HC Deb 17 February 1927 vol 202 cc1257-68

I want to raise the question of the action of the President of the Board of Education in cancelling the certificate of a schoolmaster. This afternoon I gave notice that I would raise that question to-night. I then found that these other questions were to come on, so I informed some of my friends that we should not be able to deal with this matter to-night, and they have gone away. I want to explain the reason why some of the Members on this side are not here when this question is being debated. I want to-night to make a special appeal to the President of the Board of Education to reconsider his decision in regard to his case. This afternoon, in answer to a question put by a, Member on the other side, he said lie had made up his mind to cancel the certificate of this teacher. The cancelling of the certificate of a school teacher is a very important thing. It simply means that this man has done teaching, and may have very great difficulty in finding other employment. I could understand the cancellation of a certificate if the offence had been a serious one, but I want to remind the Minister of what the offence was that this teacher committed.

His certificate is being cancelled because he caned two scholars. That is the only offence, and the whole offence. He caned two schoolboys who had gone to the canteen to get meals against his orders. I will not attempt to justify that, because I think he was foolish in caning the boys for going to the canteen to obtain their meals, but for that small offence he was taken to court, and there is not the slightest, doubt that the prosecution was not a prosecution by the children's father, but was a political prosecution. We know the names of the people who found the money—the names of Conservatives in that Division who found the money for that prosecution, to take this man to court and have him fined. He was taken to court, and was heavily fined. I want to submit that, for the offence of caning these two boys, that ought to have been a sufficient penalty, but instead that the President of the Board of Education comes along and says, "Oh, the decision of the court, the fine of the court, is not a sufficient penalty for a schoolmaster caning two boys, and, in order to punish him sufficiently, I have made up my mind to cancel his certificate."

I want to ask the President seriously to consider whether he is not going too far. There has been no other offence during the whole time this schoolmaster has been in the school; there is nothing else that could be said against him except the caning of these two boys, and I want to ask the President of the Board of Education whether he is not going far too far in cancelling this teacher's certificate for that reason. I said this afternoon that, in the colliery village where this teacher was teaching, the people feel so Strongly that, with two exceptions, everyone else in the village who has children attending this school has signed a, petition in the teacher's favour. I said this afternoon, and I want to explain it now, that I understood that even the mother of the children had signed the petition. I am not quite sure, on reconsidering the matter, whether I was justified in making that statement, but they say to me that everyone in the village, except two people who are not the parents of the children, has signed a petition in favour of the schoolmaster.

Seeing that that was done, I want seriously to ask the President to reconsider this matter, because in my opinion the fine which the bench inflicted was far too heavy a one for the offence. What the President of the Board of Education is doing, in my opinion, is far too severe a penalty. Children have been caned in school before, and the teachers have not been taken to Court. No teacher, I am certain, for that offence, has had his certificate cancelled. The real offence, as the Minister of Education knows, is that this teacher, either fortunately or unfortunately, belongs to the Labour party, and because he belongs to the Labour party that is why the Minister has cancelled his certificate. Although he may belong to a different party from the President of the Board of Education, that is no reason for the Minister being so severe on this man. I want to ask the. right hon. Gentleman to reconsider this matter and restore the man's certificate.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Lord Eustace Percy)

I recognise the right of this House to call me to account for any decision I have taken, and having said that I would ask the House to remember that in discussing a personal issue of—if I may use the phrase—a judicial character affecting the character of individuals in the public service, this House is not a very good tribunal. The hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) may put his case about the teacher concerned. I might put my case. There is no one to judge between us. The danger of that sort of discussion on the Floor of this House, of the character of an individual, is shown by the hon. Member for Spermymoor's speech. In reply to that speech, what have I got to do? The hon. Member's speech, instead of confining itself to the actual issue, has complicated the whole issue by a charge that I, in the exercise of my duty, have acted from partisan political considerations. I would ask him, is that a charge which it is very wise and judicious to make in a connection like this? May I remind the hon. Member for Spennymoor, as he has made that charge, of the history of the case in this House. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hitchin (Major Kindersley), who is not here this evening for the same reason that the hon. Member for Spennymoor explained some of his friends are not here, asked this question of me on the 18th November: Whether he is aware that the headmaster of Headley Hill Council School on various dates between 5th and 9th November refused to give food to four children aged 14, 11, 7 and 41, at the school canteen, their father, a coal hewer at the Headley Hill Colliery, having returned to work at the colliery on 1st November, although his first pay was not due until 13th November; that on the afternoon of 10th November, having discovered that the children had received meals that day, the headmaster thrashed the two elder children in school for having disobeyed his orders in attending the canteen; whether these facts have been communicated to the education authority; what action they have taken in the matter; and what action does he propose to take?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1926; col. 1937, Vol. 200.] The hon. Member for Spennymoor in putting a, supplementary question said this: May I ask the President of the Board of Education if he will make inquiries into this allegation, as some of us know the schoolmaster and we are satisfied that the statement is an absolute lie."[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1926; col. 1938, Vol. 199.] The hon. Member has brought the question up again this evening. He has made no apology and he has not withdrawn his assurance to the House that he was satisfied that it was an absolute lie, and yet he tells me that, in Lay decision, I have been actuated by partisan political. motives. I must point that out before proceeding to the consideration of the case.

