HC Deb 20 February 1953 vol 511 cc1686-96

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

4.1 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton Test)

The women wage earners of this country will be disappointed that the luck of the Ballot has deprived me of expressing their sense of disappointment and injustice at the failure of the Treasury to implement a promise given to this House on the question of equal pay for men and women.

To turn to the subject of my Adjournment Motion, under the Labour Government we had an expanding school building programme. More schools were built in that period than at any time in the history of the country, and each year's programme was much bigger than that of the year before. This was inevitable and necessary. Inevitable as it took some years for L.E.A.'s to get into stride with their post-war programmes, and necessary because of the sensational rise in child population which followed the war.

There was the need to provide for a population of over one million extra children and for 1,250,000 school places by 1953, and 1,750,000 extra school places by 1957. This Government, as is well known, proposed a three to four months' ban on new school building, preventing the building of new schools already on the production line, and severely cut the L.E.A.'s 1952–53 programmes.

Again and again the Minister has sheltered behind the number of schools actually opened during her period of office, behind the amount of sehool building being done at the moment, and has basked in the reflected glory of what I might call the Tomlinson school building programme, while by her acts she has made inevitable grave shortages in the years immediately ahead.

In 1951, new work was started to the value of £36,500,000, or 514 schools. But in the first 11 months of 1952 the new work started was only £23,500,000, or 325 schools. For the year 1953–54 the Minister has approved work to the value of £37,400,000, or 409 schools. This is better than for the year 1952–53. It seems to be a sign of a reversal of policy, but grave damage has already been done.

We have to remember that the programmes planned by the Labour Government had been cut to the bone and that L.E.A.'s do not submit school building programmes just for fun, but weigh very carefully the question of every school they propose to build. While cutting school building, this Government spent £51 million more on defence last year, and £123 million more on defence in the second year. The Supplementary Estimates on defence this year amount to more than the cost of three years' new school building.

I propose to illustrate what is happening up and down the country as a result of these cuts. Over a year ago there were 35,000 classes with over 40 children in each, and 1,200 classes with over 50. As early as January, 1952, there were 1,500,000 school children in England in classes of over 40 pupils, and the number has increased since then. There were already over 3,000 classes with over 40 pupils in our secondary schools. That number has increased and will continue to increase dramatically unless swift action is taken.

In Sheffield, the Minister's embargo of November, 1951, cost two secondary schools and a primary school—1,480 pupil places. In the 1952–53 programme a similar cut was made. In the 1953–54 programme seven secondary and three primary schools were submitted, of which four secondary and two primary schools were cut out. The loss or postponement for Sheffield affects 3,500 places. This is in a town with 765 classes of more than 40 and 148 classes of more than 50 pupils. It is true that the children have been accommodated, but only by using church halls and Sunday schools. While grappling with infant accommodation, Sheffield looks fearfully ahead at the problem of finding secondary places.

In Staffordshire, the 1951–52 programme provided 2,920 primary and 1,420 secondary places. These were cut to 600 and 610 respectively. The 1952–53 primary programme was for 3,840 places and this was cut to 2,760. Staffordshire has lost more than 1,000 much needed places.

Durham's cuts have pushed back 1,400 primary places—five schools by a year —720 grammar school places at Consett and much needed technical provision. This is in a county with 454 classes of over 40.

In London, the embargo postponed 11 projects for 10,000 places and six repair projects for 1,100 places. These in later programmes have pushed out the schools originally intended for those programmes. The effect is to delay the bringing into use of 8,000 to 10,000 places in London with 2,880 classes—more than a quarter —with more than 40 pupils.

Birmingham, faced with similar cuts and delays in vital programmes, has barely got its infants into school by using emergency buildings, more transport, large classes and rigidly applying the rule of not admitting until the term after the age of five. But Birmingham is gravely aware of the looming problem of secondary school accommodation. This year it has 56,000 secondary pupils. By 1957 it will have 74,000, nearly half as many again, and will have 44 schools of the 500 which are wanted.

