HC Deb 26 May 1936 vol 312 cc1861-72

By-laws relating to school attendance shall not apply to any child who has attained the age of fourteen and whom the parent or guardian shall cause to undergo a regular course of vocational training for the ballet or other form of stage dancing or dramatic art at an academy of dramatic art or school of dancing and approved by the Board of Education.—[Lieut.-Colonel Sandman Allen.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.1 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The point that I wish to emphasise is that the children whose future profession will be either in dramatic art or in ballet dancing need special education for the purpose. Schools of dramatic art and ballet dancing should be looked upon by the local education authorities as educational establishments, but as things are these schools will not be able to have the children at the ages which are so essential for those taking up these professions. Children who are to become ballet dancers need not only mental but special physical training that will make the muscles and limbs supple. In both ballet dancing establishments and schools for dramatic art the children are obliged to have an exceptional education. A knowledge of French is nearly always essential, and a knowledge of literature both English and foreign, is also often required. The children may not follow the curriculum laid down by ordinary education authorities, but they do get an excellent education. What I want to ensure by the new Clause is that these schools shall count as educational establishments. I do not think I need enlarge on the subject. I hope the new Clause will be accepted by the Government, or at any rate that we shall get an assurance that there is no danger to these particular professions.

4.3 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir ARNOLD WILSON

I beg to second the Motion.

I hope that the Minister will accept the new Clause. We all know that the Russian school of dancing, famous throughout the world, became famous because children from the age of 10 or 11 were taken to a special school, were given a first-class general education and at the same time had the intensive physical education without which ballet dancing in all its forms may well become a real danger. Ballet dancing, and indeed dancing of all kinds for the stage, can safely be taught to the children only when they are taught young and their limbs can be kept supple by special exercises. Special schooling and special training are required from the beginning. In the second place I would draw attention to the very notable tendency for promising children, both in the dramatic arts and in dancing, to be sent abroad in order that it may be possible for them to continue their education and take an active part in dramatic art, including the cinema. In present circumstances it is almost impossible in this country for children to be employed in connection with the stage or the cinema, with the result, which we do not wish, that children are sent to foreign countries in order that they may complete their training there and earn money—money which may never come back to this country.

There is a further consideration to be remembered. I have a certain connection, as chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Board of Trade, with the cinema industry, and I see what is passing, although I have no financial connection with the industry in any shape or form. I know that there is an increasing tendency among the public to favour films in which children are employed. Such films are made entirely abroad at the present time, and they have the features which we associate with the foreign film, not all of them desirable. We could make those films as well, if not better, in this country, were there reasonable facilities for the employment of children in that capacity. I am certain that no one whose name has been put to this new Clause would wish these children to be employed under any but the best conditions, under such conditions as the Board of Education or the local authorities may lay down, to make it perfectly certain that the children receive as good an education as, if not a better education than, they would receive in a secondary or continuation school. But as we read the regulations the exceptions relating to beneficial employment and employment in entertainments do not meet the case either of the cinema industry or of the dramatic industry, and we feel that there are good grounds for putting this new Clause into the Bill.

The gross takings of the cinema industry in this country are in the neighbourhood of £80,000,000 to £90,000,000 a year. It is one of the great industries of the country, one in which employment has been steadily increasing for the past 10 or 15 years. At the same time it is one in which the competition of foreign films, particularly those with children, is becoming steadily more acute. We do not wish in any way to diminish the opportunities of children for education, but we feel that if it is a question of beneficial employment in a factory or shop, or of being trained for the dramatic art in all its branches, the dramatic art has as good a claim as the factory or workshop, or any other branch of training which education authorities would normally allow. I would remind the House that whatever be the traditional view of people as regards the theatre and the cinema and public entertainment as a whole, there can be no question that as far as children are concerned these things can be and are as well conducted, and as considerately conducted in the interests of the children, as any industry in this country.

4.8 p.m.


