HC Deb 04 April 1951 vol 486 cc335-46

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

9.58 p.m.

Mr. Maudling (Barnet)

The question I want to raise tonight refers to St. Andrew's School, Totteridge. Although this is a matter that relates primarily to a particular school it may well be of general interest, and I hope in the course of the arguments that I shall bring forward that the general application of the principles involved may become a little apparent.

St. Andrew's School is a junior mixed infants' school and is an aided school. It is, in fact, the only grant-aided school in the Totteridge district. It was built about 1939 and the school buildings are of a remarkably high standard. It is really a magnificent school. It was designed originally for 150 pupils and it is now regarded by the local education authority as suitable for the education of 170 pupils. Already, the school population is exceeding 170 and it is climbing quite steeply. The number at present is a little over 190, and in a year or two it will exceed 200. The number is moving upward and it is becoming a very urgent matter to provide additional school—

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Maudling

It is becoming a matter of great urgency to provide additional school accommodation in this area. I will give two examples. In the first instance, accommodation in the school is cramped. In one case at any rate two classes are having to share the same classroom, which is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs, while there is a considerable waiting period of five months, which will probably be extended, before children of five can enter the school.

The reasons for the overcrowding are, broadly speaking, two in number. The first is the natural growth of the population within the existing area which the school serves. The second is that in this type of area the weight of taxation in recent years has forced a number of parents, who would otherwise have paid for their children's education at private schools, to send them to grant-aided schools. For those two main reasons the school is overcrowded. It is not a question of the school trying to perform different functions or serving a wider area. It is the natural growth of the population and the pressure of economic circumstances that cause the school at the moment to be thoroughly overcrowded. It is a matter of some urgency that new provisions should be made.

There are two ways in which this problem can be met. Either the school can be extended or a new school built in the same district. The local education authority, considering the alternatives, in the first instance were inclined to support the erection of a new school, but, subsequently, they have changed their minds and now the local education authority agree that an enlarged school would be the best solution. I should like for a moment or two to examine the implications of these two alternatives—the extension of the existing school or the building of a new one.

As to the first of the educational implications, if a new school were built it would be a half form entry school, which I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary would agree is not a satisfactory solution. On the other hand, if the present school were extended to take a school population of about 240, which is generally agreed as the maximum existing school population in this area, that would provide a school unit which would be the right size for a junior mixed infant school in this area. The educational arguments in favour of an extension rather than the building of a new school are very strong.

Next, there are the economic implications. I am advised by the local education authority that the building of a new school would cost about £25,000 and the cost of the extension would be only £10,000. Of that sum £5,000 would be borne by the managers and the church authorities. Looking at it from the point of view of the national economy, it is the difference between £25,000 and £10,000, and from the point of view of the public purse the difference between £25,000 and £5,000. In these days when estimates are rising and there is the immense need to develop the maximum economy, surely it is very important not to spend £25,000 for an inferior article when a much better article, educationally speaking, would be got for £10,000 or £5,000 to the public purse.

There is the further point of the cost of maintenance. Obviously, it must be more expensive in overheads to maintain two schools to do the job which one school could do. If a new school is built, the public purse will be responsible for not only the interior maintenance but also the exterior maintenance, whereas if the present school is extended the whole of the exterior maintenance will continue to fall on the managers and ony the interior maintenance on the public purse. It is irrefutable that from the economic point of view the extension of the existing school is far better than the building of a new school. I do not think that the Minister will challenge—I hope he will not—that on both educational and economic grounds there are very strong arguments for extending the existing school.

There is a further point in favour of the extension alternative, and that is local public opinion. A poll was taken by the local ratepayers' association, which distributed a form of voting paper to every household in the district. The returns showed an overwhelming measure of support for the extension of the existing school. The very large number of people who took the trouble to return the form showed conclusively that the great majority of the local people wished to have the extension rather than the new school. The case for the extension, therefore, rests on the grounds of educational advantage, economic advantage and the desires and wishes of the population in the district.