I have spoken before of Southampton, where playgrounds are cluttered with huts, and Hampshire, where almost the whole of the current building programme has had to be allocated to a single overspill area. I will give two individual examples. I see from the Press that Northwood Primary School, in Middlesex, has decided to provide two extra classroom spaces, one by erecting a partition in the dininghall and another by converting the school keeper's store in the play shed into a classroom. The wife of one of my hon. Friends is a manager of a Chelsea primary school with classes all over 48 and with play times staggered because there is not enough room for all the children in the playground at the same time.

In Northumberland, the embargo stopped at two schools for 1,000 places. Four schools were submitted in 1952–53 and one of them was cut out. Northumberland has 478 classes of over 40. My friend the chairman of the county council tells me that the programmes submitted by his L.E.A. had already been pruned to absolute essentials before they went to the Ministry. It is clear that the cuts have prevented the coming into use during the next two years of 100,000 to 200.000 places.

We are inclined to think that the birthrate, having gone up dramatically, is now back to pre-war. It is true that our infants schools are meeting the peak now. The 1948 babies were 280,000 more than the 1936–40 average. But the 1950 babies are 90,000 and the 1951 babies are 70,000 more than that of 1936–40 average. The bulge is receding only slowly. Southampton, which was thinking of giving every child not yet at school a Coronation present, found that it had another 16,000 children under school age with 27,000 in school.

Local authorities are by no means out of the primary wood yet. An answer to a recent Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Morley) shows that local education authorities in Southampton, Portsmouth, Hants, Surrey and West Sussex have 28 primary and only five secondary schools in their 1952–53 programme. These figures are significant. They show that these authorities are still grappling with the problem of providing essential primary school accommodation when they should be getting on with the job of providing secondary school accommodation.

Local education authorities do not start to tackle this grave problem with school accommodation which is adequate even before the bulge hits them in four years' time. The accommodation was meant for the pre-war child population. Many old schools were made into secondary schools by adding Horsa huts. Many conform to the 1914 standard of one classroom for 60 children. Many still have no handicraft rooms, science laboratories, libraries, or assembly halls, which make secondary education possible. There are 300,000 secondary school children still in all-age schools where, in the nature of things, accommodation is a terrible problem.

Where in the pre-war years there was a new senior school built, it may be possible to cope with the threatened increase in the school population of some 40 per cent. which is envisaged in the next seven or eight years. But what about all the other schools? In my own town, secondary schools are comfortably full now, some uncomfortably so. Into them, from the crowded infant and junior schools, the church halls, chapels and huts in the country will pour in five years' time a record secondary school population; and we shall have classes of 40 and 50 which are already causing so much anxiety to junior and infant school teachers.

Like many other towns, we in Southampton are proud of what we have done for secondary modern education. But all this noble experiment will be jeopardised in the next 10 years unless we solve the problem of secondary school accommodation. I have no time to speak of the slum schools, which house hundreds of teachers and thousands of children, or the special schools we need so much. There are 10,000 sub-normal children still waiting for special education. I have no time to speak of the vast demand for special school programmes for the physically handicapped. I think of a spastic child to whom I talked at a children's party which I attended in Southampton last Saturday.

I appeal to the Minister to return to what I would call the Tomlinson programme. I was one who thought that even that programme was not enough. The 1953–54 programme looks healthier than that of last year, but it does not go far enough. Tory and Socialist local authorities have been trekking to Whitehall this past 12 months begging to be allowed to build. This is not a party matter. I know the chairman of the Southampton local education authority who is the present Mayor of Southampton. Politically, he is an opponent of mine, but he is a life-long enthusiast for children. I am certain that he shares my concern and that of my hon. Friend the member for Southamption, Itchen, in this matter.

Ironically enough, it is this Government who have said to the local education authorities that Whitehall knows best. The Government must face the fact that we cannot put the 1944 Act into operation without paying for it. There are 200,000 extra children pouring into the schools each year. They need places, books, desks and teachers. We cannot provide for Britain's future on the cheap.

