HC Deb 16 June 1952 vol 502 cc953-62

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

12.20 a.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

It would be a waste of time to spend an Adjournment debate merely denouncing the Minister who is to reply, or, rather, the sinister figure of the Chancellor of the Exchequer behind him, and talking about the reckless way in which the school building programme has been jettisoned and the education of many of our young children gravely imperilled.

The facts are notorious. In January, 1947, the school population was 4,881,000. In January, 1953, it will be 6,058,000, and in January, 1956, 6,445,000. The figures are from the Minister's own Report. Between 1947 and 1953, therefore, 1,250,000 extra school places are needed, and by January, 1956, 1,500,000 extra places. A complete post-war new school building programme of 1,750,000 places is needed merely to provide for the increased child population.

To meet that demand, the Labour Government's building programmes were steadily expanding and, in my opinion, would have barely coped with the problem that they set themselves. A Tory Minister has stopped the 1951–52 programme and has made of the fragments of the 1951–52 and 1952–53 programmes a new programme roughly half of that which was originally planned. This must lead to a serious shortage of school accommodation within the next two years, and I want to say a word or two about it.

Over the week-end, however, we have had an amazing contribution to political and educational theory from the Venerable Archdeacon of Bedford, who holds that if a child is physically developed at the age of 14 and does not want to stay at school he ought to be turned out. It is only fair to the Archdeacon to say that he means only working-class children and that he does not propose to turn out children from middle and upper-class schools according to their intellectual standards.

It is only fair to Britain to say that all the Socialists and most of the Tories have much more Christian views on the State's responsibilities for the education of all its children, the dull ones as well as the bright ones, and that the Archdeacon himself would be much better employed in doing something to improve physical conditions in many of the old church schools, for which he and his ecclesiastical colleagues still hold responsibility-schools which, by their very cramped and old nature, make part of the problem and part of the crisis that we now face.

The whole of the occupants of the Government benches, when in Opposition, stood firm by the 1944 Act, were alarmed at the slow rate of building, were alarmed at the number of large classes, and continually prodded on the last Labour Minister of Education. For example, in July, 1948, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Sir S. Marshall), whom both sides of the House are delighted to hear has been knighted for his public services, especially to education, said: To talk of 6,000 extra classrooms is a mere bagatelle; what we want is 50,000 classrooms in this country—today and not in five vears time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th July, 1948; Vol. 454, c. 1404.] Speaking of Surrey schools—and both the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) are proud of Surrey's educational system, he told the House that in many cases, even in Surrey, it was only the paint that was holding up the schools. If Surrey's needs are great, those of many other local education authorities are even greater. Many local education authorities—perhaps all of them—will be faced with either refusing children places in 1953, or with housing them in classes of well over 50. There are too many classes of over 50 now.

I urge the Minister to lift her building ceiling a little, to sponsor, support and encourage emergency measures to cope with children demanding places in the next two or three years, and to begin to get down to the vital question of finding new solutions for the problem which will remain with the country not merely during the lifetime of this Government, but for the next 10 years at least. The problem is to provide new schools and schools fit for the children and the teachers to work in—and to provide them quickly. I have too little faith in statistics to believe that in the building programme the Minister has permitted under her cuts to local authorities, mathematical finality has been reached, even inside the broad national figures or pattern which the Chancellor has laid down.

I urge the Minister to reconsider the strong case which local education authority after local education authority put up after the building axe fell—and let her remember that most of them were Tory education authorities—for the necessity of including at least the most urgent extra schools in their original programmes. Let her remember that the original programmes had already been pared and pruned to the minimum needs. But I am certain, on the other hand, that when the cuts were made, and when the overall capital investment programme for schools was arrived at, the shortage of steel was one of the factors that made the Minister cut the school building programme so drastically.

In passing, might I urge the Minister to see that local education authorities get —and get at the right time—the steel needed for the meagre school list that she has permitted and that there is no further hold up in this limited programme? I believe that we have to get away from steel if we are to get all the schools we need and get them swiftly. The Ministry's Working Party, reporting in 1948, said some exceedingly wise things, among them that it would be unwise to tie down the whole school building programme to one system of construction which depended on the regular supply of some particular material.

The second point was that time can be saved by having the work, or part of the work, done at the factory rather than on the building site. Thirdly, the long-term building programme necessary for our schools cannot be coped with by the traditional methods of construction in any reasonable time. Fourthly, pre-fabrication does not necessarily mean ugliness. All these maxims become of paramount importance as we face the crisis in school accommodation. Already some local authorities have followed and, indeed, anticipated, the Working Party's Report. Incidentally, the Report of the Ministry of Education for 1951 shows the photographs of four new schools—all four of non-traditional building. I have spoken before in the House of the remarkable non-traditional building programme of Hertfordshire County Council.

