HC Deb 27 February 1940 vol 357 cc2021-34

Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

9.46 p.m.

Mr. David Adams

I desire to raise the question of evacuation and education of which I gave notice over a month ago. Unfortunately, owing to the illness of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education, I have been unable until this time to raise the matter. Now, however, I am glad to see that the Parliamentary Secretary has fully recovered his competence to handle matters which I will raise. We have been discussing this afternoon the paramountcy of the Navy, and cognate matters, but in the judgment of many people interested in the welfare of the nation we have already suffered the first great loss in the war—the lack of educational facilities for the children of the nation. During the last five months the majority of the children have been without adequate education and, in my judgment, they will never recover. They have lost their chances of secondary education and many who would have occupied a position in the ranks of the finest craftsmen in the world will find themselves merely unskilled labourers, and the upper ranks of learning will have suffered substantially during this long and unnecessary interregnum, for few of these neglected pupils will enter there! I have made inquiries through friends in neutral countries, and I appear to be credibly advised that in the belligerent countries no such situation has prevailed; that in the great German towns, in cities and hamlets, school children have not lost a single day's education!

I think it will be admitted by the House that one of the imperious necessities after the termination of the war will be an educated democracy. The competition which will ensue will inevitably be greater than it has been in the past, and while it is true to say that Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton, it is equally true to say that the Waterloos of the future will be won by the industrial classes, for they will, or ought to be, the educated classes. My complaint is that when evacuation took place there was no proper provision made for the evacuees, even in the safe areas, nor was there provision for milk, meals, medical and dental inspection and treatment. So far as the evacuation areas were concerned, all education terminated and the children were deprived of their natural rights. In these areas, in September, parents were given the option of retaining their children and availing themselves of it. Therein there was an immediate cessation of all interest in educational matters. For some reason, in these areas, also milk supply, medical inspection and free meals were terminated, and have not, up to the present, been resumed.

It is interesting to note that the President of the Board of Education, speaking about a week ago, said that the need for school attendance was the chief concern at the moment and that the problem of the danger areas was to do something for 1,250,000 children who had to be got back to schol as quickly as possible. He appears only to have discovered that that was the initial responsibility upon his Department and had been from the beginning of evacuation. There is little doubt that the Board of Education were pushed aside, whether voluntarily or otherwise, at that time. The schools were handed over for military or A.R.P. requirements I notice that some 55 of the Board's inspectors were diverted to other purposes and that 663 of the staff were loaned elsewhere. There was a virtual resignation of the Board of Education. With regard to evacuation itself, it was anticipated that some 3,000,000 might be evacuated, but, in fact, only 1,250,000 went. By the end of last year some 43 per cent. had returned, and I understand that to-day only 400,000 are in the safe areas.

The way in which parents have exercised the choice which is given them is very significant. In Leeds, 26 per cent. of the children remained and in Sheffield 17½ per cent. In Glasgow 70 per cent. returned, Newcastle-on-Tyne 75 per cent., Aberdeen about 75 per cent. and London, which did rather well, some 34 per cent. In my judgment many of the difficulties would not have arisen if evacuation had been carried out by the Board of Education and not by the Ministry of Health, and if the billeting authority in the reception areas had been the education authority. It should not have been merely a question of safety; it ought to have been, in the judgment of all persons interested in education, an educational matter of prime moment also. We had the spectacle of expectant and nursing mothers being mixed up with evacuees, all of which tended to create the confusion and chaos which undoubtedly prevailed.

In September it was quite apparent to everyone that large numbers of children had remained in the evacuation areas, and that immense numbers had returned. We are entitled to ask, why did the Board of Education not resume the education of these children? In my own city of Newcastle-on-Tyne, out of 1,400 teachers all except 18 went to the reception areas, but none of these was at any time invited by the Board to return and give some education to the thousands of school children in Newcastle. They were permitted for months to roam the streets living many of them, in shoddy slums, frequent unsafe cinemas, anywhere but in the schools, which were well built and relatively safe, where discipline was possible and where education should have been continued. The Board clearly shirked its duty to the children and to the State. No serious effort was made to induce parents to keep or to send children into the safe areas; yet the dangers of these movements between danger and safety areas were undoubtedly very great. There was a rapid drift back, owing to a variety of reasons, to danger areas. Everyone knows that it is fatal to any efficient system to have a shifting school population, for staffing depends upon numbers, and this dribbling to and fro had an unsettling effect upon the children and teachers alike in the safe areas, where there was some pretence being made to give part education.

