HC Deb 26 July 1950 vol 478 cc645-54

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

1.7 a.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

In view of the recent atmosphere of "guns before butter" it may be felt that we shall soon be in the position of having "guns before schools," but I should like to speak of the kind of schools we should like to have in which to educate our youngsters for a full life in our democratic society. We still have a class system in education. A fortunate few can still buy their education at fee-paying independent public schools.

The vast majority of our youngsters, however, enter school at five, and at 10½ they face, on one catastrophic day, the special place scholarship examination, and by that examination they are graded into academic or modern or technical types of education. By this test, the best pass on to academic or grammar school education. Those who are not quite so good go on to a technical secondary school. Those who are left behind go to the modern secondary school. These have done magnificent work in the last few years, but parents still look upon them with disfavour and would very much sooner have their children go to the academic or grammar schools.

Some of us are opposed to the examination at 10½ and to this threefold division of education. We say that the special place examination casts a shadow, like the atomic bomb almost, over the life of the junior school, and we consider it a sin against the spirit that happy, carefree youngsters should have to begin work for this examination at the age of nine. Also, despite the efficiency of intelligence tests, we do not concede that at the age of 10½ we can efficiently and with infallibility, grade youngsters into the academic, modern and technical divisions. There are many late developers who cannot be determined at that age. The Leader of the Opposition might have come in that category as he was a late developer. He would have missed the boat, perhaps, under this system some years ago.

Thirdly, we do not favour this tripartite system because one in perhaps eight of the sons and daughters of the working-classes are segregated and go off to this academic or grammar school education. They enjoy better amenities, have different caps and blazers, and all too often they feel that they are different from the youngsters they have left behind. This, in some instances, tends to embellish snobbery, which is all too common today. We feel that the school should be a microcosm of the adult society. We ought not to split up and segregate our youngsters at this early age.

We should like our secondary schools to be, as our junior schools are, comprehensive, or common schools, for all the youngsters in a given geographical area, in a given catchment area. At the age of 11 years, the children should all go on to this common, or comprehensive, school. There they would spend two diagnostic years doing common subjects, and when they were 13 or 14 years of age, we would sort and divide them for specialised divisions. They would then go on to their classics, modern languages, pure science, and the like.

There are objections to these common, or comprehensive, schools. They are objected to, firstly, on the score of size. It is said that schools of 1,000 or more youngsters are much too big. Sheer size does not daunt me. I am consoled when I see schools like Eton, or the Manchester Grammar School, which to my mind have many of the attributes of the comprehensive school, and which in size are getting on towards 1,400 scholars. In many people's minds there is confusion and misunderstanding about the difference between the comprehensive and the multilateral school.

The multilateral school is simply the old tripartite system in disguise. I would suggest that in such schools one has the academic block, the modern block, and the technical block in separate buildings on the same campus, and that the scholars merely enjoy mutual amenities, such as playing fields, swimming pools, and sometimes a school canteen. We should like to see more comprehensive schools where the youngsters are in the same building, take part in the same timetable, wear the same blazers, pass on to the same old boys' association, and where they feel that they have the same school life. Having attended such a school, they will feel, later in life, that they have belonged to a homogenous society.

Rightly or wrongly, there is a strong feeling among many hon. Members on this side of the House that the Ministry has been very unenthusiastic in its acceptance of this comprehensive, or common, secondary school idea. In support of this, I would quote pamphlets which I have here. If there is confusion over this, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can correct us. I have "The New Secondary Education," in which pamphlet there are some 37 pages. In it there is a detailed description of the three types of school. But there is only half a page suggesting that we should combine the three types of school into one school. I cannot find the word "comprehensive," or "multilateral" there at all.

In Circular 144, paragraph 11, it is stated that it seems likely that the comprehensive school may settle down to an organisation very little different from the multilateral school; its size must be about the same, and the number must be about 1,500 to 1,700 boys and girls. Since this paragraph shows a complete misunderstanding, and since Circular 144 is the yardstick by which development plans are measured, will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us tonight that his right hon. Friend will consider having this Circular re-issued with that paragraph removed, or, perhaps, materially altered? In "Our Changing Schools," another booklet issued on behalf of the Ministry of Education the term "comprehensive school or multilateral school" is confused on page 39.

