HC Deb 14 July 1952 vol 503 cc1939-48

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I beg to draw the attention of the House to the disastrous effect of the economies now being made in the education service. Sufficient time has now elapsed for us to have a broad picture of the effect of these economies in the schools of this country. It was a black day for the schools when Circular 242 was published by the Ministry of Education, a circular which, unhappily, was the forerunner of many circulars damaging to the expansion of the education service.

In the official journals of every organisation interested in education, leading articles have appeared protesting vehemently against the Minister's policy. With the passing of time, those protests, far from falling away, are increasing, in crescendo. The whole atmosphere of the education service has been changed by the present Administration and is now on the defensive. It is quite clear that the Minister has put back the clock in the education service at least 20 years, and there is no responsible organisation which supports the policy that she is pursuing.

I am reminded that at the recent conference of the National Union of Teachers, Mr. Ronald Gould, the general secretary, is reported as saying that some authorities had economised with such an excess of zeal that no one could deny that the fabric of education had been unmistakably frayed and in some cases certainly damaged. He went on to warn the conference that necessary work was being deliberately deferred—leaking roofs would remain leaking, unpainted schools would remain unpainted, and bad sanitary conditions would remain unchanged. It is quite clear that the quality, the size and the general development of our education service is a highly political matter. The plain fact is that the Conservative Party savagely resent the extension of educational opportunity for the children of the mass of the people, while the Labour Party regard this expansion as one of the highest priorities. I submit that the economic difficulties which face this country are not the main motive for the present sadistic attack upon the education service of this country, but rather it is an attempt to restore the old privileges and the old lack of balance which prevailed in the education service immediately before the war.

The Minister is taking credit for the fact that, although she has appealed for economies the expenditure on education will be increased this year. It is, of course, worth notice that even if the 1944 Act were put in cold storage, even if there were no increase in prices, with the increased school population which we shall have during the coming year there is bound to be an increase in the cost of education, if we mark time; and the biggest part of the increased expenditure which there is in education is due to increased administrative loan charges, which have been made necessary by the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the past eight months, to the increased cost of school milk with the removal of support, and also to the increased cost of school meals. The cost of coke has increased by 10s. a ton, the cost of school paper has increased by 40 per cent., and the cost of school books has gone up by 50 per cent. Yet the Minister of Education boasts that there is a slight increase in the actual expenditure on education.

The Association of Education Committees waited upon the Minister soon after the issue of this circular and made it perfectly clear to her that in its opinion a 5 per cent. economy would be a menace to "the essential fabric of education"—whatever that may mean. I hope tonight to obtain from the Parliamentary Secretary some indication of what is "the essential fabric of education" so far as his Department is concerned.

There is, of course, in the world of education considerable doubt about what the Minister really means by "the essential fabric of education." "Education," the Journal of the Association of Education Committees, the "Schoolmaster," and the "Educational Supplement of The Times" have all made reference to the fact that some authorities have made savage economies; others have made small economies. The official journal of the Visual Aid Society in this country says in its June commentary: There is no doubt that the Minister's policy has been interpreted in different ways in different L.E.A. areas. In some areas the cuts have penetrated far deeper than the 'frills,' whereas in others the reductions are so nominal that the Minister has sent back and asked for more. The education authorities of the country are apparently being told by the Minister now that they must decide themselves what is "the essential fabric of education." My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) raised the question of Chester, where an economy of 7 per cent. in the education estimate has been made, and the Minister airily said it is not for her to interfere. Apparently the Minister of Education is going to interfere only if the economies are not savage enough; where authorities want to spend money upon educational opportunities for their youngsters, the Minister believes it right for her to step in and send round these letters that are so infuriating local authorities.

The Minister has given a little indication of what she considers to be the "essential fabric of education." In one breath she tells us that she regards the health service in the schools as very important, and in another she says that swimming, which every teacher in the country acknowledges is an essential part of the physical training of the children, is not an essential part. In the Report of the Chief Medical Officer of the Ministry of Education issued this year, entitled "The Health of the School Child," these words are recorded: The child must be regarded as a unity, and his education should not be planned to meet the assumed needs of one side only of his life. It is the physical and mental and social child who goes to school, and any sound scheme of education ought, therefore, to cater for the whole child. But we find that the Amateur Swimming Association is complaining that, as a result of Circular 242 of the Minister of Education, a number of local authorities have decided to cut out entirely school instruction in swimming—while Bournemouth has reduced expenditure on swimming by 50 per cent. In the opinion of the Amateur Swimming Association, this action is impairing the fabric of education. The Minister, on the other hand, has informed this association that, whilst agreeing that instruction in swimming is desirable, she could not at present regard it as absolutely necessary. Does she consider music as a frill? Is art a frill? Are we back to the mentality in which the Ministry of Education consider the three R's as the only essentials for education?