Compulsory education, however limited in its application, should never have been abandoned by the Board of Education. A Board, with a sense of its obligations, would never have permitted such an abandonment. There appears to have been great weakness and vacillation, nothing carefully thought out. In my judgment there is no question that if parents had originally been advised that children would require to be left in the safe areas till the end of the term with a term's notice they would have agreed. The Board of Education made no effort to get such authority from parents. If the Board had simply declared that children in the safe areas must remain there for the sake of their safety and their education, no intelligent parent would have rejected it.

Then with regard to the disguised compulsion which was being applied to parents to send their children to the safe areas. We have seen how the Board positively declined to give any education whatever, although the bulk of the nation's children were in the evacuation areas. It is interesting to notice what the Times Educational Supplement of 6th January has to say upon this subject: The futility of trying to maintain the present educational system without some measure of compulsion is to be seen in the case made by the chairman of the London County Council Educational Committee in a letter to the Editor of the 'Times' quoted on page 5. He says in effect that education in the evacuation areas must not be made too good lest children return from the reception areas to enjoy it. This amounts to a declaration that pressure will be brought on parents to keep their children away by providing third-rate education for the children who never went away. If this is not compulsion, what is? But it is dishonest compulsion. Parents who wish their children to stay for the next term in their reception area should be compelled to keep them there the whole time. That was said in January. It might have been said with equal truth in February, when the situation was becoming more acute. With respect to billeting, the Minister of Health has indicated twice or thrice very clearly that this was to be the basis of the children's existence in the reception areas. This has failed to an alarming extent. It will be intolerable to many of the billetees if the war is. protracted, and it should be ended by the provision of communal schools after the type of boarding schools, either in large country houses, or by the building of many more camps where teachers and scholars can be better housed. Teachers should be left to their educational responsibilities and voluntary members engaged for domestic requirements. My experience of the conditions of many of our teachers who have returned from the reception areas is that they have suffered intolerable hardships, mental and physical, and in many cases they have been called upon to work all the hours of daylight in looking after the children. In the safety zones, adequate provision should be made for communal education. I maintain, as I think the Board of Education must agree, that this adequate provision can be made, not in the cottage homes or in the few schools that are to be found in many of these areas, but only in adequately-equipped institutions. Has there been a survey of such institutions in the areas where the evacuated children are? Has there been a survey of community schools, large country houses, public buildings, halls and camps built specially for residential schools, where life can be developed, if necessary alongside a certain amount of private billeting? With regard to camps, we know that there are 31 in England and five in Scotland, but there has been no urgency on the part of the Ministry of Health in this matter. These camps may be a good experiment, but the Ministry are dealing with them with the greatest timidity. Before the war there was ample time to prepare adequate boarding schools in camps or large halls.

Mr. Magnay

Does the hon. Member say that before the war there was time to do this?

Mr. Adams

In my opinion, the condition of affairs in Europe, at any rate during the 12 months before the war, ought to have caused the education authorities to consider the steps that would require to be taken in the event of an outbreak of war. I have noticed the opinions on the new plan for evacuation that have been expressed to the Board of Education by the evacuation committee of the Association of Architects, Surveyors and Technical Assistants. They complain that nothing has been done, they say that there ought to be provided facilities for full-time education and communal feeding, and they estimate that a complete scheme for the whole country would cost approximately £70,000,000. The amount of building work that has been stopped by the war is about seven times that figure. Many builders are bankrupt, brickyards are idle, architects are unemployed. Icon tend that there was an opportunity to make adequate provision, and indeed, if there was not an opportunity, there is one now. We have recently been dealing in this House with vast sums. I do not think that a large sum of money could be voted for any better peace-time purpose than the education of our children. In addition to the provision of facilities in the safety areas, every school in a danger area ought to have full air-raid protection. At last once again attendance is to be made compulsory. I think we are entitled to ask the Parliamentary Secretary when he anticipates that education will be fully resumed.

