HC Deb 17 April 1953 vol 514 cc605-14

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

Last week, the National Union of Teachers, at its annual conference, laid great stress on the problem of recruiting adequate numbers of the right type of person to the teaching profession. If the size of classes in this country is to be reduced this problem has to be given equal priority with that of school building, but if we are to attract the right type of person to the teaching profession it is quiet clear that the question of status is one that has to be taken into consideration.

The status of the teacher is closely linked with the subject of conditions in the training colleges, and it is because I am aware of the seriousness of this problem that I wish to raise the question of the Bangor Normal Training College this afternoon. This has quite recently leapt into unwelcome publicity due to an incident in the college to which I am not proposing to refer this afternoon, although my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Iorwerth Thomas) will, I believe, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, try to catch your eye.

My sole concern is with the general atmosphere in which teachers are trained for their responsible duties to the community. We are fortunate that, in the main, our university colleges in this country are staffed by men and women of great vision and great personal qualities. For my part, I owe an inestimable debt to the understanding and inspiration of my tutors at college. The Parliamentary Secretary himself has a distinguished record in one of our older universities.

and he will know the strong links which are forged in college days. When I listen to him in the House sometimes I wonder what my reaction would have been had I been one of his students, but Providence spared both him and me from that experience.

It is no light burden that the principals and staffs of our colleges carry, and they deserve the utmost consideration from us all. The House will realise, therefore, that it is not in any sense of irresponsibility that I raise the question of conditions at the Bangor Normal Training College. I speak for myself as a schoolmaster, although I have indeed discussed this matter with the National Union of Students. If further troubles are to be avoided in this North Wales college the responsible governors must look again at the regulations which prevail in that place.

The great majority of teachers' training colleges have long since realised that teachers in training are not to be treated as children who cannot be trusted with any measure of responsibility. Over the great part of the country training college governors give parity of treatment to their students with those in practice in the universities and university colleges. Those who are going to enter the teaching profession enjoy in most colleges the same or similar freedoms as those who are entering the professions of medicine or the law or the church or any other of the great professions.

It is customary today for enlightened college authorities to entrust their students with a wide measure of responsibility for their activities, to give to the students' union responsibility for self-government with the benevolent interest and support of the principal and the staff, and I have every reason to believe that the Minister of Education herself supports this enlightened policy.

But for far too long teaching, which is the mother and father of all the other professions, has been regarded as the Cinderella, the poor relation. I know that status is more than£s. d., and goodness knows, in£s. d., teaching lags behind and the teachers will have to have due justice done to their claims. But if even from their college training days teachers are to be treated as less responsible or inferior persons, we shall frighten away from the profession some of the best and most desirable recruits we could have to our schools.

Let us look at the rules which prevail in Bangor Normal Training College. I have heard it referred to as Bangor Abnormal Training College. Lights are put out by a main switch at 10 o'clock at night.

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

I wish they were here.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman may wish they were put out at 10 o'clock here, but if they were put out compulsorily here he might protest. There is not a university or university college in the country where these spartan conditions prevail. At the other two colleges in Bangor—St. Mary's College for Girls and the University College—there are no rules at all about the hour at which students extinguish their lights.

Let us look at the smoking rule. When I was in college I never had enough money to be able to smoke and it was long after I left college that I grew accustomed to that unfortunate habit. Smoking is permitted in this country. In Bangor Normal Training College it is permitted after eight o'clock at night—for people who are about to enter one of the most honourable professions in the land. In the other two colleges of Bangor—which is a small cathedral city, where the students intermingle when they are outside college—the students are allowed to smoke in their own rooms when they like. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, it is the same in almost every college in the land. The imposition of such pettifogging restrictions is asking for trouble when we are dealing with young people of spirit and intitia-tive—and if they have not those qualities they should not be in a teachers' training college.

But it is when we come to the question of being allowed to meet members of the opposite sex that we find the college governors at their best. Prudery reigns supreme. In both the other colleges men and women visitors are allowed in at specified times. Not so in Bangor Normal. We seem to have a hangover at that college from the days when every girl who was about to enter a teachers' training college was expected to reconcile herself to be a spinster for the rest of her days.

The governors of Bangor Normal College ought to put more trust in their students who are, I am quite sure, of the same good fibre as the students in the other colleges in that ancient city. Teaching is a noble profession. It is also an exacting profession. It calls for qualities of character which are not encouraged by an atmosphere of restriction and an atmosphere of distrust.