I now wish to refer to the Minister's Circular 245, which is a charter for slum schools which has aroused the resentment of the teaching profession from one end of the land to the other. By this circular the Minister is deliberately creating conditions for larger classes in the schools. She has stood at that Box—and I gave the Parliamentary Secretary notice that I intended to criticise the Minister's policy in this regard—and indicated to the House that she believes it is inevitable that we shall have larger schools in the future.

As a schoolmaster I tell the House that to countless children I believe this means a sentence that they shall live in an undergrowth of ignorance and provide cheap, uneducated labour for tomorrow. The tragedy is that the Minister seems to be wielding the economy axe with a greater enthusiasm than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We can understand that the Chancellor is imposing certain policies upon the Ministry, but we expect the Ministry to put up a fight for the education service; yet there is not a hint of any fight from that Department in defence of the education service, and it will take us many, many years to repair what is being done by the present policy.

The Minister has already indicated that, so far as she is concerned, nursery schools do not count. The pressure put upon the Minister at Question Time by my hon. Friends to get her to prevent local authorities from savagely closing down their nursery schools has met with the bland reply, "It is not for me to interfere. That is a matter for the local authorities." In Warwickshire, Somersetshire, Shropshire, Dorset, Bath and Middlesbrough attacks have been made upon the nursery schools. In Cornwall, Walsall and Shropshire they are even attacking schools for handicapped children. The Minister has stopped us having a school for handicapped children in Wales—a school which would have been under way during this current year. In Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Buckinghamshire, Cornwall and Somerset attacks have been made on the school dental service, where they propose to save money on their estimated expenditure. Other authorities are saving money on school repairs.

This policy is the greatest disaster that has befallen our schools in the last 20 years. In Wales it means a 40 per cent. reduction in our building programme for the next year, and in 18 months' time children knocking at the doors of the schools will be refused admission—children of the very people who were scattered over the battlefields of the world when the 1944 Act was going on to the Statute Book, and who were promised a new deal in education after the war.

I have taken advantage of this Adjournment debate so that I might at once warn the House that there is seeping into our schools a sense of frustration due to this parsimonious policy, and also give the Ministry of Education an opportunity to tell the country what they mean by "the essential fabric of education." Is it not one of indivisibility? Is not education a broad system and one which cannot be confined by the old narrow definitions?

I earnestly hope that the Ministry will be aware of the Association of Education Committees' Conference, held at Scarborough a few weeks ago, when Mr. Longden, one of the most distinguished directors of education in this country, pointed out that the definition of education today is vastly different from what it was 30 years ago. We have a broader conception of education today. We are not catering for an illiterate democracy; we are catering for a literate democracy and a cultured democracy. I believe in my heart that the nation will not readily forgive the Government if they inflict serious damage, as they look like doing, upon a service which is vital to the well-being of us all.

10.16 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pick-thorn)

There are, I suppose, few human enjoyments so great as virtuous indignation; moral wrath which is also in defence of professional interests—

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

And in defence of children.

Mr. Pickthom

—must be peculiarly enjoyable.

Mr. G. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman is still the rudest man in the House.

Mr. Pickthorn

We have had very extreme epithets; black, proceeding vehemently, savage resentment, motives for sadism—I was not quite sure whether "sadism" was meant literally—deliberately creating conditions for larger classes; and it was rather odd that all these things should lead up to the climax of "seeping." I should have thought that after so many great words it would have been an inundation and not a seeping that was being complained of.

I am bound to say that accusations of ill manners in this connection are hardly decent when the continual assumption is made of evil motive upon this side and especially on the part of Ministers. I make no assumption of evil motives at all.

Mr. Fernyhough

The hon. Gentleman has done so.

Mr. Pickthom

I have made none whatever. I think that a very proper motive is professional interests. It is the motive of every great trade union which is the great force behind so many hon. Members opposite. I think today that hon. Members opposite are interested in the children. There has been no attempt on this side at all in this controversy to implicate any charge of evil motive on the part of critics. It is a little too much, I think, when they not only characterise us as making attacks upon education but suggest that the reason why these attacks are launched is that there is a savage resentment on this side at the extension of educational opportunity.

I do not want to be autobiographical, but there can be no man in the world who owes more to the extension of educational opportunity than I do. I think that I can say this without immodesty—no one can more conscientiously say that he has worked continuously through a long professional life for the extension of educational opportunity.

Compliments to one's superior, even when one's superior is very properly absent, are perhaps never very convincing, but nothing could be more unjust than to say that my right hon. Friend has done nothing to stand up for the interests of education. What she has done in that regard—everybody in the House knows it is, not unnaturally, what cannot be observed except by those most closely connected with the matter either in the Treasury or in the Ministry. To any hon. Gentleman who thinks any evidence of mine of any value I can say that I am sure that nobody could have been more resolute or more courageous than she has been in that regard.

Mr. Fernyhough

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickthorn

I have not many minutes left, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Fernyhough

Does that mean that the Minister herself never agreed with the cuts but had to bow down to a majority decision?