As to precautionary measures, I should like to give the House an illustration of the situation in Newcastle. In that city, one-third of the schools are in the danger area contiguous to the arsenals and the riverside. I know of one case on Tyneside where 60 children are being educated in a large school. Those children have been instructed to run home if raiders come. The homes in that town are very much inferior, from a structural point of view, to the school, since many of them are in three- and four-storeyed tenements. The education authority there appears to take the view—"Be killed, but not on our hands; all must leave the school."

As to the next evacuation, it is to take place when the danger is upon us. Is it likely to be successful? From what has occurred, we may well conclude that the mass of parents will take the risk, and that large numbers of the children who are at present evacuated will return home and stay there until the Government hoist the danger signal. The parents have been invited to agree to send their children to the reception areas in the event of bombing, but they need not give a definite promise to do this. There again, the Board display their timidity by stating that parents need only express an intention—and not give a definite pledge—to leave the children in the reception areas until the school party returns. It will not prevent the children dribbling home again, as the parents are not to be specifically pledged to leave them in the reception areas.

The Board are agreed that education shall be compulsory. They ought to insist that it shall be accepted, and that the children must be left for safety and education until the end of the term, with a term's notice from the parents that the children may be withdrawn. This requires from the parents, not a written undertaking, a most difficult thing to obtain, but merely an injunction from the Board, which ought to have been given in September, to the parents that the interests of the State and of the children in the matter of education and safety demand that the children shall be left in the safety areas. Those are the ends to which the Government ought to direct their circulars, their interviews and their authority. This matter should be the responsibility of the Board of Education. It should not be left as an option or obligation upon the parents.

In view of the fact that the children have been deprived of education for many months, during the hibernation of the Board, we are entitled to ask that the Board shall now restore the educational services, fully and quickly, in evacuation, neutral and reception areas alike. We ask them to end at the earliest possible moment the grave physical, moral and mental injury which has already been done and which, in my judgment, will have repercussions to the detriment of the State. By the sincere and prompt exercise of the great powers which the Board possess, they may recover some of the lost ground but only if they recognise the imperious necessity of equal whole time education in evacuation, neutral and reception areas alike, and upon which the welfare and future progress of these citizens depends.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Sexton

I live in a reception area to which many of the children from the Newcastle district were evacuated and I saw something of the chaos which prevailed at one time, under the first evacuation scheme. Many complaints have been uttered about the failure to make preparations, before the outbreak of war, both in the evacuation and the reception areas. When there are murmurings such as we have heard, some of them are usually found to be justified. The Government must take their share of responsibility for the complaints which are justified in this case and the local authorities must take their share also. A more thorough survey ought to have been made of the number of school places available in the evacuation areas. Many country schools, like town schools, owing to the decline in the birth rate, had numbers of vacancies. Where practicable, only the number of children for whom there were places should have been evacuated to these various districts. All sorts of things—many of them grossly untrue—havebeen said about this subject. It has been said that the children did not want education. I put the children first, as I believe that to be their proper place and my experience in the area in which I live was that the desire of the children for school life was shown by the readiness of their attendance at school. It would be interesting to have a report to the Board from the officers whose duty it was to examine the causes of non-attendance at schools during the period of evacuation.

I question whether there would have been 1 per cent. of frivolous excuses, or wilful absenteeism. There they were, children in a strange land, taught by teachers with different methods, in unfamiliar schools. I think that in the circumstances the pupils responded manfully to the call of education. From the parents' point of view it is true that in vulnerable areas they thought first of the physical safety of their offspring. After all, it is one of nature's first laws to ensure the survival, the safety, and the preservation of the offspring.