What do we look for in a teacher? A teacher needs the patience of Job, the courage of a Daniel, the initiative of a pioneer, the daring of a Raleigh. He is for ever giving himself in service, but he is conscious in the classroom that his every word and gesture is being carefully watched by the youngsters in his care. I submit to the Parliamentary Secretary that we shall not produce the type of teacher we want by the sort of conditions which prevail at Bangor Normal Training College and, I believe, at one or two other training colleges. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he will give the House an assurance that the Minister is anxious that students' unions be encouraged, that the principal and staff should co-operate, bearing in mind, all the time, that we are conscious of the heavy obligations and responsibilities which the staff carry. Where these students are entrusted with freedom it is not abused, but in the very exceptional case.

There is a college near here, the Westminster Methodist College, that has no rules at all, but everyone seems to behave there, and life is well conducted. Will the hon. Gentleman appeal to the governors and to the principal and staff of Bangor Normal College to look again at their regulations, so that future trouble in this college may be avoided, and also that the students there shall feel and enjoy the same degree of self-respect which their fellow students in the other colleges are privileged to enjoy?

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Iorwerth Thomas (Rhondda, West)

I shall be brief, because I want to give opportunity to the Parliamentary Secretary to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas). I believe that as the result of the conduct of the governors of the Bangor Normal College, in response to the letter that was sent to them by the Minister of Education, they have dispelled any doubts that the public may have had about the guilt or bad behaviour of the students of this college. I think that they have treated the Minister's letter in respect of the expulsion of Miss Sheila Davies with a certain amount of contempt, and have displayed a type of infantile conduct.

If this board of governors is prepared, after conscious deliberation, to treat a Minister of the Crown in such a manner the public will quite imagine what treatment is meted out to the young, un-matured students at Bangor College. The governors are displaying a very antiquated, a medieval and even monastic attitude towards the young girls at this college, and are concerned about preparing young girls rather for the convent than the classroom.

As my hon. Friend has indicated, we all appreciate the responsibilities of a teacher in the classroom. A teacher has to effect discipline. A teacher's first task is to main discipline over his or her pupils. The best form of discipline begins with self-discipline, gained by experience, and I believe that that experience can be gained only to the extent that some latitude is given to them when they are students. There is, therefore, no valid argument that can be adduced by the governing body at Bangor to prevent the students at Bangor College from enjoying the free facilities and the latitude that are given to their contemporaries in neighbouring colleges.

While I realise that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have no statutory powers to interfere, where they have statutory powers to interfere, and where the case of Sheila Davies was referred to them for adjudication, substantially the decision of the Ministry was against the governing body at Bangor. I hope that, as a result of this very short debate and the expressions of opinion given here this afternoon, the Governors will change their attitude and be more flexible about this matter in the future than they have been in the past. Unless they do show a change of attitude and of mind on this problem of the regulations at Bangor College, we are bound to expect a certain amount of ferment, or the stirring of the waters again.

Not only in the interests of the students—because the students are there for two or three years and then go—but for the sake of the very good record, scholastic and academic, and of the traditions of Bangor College itself, which they want to preserve and in which they take a great deal of pride, they have a duty to perform, and I trust that the Minister can by persuasion, or by an indirect approach, make a contribution to settle this problem at Bangor and avoid a recurrence of the difficulties that have been experienced there during the past four weeks.

4.17 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I want to add just a very few words, if I may, as a North Wales representative in the House in support of the pleas made by my hon. Friends. In North Wales we have been seriously concerned at recent events in Bangor. We are indeed proud of the university college in Bangor and of the training colleges, and I am sure we shall be very much heartened if the Parliamentary Secretary is able today to give us some reassurance about this matter.

My own county council in Flintshire have expressed the opinion that the conditions in this training college should be examined by the governors. We very much hope they will do so in a liberal and constructive spirit and that they will not allow any feelings of, shall we say, false pride owing to recent events to stand in the way of reforms which I think most sensible people feel are long overdue.

4.18 p.m.

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

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would wish me to begin by thanking the hon. Members for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), Rhondda, West (Mr. Iorwerth Thomas) and Flint, East (Mrs. White) for the very reasonable and moderate language they have used.I was much gratified by the views of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West, not only about the right type of person for the teaching profession, but also, as I gathered, about the normal type. Though I scarcely recognised myself in the picture he drew, yet I found it gratifying; whether he was drawing a picture of me or of himself I am not quite certain, but I found it very gratifying indeed. I was not quite certain whether the habit to which he said old age had accustomed him was the habit of smoking or the habit of not having enough money to buy tobacco.

Of course, it is true that pettifogging restrictions ask for trouble. The difficulty is in deciding what is pettifogging. I am sure the hon. Members who have spoken will agree with what I think has been the traditional view on all sides in politics, that the variety of our educational arrangements, in training colleges as much as in universities, is a thing to be preserved. One wants as little as possible any central attempt to render things "normal", in the sense of a foot-rule being normal.

