HC Deb 09 March 1916 vol 80 cc1829-34

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said in regard to an economical chopper, but I rise to compliment the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education for informing us that there is not going to be a chopper used so far as the Education Department is concerned, and I hope that policy will be maintained. I think the last thing we ought to be economical about is the education of our young people. I have specially risen to ask what is to be the policy of the Board of Education with reference to the children who have been called into the various forms of employment. A great demand is being made by a certain class of employers to obtain cheap juvenile labour, and I hope the Board will set its face against this, because we have had in this country experiences in this respect which have been exceedingly disastrous. During the Napoleonic Wars, we had the same problem raised, and it was followed by the absorption of juvenile labour to an extent which interfered with adult labour and led to the lowering of the standard of life, a reduction of wages, and brought about a period of economic and industrial depression in this country which had never been suffered either before or since the new order of life had come about in which we have raised the age at which children should go to work. I want to ask what is to be the policy of the Board in this matter, and whether they are strong enough to resist the calling of children into the industrial world when they ought to be at school. I hope that there will be a satisfactory reply given to this point, because many specious peas are being put forward. No doubt there is a shortage of labour in many cases, but in some cases employers will not pay the proper price for labour, and they are evading the price of adult labour because they wish to replace it by juvenile labour. I hope the Board will watch this matter with exceedingly great care in order that children of tender years shall not be called into the industrial world, because I think there should be a general resistance to that tendency during the present crisis.


I desire to offer some observations to the representative of the Board of Education upon some aspects of the subjects which have been discussed this afternoon. I should like to express what I think is the common feeling of the House as to the sympathetic way in which the right hon. Gentleman always approaches problems of education in this House. We are quite sure that the Parliamentary Secretary is sensible of the extreme importance of this question in time of war. I am glad, for my own part, that the Department is represented in this House to-night by one of whose sympathy we are assured. I think of all economies which can be effected in this time of war, the last economy that should be thought of is in connection with education, so far as it is real education. I want to ask my right hon. Friend to remember the strange transformation that is taking place at the present time. The statutory law of the land is now being overridden not with the sanction of this House, but I am sorry to say with the sanction of the Board of Education and the local education authorities. A large number of children who are under a statutory obligation to attend school are being released from school in direct defiance of the statutory law and are being swallowed up in industry. There is to-day a great and an ever-widening market for the labour of children who are within the school age and who should be at school. In a few days a great portion of the fabric that has been built up during long years for the protection of children of school age has been swept away. We not only go back to a pre-war period, but to a condition of things that existed many years before the outbreak of the War. That is a most serious thing.

I want my right hon. Friend to remember another aspect of this question which is almost equally serious. The State has been engaged for long years in building up safeguards for children above the school age, for the better care of adolescents. To-day the child a little above school age is greatly in demand by the whole of the labour world, and that child for the first time in history can secure almost his economic independence. That means that a great portion of the system of further education for youths above the school age is not now, in a great number of cases, being taken advantage of. One of the statements which I heard with some alarm from my right hon. Friend just now was that where attendance at technical schools and at schools for further education had decreased, the Board is insisting that, in consequence of that decrease, the expenditure should be reduced accordingly, and that strict economy should be carried out. My right hon. Friend, without knowing it, was emphasising the fact that one of the greatest dangers of the present situation is that the systems for further education of all kinds are not now being taken advantage of as they were before the War because of the competition in the labour world for youthful labour, and because now boys of little above the school age are not only easily able to get employment of various kinds, but are able to get employment at very high wages indeed.

The problem which faces the Board of Education is a double one. It is a problem which relates, in the first case, to children who are under a statutory obligation to attend school, and, in the second place, to children who, although above the elementary school age, are now on a scale without parallel in modern years being withdrawn, enticed, and tempted from all forms of further education because of the demands of the labour world and the high wages offered. I hope that the Board of Education will not be content, in the face of these facts, merely to secure economies where attendances have dropped, but that they will prefer a positive and constructive policy to prevent this great number of the future citizens of the country being deprived at this period of their lives of educational influence and care. Otherwise we arc creating for the future a social problem on a very vast scale. It is a problem which in a few years will assume proportions so grave as to require very extensive action. By taking wise constructive action now the Board can greatly reduce this problem for the future and secure, as it can in no other way be secured, the future welfare of this country.

