Orders of the Day — Education (Maintenance Allowances)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd December 1957.

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

10.46 p.m.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I beg to raise tonight a matter I have raised several times before in the House, notably in July, 1951 and July, 1955, the problem of early leavers from grammar schools. Some poor children are still leaving grammar school who are capable of profiting by further education, and some poor parents are still keeping children in school under very great hardship and against great temptation, and, because of financial hardship, such children are not getting all that they should out of their education.

The problem has been recognised since 1902. By 1911, some local authorities were already providing small maintenance allowances for children. By Section 81 of the Education Act, 1944, it became the duty of every local authority to ensure that all children were enabled to take advantage, without hardship to themselves or their parents, of any educational facilities available to them; and paragraph (c) provided for the making of allowances in respect of pupils over…school age… I want it to be quite clear that I am discussing bare minima. I have not yet persuaded many people to agree with me that a sixth former works at least as hard as a young man outside in industry and ought to receive wages, and we have never yet compensated a mother who keeps a son on at school for the loss of his potential wages. The Gurney-Dixon Report on Early Leaving showed how tempting it is for youngsters to leave school—and leave for dead-end jobs rather than for apprenticeships because of the foolishly high wages offered. I wish that the country had been sensible enough to avoid the payment of high wages to young folk, with all the harm that it does in many ways. The poor mother who lets her son stay on at school against such temptations is indeed a noble and courageous woman.

How big is the problem? In the Report of the Advisory Committee on Early Leaving which I quoted from on the last occasion I raised this matter, it is said that 4,200 potential young scientists left grammar school each year under the age of 16. In 1955, 16 per cent. of our grammar school children left under the age of 16, without a certificate; and yet the aim is for children who go to grammar school to stay on until 18. The figures are better every year. Now, the 16 per cent. has been reduced to 13·6 per cent. leaving under 16, and when we remember that there are thousands of children now staying on after 15 in the secondary modern school, things look much better than they did. Moreover, the fact that 27 per cent. of our children in grammar schools now stay on to the sixth form is excellent. However, there is still one pupil in seven leaving grammar school without completing the minimum course up to the age of 16.

In January, 1956, the antepenultimate Minister of Education set up a Working Party to examine maintenance grants. He had not been converted by the Gurney-Dixon Report or by the speeches I had made in the House, because he told this Working Party to deal only with special cases, and while he did say that it should level up and move towards uniformity between local authorities, he wanted it to be done without any increase in total money spent. Fortunately, the Weaver Working Party, as we may call it, after its distinguished chairman, was a good one. It discovered at once that it could not do the job which the Minister had set it without spending money, and it accordingly ignored his directive, worked very hard, and produced a first-class Report. I should like to thank its members on behalf of all the poor but able children in grammar schools today.

First, the Working Party reviewed the present position and the shocking anomalies as between authorities, of which I will give but a few examples. Three local authorities give maximum grants of only 10s. a week, and this only if the family income is less than £3 a week. Six, on the other hand, make a grant if the family income is under £7 a week. Eight local authorities make a grant of £1 a week for a 17-year-old boy but only if the family income is under £3 a week.

Two widows getting the same income had girls of 16 who had passed five or six subjects for school certificate at the ordinary level. One got 16s. 6d. a week to keep the child, and the other, under a generous authority, 30s. One authority makes a maximum grant of £36 a year, but to get it the family income must be below £3 10s. or, if there are three children, £5 10s. a week.

We speak of the middle classes making sacrifices for their children. They are as nothing compared with those of widows under the eight worst local authorities who keep their children at grammar schools when their own incomes are under £4 a week, and whose local authorities grant little or nothing to educate the children.

This contrast between the most generous and the mean local authorities shows incidentally the danger of the block grant. No wonder the Minister to whom I referred a moment ago, the Gurney-Dixon Report and the Working Party itself all insisted on attempting to secure a degree of uniformity amongst local authorities. No wonder the educationists fear the impact of the block grant on matters like this when such mean authorities as I have illustrated will be encouraged by the block grant formula to be mean, and when generous authorities will have to meet 100 per cent. of the cost of their generosity out of the rates.

The Working Party's first task was to fix what it meant by the parents' income. Most of the better local education authorities distinguish between gross and net income so far as to make an allowance for extra children and extra income beyond wages. Some make allowance for rent. The Working Party decided to make no allowance for rent.

