HC Deb 21 March 1944 vol 398 cc710-21
Mrs. Cazalet Keir (Islington, East)

I beg to move, in page 27, line 15, to leave out from the first "that" to the end of the Clause, and to add: the upper limit of the compulsory school age shall be raised to sixteen years at the expiration of twelve months after this Part of this Act comes into operation or at such later date not exceeding three years thereafter to which the raising of the age may be postponed from time to time for a period not exceeding twelve months by Order in Council the draft of which shall be laid before Parliament by the Minister and which shall come into effect when approved by both Houses of Parliament. We hear a great deal to-day about the advantages of multilateral schools. I think this Amendment can certainly be called multilateral, coming as it does from all sides of the House, but with one object and one alone—the desire to make the whole of this Bill a reality for the children of this country at the earliest possible date which, in the Government's favourite words, "is both reasonable and practicable." We are certain that one of the best ways of accomplishing this would be to have inserted in this Measure an appointed day for raising the age to 16, and that is the object of our Amendment. There is no need to argue this Amendment on educational grounds. It is admitted in the Bill, and universally accepted. I would only say this. All parents who can afford it do, in fact, keep their children at school full time until 16 and even later.

Let me examine the reasons which my right hon. Friend, in his Second Reading speech, has given against the case for inserting a date in this Bill for raising the age to 16. First, he said that we must complete reorganisation, we must reduce the size of classes and that we must have more teachers and better buildings—all admirable reasons, with, which everyone of us will agree. But surely, all these reasons are equally applicable to raising the age to 15, and this, my right hon. Friend thinks, can be done on 1st April next year—perhaps rather an unfortunate date. I hope I shall not be thought a pessimist in saying that, war or no war, many of us doubt whether this date is either possible or practicable. In fact, I will willingly bet my right hon. Friend—a new hat, if he likes—that Tie will be obliged to make use of Sub-section (3) of Clause 99. Why? For the very reasons that he has himself advanced for putting in a date for 16. We think that it should be possible to raise the age to 15, and raise it effectively, by 1947, and possibly by 1946.

Surely it is only reasonable and right to ask that, not more than four years after that date—that is, in 1951—the school age should be 16 for all; especially as my right hon. Friend clearly indicated in his Second Reading speech, that local education authorities, in making their development plans, must remember that 16 is the target and not 15. Even then, we do well to remember that only children who are to-day under nine will benefit from these reforms. We all know that, with the certainty of an appointed day, plans for different types of secondary education could be prepared much more effectively given the extra year, and with the possibility of a break between primary and secondary education at 12 rather than 11, which many of us think would be best. The longer that you wait to raise the age to 16, the longer you will perpetuate the difference in the status in various types of secondary schools. I am sure that local education authorities would prefer a definite time rather than some shadowy date.

But to get down to the reality of this matter, it is obvious that the buildings required for the children of 15 will be exactly the same as those required for children of 16, except that you will need an extra classroom or two and an extra teacher or two. All the main general amenities and provisions, such as halls, canteens, playing fields, gyms, practical instruction rooms, will be there for the 15-year olds ready and waiting to receive the extra age group. If, as the President of the Board says, it is impossible to insert an actual date for raising the age to 16, then surely it is equally impossible to insert a date for raising it to 15, certainly as early as next year. I recognise that my right hon. Friend is worried and really concerned about the supply of teachers; so are we all. He has told us something about the emergency scheme, but we have yet to know what recommendations the McNair Committee will bring forward. Most of us expect that they will recommend a three-year training course rather than the present two-year course, and that is one of the main reasons why we have, in our Amendment, given my right hon. Friend the wide margin of a possible four years. Of course, we would like to see the age raised to 16 before 1951, but being eminently reasonable people, we feel that some latitude must be granted to the President of the Board, who will know all the facts and can come down each year to the House and tell us how the position stands. But we cannot wait indefinitely, and the children of this country must not wait indefinitely. That is why an actual date is essential, otherwise there will always be good reasons given for postponement, and none of us wants to see another demi-semi-implemented Fisher Act on the Statute Book.

