HC Deb 21 October 1953 vol 518 cc2109-18

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

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Billericay)

I think it is beyond dispute that the grammar schools of the country are beginning to experience difficulty in securing adequately qualified science teachers. This matter has been causing very considerable alarm, not only to those who are interested in education, but to industry and to all who have the future of the country at heart.

Already, the problem has stimulated quite a considerable amount of discussion. The Headmaster of Eton told the British Association last month that "the shortage of science teachers in the schools is so serious that it is quite futile to talk of developing the scientific strength of this country, or to plan institutes of technology, or anything else of the kind, until it is remedied." Clearly, if it is not remedied, then in a few years industry will begin to find difficulty in securing scientists and technologists just at the very time when it will be requiring them in ever increasing numbers.

Moreover, so far as I can discover, the problem is not only one of trying to secure adequate numbers of teachers, but one of securing them with the right qualifications. I have no desire to exaggerate the gravity of the problem, but there is evidence enough that it has already reached formidable proportions. In my county, Essex, there has been no marked falling off of recruitment yet, but we are experiencing increasing difficulty in filling posts and in filling them with men and women with the right qualifications.

In one area in Essex where I carried out an investigation, in six schools, where the total teaching staff is about 150, only nine out of 120 graduates are honours graduates in science. But I am told that, if these schools had their proper complement of honours graduates, the figure should be between 20 and 27. Indeed, the position will steadily deteriorate, because our school population, for reasons quite outside our control, will expand very rapidly indeed, and, naturally, we are worried about it.

The Parliamentary Secretary may have seen a letter in "The Times Educational Supplement" of 9th October from the Head of the Department of Education of Liverpool University, who revealed that of the students entering the Department this term for training as teachers 48 were women graduates, of whom only two wanted to be science teachers, while of the 51 male graduates only 14 wanted to become science teachers and of these only seven had honours degrees. He went on to provide figures which showed that there was not only a quantitative but a qualitative problem as well. For example, whereas 74 honours graduates in the arts entered the department for training as teachers in the last two years—10 of whom had first-class honours—only 15 honours graduates in science had entered, of whom none had first-class honours.

Although I have no overall figures, I am told that this problem is being experienced all over the country. In 1951–52, of the 482 honours graduates in science from Oxford, only 17 became teachers and all at public schools. While it does not necessarily follow that great academic ability goes hand in hand with capacity for teaching, the fact is that honours graduates in science seem far less attracted to the teaching profession than honours graduates in the arts.

I believe that this is bound to affect the whole balance of grammar school education. But there is another aspect to which I would invite the attention of the House. I think it is generally admitted that there is quite a considerable waste going on in the grammar schools. I am told that 64 per cent. of all the boys and 62 per cent. of all the girls in the grammar schools leave at the age of 16 or under, and that if we take those of 17 years old or under it is roughly another 10 per cent in both cases.

In paragraph 36 of the recent report on university development, I observe that the University Grants Committee say that children leaving school between the ages of 15 and 17 must include a considerable number who leave for reasons other than academic promise and who would be worthy university students if means could be found to retain them at school. The report also says: An increase in the numbers of those going to the university could only come from the retention in the grammar schools of a greater proportion of the more intelligent pupils who now leave prematurely. Two points arise from this. The first is that there must be a proportion of potential scientists and technologists among the early school leavers, some of whom could be persuaded to become teachers and all of whom would be vastly more useful recruits to industry as a result of additional training. Secondly, even if we were to persuade a larger proportion of early school leavers to remain at school, it would be physically impossible to cope with them because the teachers are not forthcoming.

Moreover, as school population increases, this problem will get progressively worse and the wastage greater. We shall find ourselves in a vicious circle from which there is no escape. There will be insufficient students entering the universities through lack of teachers and so even fewer graduates returning to the schools to teach.

What are the reasons for this? I have discussed this matter with a large number of people in the teaching profession. I have been given three main reasons. The first is the obvious one, that the prospects of earning a good salary, especially in the later years of working life, are much less in the teaching profession than in industry. The second is that there is a general impression, rightly or wrongly, that the prospects of a headship are less for a science teacher than they are for an arts teacher. That may or may not be so, but the impression is there.

The third reason, possibly most important of all where honours graduates are concerned, is that teaching cuts them off from specialist study and facilities for research. What can be done about it? Frankly, in the years ahead the schools simply must offer greater incentives if educational standards are not to suffer.

The question of teachers' remuneration is a delicate and a difficult one, and I do not wish to fan the flames of controversy on that subject. Nevertheless, in my view, the University Grants Committee put the whole situation in a nutshell when they said: …increased expenditure on scientific teaching and research cannot be regarded from a national point of view as optional. I would say that for a manufacturing country such as ours, depending for its existence upon its ability to export—and to export its brains—it is not optional; it is an inescapable necessity.