Then it had to decide how poor one had to be to qualify for the maximum help. It fixed that income at £300 per annum. Let us remember that for a family of man, woman and child this is practically the National Assistance Board rate, for the Working Party excludes rent whereas the Assistance Board gives rent. I think the minimum figure of £300 is too low, but I do not press that matter tonight.

Then it had to decide how rich one had to be to receive no help at all. It fixed this at £10 5s. a week. Unfortunately, the Minister has cut that back to £9 10s. a week. I hope that after tonight's debate he will have another look at that.

Most important, the Working Party attempted to work out what it costs to keep a child. I am fascinated by the various amounts we think it costs to keep English children—£8 in an orphanage, a little more at Harrow and Winchester, 35s. for a foster child; and any ordinary citizen who is getting a decent income has allowed in his salary £125 tax-free for a child over 11 and £150 tax-free for a child over 16. The Working Party tried to work out the cost of food, clothing, pocket money, holidays, heating and lighting—I wish I had time to explain how carefully it worked out these items, and the significance of each. It said that to maintain a boy of 15 the cost was £125; for a boy of 16, £140; for a boy of 17, £145. This was the decision of a committee as expert as the other we have just been discussing. That, the Working Party said, is the amount of money that ought to be spent on a grammar school child if he is to get maximum benefit from his schooling. From that sum we have to deduct the amount we can reasonably expect the parent to pay to maintain his own child, and that gives us, for a child of 15, a maintenance allowance of £55, for a child of 16, £65 and for a child of 17, £75.

Finally it suggested that anyone below £300 should get full grant, but that we should take off £1 for every £3 extra going into the family. I do not cavil at that. This scale means that no family with a full wage-earner can possibly get the maximum grant for a child at grammar school unless they have many children.

The bulk of the people I am talking about who will be helped to the maximum will be people on National Assistance. Most of them will be widows—there were 25 per cent. in the sample which the Working Party discussed—or chronically sick or disabled or divorced or abandoned wives. They are the people whom we talked about in last week's debate on National Assistance. There may also be a few low-paid workers with large families in agricultural areas. It is for the able child of such families that I plead. I believe that such a child has as full a right as any other able child to the education for which he is best fitted.

The Minister has now cut the proposals by £10 all round. The Government follow the experts if the experts give the Minister the cheaper advice, and they disagree with the experts if their advice means more money. But I give the Minister his due. He has torn up his original, parsimonious directive, for even these proposals mean that the cost of these maintenance grants will be increased by between £1 million and £2 million. The National Union of Teachers supports the Working Party's scale, and has urged the Minister to adopt the full scale. The Working Party itself, including apparently the Minister's own capable staff, was unanimous. It is true that the Ministerial representatives were not allowed to sign the Report, but I gather from the Report that there was only a technical reason for that. There is no minority report from the Working Party.

To illustrate the significance of my argument, when I recently proposed in Hampshire Education Committee that we ask the Minister to adopt the full scale and not the whittled-down scale, I was seconded by that eminent educationist, Sir Samuel Gurney-Dixon, Chairman of the Advisory Committee which produced the Report on Early Leaving, and the Education Committee was unanimous. I plead, therefore, with the Minister to give these children the full scale. Already the best local education authorities who proposed more generous scales have had them vetoed or suspended by the Minister, and they now find that his proposals are less generous than their own were.

The extra £10 for which I ask can mean very little to the Exchequer. It can mean a lot to a widow who sacrifices her son's earning capacity in the hope that some day he will become a doctor, or to the farmworker whose son is on his arduous way from village school to Cambridge. Even with the Working Party's grants, every poor child in the sixth form means hard sacrifice for those who keep him there. Without them not every parent can bear the even greater burden.

Perhaps I speak on this with very real knowledge. I went through grammar school without maintenance grants, and my family made sacrifices for my education which no society should have asked them to make. For years, as a schoolmaster, I saw many an able lad slip away from the grammar school when a little more adequate grant would have kept him where he had the right to be. The Working Party says, rightly, that the scales which it recommends are no charity. This is carrying out part of the operation of the Education Act, 1944. This is investing in—who knows—a Shakespeare, or Newton or Fleming, a teacher of science or a great inventor.

The Working Party says that the figures that it has given are the lowest it could possibly justify, and that they are not designed to bribe poor parents but just enough to see that the poorest boy or girl gets all that he or she can get from a grammar school education, without having to deliver newspapers on the morning that the child takes his or her A-level examination or an open scholarship examination, or without the deepening knowledge and anxiety that every day he or she stays in education means more hardship for those at home whom they love, especially if those loved ones are a widowed mother and other children.

