HC Deb 19 December 1952 vol 509 cc1885-96

3.45 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I am most grateful for the opportunity of being able to raise the case of Mr. Gammon, but before doing so I cannot refrain from congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health upon the resolution with which she read her brief, undeterred by the clock or by any argument which had been advanced.

Mr. Gommon, about whom I want to talk, is a master of the Northampton Grammar School and he was engaged as art master in 1945. At that time the Grammar School was an independent foundation; they could select their own masters and take their own views about their qualifications. They engaged Mr. Gommon because they thought be would be a good art master, and they were successful in their choice, for he turned out to be an outstanding schoolmaster. The headmaster, Mr. Nettleton, tells me that when he took over the art department of the Northampton Grammar School it was practically derelict. Since then it has been changed into one of the most successful departments in the school.

The results of his students have been outstandingly good. I believe the examination results have compared favourably with any comparable establishment in the country. To quote a single example, of the 12 prizes open to all England offered by the Royal Institute of British Architects—12 prizes in four years—Mr. Gommon's pupils have taken five, including two firsts. Apart from that—and I think this is an example which shows his capacity to inspire—a new dining room was provided for the school which had one wall with a surface area of 177 feet and four other walls with areas of 73 feet, and in their spare time Mr. Gommon's pupils covered all the walls with fresco. That involved the cartoons, the squaring, getting it on to the surface and the sheer physical achievement of covering that area—quite a formidable task. I do not put myself forward as a judge of art, but as a layman I certainly think that any other layman who saw that wall would say that it was a most remarkable and most attractive achievement. It does indicate a capacity to inspire, which I believe is amongst the most important qualifications a schoolmaster can have.

Apart altogether from this, he is a man who does not stop at his particular subject. He runs the Grammar School's cadet corps. He runs the school theatricals, painting the scenery and producing the plays. Simply as a schoolmaster, the headmaster tells me that Mr. Gommon is second to none amongst his assistants. I would say further that he has an important influence, not merely within the school, but upon the whole life of Northampton.

Northampton, from an artistic point of view, is a most interesting place. We have recently acquired Graham Sutherland's "Crucifixion," Moore's "Virgin and Child," and Dobson's "Woman with a Fish." There is for some reason or accident an artistic renaissance in that town which it is rather exciting to be in. There have been a number of exhibitions of local painters, and Mr. Gommon has played an outstanding part in inspiring that general movement in the town.

But despite all these outstanding claims, he is not qualified. He had not the qualifications necessary when he was engaged, and because he is not qualified the governors are not authorised to pay him according to the Burnham Scale. That is the difference. It affects his pay. They can have him there, and he can run his department. His department expanded so that an assistant had to be employed. That assistant had done a year's course provided by the Ministry. This assistant draws £50 a year more than his chief, because his chief is not qualified. And so the question of qualification has to be considered, and the qualification which was decided upon is called the National Diploma of Design.

I do not know much about that. It is an examination which is part written, and partly consists of painting—submitting paintings to a board which consists of some distinguished artists, two Academicians, the manager of an advertising agency, and one or two other gentlemen. Mr. Gommon on four occasions has passed the written part with ease, and on four occasions he has been rejected upon the ground that he does not paint well enough.

The irony of that decision is that Mr. Gommon happens to be a rather distinguished artist. When he might have been getting the Ministry of Education qualification he was earning his living as an artist. He will be found, his work referred to, in any of the standard books on art dealing with art in this country in the 'thirties. In Wertheim's book—Mr. Wertheim of the Wertheim Galleries, a very well known authority on this subject—in Mr. Wertheim's well known book, "Adventure in Art," a whole chapter is devoted to the art of Mr. Gommon. Yet he is a man who cannot paint well enough to draw the Burnham Scale salary in a grammar school. He has held two one-man exhibitions in London. This is what "The Observer" art commentator, Jan Gordon, had to say about one of them—the first exhibition: Gommon, not yet 20, displays the power and authority of painters of 20 years' standing. Such virtuosity at so early an age tempts one to wait and see what he will do later. He has plenty of time in which to receive his mede of encomium. His works have been bought for public exhibition by no fewer than six galleries in four countries. After all, public galleries buying works of arts have to advise them bodies at least as authoritative as the Ministry's examiners. They consider not merely whether a man has the competence to teach in a grammar school, but also whether his works of art are of such importance as to be bought with public money for permanent exhibition. Six such panels from four countries have decided that Mr. Gommon's art complies with this higher test.