Mr. Pickthorn

My words meant exactly what they said. I cannot be cross-examined in the amount of time which I have left to me. I am quite willing for that to happen whenever there is a proper occasion.

The truth is quite simple in this matter. Hon. Gentlemen opposite know it quite well. I take leave to doubt whether those who have consciously criticised their own arguments and consciously examined their own consciences are really quite certain that they would not have had to try as much as we have had to try to see that no avoidable expenditure was made upon education. The fact is that the economic and financial situation with which we were confronted—whether we attribute it to the wickedness of our enemies, to the incompetence of the last Government, to the sun-spots or whatever it is to which we attribute it—was such that no Government taking office last autumn could have put off the duty of making every economy that could be made without plainly doing more harm than good. That is the quite simple fact from which we all start.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

Why the tax concessions?

Mr. Pickthorn

I cannot discuss the Budget and the Finance Bill now. Again, I am quite willing to do so on another occasion. I am, however, interested to know that hon. Gentlemen opposite think that tax concessions ought not to be made.

About what the "essential fabric" of education is, I do not think that is really as difficult as it has been made out. This is not a phrase which I invented, and I do not think I should have invented it, but, as such phrases go, it seems to me better than such phrases generally are, and, as the fox terrier may not be able to define a rat but knows a rat when it sees one, so I think anybody who has really tried to look into the possibility of economy in education has known pretty well what the main fabric of education was.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickthorn

I do not mind how often I give way, only I will not have it said afterwards that I failed to answer all the points put to me.

Mr. Morley

This is the kernel of the whole argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), and it is what we all want to know. What does the present Ministry consider to be the essential fabric of education? Will the Parliamentary Secretary kindly give us a definition?

Mr. Pickthorn

I have just said that it may not be easy to define but I do not think it is frightfully difficult to recognise. Also, I should have more chance to answer the hon. Member for Cardiff, West if other hon. Members would keep their seats.

It is reasonably plain that in education, as in anything else, it is possible to make a kind of tripartite division. There are some things for which everybody is certain that the resources must be found so long as they can be found for anything, anything except the mere materials of existence—because we have all got to face the fact that we may get to that stage —but there are some parts of education which everybody will agree are essential so long as we can provide anything more than the mere material necessities of existence. That is the essential part in the strictest sense.

Then there are some parts which we should normally describe as essential, though a sad compulsion of renunciation may not be so difficult to imagine.

Thirdly, there are those things to which the hon. Gentleman referred—it is not my word and, indeed, I do not wish to do him too much credit for I do not think it was original with him—as "frills." Out of these it is reasonable to suppose that a higher percentage of economy can be got than elsewhere. But it is not to be taken for granted or assumed that even in these strict essentials there may not be means for economy. It is a fallacy to suppose that in those there is no room for economy.

It is said that it is sweet and noble to see brothers in one house agree, and I was delighted the other day in the debate on the Civil List to hear the hon. Member for Cardiff, West cheering when the hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. Yates) was speaking.

Mr. G. Thomas

That is quite untrue.

Mr. Pickthom

I was here and heard him cheer this passage: What surprises me in a debate of this kind is when, for instance, the right hon. Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton), a financial expert, objects to the House examining expenditure in connection with the Royal Family as we would examine expenditure in connection with every other Department of State. It is not a Department of State, but we will let that pass. I have sat on the House of Commons Select Committee on expenditure for the last four or five years and I have never known an occasion when we examined expenditure in detail and were not able to find some example of the need for economy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th July, 1952; Vol. 503, c. 1387–88.] If that is true of every Department of State, and indeed of the Crown itself, then there is no reason to assume—

Mr. Fernyhough

The Minister did not accept that argument.

Mr. Pickthorn

—it is not true also of education. It is a complete fallacy to suppose that because something is part of the essential fabric of education that, therefore, there is not room in that for some economy.

I come to the nursery schools as one of the topics mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Compulsory education begins at five. At present, therefore, it is plain that where there must be a choice, compulsory education at and over five must take precedence over education before. At present there are 454 nursery schools with 22,500 pupils and a number of nursery classes in primary schools. My right hon. Friend has assured the Nursery Schools Association that she intends to preserve the principle of nursery schools, and in considering proposals from local education authorities she has declined to accept a wholesale and indiscriminate closure.

I do not know how much the hon. Member wants me to spend time on going through all the particular cases. Warwickshire failed to convince the Minister of the reasonableness of their proposals, and I believe that their proposals are not to be carried out. Dorset were able to satisfy the Minister, there being no industrial need there. Leicestershire were able in three of four cases to show that the accommodation was needed for children of statutory school age and, therefore, precedence must be given there. The Somerset cases are still under discussion. I think those are most of the ones he mentioned.

Now I come to swimming classes. Everybody agrees that we have got to educate the child, but then it is sometimes argued that anything that is good and useful for the child is education and that means having a broader conception. But the fact is that conception may get so broad that there is nothing left. I cannot tell how many authorities are planning—

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

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.