At the same time, new methods of providing building strength have emerged. I have with me tonight a picture of a timber span 120 feet long designed for a bridge, and as advertised by the Timber Development Association. The use of timber in place of steel is something that, I believe, local authorities and the Minister will have to investigate. Let me say that I have no financial interest to declare about anything I say in this debate. Pre-stressed concrete containing a mere modicum of steel cuts down the amount of steel required for building to an almost negligible fraction.

I have, too, with me literature from a firm which provides prefabricated schools on a sectional basis, and which boasts that it makes them without steel; and while that is not literally true, it is almost true. There are several such firms already that have submitted plans, and their work has been approved by the Ministry.

Then there is the aluminium school of the Bristol Aeroplane Company which is already being erected for a number of local authorities. Two—at least two—of the firms which build sectional schools specialise at the same time in providing architects' plans and quantity specifications, which cuts down the time, especially when local authorities' architects' departments are overworked, and it avoids delay in that way.

Just across the water, in Waterloo Road, is a set of offices built at the time of the Festival of Britain. The walls are of concrete panels with plaster finish, and provide a swift way of building schools. This pleasant little modern building, still standing, which I saw day by day swiftly being erected as I made my way to Parliament just before the Festival of Britain, is a palace compared with a thousand of the worst primary schools of the villages of our land. Also, the application of some of these new methods of house building is yielding very real advances in the speeding up of the housing programme, but I believe that they have not been by any means used enough for school building.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to encourage the new and revolutionary methods of school building—methods which the Ministry has already recommended patiently for the last two or three years to local authorities; and I believe he can do this very simply by adding schools, as I have asked him to do, to the programme of those local authorities whose needs are most desperate, but adding them on condition that they take up one of the various non-traditional types, using little or no steel, and able to be erected quickly—schools which can be built without making serious demands on the labour needed for traditional house building.

Let me illustrate the needs of two local education authorities I know intimately, having been a member of both—two authorities, neither of them Labour controlled, both gravely concerned about the children whose needs they have to meet in the next two years. There is Southampton, that had a programme of seven schools to be begun by March of this year. All work was postponed by this Government. Then the release came. One has so far actually been started. Three more are approved, but there has been delay in the final approval of those because the Minister has insisted on new modification of the plans which had already been approved.

But the remaining three of the seven schools have been struck off. In all, those three schools would have provided places for 1,600 junior and infant children. Two of them are on new housing estates, and the third is being built because we are rebuilding an area which was completely destroyed—quite literally, completely destroyed—by enemy action during the war.

It is no good telling the people of Southampton, or the local authority, to use huts, because the playgrounds in Southampton are already littered with huts. It is no good asking them to use church halls. Many of our churches were destroyed, or damaged, during the war, and we are using most of those which remain. If the Ministry would put back into the building programme at least one of the schools which has been cut out he would be rendering a great service to the children of Southampton.

Hampshire's programme has been slashed by a half. I am a member of the Hants County Council, and I know that the Minister has yielded to the local education authority's representations and put one school back into the programme; but the position is still grave in a county which is receiving overspill population from the boroughs. The cuts means serious problems ahead for the towns of Fordingbridge, Petersfield, Gosport and Eastleigh. It must be remembered that before it was cut the building programme by no means grappled with all the problems which the county had to face, and left secondary education in makeshift buildings in three or four other towns.

The greatest county of all—London— will face insurmountable problems if the cuts remain. Already, nearly half of her children are in classes of 40 or more, and her school programme was cut this year by 11,000 places. A debate in another place revealed that in Glasgow, even now, the average child population per class is 39.5. Each extra school granted, if the Minister will give the first part of what I ask for tonight, can solve only part of the problem which many of these areas have to face. Hampshire wants to spend more than £100,000 on providing unit classroom accommodation to get its children into school in the next two years. The Minister has refused permission for more than half that amount to be spent.

There are various types of prefabricated class rooms—timber, aluminium, and one prototype which I have seen at Christ-church of a classroom with timber frame and walls of masonite. These temporary, or semi-permanent, classrooms can be put up on one site and when they have served their purpose there can be taken down and used elsewhere. I therefore urge the Minister to make financial provision, or to allow local authorities to make financial provision, for providing the extra classrooms by some of the more modern types of prefabricated structure which I have mentioned.

The Horsa huts had defects, but they saved our children when secondary education for all was introduced. Thousands of children are learning science for the first time in hut laboratories built during the last five years. I believe that we can only cope with the grave crisis which confronts this country during the next ten years if we make a bold and rapid expansion of school building. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some satisfaction on some of the points I have raised.

Mr. Frederick Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

I want briefly to support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) for urgent reconsideration of the school building programme. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary, in replying, to consider the particular problems of my constituency, which also has the same problems as the constituency of my hon. Friend, that is, the special problems of the blitzed areas.

In West Ham many of the schools were destroyed by the blitz. Some of the schools which survived are old and dilapidated structures which certainly do not provide the proper environment for the enlightenment of our children. In the case of these blitzed areas the Government's cuts have been a grave and, in the case of West Ham, a disastrous blow to the plans of a progressive local authority. I plead for reconsideration of the school building cuts in the case of those areas.