The attitude of the Minister is that, while he is prepared to approve this school as part of the development plan for the area, he is not prepared to make any grant under the Education Act, 1944, towards the' cost of the extension because, under Section 67 (4) of the Act, he has deemed the extension to be sufficient to represent a new school. As far as I can see, it is entirely at the discretion of the Minister to decide that. He says that he believes the extension to be such as to constitute the construction of an entirely new school and that he is thereby precluded from making any grant whatsoever. That is the point to which I wish to direct the Minister's attention.

How can this extension represent a new school? The school remains the same entity. It has the same individual and organic life that any school develops over the period of its existence. It has the same buildings and the same site; it serves the same homes; it will draw children from the same district; it will serve children of precisely the same ages, it will provide precisely the same curriculum, and there will be no change in the school managers, the headmaster, the staff or the name of the school. How, therefore, can the Minister argue that in those circumstances the extension proposed to the physical building constitutes the changing of the existing school into a new school? One could raise many metaphysical arguments about when the change of an article produces a new article. In studying philosophy I was always interested in the problem of how long one had to darn an existing sock before the darning constituted a new sock.

Mr. Logan (Liverpool, Scotland Division)

Can the hon. Member tell me whether, if the school is not built, there will be accommodation in the neighbourhood for the children?

Mr. Maudling

No. I was trying to make that point. The school population is already 194, while the accommodation available is suitable for only 170, and the school population will rise over the next few years to about 240. I do not see how in the normal usage of the English language an extension of that kind can be described as changing the existing school into a new school. I hope the Minister will answer that point.

What are the criteria on which this judgment is based? What is the fact which determines when an extension becomes a new school? After all, a school is a living entity, it has a life of its own, an individual existence of its own. How can a new school come into being unless some radical change is made either in the staff or the numbers or the scope or the type or the curriculum or something that really affects the life of the school itself? On what grounds has the Minister decided that this extension constitutes a new school?

The consequences of the decision of the Minister are these. He has decided in what appears to me to be his unfettered discretion—I cannot see that he is compelled by the Act to decide one way or the other—that this constitutes a new school and that, therefore, he cannot make any grant. He may say that if the local population feels so strongly why should they not, instead of putting up £5,000, put up the whole £10,000? That is not practicable. Five thousand pounds is a large sum of money to raise, and it should be remembered that this school was built as recently as 1939 at the expense of the district, and a very fine and expensive school building it was.

To raise the whole £10,000, in my opinion and in the opinion of the managers, would not be practicable nor would they feel justified in asking the local public to provide the whole cost of the extension, bearing in mind all the circumstances which I have been trying to explain. Therefore, the result of the decision of the Minister that he cannot make a grant of £5,000 towards the extension of the school will be that a new school will have to be built at a cost of £25,000 to the public purse, national and local combined.

The Minister may argue that if he were prepared to agree in this case that the extension did not constitute a new school, this would be setting a precedent which would have to be followed in many other cases. I do not consider that to be a good argument. It is only a good argument insofar as the other cases he has in mind are exactly similar to this one. If the other cases he has in mind are not exactly similar, his argument does not apply. If they are exactly similar then in those cases as well he must have this combination of circumstances; that it is educationally desirable to have an extension rather than a new school, that it is economically desirable to have an extension rather than a new school, and that public opinion locally favours this alternative. If those three conditions are fulfilled I suggest that in all other cases as well it is obviously the duty of the Minister to determine that this is an extension, not a new school, and to agree to provide a 50 per cent. grant towards the development.

To sum up, this is a local problem but one of keen and intense interest to the people living in the Totteridge area and its implications stretch beyond the im- mediate neighbourhood. The argument rests on three points: that we have to decide between an extension of an existing school and the building of a new school; that on educational grounds it is better to extend the existing school to a size which will permit a 240—that is a one form—entry rather than to build a new school on a wholly unsatisfactory basis with a half form entry; that on grounds of national and local economy it is better to have a £10,000 extension than a £25,000 new building, and that local opinion has expressed itself strongly in favour of the extension rather than a new building.