Having said all that, I congratulate the Minister, through the Parliamentary Secretary, on accepting most of the Working Party's Report. The Report makes a real advance. I would say to the Minister only that I hope that he will not spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar. I hope that he will persuade all local authorities to accept the scale that he has issued to them, that he will have hard words to say to any mean authority that does not accept his model scale, and that he will make the new proposals widely known to parents. That particularly applies to parents making a decision about the future of the children who are 11 or 12 years old. Of course, no maintenance grant that we in Parliament can make will result in sacrifice being unnecessary for parents; but we can both agree to urge parents to make such sacrifice. I hope that both sides of the House can agree to minimise this sacrifice to the extent laid down, not by the Minister's own proposal, but by the Working Party's Report.

11.1 p.m.

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth

I think that the House will be grateful for the careful and moderate way in which, in his comprehensive speech, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) has raised this extremely important subject. I am only sorry that, because of matters beyond our control, we have not had longer in which to discuss it this evening.

I should like first of all to echo his words of congratulation to those who had a share in the production of the Weaver Report which is of great value and for which the whole of the educational world is grateful. It will be helpful if I say, first of all, something about the statutory provisions under which maintenance allowances are made. Educational maintenance allowances for children over the compulsory school age are payable by local education authorities at their discretion under the Regulations for Scholarships and Other Benefits made by my right hon. Friend under Section 81 of the principal Act. The purpose of these allowances is to enable pupils to take advantage, without hardship to themselves or their parents, of any educational facilities available to them.

I am quite sure that nobody will dispute the value of these allowances and, indeed, in one form or another, they have been payable to some pupils since the Education Act of 1902. I should also mention briefly some other forms of assistance available to schoolchildren. Education authorities can give assistance to cover the cost of milk and meals at maintained schools, ordinary school clothing, and clothing for physical training. They can also help with the cost of transport and other travelling expenses; in some cases, they can assist with the cost of board and lodging where it is necessary to enable the pupil to attend a suitable maintained school.

Since 1945, local education authorities have applied widely differing scales for the award of maintenance allowances, and the fact that many authorities had proposed revised scales was one of the main reasons why my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Sir D. Eccles) appointed a Working Party at the beginning of last year to consider and make recommendations in this whole field of allowances. Another important reason for appointing the Working Party was the general interest in the effect that maintenance allowances might have on the problem of early leaving.

I should point out that the Working Party comprised representatives of the local education authorities as well as of the principal teachers' associations, and, as I have already said, I think that they did an excellent job. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Itchen has related the question of maintenance allowances very closely with that of early leaving, but I should point out that, while the Working Party recognised that there was some connection between the allowances and the incidence of early leaving—about which subject there was recently an article in The Observer which was of value as is so much else appearing in that admirable paper—it was unable to establish any direct relationship. The Working Party could find no direct connection between early leaving and the amount paid in maintenance allowances. Moreover, the Working Party thought it questionable whether public money should be used to any extent in an effort to compete with high wages and with the present attraction of high rates of pay. I would remind the House that, by Statute, the payment of maintenance allowances is limited to what is necessary for the relief of hardship.

The Working Party did, I think, the only thing possible by making a careful examination of the case histories of some 250 children who had left, or were about to leave, school because of their parents' lack of means or who, while at school, suffered hardship which prevented them from enjoying the full advantages of school life and getting the best from the advantages which that life had to offer. The Working Party came to the conclusion that it was not possible to say that hardship was due to one single or simple cause. It decided, not surprisingly, that it occurred most frequently when the family income was less than about £500 a year.

Now, I come to the principal criticism that was, naturally, made in the very fair and moderate speech of the hon. Member. I am sure he will agree that even when the best available evidence has been collected, the cost of maintaining a child at school must always to some extent remain a matter of opinion. It is not something that can be quantified exactly.

The Working Party came to the conclusion that in the case of a one-child family living in a city, the cost of maintaining a 15-year-old boy or girl was £130 a year and that in the case of a 16 or 17-year-old child it was, respectively, £140 and £150 a year. As the hon. Member's speech clearly showed, all the calculations that were made followed from those initial figures.

