HC Deb 17 December 1953 vol 522 cc700-8

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I wish to raise tonight the question of the supply and training of teachers. It is common knowledge that there is a crisis in the schools of Britain at the present time. For the past 18 months the Minister of Education has been warning the nation that, far from lowering the size of classes in our State schools, she can only envisage an increase in the size in the foreseeable future.

Her problems are two-fold. First with regard to the supply of buildings, and second with regard to the supply of teachers. I am not concerned in this debate with the supply of buildings. That is too large a subject to combine with the supply of teachers in an Adjournment debate. There is a terrible temptation for the Minister of Education and for the authorities concerned to debase the coinage or to lower the standards of qualification in the profession when they are anxious to increase the numbers.

The National Union of Teachers is so concerned on this question that for the past four years they have at their national conference unanimously passed a resolution dealing with this subject. At Easter of this year the N.U.T. passed the following resolution: Conference reaffirms its opposition to any lowering of the standards for entry into the teaching profession and declares that at the normal age of entry into the profession candidates should possess not less than the minimum qualification required for entry into a training college or university. At the same time, in view of the increasing shortage of teachers, Conference urges the Ministry of Education and Local Education Authorities to take urgent measures to increase the supply of such qualified teachers. Mr. Ronald Gould, who is general secretary of the N.U.T., underlined that resolution in his annual report to the Conference. He declared: It is too much to expect a high status for the teaching profession unless quality is maintained. It is too much to expect university status for training colleges unless they are as careful about academic standards as are the universities themselves. He continued, in referring to exception entries to college: we shall make sure that the exception is really exceptional, or the professional standards of teachers will be debased. During the past few weeks I have been questioning the Minister of Education about the number of students admitted to training colleges for teachers without possessing the normal academic qualifications. I understand that in 1950, 216 such students were admitted; in 1951, the figure went up to 454; in 1952 up to 775; and in 1953, it dropped a little to 624. In a matter of four years 2,069 people have been admitted to the teaching profession without any known academic qualification.

The Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to this debate, is as well fitted as anybody in the country to appreciate the importance of the proper academic qualifications being forthcoming from entrants to the teaching profession. But the profession itself has not been niggling on this point. It has recognised that there are outstanding people with outstanding gifts, and that special cases call for special treatment. There is, however, an anxiety lest too many are entering the the profession in this way. Some of these people may well have qualifications better than a good general certificate of education, but the majority will be lower.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to break down the figures that the Minister has given to the House and to say how they have been arrived at. Perhaps he will tells us how many entrants have been admitted with foreign equivalents to our school certificate, and how many have entered training colleges solely on the basis that they are good at music, art or physical training. The Ministry of Education must know these figures; it certainly had them broken down a year ago. I trust the Ministry has them for the present time in order that the teaching profession, which has co-operated well with the responsible authorities, shall know what is happening to the profession in this regard.

The teaching profession has a right to know whether dilution is taking place, if I may mix my metaphors, through the back door.

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

That is all right.

Mr. Thomas

If the Parliamentary Secretary says it is all right, I am quite at ease, because I know he is keen on that sort of thing. I ask him what relationship, if any, there is between the high incidence of exceptional entry into colleges in certain areas and the low proportion of grammar school places available in the same areas. In Manchester, 15.5 per cent. of the school children can enter a secondary grammar school. Manchester admitted 110 women under this exceptional clause without any known academic qualifications. Lancashire's figures as a whole are fairly low for the number of grammar school places available.

In Wales, an average of 33 per cent. of places is available in the grammar schools for the children. We admitted only seven under the exceptional clause. In Birmingham, I understand, 14.8 per cent. of the places are available upon a percentage basis of the child population. Birmingham has admitted 92 women to college under this exceptional clause. It is interesting that over the country as a whole, the grammar school places available vary from 9 per cent. in Gateshead to 69 per cent. or thereabouts in Merioneth, in Wales.

Can the Minister tonight give the House an assurance that the children in Gateshead are having a fair chance to take this general certificate of education to get into the training college? Otherwise, it is quite easy to understand why the exceptional figures are higher in some areas than in others.

I should like to draw the Minister's attention to two other points, and shall do so briefly because I know that one of my hon. Friends would like to speak. The Minister will be aware that this year again there are vacancies in the training colleges. I believe that 250 places in the women's colleges were unfilled. The hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) will well appreciate that one of the reasons why there are 250 vacancies in women's colleges is that she and those of us in this House who join with her have been unsuccessful in persuading any Government to grant equal pay and thus help recruitment to the profession.

