HC Deb 16 November 1939 vol 353 cc880-91

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Lees-Smith

A fortnight ago there was a Debate in this House on the general problems of evacuation, and it was then agreed by all speakers that the special problem of education under these schemes of evacuation should be left to a Debate by itself. That is the Debate which I am now opening, and it is our intention that the House shall occupy this sitting in discussing the general educational problem especially with the war as its background. That problem has changed in its nature within the last ten weeks. When the war began, all our advisers and experts told us that we must prepare for an immense aerial combat over this country and over this city, and that the victor in that combat might very well be the victor in the war. We made our preparations both in the sphere of education and civilian life for a war of that nature, but these precautions up to the present have been utterly falsified, and we must now adjust our minds to the alternative possibility of the nature of this war, which may develop into a kind of seige in which the victory will not necessarily be decided by military operations but will go to that country whose people are able to endure for the longest time the strain of living under war conditions. We must adjust our minds to that possibility, and that leads me to the conclusion that now we ought to try to achieve the maximum degree of normality even at the cost of a certain indeterminate element of risk.

It is with that as a background that I am going to discuss in particular our educational problem. Personally, I most warmly approve the decision to reopen the schools in the evacuation areas. It is a timely and a sensible decision, which shows that we are adjusting our minds to the new possibilities of the nature of this war. You could not really contemplate that 750,000 children were going to spend the next three years without any education at all, and there were only two alternatives open to this country. The one was to reopen the schools in these areas, and the other was compulsorily to evacuate the children, so that they would get their education in the reception areas. I think the House has already, with certain very slight indications in the Debate on evacuation, made up its mind about the possibility of compulsory evacuation in a democratic country. In times of peace we find it practically out of our power to impose upon any general section of the people legislation which in their hearts they do not themselves approve, as our legislation about betting has shown. In time of war, which depends upon the general consent and good-will, it would not be practicable to enforce a system which goes contrary to the deepest human convictions.

So I come, therefore, to the conclusion that the compulsory evacuation cannot in present circumstances be entertained, and that we are faced with the problem of these hundreds of thousands of children remaining in the vulnerable areas. In listening to most of the Debates on Civil Defence, even before the war began, it became fairly clear to my mind, that, if the children are to be in these areas, they will, on the whole, be safer in the schools organised under teachers than they will be in the streets or even in their own homes. I remember that the report of Lord Hailey's Committee on the problems of Civil Defence on which the Minister for Home Security has based his policy, pointed out that probably the greatest number of casualties in air warfare would not be caused by direct hits, from which it is practically impossible to protect ourselves anyhow, and the prospect of which is rather remote, but would be caused by blast and by splinters, and the possibility of protecting children against blast and splinters was far greater in the corridors of the schools, usually the best built buildings in the areas, than even in their own homes.

On this point I would like to put forward a complaint which we have had from many education authorities which should be addressed to the Minister for Home Security because it affects his Department and not that of the Parliamentary Secretary. The position at present is that in providing air-raid shelters and A.R.P. precautions for the population the local authority for general A.R.P. expenditure gets a grant up to 85 per cent—-the average in London is 75 per cent.—but the education authority, for providing exactly the same shelter and precautions for children in the schools, gets a grant of only 50 per cent. A deputation on that subject went to the Minister for Home Security when he was Lord Privy Seal. I am sorry that he is not present, but having read his reply I came to the conclusion that it was really a reply rather in the realm of dialectics than of common sense. The whole subject must be reopened early next year, and I am sure that if the Parliamentary Secretary will insist that the local education authorities should be treated on the same basis as the other public authorities, he will have the general support of this House.

I now come to the Parliamentary Secretary himself and his Department. We have not initiated this Debate for the sake of making a series of small complaints and criticisms against the Department. We fully appreciate the very earnest zeal that the Parliamentary Secretary brings to his Department. I have come to the conclusion that there is a great deal of competition between the different Departments for different amenities, for schools, public health services and for halls, and in that competition the Board of Education almost invariably gets elbowed aside. When you come to war materials and production and, as far as workshops, and so on, are concerned there is a central priorities department which tries to form some adjustment between the claims of the different Departments, but on the home front there is no such priorities department, with the result that in this inevitable departmental competition the Board of Education finds itself left out. One object of a debate like this is that we shall really strengthen the Board of Education if it stands up for the claims of the Department, because I believe that its claims are in accordance with the general sense of this House.