It is much better to assist local education authorities and the Board to find reasons for having to raise the age to 16 rather than for them to find reasons against, doing so, especially in view of the pressure there will inevitably be for other national priorities, such as housing and health. I consider that it is our duty as Members of Parliament to do everything we can to make it as difficult as possible for this Government, or any other Government, not to have to implement the whole of this Measure when it gets on to the Statute Book. Presidents of the Board of Education come and go, and even Ministers have been known to do likewise, but, seeing that my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary both believe in the whole of this Measure, and that they have even included raising the age to 16 in their ultimate financial estimate, I do implore them to accept this Amendment and thereby give a greater sense of urgency and reality to this great Bill.

Mr. Moelwyn Hughes (Carmarthen)

I am glad to be associated with this Amendment, and the Committee, in its first approach to this major Amendment, will be encouraged to realise that in the course of to-day a considerable part of the argument upon which it is based has already been conceded by the President of the Board and the Parliamentary Secretary. One of the fundamental weaknesses of the proposal in the Bill is that it is left to the President of the Board—the Minister, as he is called in the Bill—to bring forward the raising of the school age to 16 when he is satisfied that it has become practicable. Earlier to-day an Amendment was moved criticising the very words that left it within the power of local authorities to decide to deal with special schools; grave objections were raised against the proposal that they should only set them up as far as they were practicable. It was said that it provided an excuse and a back door, and the President of the Board has accepted that those words have that weakness. If local authorities can find back doors in order to get out of providing special schools, we may find that Presidents of the Board will be able to find, not back doors, but back gangways in order to get out of raising the school-leaving age to 16. The President of the Board has promised to take that provision back in order to find better words, and I ask him now to consider, at any rate, the part of the Amendment which does not leave it to the discretion of the Board to say whether it has become practicable or not.

It does not lie only with the President of the Board to decide whether it has become practicable. He may be satisfied, he may think that the time has come and that he should do it, but he may be the kind of President who cannot convince his colleagues of that fact. He may not be able to satisfy his fellow members in the Government. Much will depend, when the time comes, upon whether he has the material with which to build the schools, or the men and the women with which to staff them, and he may find himself beaten by the people who will take the material first and those who will take the men and women first. We have had experience within recent years of where it has not even lain in the hands of the Government to decide whether things were practicable. They were over-ridden by means of the Geddes axe and by the May Committee. We may find a Geddes or a May Committee and a Government ready to hand over to them the right to over-ride what Parliament, a little while before, had decided was desirable; to over-ride even what the President of the Board agreed was the right thing to do by education, and what he himself was satisfied had become practicable. That is one reason why this Bill should contain a specific provision for a date which could only be defeated by coming to this House and getting an Act of Parliament to repeal it. It is insufficient to have this word "practicable." It is also inconsistent with the whole scheme of the Bill.

I agree with the hon. Lady who moved the Amendment, that it is no longer necessary to argue the desirability of the age of 16. That has been conceded, and I desire to join with her in emphasising the sweet reasonableness of our Amendment. We might very well have gone further. I do not think it would have been out of place to have made the age 17. We have been sweetly reasonable. We have given ample and generous time for the change, but we insist that a date should be there, because if it is not there, it makes complete inconsistency of the Bill.

In his speech on the Second Reading the right hon. Gentleman said that the local education authorities ought to have regard to their duties to provide eventually for the 15's to 16's. Here is an Amendment which may carry the date to 1951. If the President refuses it it means it is going to be possible after 1951, if a local education authority comes before him with a development plan which only provides for those up to 15, for him to reject it. Suppose he does. The local education authority will reply, "How can you tell me that my development plan is defective, and fails to comply with the statutory requirements, when I am giving you something satisfactory now to get on with? When we get into 1951 we will amend it." I do not suppose any of the President's advisers would tell him that the local education authority in such case would be wrong in limiting its plan to that extent.