12.41 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones) will not be surprised if I am not in a position to give him detailed answers about West Ham, about which I have had no particular notice. Nor can I answer in detail about Southampton and Hampshire, although the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) was kind enough to warn me that he would speak from his intimate knowledge of those areas. I did not think it was worth while getting out the detail, and I am glad I did not, because it was plain that whatever detail I got out would not be the right detail, and in any case one could not answer very quickly.

The peculiar difficulties, and the need for the right official consideration, of blitzed areas is fully understood, and I can assure the hon. Gentlemen that I will draw the attention of the persons principally concerned to Southampton and West Ham, although I should be misleading the House if I said I thought it would not be found that all is being done that could be done for those two districts. I will have that inquired into very carefully.

Referring to the opening remarks of the hon. Member for the Southampton, Test I thought it would be possible to discuss the matter without any partisanship. I have not read what was alleged to have been uttered by the Archdeacon. I do not think the continued casting of stones at the inadequacy of the buildings of some church schools is very helpful or a very generous return for the fact that, after all, it was the church school that got public education in this country at all.

But the part of his speech which seemed to me to deserve attention in the very short time I have—I do not mean that all his speech does not deserve attention—was the argument for what are called non-traditional methods, and perhaps I may usefully employ the five or six minutes left to me by saying something about that. Before I do so, I would say that he is in the mistake which many hon. Members will not shake themselves out of—that of talking continually as if the shortage of buildings were the decisive factor in the excessive largeness of classes. That is not the fact. So far as we can tell at present, or can guess about any immediate future, it is shortage of teachers, not shortage of buildings, which causes the excessive size of classes.

Incidentally, about the Tories coming in and jettisoning the whole school programme and all that, it has been said over and over again in the House and elsewhere that the last Government estimated that 1.15 million places were needed by the end of 1953 and it is still the belief of our technical advisers that, at the present rate of building, on present progress, that is the number that will be provided by then. I make bold to say that nobody who has been in office and heard the information which is then available would ever have supposed, or could now suppose, that a greater share of national resources could have been given to school building than has been given.

Let me come to this point about non-traditional methods. I join with the hon. Member in congratulating Hertfordshire —and no doubt there have been other counties—but it is fair to say that the Ministry itself has done a great deal in this matter. This is not by way of criticising L.E.As., but they have done more than any L.E.A. and more than all the L.E.As. put together.

All the methods of building without steel or with very little steel which he has suggested have, in fact, been urged upon L.E.As. by the Ministry. The Ministry started in 1949—and there is no party point about this, for in so far as credit goes to anyone it goes to the Socialist Government—an experiment in administration by bringing together in a single branch the educational expert, the administrative officer, the architect and the quantity surveyor so that the problem of building schools in ways not hitherto traditional should be looked at by all the professions concerned.

The results of that in reducing costs and in quickening building have been very great and are increasing. They are not limited by any want of zeal on the part of the Minister or the Ministry. They are limited wholly and solely by want of productive capacity in the industry. What the Ministry all along has done about it is both to design and help others to design to make the components, and so on, so that productive capacity should have its optimum effect. It has done and is still doing all that can be done to increase productive capacity. They are doing all these things with all the methods mentioned by the hon. Member, and in several places.

There is no doubt at all that the Ministry has done a very great deal in these respects—so much so, in fact, that the actual cost as compared with 1949 in terms of pounds sterling has been reduced by 25 per cent. If you look at the fall in the value of the £ in the intervening period, the reduction in the amount of labour and materials needed has been over 40 per cent. The proportion of non-traditional building which was 12 per cent. then is now 25 per cent.

and it is hoped in a couple of years to get it up to something like 50 per cent.

Therefore, it is not really necessary to do as the hon. Member suggested—and throw over what has been the permanent policy of all Governments of leaving L.E.As. to choose their own types of architecture and building—by saying to them, "The amount of building you shall get will be limited according to the proportion you do of non-traditional building." That was nevertheless, I think, the hon. Member's most positive suggestion. It is not necessary to do that because already non-traditional building is being used to the maximum of capacity. That capacity is being increased and there is no doubt that as fast as it can be increased it will be used. Really, therefore, the hon. Member is hitting at an open door and he is running his head against a brick wall that is not there.

It has been wholly the advice and suggestions of the Ministry that has resulted in bringing within the range of possibility the use of aluminium buildings for two and three stories. That will be another great step along the path in which the hon. Member is interested. I am sorry if my reply has been rushed. I hope I got those percentages right just now, because in the hurry to get them out I did not use my notes properly. I think that they were accurate.

I do not think that in an Adjournment debate, and in 10 minutes, it would be possible to give the hon. Gentleman a fuller answer than that I have given.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes to One o'Clock a.m.