HC Deb 29 November 1949 vol 470 cc1103-14

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

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

On 27th October I asked the Minister of Education whether he is aware that there are at present vacant places at the Thirsk, Easingwold, and Yorebridge Grammar Schools in the area of the North Riding of Yorkshire; that in the neighbourhood of these grammar schools there is at present a lack of secondary modern schools which is causing grave overcrowding; and what action he proposes to take to secure the intentions of the Education Act, 1944, are fulfilled in these areas. In his reply the Minister said that owing to a decline in the local child population there are at present not enough suitable pupils to fill all places at these three grammar schools. and he went on to say there was no grave overcrowding in other schools in the neighbourhood. He ended by saying that he was satisfied that the intentions of the Education Act were being fulfilled by the local education authority's plans for new secondary schools. In reply to a supplementary question, he said: This is the only case of which I know where vacancies in the secondary schools are not filled immediately."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1949; Vol. 468, c. 1495.] A very remarkable situation is disclosed. In the whole of this country, on the witness of the Minister—and he must know the position—all the grammar schools are filled, except in these three cases. All three cases come within the area of the same local education authority and it would appear that the onus is on the Minister of Education to show that the local education authority concerned is not acting unreasonably. After all, under Section 68 of the Education Act, 1944, he has on his shoulders the responsibility of seeing that local education authorities act reasonably in the discharge of their functions under the Act, and, if they fail, to intervene. Tonight I want to put the case for my constituents and also for those of my hon. and gallant Friend, the hon. Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale), who is concerned in one case, to show that in fact the Act is being administered unreasonably by the local education authority for that area.

Mr. Spearman (Scarborough and Whitby)

It also applies to Whitby School in the North Riding.

Mr. Turton

I can well believe it. That strengthens the case. That means there are four grammar schools in this one education authority which have vacant places. What are the facts? In 1946, Thirsk Grammar School had 150 pupils. At the present time they have 116, a deficiency of 34 pupils in three years. At Easing-wold, they had 89 pupils in 1946. This year they have 82, a deficiency of seven. I am informed on good authority that at Easingwold this is room for another ten pupils, not seven. I have not the 1946 figures for Yorebridge, because it is outside my constituency, but in 1939 there were 121 pupils. This year they have 94, which is a deficiency of 28.

In his reply to me, the Minister talked about a decline in the rural child population. Let me give the figures of the total population in those areas in 1946 and 1949. In the rural district of Thirsk, the population has increased by 460 in those three years. In Easingwold, the population has increased by 390. In Yorebridge there are rather different circumstances, because there are two rural districts involved, but combining the two, in three years there has been an increase of 338. I agree that that is the total population and not the child population. It is difficult to get the exact figures for child population at the present time, but I have made a careful examination of the statistics of sex and age of population supplied by the Registrar-General in 1947, which are now, of course, two years back, and compared these with the figures for 1931. There is a decline in the child population in Thirsk of 8½ per cent. and in Easingwold of 4 per cent. Yet, when we compare that decline with the figures for rural districts in other parts of Britain, it is a much smaller decline. Let me instance one or two of the counties down the east side of Britain. In the East Riding the decline was 15 per cent.; in the three counties of Lincolnshire it varied between 8 and 17 per cent.; in Norfolk it was 12 per cent.; in West Suffolk, 16 per cent., and in East Suffolk, 19 per cent.

But the real case is not these figures, but whether there is in fact overcrowding in neighbouring schools. In regard to Thirsk, I challenge the Parliamentary Secretary to deny that at Thirsk Senior School at the present time there is grave overcrowding, and that the headmaster of that school will himself admit there are at the school a considerable number of children who could well benefit by grammar school education.

Let me give the instance of another school only four miles out of Thirsk, about which I have been in communication with the Minister of Education—namely, Knayton. At that school in 1945 here were 40 girls and infants. In May, 1949, there were 74 girls and infants, and at the present time there are 96 children being taught by one headmaster and two women teachers. That is not right. When a school which in 1945 had something like 60 pupils suddenly has thrust on it 36 in addition, I think that would satisfy any hon. Member that there is grave overcrowding.

I have been in communication with the Minister of Education on conditions at Easingwold Church of England School, complaining about overcrowding. Let me now quote the words of the Minister of Education in a letter which he wrote to me only last year. He wrote, On the question of overcrowding of the Church of England School at Easingwold, the children are divided into four classes, as you say, and are housed as follows: 44 in a classroom of 445 square feet; 38 in a room of 392 square feet, and 26 in a room of 216 square feet. I agree that those conditions are not good, especially when compared with the building on which I presume you base your reference to the work done. It is unfortunately true that if we were to condemn them as intolerable we would in fact have to condemn many other schools. My purpose tonight is not to condemn them, but to ask that the position should be remedied by sending those children who are capable of it to the grammar school at Easingwold.

Let us deal with the question of lowering standards. With you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I do not think I need talk about the standard of education of Easingwold Grammar School, because Easingwold is proud that one who was educated at the school is now occupying the position which you occupy in the House of Commons. We are very proud of that fact. But let me deal with Thirsk. The last time the school certificate examination was taken at Thirsk, 20 children sat for it. Every one of them passed. Of those 20 children, 12 had won an entrance scholarship, and eight had failed in the entrance examination but had gone into the school as fee-payers.

