§ MR. W. E. FORSTER,
in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Elementary Education Act, said:—At this hour I cannot ask the House to listen to me for more than a few minutes. But the Session is getting on, and I trust I shall be allowed at once to bring in this Bill, even though my statement 901 must be very brief. As it is only three years since we passed the Education Act, it may be asked why I bring in an amending Bill? For two reasons—1. Because it is necessary we should finally settle the mode of electing the school boards, the powers given by the Act to the Department to regulate such elections having been only temporary; and, 2. Because the working of the Act has shown some administrative improvements to be desirable. That this should be the case in so difficult a matter will, I think, surprise no one. But I may at once state that we do not contemplate any change in the main principle of the Act. Its chief objects, the House may recollect, I ventured to define in bringing it forward as—Legal enactment, that there shall be efficient schools everywhere throughout the kingdom. Compulsory provision of such schools if and where needed, but not unless proved to be needed."—[3 Hansard, cxcix. 444.]Had time permitted, I would have endeavoured to show that these objects are being attained as quickly as we could reasonably have expected. Before the end of the summer we shall, I confidently expect, have sent out notices requiring the deficiency in school accommodation to be supplied in every school district in which there is such deficiency. This was the result of an inquiry by the Education Department, and of the inspection of 17,000 elementary schools. But meantime the necessity of a compulsory provision has been largely anticipated by voluntary effort. I hope, before long, to have an opportunity of describing and acknowledging the extent of this effort, both in the borough and in the country parishes. I can only now say that—thanks to that educational zeal which has caused the formation of voluntary school boards in almost every important borough, and which in so many rural parishes has made a rate unnecessary by voluntary subscriptions. I could, I believe, prove to the House that there will be very soon a school within the reach of every child of school age in the kingdom. But it may be said, what are schools without scholars? I do not deny that non-attendance and irregularity of attendance are still our great educational difficulties. But we must not suppose that we are not making progress in this matter also. Our Returns up to last year show that scholars 902 have increased as much as schools; but since our last Return I have good reason to believe that the patient, untiring efforts of the school boards, for which we cannot be sufficiently grateful, and also of many managers have succeeded in bringing many more children to school. When I introduced the Act the last previous Return showed an average attendance in the Government schools of a little more than 1,000,000. I shall be much disappointed if the Returns up to the end of next August do not show an average attendance of about 1,500,000. I will now, as briefly as possible, explain the purport of the Bill. I may as well at once state that there is no provision to make attendance compulsory throughout the kingdom. The grounds upon which the Government have arrived at this conclusion I shall be glad fully to explain when time permits. But it is due to myself and to the House to say that, as regards compulsory attendance, I have personally the same opinion as that which I expressed in debate last year. I have not concealed from my Colleagues my conviction that direct compulsion might be safely made the general law for England and Wales. But I do not deny—and those who agree with me will not deny—that if we are mistaken in this opinion a premature step would be fatal to our own cause. These compulsory laws are very difficult matters; it would be most dangerous to set public opinion against us by an overhasty step, and the failure to pass a general compulsory law would greatly weaken the school boards in their efforts to put in force their bye-laws. There is one step, however, which the House will, I think, allow us to take—I hope with general approval. There are, I believe, in the kingdom at least 200,000 children of school age of out-door paupers—I fear there are more; and from among these children come a large proportion of those whose education is neglected. At present the Guardians may, if they think fit, provide for their education, but must not make that provision a condition of relief. We think the time has come when we may make this provision general, and we therefore propose to repeal the Act generally known as Denison's Act, and to replace it by words which I can most shortly explain by reading—Where relief out of the workhouse is given to the parent of any child between five and 903 thirteen years of age, or to any such child, it shall be a condition of such relief that elementary education in reading, writing, and arithmetic shall (unless there is some reasonable excuse within the meaning of section seventy-four of the principal Act), be provided for such child, and the Guardians shall give such further relief (if any) as may he necessary for that purpose.But in this clause we also deal with Section 25 of the Education Act, which I need not remind the House enables school boards to pay the school fees of children whose parents, though not paupers, are poor. I will not now repeat what I have frequently stated that the objects of the House in passing unanimously this clause were, I fully believe, the objects of the Government in proposing it—namely, 1. To enable school boards to get children to school; 