I have considered this question very carefully. I need hardly tell hon. Members in any quarter of the House that there are no decisions that any Minister can take which are so grave as these decisions about the conduct of teachers in schools. They are grave because of the effect to the teacher. They are infinitely more grave because of the responsibility of the Board of Education to the children the Government compels to attend school. It is very difficult to reconcile those two responsibilities, but where there is any balance of consideration between what might be too harsh for the teacher and might be too risky for the children, one must decide in consideration of the risk to the child. I hope no hon. Member on either side of the House will think for a moment that the words used by the hon. Member describing what. I have done beat: any relation to the procedure of the Board of Education. We do not impose penalties on teachers when we cancel their certificates. If, as in this case, a teacher is judged by the competent tribunal to have committed an offence against the law, the offence is purged when he has paid the penalty. And the Board of Education is not a judge of law. Neither is the Board of Education a judge of morals. We do not judge. We do not inflict punishment on these men or women. We have to decide what men and what women we, in the discharge of our responsibilities to the children, can allow to teach in the schools. No moral stigma should necessarily attach to any teacher whose certificate we may decide to cancel.

Members may feel that this case is a very hard one. Have they the least idea of the hardship of some of the cases I have to decide, of women of long teaching service, for instance, who have committed offences for which they are probably not responsible at the time they committed them, and even may be unjustly accused; but who are adjudged by the Court to have committed those offences, nevertheless. The Board may feel fairly certain that a person is not guilty of an offence, or, if technically guilty, the offence can bear. as a matter of fact, no moral stigma at all, and yet, in view of the publicity of the incident, in view of public opinion in the district, the Board are obliged to cancel the certificate, in order that the service of education may go on and be above suspicion. Those are cases even harder than this.

Therefore, let no one think that this is a case of a penalty or the infliction of a moral stigma. Having said that, I am very reluctant to discuss the merits of this or any other case in public in this way. I am not going to pretend to lay before the House all the considerations which decided me to take this decision. Certain facts are admitted. It is admitted that this headmaster, acting in a mining village at a time of great public feeling, great party feeling, if you please, made the children of all the men who had returned to work hold up their hands publicly in the class room. Having done so, he then told the children to carry out certain formalities before they went to the canteen. They could go to the canteen for about another week, and after that time they must conform to certain formalities or, rather, their families must conform to certain formalities. Finding that the children did not conform to those formalities within a stated period, he called them out and questioned them in front of the whole school and told them that they must not go to the canteen for food any longer. Thereafter, he received representations from the employer explaining the whole conditions of employment and that wages were not going to be received for two or three days afterwards. He also received a letter from his superior on the canteen committee, the district clerk, advising him to allow these children to go to the canteen. Then, after that, knowing all the. circumstances, after having been instructed—I think it is right to say "instructed"—by his superior on the canteen committee to allow these children to have food, he publicly caned these children for having attended the canteen. I am not going to argue the case.


Did the public caning take place after the clerk has intimated his decision?


The caning took place after the clerk had instructed him to allow the children to attend.


In what way was it a public caning?


In the presence of other children.


Is it not always done?




I am not going to say that the caning of a child in front of other children is in itself improper.


You know that the caning is always done in the open school.


If the hon. Member for South Poplar (Mr. March) will try to deal with this case with the seriousness with which I am trying to deal with it, he will realise that my argument, from first to last, is that this headmaster in a mining village, at a time of great, acute and bitter public feeling, dealt with these children throughout, stage by stage, in such a way as to make them marked children among the whole of their schoolfellows.


Do not they always cane children who disobey an order, and are not children brought up to the headmaster for him to cane them?


I will leave the hon. Member to read to-morrow the report of what I say and then to think about it. I hope he will understand what I mean. His colleagues understand perfectly well what I am saying.