I have seen his paintings, and I was most anxious that hon. Members should do so. I therefore arranged for Members to see his paintings here yesterday, and 160 Members, including several Members of the Government, went to see them. I am sorry that neither the Minister of Education nor the Parliamentary Secretary, although they were specifically invited and informed—

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

Oh, no. Since the hon. and learned Gentleman says that, perhaps I might say that I will say what I have to say about this when it is my turn, and I would never hang a dead dog on my memory, but unless I am more than usually off my rocker, I heard nothing whatsoever about any specific showing until I read an account in the "News Chronicle" a very short time ago.

Mr. Paget

I am awfully sorry, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will take this up with his Ministry, because I telephoned his Ministry and particularly requested that both he and his chief, the Minister, be informed and invited. I am exceedingly sorry if that invitation was not conveyed to him, but I took pains to do that. Since the pictures are still in the House, I hope the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to see them after this debate. It will be with great pleasure that I shall show them to him.

I think every Member who saw them—and I talked to a tremendous number—was greatly impressed by the obvious artistic competence of Mr. Gommon. Some liked his work more than others, but there was complete unanimity—and I do not think there is room for any other opinion—that this was a most competent painter. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker) liked his paintings so much that he wants to buy a couple. There may be different views about that, but as to his competence—and he paints a great variety of things—I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary can differ from every person from this House and from the Press who saw these pictures. They are very good. Yet four times running they were rejected. Now why was this? The only answer which he has got is this statement: All marking of painting was subjective and impersonal, and nothing can be done. All I can say is that I do not know anything about this diploma on design; Mr. Gommon does not want any diploma; his position in the art world is quite sufficient, and does not require a diploma to support it.

What he wants is to be recognised on his performance as a qualified teacher, and to receive what he would be entitled to as a qualified teacher, namely, £493 a year as against £360 a year which is what he is paid at present. The trouble is that we in Northampton will lose him if this does not happen. University appointments are not made very often, yet only the other day he was on the short list for Bristol University. Had he got that job—and he was within one of getting it—it would have been his job to train and examine the masters for the very qualification which is denied to him. It is within the Minister's power to authorise the governors to pay. There can be no question at all about that. I had it both from this Minister and from his predecessor.

The Ministry suggest that it would be an injustice to other teachers. May I read to the Minister what the other teachers say? This is what his colleagues, signed by every one of them, some 36 in number, at the grammar school, say: We, colleagues of Mr. D. E. Gommon, F.R.S.A., cordially support your efforts to win recognition for Mr. Gommon as a qualified teacher of Art. We hold Mr. Gommon to be an artist of no mean ability himself, and we are left in no doubt as to his capabilities as a teacher of Art. He has his own happy way of developing the latent talent of individual boys and of fostering a keen appreciation of Art in his classes generally. His own success as a teacher is reflected in his pupils' successes in public competition. His part in the stage productions of the school compels our admiration. We are fully in favour of safeguards to ensure a high standard in all branches of the teaching profession. For those subjects normally regarded as 'academic' the college or university which has given the training usually provides the evidence. We suggest that artists and musicians may derive their training in a more personal way, and we urge most strongly that some fresh criterion be devised for assessing the worth of teachers of aesthetic subjects, such as by the examination of evidence available at the place of teaching. I would endorse that. If this diploma is of a standard which rejects Mr. Gommon on subjective grounds, it is utterly inappropriate to the question of what salary the man ought to be paid.

I would, before concluding, say two things very briefly to the Minister. Please do not give us the argument in reply "Your Government did this." We have had too much of that. Do not say that, unless the Minister is going to say, in which case I will applaud him, "We, this good Government, are going to correct it and put it right." I would also say to the Minister this, "Do not say, Ah, this is against the rules.'" There is no point in having a Minister at all if his only job is to see that rules are carried out. A Minister that is worth his while is a Minister who, when he sees that rules have plainly worked injustice and caused absurdity and inconvenience, finds a way of correcting the rules. I hope that he will show that he is in that category.

3.58 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

I believe that these are always very difficult questions to deal with, and I am extremely anxious not to say anything that may seem in any way exacerbating. I wonder if it is in order for me to begin by asking the hon. Lady who is waiting to introduce her Adjournment Motion what is the minimum number of minutes she thinks that she will require.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn, East)

The minimum I want is the maximum I can get.

Mr. Pickthorn

Then I am afraid that I must make this speech as best I can, and leave that to be as it may. To take one comparatively preliminary point first. I had not met the point before that Mr. Gommon had been appointed in the Independent days of the school, and therefore ought now to be treated differently from a master employed in a Maintained school. My information, which I had to gather rather hastily—

It being Four 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. R. Thompson.]