It was on this point that my noble Friend the former Minister of Education had to make a basic decision, which, in the event, differed from the recommendations of the Working Party. Circular No. 327, issued in July of this year, contained decisions based on slightly different estimates of the cost of maintaining children. That is to say, my noble Friend thought it was not unreasonable to put the cost of maintaining a 15-yearold child at £115 a year and the cost of maintaining 16 and 17-year-old children at, respectively, £130 and £140 a year. As a result, the Working Party's recommendations for maximum maintenance allowances were scaled down, in the circular, from £55 to £40 a year for a 15-year-old pupil, from £65 to £55 for a 16-year-old pupil and from £75 to £65 a year for a 17-year-old pupil.

Of course, in coming to this decision, my noble Friend was naturally influenced by the general economic situation. The hon. Member will, I think, agree that in the current economic climate this has not been an easy year to get any increase in expenditure agreed by those who are principally responsible for such things, and I think that on the whole, in announcing these figures, my noble Friend did not have too disappointing a story to tell.

Obviously it is impossible to reach an entirely objective figure when considering the point at which schoolchildren are likely to endure hardship if their parents do not receive maintenance allowances, but I am convinced, and my right hon. Friend is convinced, that the scales that have already been announced should achieve, or go a long way to achieving, the objects behind the relevant Section 81 of the 1944 Act.

I should, however, point out that the estimates of the costs of maintaining children at school take into account some of the other benefits which I mentioned earlier. There is, first, the value of other assistance which is likely to be given in kind by the local education authority, and secondly, there is the round figure of £55 a year which even the poorest parent could expect to contribute from his National Assistance allowances towards the cost of maintaining a child.

It is worth remembering that in all other respects my noble Friend accepted the Working Party's recommendations. I will not recite them all, for reasons of time; they are somewhat technical and they can easily be found on pages 8–11 of the Report of the Working Party, which has, of course, been published.

The total cost to the Exchequer of the maximum allowances as set out in Circular No. 327 is likely to be about £2½ million each year.

I am sure that the House will be pleased to know that although authorities were not required to seek my right hon. Friend's approval to the new scale within the limits of the circular, 61 authorities—out of the total of 146—have already notified the Ministry that they have decided to revise their arrangements. Almost all of these are fully implementing the suggested maximum scales.

The hon. Member also referred to the effect of the general grant system of maintenance allowances. I believe that some less temperate words have been spoken on this subject not very far from here this evening, and I do not want to raise the temperature too much, but perhaps I can say that the power to enforce minimum standards would still remain with my right hon. Friend under a general grant system, but local or education authorities would undoubtedly have freedom if they wished to go above the standard set out in the circular. It is worth reminding ourselves that this is one sphere in which, for a progressive authority, there will be real advantages in not having a percentage grant. There will not, under a general grant, be any reason why such a progressive authority should not go above the standards laid down in the circular.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

What about the ones that go below the standard?

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth

I cannot add to what I have said; we shall be discussing this matter at length next week. The power to enforce minimum standards will remain as it is today. The circular has already had a marked effect on local authorities' practice. By contrast with the figure which I have just given it should be noted, for example, that in the case of 15-year-old children well over 100 local education authorities paid smaller maximum allowances than £40 before the circular was issued, and only four were known to pay more. The maximum allowance for a 16-year-old is now £55 a year, but before the circular was issued 123 authorities paid less than £1 per week. and 91 of these did not go beyond 15s. a week.

The new maximum grant of £65 a year at a net income of £300 a year, which applies to the 17-year-olds, is more generous than any of the earlier scales. The deduction of £50 per annum now permitted in respect of other dependent children is also substantially higher than the figure used by the majority of authorities at the time that the Working Party was making its investigations.

I said earlier on that the Working Party was unable to establish any direct relationship between early leaving and the amounts paid in maintenance allowances. The Working Party, however, recognised that there was undoubtedly some connection, and if this is so then my right hon. Friend sincerely hopes that the improved scales will help to reduce even further the figures of premature leavers. The figures which we have show a consistent and most encouraging improvement from year to year, and it will be the wish of hon. Members on both sides of the House that this trend should continue.

But there is, to my mind, an even more important aspect to this problem. It is no use providing excellent educational facilities in our schools and further education colleges if children are not able to make the best use of them because of parental circumstances. The promise which runs through the Education Act of 1944, that every child shall receive an education suited to his age, ability and aptitude, is one derived as much from a sense of justice as from a belief that the country cannot afford to waste the talent of its young people.

I believe that the proposals set forth in Circular No. 327 will do much to bring that promise to fruition, and as one who has had a chance, during the last few weeks, to see the progress that we have made since 1944, it is nice to be able to stand at this Dispatch Box and describe something which will help us to go still further along that road.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.