There are other duties imposed on local education authorities by the Bill with which this provision for a vague 16 some time in the future inconsistent, but I will defer to other hon. Members who desire to speak, and will not labour it. I may be told by the right hon. Gentleman, "Well, we will allow a local education authority to provide for the 15's and later expand to the 16's." That is an impossible situation. If you are building secondary schools you must, as the hon. Lady said, build for the 16's at once if it is to be practicable. In other words, you cannot prepare efficiently for the 15's without preparing for the 16's as well, which makes nonsense of any argument about a gap of any extent between the two dates. I am quite prepared to concede to the right hon. Gentleman that there may be much to be said for postponing the date of this scheme, but there is nothing at all to be said for a wide gap between 15 and 16. Once you have built effectively and properly for the 15's you have provided for the 16's, unless the right hon. Gentleman imagines that we can build schools on the concertina or piano-accordian principle, and, when two or three years have passed, stretch them out a bit for the 16's. You cannot do it. If this plan for the school-leaving age of 15 is to be really effective, it must include within itself provision for raising that age to 16; otherwise the whole scheme of the Bill is inconsistent. I have wondered how on earth these inconsistencies crept into the Bill, and I can only imagine that the provision with which we are now dealing in Clause 33 is presented to the Committee as a pretence at a kind of compromise.

There are two points of view, both agreeing that it is desirable to raise the school leaving age to 15 or 16. The one point of view says, "In order to do that let us have a date for 15 and a date for 16," and the other point of view says, "Look at the difficulties, look at all the trouble—material, teachers, and the rest of it. Let us put 15 in the Bill as a desirable objective when the Minister is satisfied, and 16 as a further objective when the Minister is satisfied." I do not know where this conflict has gone on; it may have gone on inside the Government, it may have gone on inside the Board of Education, it may have gone on even in the President's own mind. Wherever this conflict has occurred, at any rate it has been resolved with this proposal in Clause 33, a proposal which may pretend to be a compromise but which I say is no compromise whatever.

There is one other aspect of the Amendment on which I would like to say a few words. The Amendment not only provides a definite date before which the school-leaving age must be raised, but it provides that the Minister must come to Parliament from year to year in order to get that extension. That is not intended to be anything in the nature of a formality, it is not something to be achieved by adding another line to the Schedule of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. It is there in order to compel the Minister not only to ask the House for a further year's extension, but to compel him to come to the House to say what he has done in order to achieve the objective, and how far he thinks he will be able to go within the year for which he seeks further permission. It is to keep the matter within the control of this House, not to allow it to linger administratively to the last minute, but to compel the Minister to come from year to year and tell the House how he is getting on with the job which Parliament will have placed upon his shoulders. As it stands in the Bill, the objective of 16 is a Mount Everest which may or may not ever be scaled. The purpose of the Amendment is to turn it into a good Welsh mountain like Snowdon which we know can be climbed if only people put their minds to it.

Professor Gruffydd (University of Wales)

I am sorry to say that I have to disagree, not so much with the arguments put forward by the hon. Lady who moved the Amendment or by the hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Moelwyn Hughes) but with the implication underlying the Amendment. In disagreeing with them, I hope I shall not be misunderstood. I am as much in favour as they are of raising the school-leaving age to 16, but wishing, I am afraid, is no guarantee of fact, and the relevant fact in this case is that under present conditions any one who has studied the set up of education in this country at present knows that it is quite impossible to raise the school-leaving age to 16, within any time that it would be profitable to mention by Statute in a Bill. No doubt if my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Education were a director of Government policy or a dictator of Government policy, it might be done, but he is as powerless as the meanest Member of the farthest Back Bench to modify the present policy of the Minister of Labour towards teachers and to make the necessary provision for the raising of the school-leaving age even in the near future.

Mrs. Cazalet Keir

May I ask my hon. Friend whether he is against putting a date in the Bill for the 15s too?

Professor Gruffydd

Yes, I am against it. The teachers necessary for all the boys and girls in schools between 14 and 16 are simply not in existence, and they will not be in existence for a considerable time after the war. A vast number of them, as a matter of fact, are now engaged in peeling potatoes and cleaning lavatories in the Services.