Mr. Pickthorn

My information is that Mr. Gommon was actually appointed as an occasional teacher from September, 1945: and, therefore, the Ministry's Regulations must have applied to him.

Perhaps I may now refer to two or three others of the things said by the hon. and learned Gentleman, and then I will go back to a slightly more continuous argument. I am not in any way concerned to judge or belittle Mr. Gommon's achievements or his abilities. I do not think it is quite fair to say that when he might have been getting a qualification, he was earning a living as an artist. He might for that matter have done both at once.

It certainly is not fair to say—I quite understand it being said off the cuff, so to speak, but it has been said more than once and I was surprised that it should be said again—that it is rather cruel and derisory to say to Mr. Gommon, "Why not get a qualification now?" because there would be the question of feeding himself and his family. The answer is that he has been given special permission to take a shortened course, and there is no reason why he should not be a part-time candidate at the Northampton Art School while pursuing his present avocation and drawing his at present, I admit, small and, in many ways, inadequate, salary. There is no reason why in doing that he should not also be attending sufficiently at the School of Art to enter for the examination. I do not, therefore, think that that argument is quite fair.

I do not attach very much importance to the argument about injustice to other teachers, an argument which appears on the correspondence from time to time and to which the hon. and learned Member referred; but in so far as that argument has any validity—and I think it would be admitted to have some—the hon. and learned Gentleman's rebuttal was wholly irrelevant. The injustice, if any, would be to other teachers seeking this sort of post, not to teachers of quite other sorts inside this school. So that really the hon. and learned Gentleman's attempt to rebut that argument by quoting the testimonial of Mr. Gommon's colleagues, is really not quite fair.

Nor is it very much use to pray in aid what was said by a critic nearly 20 years ago, when Mr. Gommon was only about 20 years of age, or what was written in commendation of Mr. Gommon—I say this by no manner of means in criticism of anybody, but we here all of us avow interest when we speak what was written by a critic who was also, apparently, as appeared from the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech, a dealer in the pictures. I do not think, therefore, that those parts of the argument need much affect the House, and I hope I may now pass to the more general case.

There has been for a very long time a strong current of opinion and, I think one might say, an agreed policy—if I am not here traversing the hon. and learned Gentleman's injunctions about what I might and might not say—whichever party has been in office, for a great many years; agreed, therefore. between the parties so far as the policy goes, and agreed also between the participants in the public educational machine—that is to say, between the Ministry, the representatives of the teachers and of local authorities and of Government bodies, and so on: between all of them there has been a strong current of opinion, which I think it is not an exaggeration to describe as an agreed policy, tending towards the making of the whole teaching profession in the local education authority schools, in maintained and aided schools, into one single qualified profession.

That agreed policy can be found—I will not weary the House with too many references—in the McNair Report, on page 45, and I think that unmistakable traces of it can be found in the statutes which now govern these matters. The McNair recommendation was accepted by the Minister. His acceptance was announced in March, 1945, in Circular 30. The thing as a definite policy is almost exactly coeval with the present principal Act and it has been since that time, and still is, the intention of the Minister that only qualified teachers should teach in permanent jobs in maintained and assisted schools.

I come to the question about the examination first. I think that is perhaps the fair thing to come to first. I am bound to say I did not receive any invitation. If I were responsible for not having received it, or any of the officials in my Ministry, I wholly take the blame for that—if something was passed to me and did not impinge on my consciousness.

Mr. Paget

It can happen in the best regulated Ministries.

Mr. Pickthorn

Nothing whatever impinged on my consciousness until a very short time before, until I saw the piece in the "News Chronicle."

Mr. Paget

The hon. Gentleman may see it later?

Mr. Pickthorn

Yes, I will. I did not go to see it partly from the point of view of time and partly from the point of view that I thought there was some slight risk that that might be taken to be tending to an admission that either the Ministry or the House of Commons ought in some way to be a kind of revising body over the examiners in this regard. That seems to me the first principle upon which the House have to make up their mind and I would respectfully suggest to the House that upon that matter they should take the advice of the hon. and learned Member, not as he put it by implication today, but as he put it explicitly in 1950 when, writing of this matter, he said: I do see your difficulties in the matter and realise that you cannot overrule your examiners. The first point upon which I ask the House to agree with me is one upon which I ask the House to agree also with the hon. and learned Member, that we cannot have examinations re-tried either in the Ministry or in the House of Commons. I appeal, if I may, not from "Philip drunk to Philip sober," but from Philip the advocate as he now is to that earlier better avatar which was still faintly fluttering in 1950, to take the view not that the House should have an opportunity of seeing this work and judging it, but to take the view that we cannot ask the Ministry or the House to overrule the examiners in this matter.

