HC Deb 19 December 1952 vol 509 cc1896-902

4.16 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn, East)

In the short time that is left I have the almost impossible task of trying to fix the attention of the Ministry of Education on a growing national crisis in our educational system; but this matter is sufficiently important for me to attempt to discuss it even in the short time that is left. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will listen to my case.

If I link this problem with its application in my constituency, this does not mean that the same problem is not arising in all other parts of the country. The schools crisis in Blackburn is one which is merely symbolical of the schools crisis in the areas of other Members of this House. I suggest to the Minister that unless we deal with this matter—and deal with it quickly—we shall be in the farcical situation of having a completely lop-sided development of our social service planning, with all the propaganda weight of the Government being thrown behind the housing programme and failing to relate that programme to the provision of the necessary schools whereby the children who are going into the new housing estates can receive an education.

That is what is happening in my constituency. Lancashire and Cheshire head teachers who met in Blackburn recently passed a resolution expressing their serious concern at the restrictions upon school building and calling on the Government to remove them as soon as possible. Their complaint was that there are thousands of very old and decrepit schools that need renovating, but that the only building allowed at present is in the new housing estates. My complaint is that not even on the new housing estates in my constituency is adequate provision being made for the children now going there to live.

I want to quote some examples to the Parliamentary Secretary and to try to get his answer on them. My local authority has already sent deputations to the Ministry to protest at the way in which their school building programme has been slashed in the economy cuts of this Government. We have the situation on the Green Lane housing estate in Blackburn that 240 new houses will be occupied by the end of next year. Already 80 houses are occupied and 175 children of school age, or near school age, live in these houses. There is no school whatever in the area of this housing estate.

The local authority has an excellent school site which it bought before the war and which it has been waiting to develop. The housing estate is now being occupied, but when an appeal is made to the Ministry, the only development allowed is the construction of some temporary huts. Then there is the housing estate in the area of St. Stephen's, Little Harwood, where 250 new houses have been built since 1946. There are 1,300 homes in this polling district, and the St. Stephen's school is the only one in the area. This is totally inadequate.

The local authority put the building of a new school in its programme to the Ministry, but that has been rejected, and all that is allowed is the building of one additional classroom and a new cloakroom. The need for a new school is desperately urgent, but the Ministry have turned it down, while another section of the Government boasts about the great housing development programme of the Government.

The third and most acute problem arises on the Shadsworth housing estate, where 1,200 houses are being built, and at least 100 will be occupied by the end of 1953 and some 400 by the end of 1954. As a result of tremendous protests and pressure by the local authorities, the Minister has now agreed to the building of one infants' school, but, there again, he has insisted that the building of the school should be delayed beyond April of next year, which is the starting date.

That means that the school will not be ready until April, 1955, and that, in the interim period, there will be an absolutely shocking situation on this housing estate. There is not a single school in the whole of the east end area of Blackburn, in which this estate is situated, which has a vacant place, and yet the Ministry postpones the building of the school which is so urgently needed.

Even more acute on that housing estate is the situation caused by the refusal of the Ministry to permit the building of a new Roman Catholic school, the building of which has been considered by the local education authority, and, I believe, by the Ministry's own inspectors, as being the most urgent school problem in the whole town. In the time available, I cannot give as many details as I would like to do, but the Ministry should be well aware of the problem of the Roman Catholic children in St. Joseph's parish. in which this housing estate is situated.

One school there, St. Joseph's, is already fantastically overcrowded, and has standards so shocking that any Ministry of Education worthy of the name would be anxious to deal with it. There are 177 children in three classrooms in the infants' school at St. Joseph's, and 88 are in one classroom. The junior school playground is so small that half the children have to play in an adjoining street. The sanitary accommodation is so inadequate that 231 senior and 86 junior girls and 177 infants, nearly 500 children in all, are using nine w.c.s between them.