I find that these eight children had an average of credits of 5.5 per child. That was, in fact, only.3 less than the average of the whole 20. Under the present way in which the North Riding Education Authority administers the provisions for entering a grammar school, those eight children would not have been at the school, and there would have been that number of empty places. That, I believe, is wrong.

At Thirsk there is a boy who has just taken the Higher School Certificate who, in the entrance examination failed to get an entrance scholarship. How far he failed the Minister of Education could tell me but it would be improper for me to know or to tell the House of Commons. My case is that the Education Act, what we call the Butler Act of 1944, which promised secondary education for all, is not being carried out as it should be in the North Riding of Yorkshire. I ask the Minister of Education, or the Parliamentary Secretary, tonight, to put that right.

I know that there have to be cuts at present in the building programme, but is it sensible, when there are these grammar schools, when there are the staff and the buildings, to leave them empty and keep the primary schools overcrowded merely because a child, at the age of 11, fails by a point or two in some intelligence test; and when, with good education at a good grammar school he could well get the School Certificate. I believe I would be betraying my responsibility to my constituents were I not to beg the Parliamentary Secretary to intervene in this matter.

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

Before the hon. Member sits down, may I ask him two questions. Has he any clue at all to the reasons for what seems to be a quite incredible and unique position in England today? Secondly, does he know whether the parents of this area would be prepared to take advantage of this education if they could have it made available?

Mr. Turton

Dealing with the second question first—I have been appealed to and asked to take action by the Parents' Association. I have interviewed parents on more than one occasion. As to what reason the local education authority have for their attitude, I do not know; I can only suggest they are being directed in a most rigid and unfriendly manner.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Corlett (York)

I do not want to delay the Parliamentary Secretary, but I am indeed sorry that the hon. Gentleman should have seen fit to speak as he has spoken of one of the most progressive and enlightened education authorities in this country—his own. I have known that authority for nearly 30 years, and most who know it were always surprised at the difference during the period from the early 'thirties, when it was reactionary and nearly the most backward of education authorities, to the last five years in the 'thirties, when it jumped almost to the forefront. It is not reasonable for the hon. Member to say that this authority is rigid, and not acting fairly to children who are eligible to go to the grammar school.

In 1935, this particular authority, as the hon. Member must know, startled the country with its development programme for setting up senior schools. He knows that there is Redcar, Scalby, New Earswick, and Northallerton—some of the finest senior schools in this country, even before the Education Act; and had it not been for the war, this whole area would have probably been completely reorganised by this time. They have done their job excellently, but I will leave to my hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Secretary, the question of avoidable overcrowding, which I very much doubt.

In regard to the vacant places, and the rigidity of which he speaks, the hon. Gentleman opposite must know that this authority set up, under the Education Act of 1944, an examination board which, in my opinion, is a model for examination boards in this country. It has on it representatives of grammar schools, primary schools, the Ministry, the authority's officials, and of the authority itself. I know the work of that examination board. It has secured what I believe has been secured by few other authorities in this country—complete equality of opportunity for secondary education for every child in the area, whether it be in a one-teacher or a two-teacher school, or a big urban school. That, hon. Members will agree, is a triumph in itself for a completely democratically elected board. Secondly, it has set for entrance such a wide standard, that it has increased the number of children in the grammar schools, under the Butler Act by 10 per cent. since 1939. It is the 11 plus group with which we have to deal and it is that group with which the hon. Member opposite should be most concerned. 16.8 per cent. of the children of this group in the North Riding are receiving grammar school education. In the particular area of which he speaks—the Yorebridge area—the figure is 19 per cent., and that is a remarkably high percentage of children in a rural area receiving grammar school education. This authority has pursued the wise policy of seeing that no child shall, if it is thought fit for grammar school education by the examination board, be denied that education.

There is, therefore, not a single child in the North Riding that is eligible for grammar school education by the set standard who is not receiving it. The examination has been so well devised because the authority were determined that every child needing grammar school education should have it, and where there is not sufficient accommodation, such as at Saltburn Girls' High School, they have immediately provided increased accommodation. They have never taken the view that the number of children going into the grammar schools shall be determined by accommodation, but rather that no child shall be denied grammar school education because of lack of accommodation.

This, when all is said and done, is a Tory-dominated Education Committee and one for which I have the greatest admiration. It has had a very fine chairman for many, many years in Sir Bedford Dorman, who I am sure will be most hurt by some of the remarks which have been made tonight, and a very able, energetic, and imaginative chief education officer. I cannot help wondering really what the hon. Member's forbears, who were really very distinguished local government men, would think if they had heard his speech tonight in which the hon. Member is urging interference by a central Government Department in the work of a very efficient local governing body.