I understand that the housecraft and physical training colleges are full. It is the general colleges which still have 250 vacancies. What steps is the Parliamen- tary Secretary taking to provide suitable candidates to fill those vacancies? He needs the teachers. Even if every place were filled, the size of classes in our schools would still be far too large.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied that the inconsistency between the grants given to the teacher and the university student in training has not a very serious effect on recruitment to the training colleges? I understand that, on an average, the student who enters the teachers'training colleges receives £70 a year less than the equivalent student who enters a university to go into one of the other professions. But it costs the student in the training college just as much to live and just as much for his books and his sports subscription as it does the other, and if he is living away from home, the burden is quite as severe.

Recently a joint meeting was held of representatives of the Association of Teachers in Colleges and Departments of Education and the National Union of Teachers. The meeting took place on 20th November. It considered the inadequacy of grants paid by the Ministry of Education and local education authorities—who are a jolly sight worse than the Ministry, although I say it reluctantly—to students in training colleges. The organisations stated afterwards that the inadequacy of the grants results in a shortage of applicants for admission to the colleges and also in a number of withdrawals from those who have already accepted. They also drew attention to the fact that hardship is caused to some students because of the insufficiency of the part of the grant which is within the purview of local education authorities. In the opinion of the two organisations, an adequate supply of candidates for teaching depends upon the grants being comparable with those given to students at universities.

I hope that tonight the Parliamentary Secretary will be as forthcoming as possible, for in dealing with the teaching profession he is dealing with a body of reasonable people who have, as I said, gone out of their way to be helpful towards the Ministry and the local authorities whenever they can. Teachers are not given to being "niggly" when it comes to the great issues of education, but they have a right to expect that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary will take them into their confidence and tell them what is happening to the profession, whether their standards are being protected and whether the future holds the possibility of the three-year course being begun by 1960, which I understand is suggested by the Minister's Advisory Council.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) has raised an important subject this evening and has dealt with it in his usual attractive manner—the subject of securing in the right manner a sufficient number of entrants into the teaching profession. My hon. Friend has rightly emphasised that there is strong opposition amongst organised teachers to any attempt to lower the standards of entry into this profession. Any lowering of those standards would necessarily lower the quality of the teachers obtained by such methods, and in a short time it would have an adverse effect upon the education of the children. Far from asking for the standards of entry to be lowered, teachers are asking that, whenever it is possible, the standards of entry should be made higher. My hon. Friend has indicated, for example, that instead of the usual two-year course at the teachers' training colleges it should be changed to three years as soon as possible.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be agreed that the worst fault in our national system of education is the large number of very large classes which we have at present. We have over 40,000 classes in our State schools containing more than 40 each on the roll, and among those there are more than 1,000 with more than 50 on the roll. In my humble judgment, the most urgent reform of all in education is a substantial reduction in the size of classes, and it is generally agreed by all educationists that there should not be more than 30 children in any class. In order to bring down the size of classes to a maximum of 30 on the roll, there would need to be at least 50,000 additional teachers. I am anxious to know, therefore, what programme the Ministry has to secure this additional number of teachers so that the size of the classes can be reduced.

Most intending teachers stay at the grammar school until they are 18 years of age and then either take a two-year course at a training college or a four-year course at a university. Unfortunately, more than 50 per cent. of grammar school children leave the grammar schools at 16 years of age or earlier, and among those are some of the cleverest children, so my friends who are teachers in grammar schools inform me. I should think it might be possible, without lowering the standard of entry into the profession, to devise a scheme by which some of those children who have left at 16 and gone into various occupations and employments, after a few years' time might be given a refresher course which would bring them up to the standard necessary to enter into a training college and to qualify as teachers.

I am wondering whether we can get the additional teachers we need altogether by the present normal method of entry into the teaching profession. If we could find an additional method of entry which would not involve any lowering of the standards of those who enter the profession, that would be useful, and it would enable us to get the large number of additional teachers that are required if the classes in our State schools are to be brought down to manageable proportions and to a size at which a decent education will be possible. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with that point in addition to those raised by my hon. Friend.

10.20 p.m.

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

I am very willing to take hon. Members into my confidence which is, I will not say recondite, but profound; I do not see how I can take them very far intoit in the time which they have left me, but I will do my best. I hope that they will do me the justice of admitting that they have heard me in debates of this kind before, and that I have tried to make a debate and not simply recite my own piece. But on this occasion I have things which I wish particularly to say, and I think that almost all of them do meet almost head-on the points which they have made. Therefore, I shall spend less time than I normally should on the things that they said, merely permitting myself one or two remarks about them.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) thought that the supply of buildings was too big a subject to discuss. I think indeed that it is. I think that a good many heads have been broken against that subject; the hon. Member's head is no doubt worth preserving, and it would not do itself any good by running itself any longer against brick walls—though I permit myself the view that God would not have allowed walls to be built if he had not intended heads to be run against them.