Where there have been difficulties more than usual it may perhaps be presumed that there are more matters that require looking into than elsewhere, and we may hope, if we all speak moderately and reasonably about them, that the thing will be put right on the site rather than that it should be put right by too much direction from this House or from Cur-zon Street. I am sure that is the desire we all have. I think that I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend is very carefully and cautiously determined to do all in her power to ease the situation.

Concerning the restrictions at this particular college, I think, so far as I can tell from looking at the papers and cross-examining the persons best informed, that it is true that there are perhaps more regulations and rather tighter regulations at this college than at most such colleges, or almost all such colleges. The Minister understands that the representations made by the women students for some relaxation are still being considered by the college authorities. The Minister has asked to be informed of the results of such reconsideration.

There is a committee of 32 members and I suppose each of them may wish to consult his constitutive authority; and there are six separate counties, as, I think, the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East indicated to the House; and bodies of this kind do not meet like Cabinets, once or twice a week. But I have no doubt that they will get on with it as soon as they reasonably can. If not, my right hon. Friend will make such further inquiries as she may consider to be called for.

About the more general question. I suppose we would all agree that the internal discipline and social life of a college should be left as far as possible to the college authorities themselves; and beyond the college authorities to those local authorities which stand behind them. The Minister is most reluctant to interfere with their discretion where that can be avoided.

As to the management of the college—I am not sure whether I have heard the hon. Member for Cardiff, West say this, but I certainly have heard some of his colleagues who think as he does, speak profoundly on the theory that a headmaster ought to be captain on his own quarterdeck. That is true of schools, and I hope that it is true of training colleges, too. We all wish the principal to be principal, and we would wish him to delegate as much as he reasonably can to his assistants and also to student bodies. I can assure hon. Members, if they need the assurance, that we would wish that as much such delegation as possible should happen.

We have, on the other hand, two things to remember in this connection which are not always remembered. Speaking rather more generally and not thinking only of Bangor, there are two things to be remembered about this: One is, of course, that the principal and his immediate assistants remain "responsible"—in one sense of that rather ambiguous word—because if disaster happens to some particular student because of excessive looseness of regulations or the management of regulations there is a responsibility on the person who is in loco parentis which none of the students can possibly share. That we have to face and remember all the time.

There is another thing also about which the House will perhaps permit me to claim some authority from my own experience. The colleges with which I am most familiar are not exactly the same as these colleges but, nevertheless, there are similarities and analogies. What matters most of all to the freedom of students and undergraduates is that the individual student or undergraduate should have free and confidential access to the senior persons in the institution to which he belongs. Therefore, one must all the time watch the development, and even in some cases the manufacture and pullulation, of representative bodies—in a student body of 350 members, there may be as many as 10 or 11 different committees.

One must continually watch the development of such committees to make sure that they do not over-develop the committee type of consultation with the senior persons—the principals, assistant-principals, tutors, and so on; that they do not over-develop the corporate ways of doing that, rather at the expense of the individual ways. That can happen if only by personal habit. Once a person gets into the way of thinking that the only way of walking from one point to another is throughout a particular gate, even if five other gates are equally open to him, he may never think of using the others. So that in my judgment the point is not sufficiently weighed—if one can weigh a point—when we consider this matter of student councils and of communications between students and their seniors.

Mr. F. Beswick (Uxbridge)

There is some difficulty in weighing that particular point.

Mr. Pickthorn

I do not think that any particular point can be weighed. It is one of those matters of consideration and judgment, which I do not think is very much more difficult than most such matters; and, of course, they all are very difficult; otherwise we should long ago have been in an earthly paradise.

I wanted to say a word about the remarks of the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Iorwerth Thomas), who spoke of the pride which the college takes in its academic record. I have nothing to say on how it compares with other colleges. Obviously, I have not looked it up and I do not know, but I have no doubt that their record is a very good one. I am sure that they will wish to avoid any risk that this trouble should be the one thing that is remembered in connection with Bangor.

Status is a matter of personal prejudice. I am a little shy about claiming status for myself or anybody else, and am always afraid that considering status tends to the muddling of thought. Of course, most people are more affected, perhaps, in their choice of profession by their general feeling about it than by any calculation of what their earning capacity will be at the age of 30, 40 or 50. One of the things that makes for the status of a profession is the amount of respect and affection with which the educative institutions leading to it are regarded by their former members.

It is, therefore, highly desirable from everyone's point of view that Bangor should look into these matters. I have already assured the House that my right hon. Friend has made some inquiry on that point and that further inquiry would be made as soon as possible. I cannot promise that the college will go as far as Westminster College have gone. Westminster College, I suppose—it is another of the benefits that we owe to the House of Lords—have caught from another place the habit of getting on without any rules, but I cannot promise that their Lordships' good example will spread as far as Bangor during my right hon. Friend's incumbency. However, I promise the House that whatever chance or hope there may be of that happening, my right hon. Friend will do her best to encourage it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes past Four o'Clock.