I am not going to traverse any statement made in the very interesting speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson), though my reading of the Bill is not the same as his. As the hon. Member is aware, under the Bill beneficial employment is now to be so interpreted as to be equivalent to any employment of a suitable character. As I read the Bill the local authority already has the right to give consent. In the Standing Committee, during the times when I was present, speakers on behalf of such an Amendment as this pointed out that local authorities were quite unfit to exercise any discretion on this point, because they were benighted and reactionary on all questions where art was concerned. Of course a dramatic school may not be at all a suitable place for a boy or girl of 14. It is most essential not only that permission should be very strictly given, but that when it is given there should be very strict supervision, control and even inspection of the establishment to which the boy or girl goes. The sponsors of this new Clause wish to put aside the local authorities, and that makes me suspect the whole of their arguments. We know by experience that the local authorities always have been the natural and best protectors of the children.



4.10 p.m.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Mr. Oliver Stanley)

I do not want to be discourteous to the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris), but I think it may for the general convenience if I intervene early and explain what is rather a technical situation. Hon. Members who were on the Standing Committee will remember that we had an Amendment moved, I think by the right hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) to safeguard—it was in circumstances in which he assumed no responsibility for the Amendment—the position of children when they wish to take employment between.14 and 15 years of age. That Amendment was disposed of, I think by agreement between all Members of the Committee. The point raised now is a new one. There is no question of employment. Therefore the exemption provisions to which the right hon. Gentleman referred have no significance. This is a question of training in a school, and not a question of employment.

I certainly have considerable sympathy with the desire, if the school is a proper one and the training is good, that the physical part of it should take place at an age when it is generally agreed that from purely physical considerations it is most appropriate. On the other hand I think everyone will see the very grave objection, if it is in any way possible to avoid it, of making exceptions from the provisions of the Bill in favour of particular types of training. It is easy to show that under the law as it stands it will be possible for the good academies and schools—I emphasise the word "good"—to be able to carry on their work. The duty of parents under this Bill will be to send a child to school up to the age of 15, and the Bill does not provide that that school must in fact be one of the normal council or non-provided schools. It is possible to send a child to another type of school such as this, provided it is held, first of all, by the local authorities, whose duty it would be if they thought there was a breach of the Act to prosecute, or in the last resort by the magistrates, to be a reasonable alternative to the ordinary school. Hon. Members will see that that must involve the introduction into the curriculum of the schools, apart from the purely physical training for dancing, of some element of general education.

I gather from the speeches of the Mover and Seconder of the new Clause that there will be no difficulty there. They referred to the learning of French and to the necessity for some knowledge of literature. I cannot believe that it is any handicap to a child who is being genuinely trained for a dramatic vocation and not for some kind of second-rate chorus dancing, that it should, at the same time as it receives vocational instruction, receive some general education also. The right hon. Member's desire is that in some way these places should come within the purview of the board. That is quite easy to accomplish. It would be open for any of these schools to apply to the board to be inspected by the board's inspectors. That inspection is done freely, and undoubtedly the report of the board's inspector upon the school would have a great influence on the local authority in deciding whether it was a school which satisfied the requirements, and would have a great influence on the magistrates if they had to decide whether there had been a breach of the law.

I think, therefore, hon. Members may rest assured that, when a. private school is properly conducted and some element of general education is given as well, it will be in no danger from any kind of persecution from an authority which might happen to take a particular point of view upon this case. I have mentioned all these safeguards as a final protection in the case of the good school, but I do not believe for a minute that anything of the kind will be necessary. It will be my intention, when the Bill becomes law, to ask local authorities, and the people who are interested in these schools, to meet representatives of the board where we can discuss what sort of curriculum the local authorities will be prepared to accept as giving a reasonable education and therefore, a reasonable excuse for non-attendance at the ordinary school. In view of a situation which, I believe, will fully protect the well-conducted academies of this kind, I hope that my hon. Friends will not feel it necessary to press the Clause.


How many of such academies or schools envisaged in the Clause are already under the approval and inspection of the Board of Education?


I am afraid that I cannot answer that question off-hand. Hon. Members will realise that, when the Bill becomes law and there is inspection by the board's officers, if a school is well conducted it, it will be a great protection to the school, and I imagine, therefore, a good school will apply for inspection.

4.18 p.m.