I sympathise with the anxiety of hon. Members about the teaching profession. There are Germans and even Frenchmen who have described our epoch as the age of "Angst." It used to be called "accidie," and it is an emotion which has been with us for a long time; but it has never been a very constructive emotion.

No doubt our teachers are very anxious about their profession, but some of those who speak for them and are anxious that the administration should keep up to the mark in this matter get near to asserting their desires as if they were part of the eternal verities. Their desires are not part of the eternal verities, and I ask them to reflect on some simple arithmetic in these matters. I do not know what they think the proportion of teachers to the total population should be. I am sure it should not be 10 per cent. I doubt whether it should be 5 per cent. I do not know what percentage hon. Members opposite think the population would stand of idle unproductive persons.

Let me not be misunderstood. I speak hare in the sea sense, in the sense of the idle watch. Those who are neither on the starboard watch nor on the port watch are called the idle watch. It does not mean that they do less or more work than other men. But there is a critical percentage of the population engaged in what seems to others not directly productive work, and that may seem to them too high a percentage of idleness.

I do not put too much on this, and I should not like to be cross-examined on it, but something between 1½ and 2 per cent. of the working population of England and Wales are teachers of one sort or another. Therefore, we have to face the fact that this enormous and difficult problem of getting enough teachers is not to be solved very easily, or by dint of saying that this is scandalous or that is wicked.

I agree with hon. Members opposite in their view that they and their friends are reasonable people. No doubt the N.U.T. is a body of reasonable people, although many philosophers have held that there is no such thing as a reasonable body of people. That is too deep a question for me at the moment but it is a matter on which they might well reflect.

Now I come as quickly as I can to the things which we must speak about tonight. Some 11,300 men and women have been recruited to teaching this year. That is the number going to training colleges, and it is a larger number than in any previous year, and if we add to them the 3,100 who take professional teaching after university courses, the number is 14,500. That is more than anyone has ever had before.

I always hate to make any kind of boast or optimistic prophecy, either in my personal or public affairs, but I think we can safely say that it now seems likely that we can keep up this sort of momentum. If we can keep up this momentum, there will not be any serious deterioration of national staffing standards whilst the children born in the prolific post-war years are passing through the schools. That does not mean that they will all be as well taught as I should like my grandchildren to be taught. Nevertheless, it is an achievement for which I think any Minister of Education in the last few years is perfectly entitled to take credit. I do not think any Minister could have done perceptibly more.

As to the exceptional admissions to training colleges: the area training organisations were given, in 1949, authority to consider such cases. I do not think it is disputed of those who are admitted by right of performance in the General Certificate of Education Examination that they have passed a hurdle as difficult to get over as in the old days under the School Certificate Examination. I would not dare to say which is the more difficult, but I do not think anyone says that the standard is any lower than before. Therefore, if there has been any degradation, it is not with them that we are concerned, but it is with those admitted exceptionally. Those admitted exceptionally were less this last year than the year before, as the hon. Member said. They amounted to something over 5 per cent. of all those admitted. Not all of the exceptionally-admitted students are without academic qualification. I cannot analyse them exactly, as was asked, for various reasons—mainly because I have not the information—but, even if I had, I think it would perhaps be a dubious enterprise to enter upon. I can analyse them to some extent, and I can say that, of the 624 such students, 124 possess Irish, Scottish, Army or other academic qualifications. The Scottish qualifications may be as good.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)


Mr. Pickthorn

We are discussing English education and Welsh, and we want no interference from my hon. Friend. Another 241 had some General Certificate or School Certificate qualifications, although not those within the Regulations. So that means 259, considerably less than half the students in question, who did not come into one or other of these categories. Those are tested by the area organisations, some by interview, some, I was also going to say, by ad hoc examination, but the Duke of Wellington, when asked by a Parliamentary orator how he should perform, said, "Say what you have to say, don't quote Latin and sit down," so I withdraw "ad hoc."

Some enter subject to a special examination and some—I say this with diffidence—are subjected to something like the "country house" inquisition, to which certain budding civil servants have been subjected. In any case, I think it can be agreed that one cannot get a definition of the written examinations which would be perfect in itself and cover all people whom we might want to get in. I think that must be admitted, and such evidence as we have collected—I do not say very much, but it is all there is—shows that the exceptionally admitted students do as well on the average in passing examinations and are as well thought of by the authorities as the ordinarily admitted students.

The Question having been proposed at 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 Half-past Ten o'Clock.