The Minister has discretion under Section 67 (4) to decide whether or not this constitutes a new building. He has so far determined, for reasons which I have not been able to understand and which have not been explained, that this is to be regarded as a new building. The effects of such a decision are that a lot of money will be wasted in producing a new school which the people in the district do not want. If that is the inevitable result of the present legislation it is about time that we had some new legislation.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Logan (Liverpool, Scotland Division)

A principle is at stake here, and before the Minister gives any decision I should like him seriously to consider the point. This school problem has been a very great problem for many years. I have never spoken to the hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) and only heard his views as he expressed them a few moments ago, but the principle at issue applies also to schools in other constituencies.

I believe that the school in question is a Church school and is aided. Those living in the area have a right to obtain education at the school. If there is an influx of children into the area, the inhabitants have a right to have a school to meet their requirements. Therefore, either a State-aided or other school must be provided. The children are already in the district, and for the life of me I cannot understand why a new building has to be put up when an extension to the existing school at a cost of £5,000 or £6,000 would meet the difficulty.

This problem will come up again at a very early date, and I should like my hon. Friend, before he gives a decision, seriously to consider the possibility of granting permission for an extension to an existing school where the demands for education make this necessary. It would take me a long time to deal with the question of education, and I do not intend to do so now. I simply make the observation at this stage that there is something more far-reaching at issue than appears on the surface. I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Barnet, who has raised this matter, and I hope that the Minister will be equally sympathetic.

10.17 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) knows that the question which he has raised tonight is a problem which in one form or another has been before us and before the parents and children of his constituency since the beginning of 1949. The hon. Member has been actively interested in the matter by correspondence and by Parliamentary Questions for the last six months. This, therefore, is an opportunity for me to explain to him and to the House why the decision which he questions has been made.

It is a fundamental principle of the Education Act that, subject to certain special considerations, grant is not paid on the new provision of voluntary schools but is paid on improvements and certain repairs in existing schools. This makes it essential that somebody should decide at what stage the enlargement of an existing denominational school becomes new provision. It is obvious that, although some bodies would like it to be so, all the minor enlargements cannot be regarded as mere additions to existing provision and therefore eligible for grant. If all such minor enlargements could be treated in that way, managers or governing bodies could add two or three classrooms in one year, one or two in the following year, another classroom or two in the year after that, and so on. In the end, they could get a whole school built through a series of minor enlargements—as the official jargon puts it, this "creeping enlargement."

There is nothing new in the principle which is being questioned tonight. My right hon. Friend is acting upon a prin- ciple which has been part of Education Acts since 1918 and, as far as my researches go, possibly as far back as 1902. The President of the one-time Board of Education had all this to decide in certain cases—whether enlargement of an existing voluntary school meant the provision of a new school. Obviously it would be unfair to act upon a rule of thumb or upon a yardstick, and therefore my right hon. Friend takes into account all the circumstances in particular cases. Each case is judged on its merits and not according to a set formula. For example, my right hon. Friend has to consider the extent of the enlargement, and how many classrooms, which in turn depends upon the size of the original school. Other recent additions must be taken into consideration. He must take into account the effect of such enlargements on the character of the school. Such enlargements might change its nature and its purpose, and therefore, would make it absurd to say that it was just an enlargement.

That is the background from which the Ministerial decision emerges, so we come at once to the particular example about which the hon. Gentleman has been speaking tonight, the school at St. Andrew's, Totteridge. The numbers have risen from 75 to a peak of 193 and the school was given aided status on 1st March. 1950.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

For what period?

Mr. Hardman

The period was from 1939 to 5th February of this year. The proposal is that the school should become a one-form entry junior and infants' school with a full size of seven classes, which means 280 pupils as a total enrolment. The suggestion which was rejected was the proposal of the earlier managers for a new county infants' school to be provided, leaving St. Andrew's to provide for the juniors.