I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman intervened before I spoke, because he has put the position so clearly and made it so sound that I really do not think it is necessary to press the Clause. I have always understood that properly conducted schools of this kind could be recognised as a substitute for attendance at an ordinary elementary school. In the county of London there are several of these schools which cooperate closely with the local education authorities. The trouble is that in some parts of the country there is a little prejudice and feeling that dancing or training for dancing is something to be discouraged. That idea is rather reminiscent of mid-Victorian days, but it is quite out of date in the reign of Edward VIII. If it has done nothing else but make clear that it is the intention in the Bill to provide variety and education and not to attempt to stereotype education of one particular form, the moving of the Clause has done a good thing. There are technical schools and many other kinds of centres which are a substitute for attendance at the ordinary schools, and now that the right hon. Gentleman has made the position clear, the heads of these excellent institutions—some of them are really first-class—can live at peace and have no fear that the Bill will interfere with the carrying on of their excellent cultural work.


I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.





4.20 p.m.


Members of the House should be allowed an expression of opinion on this Clause. I am under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the Minister has already bestowed a somewhat hesitant, but undoubted blessing on the Clause. If I am mistaken in that impression, he will correct me. I do not intend to allow anything resembling it to become the law of the land without making an emphatic and vigorous protest. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Clause is being withdrawn."] I think that I am entitled to speak. Hon. Members who pay a little attention to the Order Paper in its blue form will have noticed that something like 14 Members have subscribed their names to the proposed new Clause. I took the trouble to ascertain as much information as possible concerning the personalities of the hon. Gentlemen who are so anxious that children should be exempted from attendance at school in order to receive a regular course of training for the ballet. With one exception, I found that the hon. Gentlemen who subscribed their names to the new Clause themselves had had the advantage of a full-time education at the university either at home or abroad. The question naturally arose in my mind whether they had framed the Clause and were anxious for its inclusion in the Bill in order to provide for exemption from school in order that their children might be trained for the purpose of ballet or stage dancing, or for some form of dramatic art. I had no great difficulty in answering that question myself. I had only to pose the question to provide the answer for it. I am satisfied that it is not any child of their own that they would wish to see exempt from ordinary attendance from school in order to obtain the advantages of a regular course of so called educational training for dancing or dramatic art. It is the children of others for whom they seek to provide these advantages primarily in the interests of art or the interests of industry.


As far as I am personally concerned, I am interested in my grandchildren going to an academy of this sort.

Viscountess ASTOR

This is not really only a question of what you call working men's children being exempted. I know of a marquess whose children are exempted in order to learn dancing, not that I would wish to exempt daughters of mine. You cannot make it a class question for the same purpose.


I know how to deliver my own speech. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. Denville) happens to be the one exception to the rule among the 14 hon. Members not to have had a university education. It is perhaps because he has not had the advantages of such an education as the remaining subscribers to the Clause that he adopts the attitude that he would not mind if his grandchildren received the instruction provided under the terms of the proposed Clause. I am no philistine. I appreciate the advantage of art in life as much as hon. Gentlemen who have subscribed their names to the Clause, and perhaps I appreciate it more than some of them apparently do, because of the difficulty of acquiring any opportunities for indulging in it in my particular walk of life. But I am concerned that the House should understand that, after all, it is not so much because of the artistic side that these matters are dealt with in the Clause, as the industrial and commercial side with which the subscribers to the Clause are concerned. There has been a reference to large sums of money, and I have an idea that, those supporting the Clause are more concerned with the acquiring of large sums of money than of acquiring additional opportunities for the development of art, whether in the form of dancing or dramatic expression. I believe that there is no more gladsome sight for any man's eyes than healthy, happy children dancing because of the sheer joy of life, and dancing in untutored form. On the other hand, there is no more pathetic spectacle than those miserable creatures engaging in posturings, with no life and no interest in the matter, except such as is associated with the prospect of drawing a fee or a salary for the entertainment of those who took upon such spectacles. I appreciate dancing as much as any hon. Gentleman, but I like it to be a spontaneous expression of human vitality, and not the cultivated poses that are intended to provide amusement as well as entertainment for blasé people who cannot find any enjoyment in the natural expression. I hope that the House will be alive to the circumstances.