The Parliamentary Secretary will paint a general picture, but he is bound to have to deal with a great number of questions which have been raised fragmentarily in previous debates, and I will put to him some of these questions as I proceed, in order that he may dispose of them, at any rate, in preliminary fashion. The first question I want to ask him is—and I am talking of evacuation areas—What proportion of schools does he contemplate he will be able to open in the more vulnerable areas? I understand that in London they will have to be operated on the shift system and will have to be confined to children between 11 and 14. Even with that beginning, an enormous mass of problems can be dealt with. One of the main purposes of opening the schools is to have a central organisation around which you can gather all those services which are not directly educational but which between them are almost as important as teaching itself. One of the disastrous effects of the present situation is that the whole schemes for milk in schools, medical service, nursing service, the treatment of minor ailments, dental clinics, etc., have practically come to an end, because the only possible unit on which they can be based has been closed down. The important question is that all these other services shall be open to all the children; not only the children attending schools but the entire child population.

This brings me to a matter on which the Board of Education is dependent upon another Department, the Ministry of Health. We have arrived at a period in which we must adjust the original views with which we started the war. In the early stages of the war doctors and nurses were concentrated in the hospitals, because the main danger against which we had to guard was an immediate outbreak of air warfare. That has not occurred, but the position is that while the doctors are compelled to spend their time, perhaps playing billiards or golf, services outside the hospitals are being starved in every direction. It surely must be possible now to mobilise their services so as to enable them to carry on their work outside the hospitals, allowing them to stand by to return to their posts in the early stages of a series of air raids. The hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest) in the Debate on evacuation made a very careful study of the possibilities of distributing our services of doctors and nurses. He made it plain that there are enough services available, properly distributed, to provide for a nucleus for the hospitals, ready for emergency, and at the same time to carry on our public health services, our medical services, to provide mobile clinics in reception areas and, what is most urgently needed, the service of consultants, of which the civil population is now being deprived.

I gather that in London children under 11 cannot be taken into the schools, but I should like the House to turn its attention to their case. With regard to the complaints about the condition of certain children who went to reception areas, it is said that they had not been in school for five weeks, and that that largely accounted for their condition. What is to happen to children under 11 if they are not to be in the schools for three years? I would suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that all the extra educational services, the medical services, the nursing services and the clinics should be available to children under 11 as well as those who attend school. There is the problem of giving them some sort of education. Unless they go to school any solution is a second rate one and just an expedient.

I should like to know what the Board of Education think about the experiment which has been partly made in London and which was initiated in Sheffield. I refer to the educational home service. I have made inquiries about this scheme. It is very much of a second rate solution, but, if my information is correct, the parents, the teachers and the authorities in Sheffield are satisfied with it as the best available means of getting as good results as can be obtained under the conditions. They divide the children into groups of about 12, in age groups, and give each teacher three or four groups of children. The children in the groups meet in such halls as can be found, and in a number of cases in the homes of the parents. The parents compete with each other in offering their homes. I am told that within the first 24 hours after the scheme was announced more than 400 parents had offered their homes for the purpose of the classes. The children are able to get by this means 1½ hours personal teaching each day, but it is not so much teaching as the planning of home work and the setting of the children to some task, fretwork; or whatever it may be, to give them some hobby to occupy their time.

Mr. Cove

That is very unsatisfactory.

Mr. Lees-Smith

It is a second rate expedient.

Mr. Cove

It is much more than that.

Mr. Lees-Smith

I want to know the view of the Board on the question. The Sheffield authority think it is well worth while looking into, and I understand that it has been adopted to some extent in London.

I should like to say something about the problems in the reception areas. The apprehension has been that if you open the schools in the evacuation areas they will provide a focus for attracting children from the reception areas. Until the recent statement made in the House I did not realise that so many children were staying in the reception areas. I have, however, noticed that even in the case of Liverpool, where there has been considerable criticism in regard to the evacuated children, the University of Liverpool have made an investigation and have been in contact with the parents of the evacuated children. They say that so far as the children themselves are concerned 92 per cent. of them are quite happy in the reception areas. If that be the case, it is possible surely to build up attractions in the reception areas which will hold back, to some extent, the urge to come back to their homes.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to make a statement on the question of communal meals. There are special difficulties in the reception areas where, for example, the housewife may have her own children attending one school shift and evacuated children attending another shift, which necessitates two sets of meals being provided. That is an enormous burden that might be removed. Therefore, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will make a statement on the subject. I should also like to hear a statement on how far it is possible to occupy the leisure of these children by bringing in voluntary organisations and by acquiring halls, but there is conflict here between the Board of Education and other Departments in which, again, the Board of Education is apt to be pushed to the wall.