Lastly, in this connection of confusion in terms, counties like Middlesex, and London, among others, which are quoted as examples of comprehensive school planning. In this instance, the schools are based on a selective basis. In Walsall, for example, which is given as a sample, one finds that the "best" girls have gone to the girls' high school and those not so good by intelligence testing, have gone to the comprehensive school. Will the Parliamentary Secretary give me an example of comprehensive schools functioning today, six years after the 1944 Act, which meets his own definition of what a comprehensive school should be? The only authorities which have a genuine comprehensive school plan, such as Coventry, Oldham, and Southend, have not yet built a new school, nor got the comprehensive school functioning in the correct sense of the term.

I have spoken as temperately as I can on a subject on which I feel very keenly indeed, both as an hon. Member of this House and as a teacher. Both the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) and Mr. Lester Smith, of Manchester, have made it clear themselves that, since 1944 the Minister has had statutory power to give direction to local education authorities in education policy. I do not want to have a uniform educational system; that is alien to our English beliefs but it is my hope and desire that the Minister will wholeheartedly encourage local education authorities to experiment, wherever possible, in this new type of comprehensive secondary school.

1.18 a.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised this subject tonight. It is an important question, but I have a few very straight things to say in answer to the remarks which he has made. It is quite untrue to say that the Minister, or his Department, discourages the establishment of comprehensive schools. My hon. Friend has quoted from Circular 144, and I would therefore ask him to turn to that paragraph which reads: … sought to make it perfectly clear that he welcomes a variety of approach to the new problem of secondary education for all; he appreciates to the full the social and other benefits expected from the more comprehensive types of organisation, and he is only concerned to ensure that all such plans are consistent with sound educational principles and practice and that the best existing standards will be maintained and, indeed, raised. My hon. Friend referred to the pamphlet "The New Secondary Education," Chapter V of which states that secondary education of whatever type must be able to provide for the full development of its pupils, since this is a vital part of the new plan for secondary education for all. It goes on: The Minister desires to lay down no set guides for organisation but to encourage local authorities to plan as best suits their local needs. Looking at Circular 144 or "The New Secondary Education," there is nothing to warrant the suggestion that my right hon. Friend or his Department discourages the setting up of comprehensive schools. When local education authorities have proposed comprehensive schools on a basis that seemed sound educationally, my right hon. Friend has welcomed these suggestions. A comprehensive school has been established in Walsall. In Middlesex there are three and in London, on an experimental basis, four. Development plans which have been approved include proposals for over 100 comprehensive or multilateral schools.

Mr. Garner-Evans (Denbigh)

Is there one in Anglesey?

Mr. Hardman

No, there is not. Where we have felt on educational grounds that a comprehensive school in a development plan was not warranted, we have sent the plan back with our comments and have asked for further consideration.

It seems to be imagined by some people that the Ministry of Education ought not to be so dictatorial, but I should have thought it was one of the purposes of the Ministry of Education, on receiving a development plan, if it had comments to make upon certain aspects of it, to send it back to the local authority, as it has done in the case of Staffordshire, and to ask it to consider certain comments of the Ministry. This is surely one of the purposes of the Ministry, and my right hon. Friend should be entitled to comment upon development plans and to ask for further consideration.

There has been no discouragement whatever on the part of the Ministry of Education in regard to comprehensive schools. We have considered that the comprehensive school should work economically—and economics do come into it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) has agreed in opening the Debate.

We have suggested that the best formula is to have two grammar streams and two technical streams, which implies a six- or seven-stream modern course. That means 1,200 to 1,600 boys and girls. But to encourage experiment, my Department is not doctrinaire about the size of these schools. I would remind my hon. Friend that we have already approved comprehensive schools of 737, 525, 713, and 990 in size. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Rugby emphasised what is, indeed, our view, that we do not want to formalise education in this country. It has grown up through experimentation and some of the best experiments have, in my view, taken place in this century in the primary schools.