Mr. Paget

The whole point is that this is the wrong examination for this purpose and I am not asking the hon. Gentleman to do that.

Mr. Pickthorn

That, with respect, is not the point. The point was that the pictures should be looked at in order to see whether the examiners could be judged to have been competent. I say that is a false point and I ask the House to agree with me, whatever it may think of the merits of this artist and whatever it may think of the merits of the examiners. That really is the first point.

What the hon. and learned Member is after is not any querying of the examination, although he puts it in that form, but that he thinks that in appointing art masters no examination ought to have any relevance at all.

Mr. Paget

indicated assent.

Mr. Pickthorn

I am glad to notice agreement. That saves me the trouble of making quotations to the House.

I start in these matters with every prejudice in favour of free trade. But it is extremely difficult to see how we can preserve a general free trade in teachers' freedom in any school in the L.E.A. system to hire anybody it chooses, thereby making him part of the educational machine, fixing the salary and thereby making the tax-payer pay. There must be some way of doing something else.

What is that to be? It must not be wholly by looking at a man's pictures; indeed, the whole gravamen of the charge against the examination is that Mr. Gommon passed the written part and yet his pictures did not sufficiently please the examiners, and that might have been so, whoever else the examiners had been. If we are to say that all teachers of primary and secondary schools ought to constitute one single qualified profession, and that I think was generally agreed, I can see arguments against it. On a proper occasion I should be prepared to debate that, either for or against. But it has been the practice, and the agreement of all those concerned, for a good many years now. If so—ought art masters to be a special kind and left out? I think not. I do not think many intending masters would desire that that should be so. Therefore, the attempt has been made to set out a series of ways in which those desiring to become art masters or, if art masters, to become qualified art masters, should get some sort of objective qualification which should be one of the things to be taken into account. There is no doubt at all about it that on Mr. Gommon's experience and so forth, the appropriate and easiest way to do this was by passing an examination for the National Diploma in Design.

Unfortunately, and for all I have to say to the contrary, because the examiners were wrong every time—I have been an examiner myself too often not to know that examiners can make mistakes—but however it happened, he did fail three times in that examination. The rules were then altered, and he was able to have a fourth shot, and unfortunately he did fail again. The Minister cannot, I think, be expected to express any doubts or any lack of confidence, and has no lack of confidence, in the examiners.

One thing I would say on that point is that the first three times the examiners were almost the same year after year, and that, it seems plainly, is not the best possible arrangement; though I do not think there is any suggestion of any prejudice in this case from any side. But that clearly is not the best possible arrangement, and will not happen again, and has not been happening for some time. That risk has already been excluded.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

But too late for this gentleman.

Mr. Pickthorn

Not too late for this gentleman, no. This gentleman could do it again—

Mr. Thomas

Yes, but too late in the sense that he had sat three times, whereas if there had been an earlier change he might have passed the second time.

Mr. Pickthorn

Well, he might, but nobody can legislate retrospectively for that possibility. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman would not suggest it.

Those really are the simple arguments which the House has to consider. Is it right that the tendency should be to make all teachers in maintained and assisted schools into a qualified profession? Is it right in assessing qualifications that there should be some element of objective test which means in some sense an examination? If we went and looked at the pictures and said "Alpha plus" or "Gamma minus," it is some sort of examination. Does the House think that that is the right way to do it? It certainly is the policy of all concerned up to date.

Secondly, the House has to decide whether it thinks that there ought to be any court of appeal from such examinations. I began with that, and I do not wish to repeat myself. I think that nobody really could on reflection assert this. I have been an examiner and I dare say that the hon. and learned Gentleman has examined for the Law Society or for the Inns of Court. The business of an examiner would be intolerable if there were to be courts of appeal, public or private, and I can hardly imagine a worse court of appeal than the Ministry.

The Minister is a kind of court of appeal in a very restricted sense: if something has gone wrong administratively, papers have been put in the wrong envelope or wrong dates have been announced or something like that. But for the actual examining of papers or pictures, I could, with all respect, hardly imagine a worse tribunal than my right hon. Friend, even if she were the greatest artist in the world and had been a practising teacher for 30 years. If there were to be a worse tribunal, perhaps it would have to be Members of the House of Commons shepherded through a Committee room by the hon. and learned Gentleman.