When this problem was put to the Ministry, the church authorities of St. Joseph's parish pointed out to them that they had a school site on the Shadsworth housing estate which the local education authority had approved, and that they were anxious to develop a new school, but the Ministry refused to allow the building of a new school to be included in their 1954 programme. That means that the building of this school would not in any case start until April, 1954, which means that it would be April, 1956, before the Roman Catholic children on that housing estate, and the children whom it is desired to transfer from the already overcrowded schools, can receive any kind of education at all.

That was bad enough; indeed, it was disgraceful, but a new problem has arisen because the Ministry, in fact, are now challenging the whole idea of the need for the building of a transferred school on the Shadsworth housing estate for the children of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic parish, and they are now in communication with the church authorities on lines which show that they are completely misrepresenting the claims of the church authorities in this matter. They are arguing that, under the provisions of the 1944 Education Act, it is laid down that there should be no increase in denominational school accommodation, but are now turning round and saying that, as the new premises would relieve overcrowding at existing schools, would create more classrooms and be of a better standard altogether, this would have the effect of providing more denominational school places.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to say this afternoon whether or not the Ministry stand by their latest reply to the church authorities in this case, because it is a reply which cannot be sustained in the light of the facts. I also want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he can really justify the answer which his right hon. Friend gave me yesterday in answer to my Question on the position of schools in Blackburn. His right hon. Friend replied: If the best use is made of the schools available, it should be possible to find places in schools for all children of school age on the estates."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th December, 1952; Vol. 509, c. 240.] I challenge that answer, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give me an assurance with regard to St. Joseph's School and to realise that there is profound anxiety and alarm throughout the whole of Blackburn concerning the educational future of the school which is being destroyed by this Government.

4.28 p.m.

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

In reply to the last two questions that were put by the hon. Lady, the last of which was whether I stood by—

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member ought to ask for the leave of the House to speak again.

Mr. Pickthorn

I beg the pardon of the House, and I must ask the permission of the House to reply.

The hon. Lady's last point, I think, was whether I stood by the reply which my right hon. Friend gave yesterday.

Mrs. Castle

Would the Parliamentary Secretary concentrate, in the two minutes that are left to him, on the point about St. Joseph's School?

Mr. Pickthorn

I will do everything I can within reason, but I was asked to answer the two specific questions with which the hon. Lady ended her speech, and was trying to do so.

St. Joseph's School is in Shadsworth. The hon. Lady knows the neighbourhood better than I do, and when she refers to something I sometimes have a different name on my notes. The position there is that the pew infants' department to which she referred was put on the programme that the Ministry was asked to put it on. It was not kept waiting; it was put on the programme the Ministry was asked to put it on. Steel has been made available for it, and work, therefore, should start early in the year 1953–4, that is, in April. I suggest it should begin on my birthday and be called St. George's School.

Mrs. Castle

Next year?

Mr. Pickthorn

Yes, that is the programme for which it was asked.

They have the programme and they have the steel, and they can start any day in April. If they wait until the 23rd. they can call it St. George's School, and I shall be gratified. They have not yet asked for a new department. The one for which the steel is provided will, we hope, be ready by September, 1954, when there will be, it is believed, about 400 houses. Some of the children in those houses will be too young to go to school; some, no doubt, will wish to stay on for a bit at their old schools.

Mrs. Castle

Is the hon. Gentleman referring to the Roman Catholic schools, or to the local authority infants' school which is already included in the programme.

Mr. Pickthorn

I am telling the hon. Lady what I can about the school arrangements at Shadsworth, and I am just coming to the paragraph about the Roman Catholic part of it.

We know, of course, that the Roman Catholics are in some difficulty, and that the most convenient school for them is St. Joseph's, and that that is overcrowded. It is fair to say, and I say this absolutely without prejudice to the question whether under fives had better go to school or not, that the overcrowding is partly due to the many under fives there. It is surprising to find that about 10 per cent. of the whole school population in Blackburn are under five.

There is some spare room, I am informed, at St. Mary's. Suppose that out of these 400 new houses, 100 of them are occupied by Roman Catholic families. Some of the children, no doubt, would be seniors, some too small to go to school, and some, again, would already be at St. Joseph's, and, therefore, there would be no—

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, till Tuesday, 20th January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.