Orders of the Day — Education (Maintenance Allowances)

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

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Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth 12:00 am, 2nd December 1957

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.