brussels, and is now spreading overseas to the developing world. I think that the Minister would agree that a project of this nature which has spread in that way is vital. It is also important for the future prosperity of this country that English is spoken by those in the developing world.

I have three letters which were written to Frank Melling. The first is from Croydon. It talks about the direct results and involvement, and asks for advice. The second is from Humberside county council, and the third is from Strathclyde. The three letters show the national appeal of the project.

The project also has an international appeal. The hon. Member for Warrington, South and I had the pleasure earlier this year of entertaining school children here who had come from Brussels. It also appeals to the European Community.

I shall read what has been said by the deputy editor of "British Overseas Development", Amanda Hewett, when writing to Mr. Frank Melling, project director of the now well-known magazine, "In Our Own Words". Her letter states:
"Dear Mr. Melling,
Further to your recent correspondence with Mr. David Marder, Editor of British Overseas Development, I am writing to introduce myself and express my interest in your highly innovative project.
Having only recently entered the post of Editor of the Schools section of BOD, I am keen to make contact with students in schools and other centres of education, with a view to improving the dialogue between us and sharing ideas. With this in mind, I should welcome feedback from the 'In Our Own Words' participants themselves".
The letter continues, showing British Overseas Development's interest in the magazine.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the magazine is helped and financed by Cheshire county council. It is also helped by businesses, which see the project as being educationally useful. We need national backing from the Department of Education and Science. That is essential. The Minister has given up his time to come to the House tonight to reply to the Adjournment debate. If he could look at ways and means of helping to finance the project nationally, it would help to solve the magazine's difficult financial situation and enable Mr. Melling and his dedicated staff to appeal not only nationally to schools and internationally in the EC but overseas to the developing world with the full backing of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. I hope that the Minister will be able to find a way for us.

9.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) for giving such a full and lucid account of the work being done by the Cheshire schools magazine project. He has evidently taken a great personal interest in the development of the project's newspaper, "In Our Own Words", and is an eloquent and enthusiastic campaigner on its behalf. He is to be congratulated on securing the debate.

I have listened with great interest to what he and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) have had to say. I was already aware of the project through correspondence that we have had with other hon. Members and between officials and the director, but it has been helpful to be brought more fully into the picture. It is clear to me from all that I have seen and heard that the development of the newspaper has been carried out with verve and imagination, and I add my congratulations to those already offered to Mr. Frank Melling.

The copies of "In Our Own Words" that I have seen were extremely interesting, well presented and professionally produced. The director of the project must be delighted with the newspaper's steady increase in circulation and with the contact that he has established with schools in other areas and in other countries. I applaud his efforts and those of all the pupils who have contributed in whatever way to the newspaper. I hope that others will be inspired by their example.

The Government are interested in such initiatives and would like to see more of them spring up around the country, as already seems to be happening. There is much interest nationally in the Cheshire schools magazine project. Hon. Members will be aware that competitions exist, organised on a national basis, to encourage schools to write and produce their own newspapers and magazines. Several local education authorities produce occasional collections of children's creative writing, as do individual schools. All those initiatives are very much in keeping with the spirit of the national curriculum for English, which was laid in an order before the House on 6 March. Through editing and contributing school newspapers and magazines, pupils can gain experience in a variety of writing, reading, speaking and listening skills which are incorporated in the order.

I hope that I have made it clear that the aims and objectives of the Cheshire schools magazine project are not at issue. I think that we all agree that it is doing an excellent job, but I am sure that the organisers will recognise, albeit ruefully, that that does not automatically qualify the project for Government funding—which, as I understand it, is the underlying reason for the debate.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Department of Education and Science does not have unlimited resources. Rather, we have minuscule resources which we use at the discretion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We receive far too many applications to be able to fund more than a small fraction of them. That means that we cannot consider them just on their individual merits. However sympathetic we may be to an individual project, each one must be looked at in relation to Government policies and must be subject to decisions about priorities for funding out of limited resources. It goes without saying that our underlying aim is to ensure that public funds are used in the most productive and effective way possible.

Virtually all the Department's resources currently available for school curriculum development are being used to ensure that the national curriculum is introduced and implemented efficiently and effectively. We consider this to be of paramount importance. Many aspects of the national curriculum attainment targets and programmes of study reinforce the good work which is already going on in schools and should therefore be familiar to teachers. However, relatively new and developing areas of study will require more careful preparation and guidance. We are concentrating our resources on these areas. In English, for example, our main concern at present is to ensure that teachers have the knowledge and expertise to be able to deliver the language aspects of the national curriculum. To achieve that, we are funding the development of training resource materials and, through education support grant and the local education authority training grant scheme, a major three-year training programme for all teachers of English, including primary teachers.

We have also made substantial provision for local authorities to meet their own local needs and priorities in relation to national curriculum implementation. The education support grant for the basic curriculum and assessment will support expenditure of some £19·3 million on advisory support, staffing and resources in this financial year alone. It would be open to the Cheshire local education authority, or even to several of the LEAs whose schools contribute to "In Our Own Words", to allocate some of this grant to the Cheshire schools magazine project, if they considered that the project was contributing to the implementation of the national curriculum and had priority in this respect over other national-curriculum-related activities. That option is available to the Cheshire local education authority. It is entitled to use resources which have been made available to it by the Government, through a specific grant.

Another key initiative which is particularly relevant to this debate is the Government's education support grant for information technology in schools. That is due to result in the expenditure of some £75 million on IT equipment in schools in the three years beginning April 1988. The increased availability of desk-top publishing facilities which my hon. Friend mentioned will greatly improve opportunities for schools, classes and even individual pupils to produce their own high-quality printed publications.

In the light of those initiatives and our other priorities, we decided, regretfully, that we were unable to offer financial support for the production of "In Our Own Words." I emphasise that the local education authority system is decentralised. This Cheshire project, of which Cheshire is proud because of all the interest that it has engendered elsewhere, is for Cheshire to finance.

I hope that those who are running the project, and Mr. Melling in particular, do not find this decision too discouraging. It is certainly not meant to be. I hope they will take encouragement from the positive views that have been expressed in the debate and the strong support that they can command from my hon. Friend.

Naturally, I am extremely disappointed by my hon. Friend's reply, but will he please have a word with his colleague, the Minister for the Arts? If we could obtain a small amount of money from official sources, it might unlock much more money from the private sector. Will my hon. Friend give me at least that assurance?

With pleasure, I give my hon. Friend the assurance that I will draw this debate to the attention of the Minister for the Arts. I fancy that my hon. Friend's advocacy in that quarter would be even more persuasive than mine, but I willingly give the assurance that I will ask my right hon. Friend to consider the case as sympathetically as he possibly can. I appreciate why my hon. Friend would like the Office of Arts and Libraries to support the project.

I know that my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Warrington, North and all other Members of Parliament with Cheshire constituencies will continue to do all that they can on behalf of the project. I have been grateful for the opportunity to hear more about the project. I am sorry that I have had to give a reply which hon. Members have found discouraging, but I hope that I have been able to explain the difficult position in which the Government find themselves.