I want in this connection to express my disappointment at the attitude of the Board with regard to the position under the Military Service Act of those engaged in the service of education. I think much more will be heard of this subject a little later. It is a matter of administration, and therefore I believe I am in order in raising it upon this Vote. The right hon. Gentleman's Department has the power under the Act that was passed to secure that those engaged in the service of education shall not be unwisely withdrawn from it. I hope that it may be possible-for us to learn why no general action has been taken to prevent the education service being deprived of those essential to it. That the service is being so deprived is obvious from the speech of my right hon. Friend himself, because he said, "Suppose a master or a teacher of a special class, or of any class, has been j taken into the Army, and there is no longer any teacher for that class, of course we want a corresponding economy effected and we do not pay the Grant." I desire to emphasise the point that that teacher should never have been withdrawn from that class. Our national system of education should never have been I narrowed and destroyed in this way. I want to urge upon my right hon. Friend, if he is not in a position to make a further statement to-day, to concern himself with this matter at the Board, and to satisfy himself that adequate arrangements have been made to prevent any further encroachment upon the service of education.

In order to encourage him in his researches in this matter may I bring to his notice a case which I think has attained the dimension of a great public scandal, and requires immediate action by the Department. I am not going to give names now. There is no need for them to be stated in public at this stage. No doubt my right hon. Friend is familiar with this typical case. There is a school in a large town not very many miles from London—an old-established secondary school, recognised by the Board of Education, containing 400 or 500 children, and presided over by a head master who is recognised as a great expert upon education, who has had a distinguished career in the service of education in many parts of the world, and who has written two or more books upon education which are recognised as the work of an expert and as authoritative. That distinguished scholar is thirty-eight or thirty-nine years of age. Since his undergraduate days he has spent his whole life in the service of the youth of this nation. But he is subject to the provisions of the Military Service Act, and under the machinery provided by that Act he claimed exemption before the local tribunal as one entitled to exemption by reason of the national importance of the work upon which he is engaged. I wonder whether the House will credit it, that his application was absolutely refused, and this amazing doctrine is laid down: that a head master who has spent all his life in this service is to be taken away from his work, that the 400 or 500 children under his charge are to be left without their natural shepherd, and that he is to be conscripted into the Army and sent into the trenches! Can anyone imagine a more stupid waste of our national resources than that? I do not think I need labour the point as to the colossal folly of a proceeding of that kind, but I do want to know what is the policy of the Board of Education with regard to cases like that. What steps are the Board going to take to prevent other cases like this occurring? Let me remind my right hon. Friend that his Department has full power under the Act to prevent this folly being carried out. I appeal to him to see that the powers of this Department are used, and that the Department, which is the only guardian of our system of education, shall not fail in its duty at this moment.


I only rise by leave of the House to say one word in reply to the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing), who raised an important question. I gather from him that he was not present at the Debate which took place in this House a week ago, when this question was very fully discussed. May I refer him to the several speeches on that question, including one of my own? With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Lanark (Mr. Whitehouse), I really must make a respectful protest. He has raised a very important question, but he gave me no notice whatever of his intention to do so.


I do not press for an answer now.


The hon. Gentleman said I was familiar with one particular case, but I only became familiar with it by reason of what he has told me during the last few minutes. I must be allowed to make a gentle remonstrance against having questions of this kind raised suddenly. How is it possible for me to declare the policy of the Department at such short notice? I am a conscientious objector to Ministers being asked, on the spur of the moment, to give considered replies under such circumstances. But I understand, however, my hon. Friend is not pressing me for any further reply. Still, I hope when he has any further question to raise he will kindly give me more notice.

Question put, and agreed to.