Up to the present the problem of occupying the leisure of the children has mainly fallen upon the teachers in the reception areas, and it seems to me, on the facts which have been stated in the House, that the attacks on teachers in the reception areas are uncalled for and very ungenerous. When I went to the Board of Education for a short time the one thing which impressed me about teachers as a class was their devotedness to their school, even to the exclusion of life outside, and to hear them now being accused of lack of devotion to their children is most ungracious. I would emphasise the testimony to the teachers for the work they have done in the reception areas which has come from the leaders of all the churches who have described them as heroes and marvels. I would urge upon the Parliamentary Secretary the importance of a statement being made about communal meals, the adoption of measures for utilising the leisure of the children and the provision of halls or other buildings where the children can be occupied out of school hours.

I should like to make some observations about a statement made yesterday by the Minister of Transport in regard to railway fares for the parents of the children, which was made in consultation with the Ministry of Health. It is not the special business of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education, but this is a good opportunity for making some observations on the subject. We are faced with a problem which we cannot contemplate can last for three years under the present conditions. It must be remembered that in most cases parents have not seen their children for 10 weeks. We cannot contemplate their going on without seeing their children at regular intervals for three years. It has already been the experience of some parents of children of three years of age, who have been sent out of London and other places, that when they visited their children, even after 10 weeks, the children did not know their mothers. That is what happens to young children after so short a time. What will happen after a lapse of three years? Therefore, unless parents can see their children once a month the whole scheme will gradually wither away.

The Minister of Transport in his statement yesterday referred to the provision of cheap fares on Sundays, so that parents could go to see their children, but it was a statement of a limited scope, because the scheme is possible only in cases where they can return the same day. I gathered that there is to be no Government assistance. At any rate, the Minister said not a word about Government assistance. The parent is to have a voucher from the local authority for each visit, but the local authority has not the staff to make the detailed inquiries that are necessary. Unless a scheme can be devised by which parents can see their children every month the whole of this arrangement will gradually be undermined.

There is one problem which we have not yet discussed in this House but which we shall have to discuss at some time or other, and that is the problem of boys and girls of 15, 16, 17 and 18 years of age, under the present black-out conditions. A short time ago the Minister appointed a National Youth Committee which I take it will now specially concern itself with the problem of those of this age. Perhaps he will have something to say on that matter to-day, but among the things to which I would call his attention is a problem which is being brought to the front—the universities. Hundreds and thousands of young men and women of 19 are having their careers, their professional careers, entirely brought to an end because the university has moved out of London to Oxford, or Cambridge or Exeter, and they cannot afford the expense of living in these distant places. My personal opinion is that the University of London might very well come back. After all, there are hundreds and thousands of young men and women of the same age going about their ordinary work in London to-day.

In dealing with the National Youth Committee I should like the Minister to make a statement on a point which I regard as of some importance. The National Youth Committee is taking over the functions of the National Fitness Council, which was established two years ago after a good deal of boosting by the present Minister for Air who was then Minister of Health. A good deal of time was occupied in passing a Bill and the money assigned to it. In the first Debate I said that the National Fitness Council would be a failure because it consisted of the wrong people—a group of amateurs, a rugger centre forward, sprinters and beauty queens.

Mr. Pickthorn

What is a rugger centre forward?

Mr. Lees-Smith

I mean that they were persons interested in such things and not in the problem of physical health. This work should have been assigned to local authorities who may not be magnificent specimens of physical fitness, but who would give their minds to this kind of problem. I understand that the National Fitness Council still exists through the Act of Parliament, but that its grants have been withdrawn. I hope it will now be admitted that it has been a failure and will be brought to an end. I hope the Minister will be able to make a statement that this work will now be assigned to local authorities. Let these athletes, if they wish, act in some sort of an advisory capacity, but let the grants be distributed by the local authority and they will deal thoroughly and scientifically with the enormous range of problems which are involved.

The House to-day is discussing a problem of far-reaching importance. There have been previous discussions and references to the conditions of some of the children in some of the schools. May I give another side of the picture? The War Office sent out an inquiry to their various commands a few days ago asking what was the condition of discipline among the new militiamen, of whom there are 250,000. They gave me a reply yesterday morning, and it was found that the number of serious offences-—that is, offences serious enough for the commanding officer not to deal with them himself —can be counted on the fingers of one hand: there were only three since July. That is a really remarkable record, without precedent among tens of thousands of men for that length of time in the British Army or in any army at any time, and that is the justification of the schools of this country within the last 10 years.