Captain Longhurst (Acton)

May I ask the hon. Member if he has any possible grounds for such an assertion?

Professor Gruffydd

My answer is that I should not make that assertion if I had no grounds. The grounds I have are very many letters from my own constituents who are teachers. Even in prewar days when there was no hindrance to compulsory education up to the age of 15, I have seen the disastrous effects of trying to put that Regulation into effect on paper.

Viscountess Astor

But we had the school-leaving age raised to 15 at Plymouth and it was a great success. The thing that stopped it was not the teachers or the equipment but the reaction of the people who got in and put it back. So it is possible.

Professor Gruffydd

In answer to the noble Lady, my experience of raising the school-leaving age when no provision has been made for it by the local education authority is that it has been disastrous. It is possible to put it down on paper that we raise the school-leaving age and make no provision whatsoever to carry it out. It may have been done in Plymouth but there are parts of the country where it could not be done. I have seen the disastrous effect of putting this Regulation into effect on paper so as to get a reputation for being a go-ahead authority, when the provision was inadequate for even beginning anything like the education of the adolescent—for children between 14 and 16 are adolescents I have been in scores of elementary schools where the big boys and girls, young people whose minds were ready for adventure and expansion, were simply wasting their time because the teachers were not able to deal with them either on account of scarcity of number, or inadequacy of training, or both. It was pathetic to see these young people fumbling their way without guidance through tattered old class books which they had read time and time again, and having no assistance whatever from the teachers, because the teachers had no time to devote to them. "The hungry sheep looked up and were not fed." The school-leaving age under the authorities where these schools were situated had been raised in order to be popular with educational opinion, which in Wales is really very advanced and does demand the raising of the school-leaving age. And county councillors and directors of education smirked with self-satisfaction and self-approval because they had made the right gesture, because they had uttered the right educational noises, but the children themselves were pining away in neglect.

I say, with a full sense of my responsibility as a teacher and as a life-long student of our educational system, that it would have been better for them, a hundred times, if they had entered into some decent occupation where the problems of adolescence would have had at least a partial solution. We must not only be certain that there shall be teachers in the next few years for these senior pupils, but we must also make certain that these teachers will be properly trained, because we are now talking of the 15's to 16's who require teachers as good as they should be for university students. I do not think that the real facts about the standard of teaching which is required for children between 15 and 16 have been completely realised. There must be more adequate training and, for the secondary schools—primary, technical and modern—there must be a proper provision of libraries, laboratories and workshops. Until we are absolutely and definitely aware of this certainty, it is just a cruel political game to pretend to raise the school leaving age. If there is one blow by which we can kill this Bill it is by passing a law which would make it not only a dead letter but a dead hand. I appeal to the good sense of the Committee and the decency of hon. Members not to make the children of Britain pawns in a political game for popularity. That is precisely what they would be if we were to raise expectations which we know we could not fulfil.

Mr. R. Morgan

I support the Amendment. The hon. Member for the University of Wales (Professor Gruffydd) and I have very much the same views on educational matters generally, but I was rather surprised to hear him proclaim the doctrine that although he blessed the White Paper and this Bill he did not envisage raising the school-Leaving age to 16 within the next six years. In my Second Reading speech on the White Paper I counselled the Minister to go slowly, and I am still of that opinion, because I realise that a certain amount of reorganisation under the old Hadow Scheme has not yet taken place and that very much has to be done to raise the school-leaving age to 15. It is impossible, in the scheme as it is outlined in the Bill, to carry out primary and secondary education unless the age is raised to 16, because there is not the necessary four years' programme for the one or the other. If the President says "I had no fixed date for raising the school-leaving age; I can take my time over this," he is really fooling with the question. I want the Committee to say what the date shall be for raising the school-leaving age to 16. If it is said that the Ministry of Labour will step in I say that it is time the Board of Education stepped in. Further, it is the responsibility of Members of this House and the question before us is: Is there any Member who does not desire his or her child to have education up to the age of 16? The Minister has made excellent speeches in various parts of the country and has said it was his wish to raise the school-leaving age to 16.