The Noble Lord stated that one of the charges against the headmaster was that of disobeying an order of the Clerk, whom he described as his superior on. the Canteen Committee. Could he say just what was the status of this individual and how he came to give orders to the headmaster, who was responsible for the school?


It was not a question of his responsibility as headmaster at all. In his voluntary capacity, the headmaster was acting as assistant secretary on the canteen committee, assisting the secretary, his superior, who was the district clerk. I am trying to be perfectly fair. I think the headmaster admits that his action throughout towards these children, so far as their receiving food was concerned, was taken in his capacity as assistant secretary of the canteen committee and not in his capacity as headmaster. Of course, there is a technical point there for consideration, as to the headmaster's justification for taking notice in school of offences that were committed while he was acting in a voluntary capacity outside, but I do not pay any heed to that.

Those are the admitted facts of the case, and in order to try to bring home to hon. Members my feelings about them, I would ask them to consider what they would have said if during the War—I do not think feeling was any more heated on the relevant subjects during the War than it was in the Durham mining villages at the time of the dispute—a Conservative head-teacher in an elementary school had told every child whose father was a conscientious objector to hold up his hand before the whole school, and then had proceeded thereafter to penalties of this kind.


I have known several cases.


If any such case had ever been brought before me, if I had been President of the Board at that time, I should have said, as I feel bound to say in this case, that I think a man who does that has committed what would professionally be regarded as the unpardonable offence of exposing children under his charge quite possibly to actual physical danger. Those, roughly, are the considerations which I have had to think of. I do not say that this man had those considerations in mind. I do not say that he did what he did deliberately. I do not attach any moral stigma, but I say that if he did it hotheadedly and ill-consideredly nevertheless he is a man whom I would not entrust with the care of children. Last year we passed through a time of bitterer feeling in this country, in many ways, than we ever passed through before—a kind of feeling when one might have expected that men of all classes, and women of all classes in the teaching service might have been carried away to do injudicious things, and to bring discredit on the teaching service. In the whole of that time, from the beginning of the general strike to the end of the coal stoppage, I think I am right in saying that no more than the cases of four school teachers only have been brought to my notice as having committed any irregularity at all. I think that is a tremendous tribute to the teaching profession. I admit that all those four cases I have dealt with, probably, in the judgment of hon. Members opposite, drastically.


Why did not the Noble Lord mention that this afternoon when his colleagues were bombarding him with questions suggesting that there was a large number of teachers doing the same thing?


If the hon. Member will read the questions and answers he will see that no such suggestion was made.


What about the Liverpool speech?


If the hon. Member will do me the honour of reading my Liverpool speech, it will show him that I have laid no charge against teachers whatever, though I have laid certain charges against politicians, local and central, in regard to their influence on the teaching profession. I admit that I have dealt with all those four cases drastically on their merits and according to my poor judgment. I think it is due to the teaching profession, whose standards are so high, that a very high standard should be applied to the infinitesimal few who fail to live up to the true standard. I honestly and sincerely believe that, in what I have done in this case, I have done no more—and that is the basis on which I have tried to decide this case and to decide every other case—I have done no more than a professional court of honour of the teaching profession would have done if the matter had been in their hands.


I find it extremely difficult to intervene because up to a certain point I thoroughly agree with the view that the Minister has taken, for a teacher who singles out children for any fault of their parents is committing an indefensible action. I also consider that a teacher who would punish children in the way these children were punished has committed an indefensible action. I speak feelingly because I do not believe in corporal punishment. I never used it for at least ten years. Agreeing with the Minister so far it is difficult to intervene but it seems to me that this teacher is being very unduly punished. The local Court has very heavily fined the man. I do not know whether the local education authority dismissed him from his job. I feel that he should have been dismissed from his job. If I had the judging of an affair of this sort I should certainly consider that he ought to be dismissed, but a final and irrevocable discussion to take away his certificate seems absolute ruin for him and his wife and children. I think he has been punished three times over and that is not fair. If I were dealing with him professionally, I should say, "Perfectly right, what is done up to that point," but from the point of view of common humanity you have to consider how this judgment will be interpreted locally.

We can say here that there is no political bias, or that there is political bias, and we know how it will be interpreted up there and all over the country. No matter what we think ourselves, it is bound to be. If the position were reversed, if it were a Labour Minister who was doing it, we know perfectly well how those opposed to us politically would interpret it. I would not defend a teacher for such an offence. Since coming to this House I have been asked many times to intervene on half of teachers who have been guilty of corporal punishment; but I would not raise a single finger to help them. I hope for the day when corporal punishment will be abolished absolutely. But from the point of view of common humanity, I feel that the Minister has very unduly punished this man and his wife and children in taking his certificate from him.