The safety and preservation of mental ability depend first and foremost on the well-being of the physical body. That has been recognised by the Board in the institution of school meals and physical training. We have begun to believe more and more in the maxim, "A sound mind in a sound body." Some parents were afraid that their boys and girls, especially between 10 and 11 years of age, would suffer in the examinations for a secondary school. Their fears, I believe, were largely unfounded, but it was difficult to persuade the parents that children coming to rural areas with primitive schools with earth playgrounds and antedeluvian furniture would not suffer. I know what I am talking about, because I taught a rural school for many years before I came into this House. Parents could not be convinced that their bairns would receive such tuition as would enable them to pass the test; so they took the children home. They did not realise the attainments of many rural school children whom they left behind. Desirable as first-class buildings and appliances are, the chief factor in the final analysis is the teachers, and it is well known that rural teachers, in the main, are as capable craftsmen as town teachers. As a former teacher myself I am not foolish enough to claim that either the town teacher or rural teacher is superior. But both have worked together and co-operated in this difficult crisis, and, in my view, the best has been done in the circumstances for the education of the pupils.

To sum up, firstly, if adequate preparatory revision of the schools in the receiving districts had been made, and, secondly, a thorough knowledge of the billets, both homes and hosts, had been obtained, and, thirdly, and perhaps the most important of all, if there had been proper provision for after-school recreation, the scheme would have been more successful. Lack of attractions, which appeal to town folk, ought to have been an incentive for this provision of out-of-school activities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams) mentioned the teachers who had gone to the rural areas and asserted that they were going back fagged and worn out. I am not prepared to speak from that point of view, but I know that some of these teachers went back from the rural areas with their eyes opened to the lack of amenities in the rural areas. One good that may come out of the evacuation scheme is that in future the rural schools will receive the education which they deserve. I hope the Ministry of Health and the Board of Education are not resting on their tattered laurels, but that they are work- ing out the details of a thorough system so that as early as possible as many children as possible shall receive full time education.

10.27 p.m.

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

I must apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams) who, I know, has for the last three months been trying to make the excellent speech we have heard to-night. I wish that he had been able to get in at the end of last Session, because I could then have dealt with this question more in conformity with his speech. So much has happened since then that a large amount of it is ancient history. I am glad, however, that the hon. Member has raised the question because I consider it of the greatest importance and I wish there were a greater interest, even in the House, on the subject of rebuilding the educational system.

May I make a short answer to his point? It is that it is very easy to hold the views expressed to-night, but to put them back six months is not quite the same thing. None of us imagined that the war would develop on the lines that it has taken during the last six months. The local authorities were never prepared to face the issue of compulsion. That answers about one-half of the hon. Gentleman's speech. They were not prepared to face it, and there is no method of enforcing it. If the parents were prepared to stay there, good enough, but if they were determined to bring their children back, does my hon. Friend suggest that compulsion could have been imposed? What methods and what sanctions would he have adopted? Local authorities debated this question and they turned it down every time it was raised. I share my hon. Friend's view; I do not like the untidy system that was developing, of a mass of children in the evacuation areas and another mass in the reception areas. It made education temporarily a chaos, and it made it impossible to get a proper unit for secondary schools and all the things he has mentioned.

I must point out to my hon. Friend that evacuation is essentially a very human problem and there is a limit to the endurance of the persons in reception areas, who had all privacy in many cases completely destroyed and whose lives are becoming at the present moment in many cases extremely fatiguing and difficult. On the other hand there are a great many people who said, "Air raids may come or not, but I am going to be with my nearest and dearest in an evacuation area." We were, therefore, faced with the problem that many parents were determined to take the risk after a certain time and others were prepared to be, perhaps, a little more careful and to follow the Government's advice by staying in the reception areas.

Mr. Adams

Will the Minister be good enough to explain why there was for months a complete abandonment of educational facilities in the evacuation areas?

Mr. Lindsay

The short answer is this: Very complete arrangements were made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health for billeting the children in reception areas. Nobody could pretend that if all the children in the evacuation areas were to be billeted in the countryside it could have been done in camps, short of an expenditure of millions of pounds, and then it would have been a completely untried experiment. As my right hon. Friend said many times, the billeting must be in private homes when there was large-scale evacuation. I do not think there can be two opinions about that—unless, as the hon. Member suggested in one part of his speech, we had started 10 years before to build up a completely new system of camps and schools ready for the eventuality of war. The point is that I quite agree with my hon. Friend, and am tremendously interested in the possibilities which may came out of this chaos in our education system.