Above all, I cannot understand how he will explain to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) how he is daring to suggest that this Education Authority should lower its standard for admission to grammar schools, because that is what he is seeking to do. Yet nobody in this House has pleaded more for maintaining the quality of grammar school entrants than the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden, and we have been delighted to hear him say it. It is really shocking at this stage, with an authority with such a fine record, that the hon. Member should come forward and suggest that this authority should be compelled to lower the standard of admission for children into grammar schools. I can think of only one reason, which is that the General Election is getting very near.

11.32 p.m.

Major Sir Thomas Dugdale (Richmond)

I did not propose to intervene in this Debate, but the whole House ought to be grateful to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) for raising this point. There is no question of party politics in this business at all. The North Riding is very perturbed about the situation and now the hon. Member for York (Mr. Corlett) tries to bring in party advantage which never entered the mind of any Member.

Mr. Corlett

I do not know why the hon. Baronet should get so excited. Did I not say it was a Tory Committee? Did I not say it was a fine Committee? Did I not give it every possible bouquet from a political point of view? I am merely trying to understand why the hon. Member should bring this matter forward in this House when he could just as easily bring it forward—

Sir T. Dugdale

Because there is great disquiet in the North Riding about the whole position.

Mr. Corlett

There may be great disquiet although I think it is being gravely exaggerated and I regret that the hon. Member has seen fit to pillory his own very efficient local education authority in this matter tonight.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Spearman (Scarborough and Whitby)

In my constituency, in the town of Whitby, in the same education area, there is a school with eight vacancies. I do not feel at this stage, when the Government are unable to erect buildings, that it is right and proper there should be children deprived of the right of that education. I do sympathise with the education authorities who want to maintain a high standard but I very much wonder whether because a child is two points below a hundred or two points over a hundred, it can make all that difference. I feel at this time, when there is such a desperate shortage, that a more wide-minded policy should be adopted. I hope the Minister will make it clear to us that it is his wish that we shall be able to have a more liberal administration in the North Riding.

11.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Hardman)

I want to remind Members that this is not a party political question at all. What, in fact, matters is the education of the children.

Sir T. Dugdale

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hardman

I want to say also that I support the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), and the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Corlett)—in two respects—firstly the excellence of the standards maintained at these three grammar schools at Thirsk, Easingwold and Yore-bridge, and secondly the excellence of the North Riding Authority, whatever its political complexion may be.

Mr. Spearman

And the Whitby School also.

Mr. Hardman

I was not expecting the question of the Whitby School to be raised, but I am certain from what I know of it, that its standards equal those of the other grammar schools I have already mentioned. But I am afraid I cannot agree with the figures given by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton of the vacant places at the three grammar schools with which he has been concerned.

At Thirsk, the entry for this autumn is 119, at Easingwold it is 82 and at Yorebridge 96, leaving the total number of vacant places at these three grammar schools this term at 17. I agree that does not answer the case put forward. In my view so long as there are these 17 vacancies we have to ask ourselves the reason why they are there. Undoubtedly and here I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for York, there is overcrowding in some of the schools. That is beside the point. Children are being taught in some schools which are overcrowded, and in some schools in which classes are too large, and we should do everything to reduce the size of classes and to help the education of children, but I am not prepared to allow any question of administrative tidiness to get in the way of the proper education of the children.

There are these 17 vacant places. In 1939, there was overcrowding at the three grammar schools. At Thirsk, there were 133 pupils instead of the present capacity of 120. At Easingwold, there were 96 instead of 90 and at Yorebridge 121 instead of 104. I think it is agreed from information I have that some of these pupils in attendance at these three grammar schools at that time were of an academic standard which today would not merit admission to grammar schools. It is said that the grammar schools are insisting on the maintenance of the highest standards. There is an academic case to be made out for the highest possible standard of selection where the school population is there to take the test. But I must confess I am extremely dubious of the adequacy of even the finest intelligence test I have seen and investigated to decide the academic life of a child on an examination taken at the age of 11 plus. I have yet to be convinced of the complete adequacy of that test.

The position of the local education authority in the North Riding is precisely as my hon. Friend the Member for York has said. They have created one of the finest educational tests for children at the age of 11 plus which could be found anywhere in the country. There are a variety of tests employed by a variety of authorities, and this is one of the very best so far evolved. The local education authority has certainly got the right ideals of grammar school academic standards, and insists on maintaining the highest standards possible. Admission to grammar schools in the North Riding compares favourably with admission in other areas—13.5 grammar school pupils per thousand of the local population in that area, while the average for England and Wales is 12.1.

In the country generally there is no evidence that there is an excess of grammar school places over pupils. Indeed, the evidence is much to the contrary. Perhaps it is inevitable in large county areas that the problem of the odd unfilled vacancy should occur so long as local education authorities refuse, and properly refuse, to depress their admission standards for the benefit of a few. However, I have had some experience in my own local government life with these tests at 11 plus and I must say that it is extremely hard on children who are one or two marks below a certain standard which has been fixed, to be refused admission. Certainly I would say that from the point of view of the child it is almost criminal that where vacancies occur, and' it is a question of being one or two marks below a certain standard, those vacancies are not filled even by going a few marks below the standard.

In answering this Debate I am prepared to admit much of what has been said on both sides of the House but from the point of view of the education of the child I believe that there should be flexibility in this matter.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.