I believe that we can build schools without interfering with house building. I have repeatedly urged, both here and elsewhere, that local education authorities should move away from brick schools to the non-traditional type which do not need bricks and bricklayers. They are moving that way, but not fast enough. We are a generation providing for a large population of old folk, and a large up and coming population of young folk, which raises a very grave problem.

We may have to reallocate the burden between State and local education authorities. The Government ought to examine the effect of the rate of interest on the cost of school buildings which county councils and other local authorities are finding so terrible to face when they look at their annual budgets. But these are details which must not sidetrack us from the simple fact that if we want to educate our children it will cost money.

I still maintain that education is by no means getting its fair share of the nation's capital investment programme. Our best capital investment is that which we make in our young children. In a previous debate the Minister said that the problem was not one so much of school buildings as of the supply of teachers. I hope that I have shown that that is not true. The problem is one both of school accommodation and of the supply of teachers. One cannot hide from one of these problems by sheltering behind the other.

This debate gives me an opportunity to ask the Minister what he has done to see that the supply of teachers is stepped up, just as I urge him to take greater steps to see that the supply of school places is stepped up. This infant bulge, which now is uncomfortably housed in our primary schools, which will hit our secondary schools like a blizzard within the next four or five years.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to make a clear statement about how far the building programme has progressed to meet the needs of the ever increasing number of children who will be coming into our schools this year, next year and the year after that, and also the needs of the new council estates which are arising all over the country and each of which will require a new school to serve the children living on the estate.

I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that we are not pressing this business for the sake of some political advantage. There is grave apprehension throughout educational circles over the rate of progress of school building. A high ranking figure in the education world, Dr. W. P. Alexander, the General Secretary of the Association of Education Committees, said recently that he thought that there would be 100,000 children by September for whom there would be no school places.

The Government put a three month moratorium on school building at the end of 1951 and the beginning of 1952. Many of the schools which should have been started in 1952 were postponed to 1953. Part of the 1953 programme has been postponed to 1954. There is very great anxiety about this. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give clear and lucid figures about the number of school places which will be provided this year and next year to meet the increasing child population. He should not try to ride off on the assertion that although fewer schools were started in 1952 than in 1951, those that were started are being completed more quickly. Even if that were so, it would not make up the cuts that have been made.

4.19 p.m.

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

I am afraid that I really cannot accept the invitation extended to me that I should not say the things which hon. Gentlemen opposite always find unanswerable. There used to be a time in this House when it was always shouted, "Do not be provocative" if one said anything to which Transport House had not already provided a written answer. Really, I thought that we had now got beyond that and that we might be allowed to debate in our own way. I will do the best I can in the time allowed to me.

I was interested to be told that school building programmes always expanded under Socialist Governments at the beginning of a debate which ended in my being told that there was no party point in this business, because if the programmes always expanded under a Socialist Government for six years and the result of that was that we are in the shortage we are in now, it seems to raise some presumption against automatically expanding programmes.

I cannot take seriously—and, indeed, I am almost bound to say that I am compelled not to take seriously any part of the speech—that part of the speech which complains that more money is spent on something else, as if a Divine Providence had so arranged this universe that we could always afford to spend anything we chose on education and other things could somehow be expected to fit themselves in so that we should not be inconvenienced. The world is not like that, and any argument based on that sort of assumption seems to me to weaken all the rest of the arguments which may be used.

Nearly all of us here are in the teaching profession, and I should be the last person in the word to claim any superiority for that profession. I should also be the last man in the world to think badly of shoemakers, who are very useful men. I should have thought that the difference between persons interested in education and having spent much time either getting it or giving it, and cobblers, was that they did not spend all their time saying there is nothing like leather.

Nor am I very much moved by—I have forgotten the word—the appeal to return to what is called the Tomlinson programme. These forecasts of inadequacy have become common form. They have been ululated continuously ever since the Socialist Party ceased to have a majority in this House, and it may be that hon. Members opposite will one day have a great joy day and it will turn out that there is a day when in fact there are not enough school places to go round. But so far they have not succeeded in proving that that is happening, and if they intend continuously to repeat this kind of argument, then that is the onus of proof which they are assuming.