I want to put in a plea for this man. To err is human, to forgive divine. That is an apt quotation for the occasion. Whatever this man has done, the punishment is not going to fall on him alone. You are going to punish others who have had no part or lot in his offence. I had 22 years' honourable experience with the Durham County Council Education Authority, and this is the first time I ever heard of a case of the kind. So much for the good conduct of our teachers. The education authority is anxious, because this man is one of the best teachers we have. No man for a first error is ever punished as the Minister proposes to punish this man. There is a First Offenders Act operating in our Courts, but here is a man who, for a first offence, is to be deprived of his livelihood, whose wife and children are to be deprived of bread. May I plead with the Minister for a reconsideration of this matter. Surely he can trust the local education authority and the director of education to deal WILLI this man in some other way rather than in the drastic manner proposed. He can be dealt with in many other ways, as the Minister knows, and made to feel the effects of his mistake without taking away his livelihood. I plead with the Minister in the name of justice.


Like the previous speaker, I desire to address a few words to the Minister as an old teacher. I cannot entirely take the same ground as the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Shepherd), although, like him, for more than 10 years as a teacher I never once had recourse to corporal punishment. But I realise that it is expected of teachers that they should inflict corporal punishment. The educational system of to-day stresses corporal punishment as something that must be maintained in the schools, and for that reason I cannot make my strictures against the schoolmaster in question so strong as those of the hon. Member for Darlington. He was working according to the general system in the schools. I make no excuse for his singling out of these children. I think his judgment was utterly bad, and that he was deserving of the gravest censure and penalty. Let us not forget, however, that the whole country was in a ferment, feeling was unnatural, and irritation existed: and, although it would be a great thing that all teachers should be absolutely apart from the irritations which moved the rest of the community, is it not too much to expect that there should not be here and there teachers to break away from the general rule? The Prime Minister suggested a wiser course than the Minister himself has taken in this case. The Prime Minister knew in his heart that many things had been done which could not be justified at that time; but he asked for forgetfulness and that we should look to the future and not dwell too much upon the past.

I submit to the Minister that if he insists on standing by his decision the feeling will go abroad that he is not willing that this matter of the past, with all its irritations, should be forgotten, and he is not improving the pure, undefiled spirit of education. He will give a suspicion, although he may not. intend it, that he has been worked upon in his own mind—I do not want to say more than this—by feelings that his own Prime Minister desired should be forgotten. He will give the suspicion that the political influence was there, even if he desired it might not be there; and I hope before this thing becomes irrevocable that he will again consider that, although he says he intends no penalty or moral stigma, he has, in days of great unemployment, removed from this man every decent chance of earning a living. It is a terribly hard punishment for his wife and children, and I submit that as the teachers of the land come to think about this they will not be intimidated by it—I know them better than that— but will feel there is injustice abroad in our educational system. Instead of improving the educational system, I fear the Noble Lord will have considerably weakened it.


The Noble Lord said that this House was not a very good tribunal, and I think that back of his mind was the fact that we are all more or less affected by political bias, and that that being so we should not be an impartial body to give an impartial judgment.


I did not say political bias, at all.


I would remind the Noble Lord that ho is himself a Member of this House and that, apparently, he has given his judgment. What applies in a general sense to the House must also apply to him, individually, from the political point of view. I do not want to cast any reflection upon him, and I admit, since he has put it, that he has a very strong case. I admit that straight away, and I am not prepared to say anything nasty against him from that point of view. But is there not any board or any person or persons of any description to whom complaints of this description can be taken, and who might be expected to give an impartial judgment, without any reflection being cast upon them as to political bias?

If there is not any intermediate board of that description, and the Noble Lord is the one to do it, then I suggest the statement he has made is a reason for again looking into this matter, and coming to some other decision if he can. I think he said there is no moral stigma attaching to this business. There may not be, but I think there is a doubt. The economic weapon is the weapon that is being used. I have had occasion time after time, as an official in a colliery, when people have done wrong and, perhaps, been sent to gaol or fined, and had to leave their jobs, for the time being, and there has been a disposition on the part of some owners to punish them in a second sense by taking away their jobs, I have always argued, when they have been fined or sent to prison they had paid the penalty, and it was not our business or the business of the owners to inflict a second one The Noble Lord may look at it from that point of view. He has put a very strong point of view that he has the children to look after, and I do not want to lose sight of that, but I appeal to him, if possible, to enable this man to work at his job—to give him another chance, if not in his own county.


What about the children in the other counties?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'clock.