It may be true that in the City of London there are schools of dramatic art where cultivation of dramatic powers and the development of Terpsichorean agility —to use a phrase which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) might have used—are carried on under very desirable conditions. The Minister himself does not know of any of these schools being approved by the Department, and even if he did, those capable of receiving the approval of the Department are far outnumbered by shows—I can find no better name for them—of a far less desirable character. Who is to distinguish between one and the other? The onus of responsibility is to be thrown upon the local authority. I do not see how local authorities can grant exemptions for attendance at some of the schools of dancing of which I know in various towns and cities in this country.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Yes, children's schools of dancing. If they did, I should have a very poor opinion of the local authority. [Interruption.] I do not know why there should be this ribald merriment. My references to dancing seem to suggest to the minds of some hon. Members that I am in possession of some guilty knowledge. I can assure them that there is nothing of the kind so far as I am concerned. Hon. Members may speak for themselves. I speak for myself. I am not opposed to dancing. I am not one of those who condemn it. My legs do not happen to be Presbyterian legs. I have done my share of dancing in my time, but I emphatically object that this Clause is not designed in the interests of art, so much as it is to provide facilities for children to be procurable for training, at an age when they ought to be in school learning the lessons of life, in order that later on they may be exploited for personal gain. I hope that the Minister will think twice before he includes anything of this kind in the Bill.

4.28 p.m.


I should like to say a few words which may perhaps make hon. Members whose names are attached to the Clause more willing for it to be negatived, as it will have to be now. If the Clause had been added to the Bill it would have negatived rather the sort of instruction which they want, and which is quite within the law in certain circumstances. There is a Clause in the Bill which specifies the age of 14, and rather suggests that nothing of the sort can be allowed under that age. There is no law that children must go to public elementary schools, but only that children must be properly educated. Thousands of children are educated at private schools or at home, and if the education is sufficient no law can compel them to go to school. As the Minister suggested, if one of these schools was approved by the Board of Education, then, though the local authority might not altogether like it, the fact that it had that approval would give complete immunity from any conviction before any body of magistrates. The fact that the school had been approved after inspection by the Board of Education, renewed every year or two, would prevent any child being compelled to leave that school and to attend one of the ordinary schools. I rather think that as this Clause, if carried, would seem as if it were interfering with the ordinary law which allows attendance at approved schools of this kind at any age, it would be well that it should be negatived.

4.32 p.m.


In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Marklew), I would like, as one of the 14 Members with a university education to whom he referred, to say why I put my name to this Clause. I have no personal interest in it. I am not married, and I have no children, but the matter was drawn to my attention when I heard it was desired to establish a new school of ballet in connection with the work performed by the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells Theatres, an organisation with which I have been long interested, though not financially. Knowing the work they do, I supported this Clause because I felt that any school established by organisations like those would probably commend itself to the Board of Education, but in view of the assurance and explanation given by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Education, I think it is unnecessary that this Clause should be pressed.

4.33 p.m.


I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Marklew) will allow this Clause to be withdrawn, because I think it would be very unfortunate if, after the way in which the law was explained by the Minister, it should go out into the country that there was any doubt in this House as to its being a correct explanation of the position in regard to this matter. I served for some time as Chairman of the Departmental Committee on Private Schools. My hon. Friend the Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White) served with me on that Committee, and he knows that we laboured very diligently to produce a report that should enable this kind of difficulty to be dealt with by the Board and the local education authorities on rather more logical lines than had hitherto been the case.

The discussion this afternoon appears to me to illustrate the desirability of the Minister reconsidering his view not to implement some of our findings, because the difficulty which confronts those hon. Members whose names have been put down to this proposed new Clause is that there are large numbers of non-educational institutions masquerading under the name of "Academy of Dancing" and so on, and it would be a great protection for the institutions which have been instanced to-day if they had some imprimatur from the board or from the local education authority that would assure, not merely the public, but the parents who send their children to such places, that they would be really attending school and not places where even the particular vocation was rather badly taught. I am quite sure that was not the private institution for which the hon. Members were pleading, but I feel that the existing law is so strong and at the same time so discreet that everything they desired to do could be and should be done, and I hope that, in view of the explanation given by the Minister and of the spirit in which the Clause was moved, my hon. Friend will now agree to the Clause being withdrawn.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.