My right hon. Friend has made it plain that the Government's intention is that the school building programme shall provide for the increasing numbers of children at school and for the complication of the large increase in the numbers of families moving because of new housing estates and so on. She has always stuck to the Tomlinson principle—that that meant we could not do any building for improvement, because all our work was cut out in doing the necessary building to accommodate the new children or the children moving to new estates. That principle was more than once asseverated by Mr. Tomlinson, and that principle has been followed by my right hon. Friend.

It is no use whatever the hon. Member—I was going to say from Test-side; but it is from the banks of the Test— telling us that we did not start with schools which were adequate. Of course we did not. Nor did the Socialist Government, and when the Socialist Government handed over to us they handed over an arrangement under which it was not thought possible to build for improvement but only to build where it was essential. As for the cuts, I would not have said in buildings but in building starts, to which both hon. Members have referred, no one with any knowledge of how things stood 14 to 15 months ago, I make bold to say, would now dare to assert that the building programme as it was before the General Election—the general building programme—could have continued.

Indeed, I would almost make bold to say this—and in the second case my boldness is rather cheap, but the first part of my boldness is provable in any court of law. The second part is rather cheap because it is not susceptible of proof or disproof, but nevertheless I am firmly convinced that anybody who knew how things stood last October but one or last November but one would agree that, whatever Government came into power, they would have taken this action or something hardly distinguishable from it.

Then secondly, these continual assertions that the damage the cuts in school starts have produced, and have cynically produced, without regard either to the life of culture or to the affection all men should feel for children— cynically produced; the great fall in the school accommodation which could now reasonably be expected to have been built, if party distribution had stayed as it was 18 months ago—these assertions can be tested in various ways. Here are one or two. About 10 per cent. more work on major school building jobs— that is. not mere adaptation, or adding an odd bit to a classroom: new buildings—was done in 1952 than in 1951. Not much to boast of, but it is something In 1953 we reasonably expect 10 per cent. more will be done than in 1952.

If we express in terms of school places what we get for £1 million, then we are getting considerably more now than we did in 1951 and earlier years. In 1949, when we spent £1 million—and they were rather better pounds than now—we got 2,800 secondary school places. In 1952, when we spent £1 million we got 3,800 secondary school places. In 1949 one new school place occupied one man for four months, or four men for one month —four man months, in the rather horrible technical phrase. It took that to construct a place for a child in a school in 1949. Now it only takes two, which is half as many as four. All that is a considerable improvement.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of new techniques. These new techniques are being developed and are being pressed as fast as possible. I said on the last occasion upon which—I was going to say, I listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I was not meaning to be unkind—I listened to a speech from him that I did not claim any party advantage in this. The Minister in charge was a Socialist at the time when the enterprise was launched of setting up in the Ministry of Education a real experiment in administration by way of bringing together experts in education and architects, quantity surveyors, and so on, to see what could be done about it.

A great deal has been done about that, and it has been accompanied by the issue of pamphlets, and by holding conferences with the larger local education authorities and so on. However much hon. Gentlemen may dislike it, it remains true that it really does not matter a hoot how many schools we start: what matters is the number of schools we finish.

Perhaps that is as much as I can say about school building if I am to say anything about the shortage—perhaps I had better deal with this next—of teachers. That problem is extremely complex, and, to be honest with the House, I say that, like most other important human problems, it will never be solved. There will never be enough good teachers. Of course not, and everybody must be familiar with that, especially those who have been teachers and look into their own murky hearts.

The problem is a very complex one. It depends upon the number of places in training colleges, the number of people we can get to go into them, the rate of wastage amongst serving teachers, how far teachers can be induced to go to the right places. In all these respects we think there have been improvements, and we are quite certain that we can asseverate that there is and will be every possible effort. There were 209,000 teachers in January, 1950. In January, 1953, there were 227,000. I cannot work out quickly what the percentage increase is, but it is really something quite sufficient, and—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh?"] Did I say "sufficient"? I am sorry. I meant to use the word "considerable."

We reasonably and confidently assume that enough teachers will be trained to keep the 1950 standard, though we admit that that, of course, was not perfect —

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, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.