Therefore, it would be, I think, an unwarranted attack upon the liberty of local education authorities to attempt to say to them—or try to use any powers which the Minister possesses—"You must have a particular kind of education in your area."

There is no question of political parties being aggrieved one way or the other in this respect. In my own constituency, we have now, with the support of my own Labour supporters, agreed to bilateral schools in the development plans. There are bilateral schools of every combination possible in the development plans, as well as suggestions in other development plans for comprehensive schools and multilateral schools. In other words, I should have thought that the Ministry was following the time-honoured tradition of educational development of this country in refusing to impose from the centre, and in deciding that there should be experimentation where the local authorities, according to the needs of their own areas, decide they want a particular type of school.

So it is with comprehensive schools. Where the development plans propose that, in order to suit their particular administrative areas, there should be comprehensive schools, then those comprehensive schools are allowed.

Miss Bacon (Leeds, North-East)

How would my hon. Friend reconcile that with the Staffordshire example, which he himself has mentioned, where Stafford wanted 25 comprehensive schools and only three have been approved?

Mr. Hardman

The hon. Lady knows the answer to that, because I have already given it to her in private.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (Ayrshire, South)

I should like to know, too.

Mr. Hardman

The answer is that the Staffordshire development plan has come to the Ministry and we have made our comments upon that plan, and it has been sent back to the local authority for their views in the light of our comments. I should have thought that that was the democratic and educated way to approach the progress of education. After all, as I have already stated, the Minister of Education has his duty and his responsibility to fulfil and when the development plans come to the Ministry of Education, it is his business to make his comments and then ask for further reconsideration.

Mention was made in the hon. Member's speech of methods of selection. He referred to the tripartite division of boys and girls at 11-plus into secondary modern, secondary technical, and secondary grammar. I should be the last person to say that was a perfect method of selection; but I do want to say that we are not producing a large proportion of misfits.

In any case, if one does have the comprehensive school, are we sure that we are going to eradicate these invidious social distinctions which have been implied in the speech of my hon. Friend? After all, one can quote the distinguished educationist, Dr. Kandel, of Columbia University. He referred to his experience of Scottish education, which is always set up to us as a kind of ideal the English ought to follow. Quite frankly, I do not believe that kind of stuff.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Neither do 1.

Mr. Hardman

I think that when we read reports on primary education and secondary education in Scotland, we can congratulate ourselves in England and Wales upon having made several very practical advances which now are, in Scotland, rather in the realm of theory. Certainly, in commenting upon Scottish education, which is being set up as a carrot to our educational noses in England, we find Dr. Kandel saying: … the headmasters of large Scottish schools providing both grammar and practical courses, found that when they recommended a pupil for the grammar course, parental consent was readily forthcoming, although the same was not true when the practical course was suggested. In other words, the same roof had not, in fact, had the effect of producing parity of esteem. Commenting also upon something of which I have had some experience, that is to say, the large comprehensive or multilateral school of the United States of America, Dr. Kandel goes on to quote examples of American schools and suggests that in attempting to cater for all types, they have in fact catered for the average; or, as it is said, the multilateral school is "too fast for the slow, and too slow for the fast." In other words, the view of the Minister is quite a sensible one. By all means let us have experimentation and comprehensive schools in any area which requires them; but let us see to it that experiment starts on the best possible basis, and with the best possible advantages. And, after a few years, if we find this is successful, then let us do our very best, by the example of success, to persuade other authorities that they should follow the very good example that has been set.

But here, in the present stage of secondary education for all, when we have some suggesting bilaterals, some suggesting multilaterals, and others suggesting comprehensive schools, surely it is traditional in the history of British education that we should experiment, and follow what proves to be the practical best. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this interesting subject, but I am not prepared to agree, simply on doctrinaire principles, that what appears to be right in a blue-print is necessarily going to work in all the varying educational conditions in England and Wales.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Eight Minutes to Two o'clock a.m.