My right hon. Friend has considered whether the proposal constitutes a new school within the meaning of Section 67 (4) of the Act of 1944. Neither he nor I would dispute that the enlargement of St. Andrew's School would be the most satisfactory solution from the educational point of view and from the point of view of economics, although I cannot agree with the figures which have been given the House tonight. I am not prepared to admit that the cost to public funds would be anything like as low as £5,000 and that the difference would be an expenditure between £5,000 and £25,000. My information, given approximately, would point to the fact mat the sum at stake will be considerably more than £5,000 or the gross expenditure of £10,000 which the hon. Gentleman mentioned this evening.

At the same time, on educational grounds and form the point of view of some economy there is undoubtedly a case, although I am bound to admit that this is not the point of the decision which has been made. My right hon. Friend has to abide by the parent Education Act, 1944. He has to abide by the principles enumerated thereunder, although it is true, as the hon. Member said, that he has full freedom to consider each case on its merits without the use of a formula. I cannot do more than quote the answer already given to the hon. Member on 15th February last. My right hon. Friend said: In determining such questions I take into account all the circumstances, including the proposed increase in numbers in relation to the size of the school, any recent previous enlargement, and any consequential change in the character of the school."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1951; Vol. 484, c. 592.]

Mr. Maudling

How could he possibly take into account previous enlargements in considering whether the present addition constitutes a new school compared with the present building?

Mr. Hardman

For the reason I have already given, that previous additions to the school must be taken into consideration. Otherwise, there would be sufficient additions over a period of years to constitute a new school.

Mr. Maudling

Surely the word "new" in the Act of 1944 means new compared with the status quo in 1944?

Mr. Hardman

That may be, and I am not prepared to argue the definition of the word "new" as employed in that Act. But in the consideration of this case, we have tried to weigh up, within the responsibility which the Minister has to legislation made by Parliament, the various issues that are at stake, and to take into consideration not only the local feeling which my hon. Friend has mentioned but also the consequential change, from the additions that have been made, in the character of the school.

Again, it must be admitted that it is extremely difficult now, as it has been in the past, to deal with the case of the school slowly increasing in numbers and overcrowding its existing premises and then building to accommodate the increased numbers adequately. But the general principle involved in this case is clearly stated in words used by my right hon. Friend in the Estimates debate of last May, when he said that the fundamental principle of the 1944 settlement was that public money should be available to assist the Churches to provide up-to-date accommodation for the pupils already attending voluntary schools, but that no public money should be available for the provision of new and additional Church school accommodation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1925.] It follows, whether this principle is right or wrong, that there must be some way of setting a limit to alterations for which managers or governers receive grant under Section 102. Such means of setting a limit I have tried to explain in dealing with the case that has been raised tonight.

Mr. Logan

Was that not applicable only to new schools but not to an extension of an existing school?

Mr. Hardman

No, the agreement reached was an agreement which concerned all denominational schools, and the Minister is, under the Act, bound by the compromise then reached and incorporated in the Act of 1944. If there is to be a change either through administration or amending legislation, it must be a change that affects all denominations and not simply one.

Mr. Maudling

Does the settlement to which the hon. Gentleman refers limit in any way the discretion given to the Minister under Section 67?

Mr. Hardman

No. The Minister, as has been pointed out, has this discretion, but he has to consider every case on its merits, and he is obviously limited by what the Act allows him to do. Viewing this case sympathetically, he has come to the conclusion that he cannot accede to the views expressed by the hon. Member for Barnet or of those who from an educational point of view, etc., made the point put to the hon. Member in his constituency.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

We have certainly had a very disappointing reply. I should have thought that the overriding reason for the discretion given to the Minister was so that he could take into account the economic needs of the country at any particular time. I should have thought that the Parliamentary Secretary's admission that this extension could be brought about with a great saving of money compared with the cost of building a new school would have been the consideration which ought to have been at the top of the list of priorities in making this decision. While the Parliamentary Secretary did not agree with the figure of £5,000 as against £25,000 for a new school, he admitted that there would be quite a big difference, if not of the £20,000 mentioned by my right hon. Friend. I should like to feel even now—

The Question having been proposed at 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 at Half-past Ten o'Clock.