The President of the Board of Education (Mr. Butler)

I have never promised a date for that. If my hon. Friend wants to quote me I hope he will quote me correctly.

Mr. Morgan

I should be sorry to quote my right hon. Friend incorrectly, because I have a great admiration for what he has done, but my memory would be playing me very severe tricks if I said that I had not heard him say that he wanted to raise the school-leaving age to 16 in a short time. What is a short time? That is the question at issue.

Mr. Colegate (The Wrekin)

I feel that part of the consideration which has been put before the Committee on this matter is not entirely relevant to the alternative which is facing the Committee. By this Amendment—which I feel bound to oppose—we are not asked to say that we are more in favour of raising the school-leaving age to 16 than we are in favour of Clause 33 as it stands. We are asked to do something entirely different. It is not a question of the desirability of 16 being the school-leaving age; it is a question of which is the better machinery. We are all agreed that the school-leaving age cannot be raised to 16 straight away. There are no buildings or teachers, and the hon. Member for the University of Wales (Professor Gruffydd) clearly put before the Committee the danger of starting under a sort of facade that you are raising the school-leaving age to 16 when, in fact, you are doing nothing of the kind.

Mrs. Cazalet Keir

Is my hon. Friend also against inserting a date for the raising of the school age to 15?

Mr. Colegate

I am discussing the alternative pieces of machinery which the Committee has before it, the machinery under Clause 33 and the machinery set forth in the hon. Lady's Amendment. We are all in favour of raising the school-leaving age to 16 at the earliest possible date. The only question we have to decide is whether the administrative machinery set out in this Amendment is better than the machinery set out in the Clause. Surely that is the question. If that is so, let us consider what the Clause asks us to do. It does not ask us from time to time to bring Orders in Council before the House postponing the date for raising the school-leaving age to 16. On the contrary, it says in effect that the school-leaving age is to be raised to 16 as soon as is practicable and that the moment it is practicable an Order in Council is to come before the House so that it may be put into operation. Personally, I prefer that piece of machinery, for this reason, among others: I am sufficiently optimistic to believe that not only all those who are interested in education but practically every Member of this House will wish to maintain a keen interest in educational matters when this Bill becomes law. There will be a far greater awareness about education than we have had before—

Viscountess Astor

I hope so.

Mr. Colegate

I am sure that my Noble Friend's hopes will be fulfilled. If that is the case, there will be strong pressure from outside organisations, as well as from Members, to see that the draft of an Order in Council is laid before Parliament at the earliest practicable moment. I should have thought that that was the quickest, simplest and most desirable form of machinery, instead of that which is proposed under this Amendment, which is actually less precise. First of all, the Amendment says that the school-leaving age shall be raised at the expiration of 12 months after this part of the Bill comes into operation. The supporters of the Amendment recognise, like the author of the Bill, that that is an impracticable proposal and they go on to say: Or at such later date not exceeding three years thereafter to which the raising of the age may be postponed from time to time for a period not exceeding twelve months by Order in Council.… In the Clause it says definitely that as soon as practicable the Minister shall bring before Parliament an Order in Council raising the school-leaving age to 16. For these reasons I ask the Committee and the Minister not to accept the Amendment. It is not a question of the desirability of raising the school-leaving age—we are all agreed upon that. We are agreed that it shall not be raised until we have the buildings and teachers, by means of which we can do the job as handsomely as I want to see it done. When we can prove that we have the teachers and machinery to bring about this much needed blessing we can press every week, if we like, to have an Order in Council laid before us.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Colegate) gets very impassioned about the Clause as it stands in the Bill and is anxious to impress upon us that "as soon as practicable" means something quite definite. Well, if the hon. Member sees that he has second sight. If we could be sure that the present Minister would continue his labours we might place a certain amount of faith in the belief that at an early date the school-leaving age would be raised to 16—

Whereupon THE YEOMAN USHER OF THE BLACK ROD being come with a Message from the Lords, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER resumed the Chair.

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