Mr. Adams

Will the Minister be good enough to explain why it was—this is the gravamen of my complaint—that although for months there were these vast numbers of children in the evacuation areas they were deprived of all education?

Mr. Lindsay

The answer is that we had made arrangements for the complete evacuation of the children, which was the Government's policy. In many cases the schools were in dangerous areas near docks, and in other cases it was impossible to use them because they had been taken over for Civil Defence, for first-aid posts, and for a hundred and one other uses. As soon as it was apparent that parents were not prepared to take advantage of the Government's offer, we began relaxations. I announced them first in my speech here in November, and others were announced almost week by week. First, evening institutes and technical colleges were allowed to open and other relaxations were approved in neutral areas. Then, on nth November, we restored voluntary education in evacuation areas, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Home Security sent out a circular urging local authorities to do so. It was the local authorities themselves who in most cases had used their schools for Civil Defence purposes. The hon. Member asks why we did not do more. The answer is that you cannot urge children (a) to go to a school which is not there, and (b) you cannot compel children to go to a school when you know there is danger. That is the short answer to the cinema versus schools point. It was apparent to all of us that children were congregating in cinemas and that something had to be done, but if people go to cinemas or gather in the streets they do so on their own responsibility. The case of the children who were killed in the Poplar school in the last war is well known to local authorities, and they were not prepared to take the risk of opening any school as long as there was not at any rate some primitive shelter for the children. That is the answer.

It is easy now to be wise when we are looking back. It may be that we should have gone faster, but how much faster? Ministers were sending out almost too many circulars—circulars every week. They met every day. There was a relaxation of restrictions literally week by week. If the hon. Member will read the paper which is the organ of the National Union of Teachers, or read the organ of the local education authorities, he will see not the sort of speech he has made tonight, but congratulations to various Ministers on the speed with which they had worked. There were communal meals to be arranged and nursery centres, and the evacuation charges ran into £500,000 a week. We do not regret that expenditure, we only say that it shows that a great deal was being done during that time, and as soon as there was a chance of bringing back compulsory education, which means that there was a chance of children going back to school, half time if you like, it was announced by my right hon. Friend.

Those are the main points. May I put one further point? I have made it every time in our educational Debates. If you wish to surrender to the Board of Education complete control of education in this country, you can do it. It is easy enough for the Secretary of State for War, shall I say, to say: "We shall have camps throughout the country," and to give the order, but you cannot do that with 315 local education authorities each responsible in its own area. You can urge, bring pressure on, suggest, persuade and finally, do what my right hon. Friend did the other day, say: "This matter is one of urgency. We can no longer put up with delays."

One further point is that local education authorities in very few cases take the same view. Sheffield had 58,000 children out of 60,000 in Sheffield very soon after the war. London had a great majority of the children out; and thousands of children are still out, in wholly different circumstances. Are you going to say that we must have compulsion from the centre, and complete national regimentation, doing away with this variety, freedom, and flexibility in local education? Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to try that in Newcastle and on Tyneside? I do not think it would appeal to the people of Tyneside. I am going there in a few weeks' time, to speak on the work of the National Youth Committee. I could not speak about the people outside Tyneside, but I believe they desire freedom for their local authorities.

I am glad that this subject has been raised to-night. The hon. Member has asked what the policy is. I will tell him. It is exactly as it was announced a few weeks ago. We wish to see full-time education for children between the ages of five and 14 in evacuation, neutral and reception areas in this country. We are taking every step with the Civil Defence authorities to get schools released. Tomorrow, for instance, I am going down to Luton, where there is a problem, in company with Sir Will Spens, the regional commissioner. The problem there is to get back the remaining 40 per cent. There are some difficult places. Places like London, Liverpool and elsewhere have a huge problem. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Sexton) for sounding the praises of the rural teacher and the rural authorities. About them I shall have something to say next week. The mix-up of the child population and what people from the towns have learned in the country, have made evacuation not an unmixed blessing.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-One Minutes before Eleven o'clock.