4.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education (Mr. Kenneth Lindsay)

I think the time has arrived when the House should discuss the question of education. I am afraid that I cannot give the usual statistics which are so accurately got out for me by the Board, because statistics to-day hardly exist over large areas of our educational system. The right hon. Gentleman in his opening remarks referred to the Board being "elbowed out." There is an element of truth in that, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that it was the same when he was at the Board of Education; in fact, I think there was a little more of it when he was there. But the fact remains that appearances would indicate that this House is not overwhelmingly interested in education. [Interruption.] I am talking about the House as a whole. The country is profoundly interested. Either it is due to the weakness of Ministers in making these problems attractive, or else it is due to the work of education. At any rate, I think that the last ten weeks have revealed a situation which has awakened the minds of many people to the real value of our system of education, and it is my purpose to-day to try and prove that. The right hon. Gentleman made one further point about the overlapping between Departments. That is perfectly true, and I think my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health will agree that on a large number of problems we do overlap. Perhaps when the war is over we may have to think out what is the best oganisation for our social services.

These are rather depressing days for some of us at the Board of Education, because for over two years we have been designing measures preparatory to raising the school-leaving age, opening senior schools, ironing out the differences between Church schools and State schools, trying to introduce a more practical four years' course into the elementary school system, encouraging a closer relation with the countryside, better teaching of domestic science and a more balanced physical education. Then came the Spens Report published last year after five years' work, and the weight of its conclusions were just being felt in the curriculum of all our secondary school work. For two years the National Fitness Council has been in operation, not with- out criticism, and it has been engaged in a variety of adventures trying to make what is called "a fitter Britain." May I remind the right hon. Gentleman when he criticises these sprinters and beauty queens, that we still want the playing fields for which the money was granted and the swimming baths and the gymnasia. But they have had to be postponed for the moment as we all know. I think it will be admitted that we have had a period of great educational progress; we reached the peak point in expenditure in this country, if expenditure is any measure of educational progress. Then came the war. The two Acts of raising the school-leaving age and the Physical Training and Recreation Act were postponed and suspended; I think the right word is suspended."

The educational system has experienced an uunexampled dislocation due to three main causes: evacuation, which is voluntary; the closing of schools, which is compulsory; and the requisitioning of school buildings. We had a Debate two weeks ago on the effects and methods of evacuation and I want to refer to some of the educational implications of that measure. I must defend, if I may, the Board in this way, and say that, although—to use the phrase of the right hon. Gentleman—we must get back to the maximum normality, many members of the London County Council urged that the children should be got out more quickly into reception and neutral areas when at the outbreak of the war all schools were closed. A week later schools were authorised to open in neutral areas, subject where necessary to the provision of protection for the children. After a fortnight technical schools and evening institutes were allowed to open both for day and evening work. The Board also felt justified in allowing the reopening of certain secondary schools on the fringe areas or in sparsely populated parts of the evacuation areas. By the end of September we were encouraging authorities to collect elementary school children into small groups and also to collect them for milk and medical attention. Two weeks ago my Noble Friend announced in another place, and I announced here the same day, that the Board felt that the risk run by children left in the vulnerable areas must be balanced against the social risk consequent on a complete absence of school attend- ance. Accordingly, permission was given to open on a voluntary basis, subject to a lighter form of air raid protection, because if serious raids occurred schools would have to close.

I have to announce to-day a further relaxation of these restrictions in the neutral areas. The Government are anxious that all schools should open as soon as possible, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Home Security has undertaken to communicate with the Regional Commissioners asking them to use their good offices in any cases where local difficulties are preventing the reopening of the schools. In some cases, the assistance will take the form of helping to expedite the necessary protection and in other cases, it is suggested that the reopening of the schools need not await the full completion of the protective measures.

Mr. Cove

Does that mean that they can all open?

Mr. Lindsay

It means precisely what I have said—they need not await the full completion of the protective measures; in other words, where the local air-raid precautions authorities say that protective measures are necessary—-in some cases, they do not think they are necessary— then the schools can be opened even though the A.R.P. protection is not complete.

Sir Richard Acland

What financial resources have the Regional Commissioners got in order to help?

Mr. Lindsay

They can only give advice.

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