2. To take from parents, whe neglect their duty, a reasonable excuse. Nevertheless many persons, whose opinions we are bound to respect, strongly object to the working of this section; and we are most anxious to meet their views so far as we possibly can. As I stated last year, we think we can best serve the cause of education, and that too without injuring the voluntary schools, by severing as much as possible all connection between these schools and school boards. I am also prepared to show why we think experience has proved that the Board of Guardians is the body best able to ascertain what parents ought to be assisted out of the rates, and we find that very many of those members of the school boards who have been most active and efficient in increasing the attendance are of that opinion. At the same time we cannot interfere with what we consider to be the parents' right; and, as an advocate of compulsory education, I must repeat my conviction that compulsion must fail if we try to punish a parent who is too poor to pay a school fee for not sending his child to school, without, at the same time, offering him assistance; and also if we deprive him of his right of choosing what school he prefers, when there is more than one school which gives such secular education as is acknowledged to be efficient. We, therefore, propose to repeal Section 25, and enact in its place the following provision:—If the parent (not being a pauper) of any child required by a bye-law under section seventy-four of the principal Act to attend school, satisfies the guardians of the union in 904 which he resides that he cannot comply with such bye-law because he is unable from poverty to pay the whole or part of the school fees charged for the elementary education of such child, it shall be the duty of the guardians to make him such allowance as will enable him to pay the school fees, or such part thereof as he is in their opinion unable to pay. Any such relief or allowance to a parent as above mentioned shall not be granted or refused on condition of the child attending any public elementary school other than such as may be selected by the parent.The House will observe that these words do not enact that fees shall be paid to school managers out of the rates, but simply that help shall be given only to those parents who without such help could not obey the compulsory bye-laws. Two other provisions connected with the matter I must mention. We do not think that a parent ought to become a pauper merely by receiving this assistance, and therefore we enact, in accordance with Section 25, that any money paid to a parent for this purpose, shall not be deemed to be parochial relief. We also add these words—The guardians shall not have power under this section to give any relief or make any allowance to a parent in order to enable such parent to pay more than the ordinary fee payable at the school which he selects, or more than one farthing for each attendance at such school.Some such limitation as this is plainly necessary. The limitation we have taken is that fixed by the Liverpool School Board, who have worked the Act under difficult circumstances with great care and success, and both upon economical and educational grounds it seems to us the best we can take. But I may add that it will make it clear that no voluntary school can be maintained simply by the Government grant and by the fees paid out of the rates, or without such aid from other sources as will more than defray any instruction in religious subjects given in such school. I could show if required that no school is thus maintained at present. The Bill will be in the hands of hon. Members to-morrow afternoon, and I therefore will not at this hour dwell on the other clauses, which with the exception of those relating to the election of school boards are improvements in details suggested by experience. I may state that I have endeavoured to meet the practical difficulties discovered by the school boards in carrying out the compulsory bye-laws; and, as regards elections, we propose 905 to extend the ballot throughout the kingdom. At present the school boards are only elected by ballot in London and the boroughs; but we propose that there should be the same form of election throughout the kingdom. We have also taken power for the Education Department to make regulations as to charges in the conduct of elections in order to check their cost. In moving for leave to bring in this amending Bill, I will only add that I confidently rely on that general assistance and generous forbearance which was so conspicuously shown by the House during the passing of the original Act; based on the conviction then felt—and which I am sure we all feel now—that this matter of education is one upon which we must legislate without consideration for party feeling or personal predilections. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.
§ MR. DIXON
said, he could not help expressing his great disappointment at the announcement which had been made by the right hon. Gentleman. That disappointment could only be equalled by the satisfaction which must be felt by hon. Gentlemen opposite. When an amendment of the Education Act was promised in the Queen's Speech it was hoped that the measure would be of some value.
§ MR. RICHARD
concurred in the opinion which had been just expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham. He was bitterly disappointed with the Bill, which would certainly not allay the dissatisfaction existing among a numerous and powerful class in the country.
§ MR. GOLDNEY
said, he was glad to find the right hon. Gentleman prepared to be guided by results, and not by theories.
§ Motion agreed to.
§ Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 188.]