There are good grounds for rejecting the suggestion that science teachers should be given some special treatment as opposed to arts teachers; nor would such treatment really be effective, because the salary scales would have to be raised very substantially if they were to counteract the attractions of industry. The recent Burnham Scale increase for all teachers, plus the small additions for graduate teachers, while welcome, does not affect this issue in the slightest. There still remains a very wide gap between what a graduate can earn in teaching and what he can earn in industry, where the average for an honours graduate runs into four figures.

But money is not everything. Some graduates have told me that there is a far more cogent reason why they decline to enter the teaching profession. The whole training of the young scientist naturally leads him in the direction of further inquiry. Particularly applicable to this is Bernard Shaw's observation that "Satisfaction is death." The call of research is incessant. There is a great adventure in pushing forward the frontiers of human knowledge. In the laboratory of a great university, or of a great industrial organisation or a Government research station he may find a satisfaction he can never find to the same extent in teaching.

Only a few weeks ago an honours graduate put it to me that, "To teach sixth formers is to stand still and let much of the knowledge I have acquired lie fallow." It is perfectly true that if he does elect to teach in a university he will be given time and facilities for research. It is true that he will have the ear of a professor. If the research is purely academic he has the opportunity to enhance his reputation as a scientist; if it is industrial, he has the opportunity to gain financially. But the opportunities of securing university teaching appointments are severely restricted and so, quite naturally, he goes into industry, even though he may have a vocation for teaching.

It is because I believe that the problem has to be tackled soon and that it can be tackled successfully that I have raised the subject here tonight. One way of tackling it would be to give the honours graduate—and only the honours graduate—the opportunity for personal distinction in the scientific field, or for monetary enrichment in the industrial field. Briefly, what I would propose is that for all honours graduates, irrespective of whether they are science or arts, one day a week should be set aside as a minimum for personal research, upon the graduate making suitable application to the local education authority.

I would suggest that local education authorities should permit liaison between honours graduate teachers and the appropriate universities. Research could be done under the direction and possibly under the control of the university concerned. I suggest that local education authorities should give permission for the setting aside and use of some part of the school laboratory space. I make the proviso that the cost of material and equipment should not be borne by the education authority but by the university concerned. My information is that facilities exist for grants, and that there is no real difficulty there.

In the time available to me tonight it is obvious that I can only sketch over what I think are the lines upon which this problem should be tackled.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

How would the hon. Member propose to meet the situation of a teacher who is teaching in a town where there is no university, or in a town which is not near a university? How is he to do his research in his day off?

Mr. Braine

The same sort of arrangement might be made with local industry. There are, of course, many benefits which would flow from arrangements of this kind. First, the honours graduate would have the opportunity to aspire to distinction not only in his own field of study but in the teaching profession. Secondly, he could profit from publications or consultation work. Thirdly, the universities would welcome the scheme because most professors, particularly in science, have far more research work to be undertaken than there are post-graduate students to undertake it.

I do not exclude some similar arrangement being entered into with industry. I have no time to elaborate it tonight, but I think I carry the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchin (Mr. Morley) with me so far. I can see very great advantages accruing from teachers engaging in industrial research, or in industrial research chemists helping out in the field of teaching.

The purpose of raising this debate tonight is to find out whether anything is being worked out on these lines. Could there not be an experiment, possibly on a small scale? Is any serious thought being given to any of these ideas?

Could the Parliamentary Secretary give us any indication of the scale of the problem, because most of us know and sense that it exists but do not know just how grave it is. Can he tell us how the problem appears now and how it is likely to appear in a few years' time, and with what degree of urgency he invests it? May I also ask him whether the Minister has yet received any advice in this matter from the National Advisory Council on the Training and Supply of Teachers? If not, when does she expect to receive such advice? Finally, can my hon. Friend give us tonight any ideas as to how this very grave problem, which so closely affects the whole industrial and economic future of our country, might be tackled?

10.28 p.m.

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

I am sorry to prevent the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) from taking part in the debate, but I think I am bound to take the few minutes which remain, although I have nothing very definite to say. I am extremely grateful for the moderation with which my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) has introduced this topic to the attention of the House. It is not the first time the House has thought about it, and certainly not the first time it has been thought of in the Ministry of Education.

I would only hesitate at one point about his language, and if I justly criticise him here I justly criticise everybody else, including myself, because it is one of the errors into which we all fall. I think that to call this difficulty a problem involves some risk of getting off on the wrong foot. When we call it a problem we get the impression just a little that it is something with which, if only we could find the key word of the riddle or get hold of the teacher's book and look at the answers in the back pages, we could deal.

It is not that kind of difficulty at all. I must say that it is a great deal more formidable than that and I must say, also, that my hon. Friend ought to do us justice and be aware that we are very deeply conscious of the importance of this topic. I remember very many years ago hearing a very great economist say that this country had never exported any but two things—and those were coal and brains. There is a good deal of truth in that. If it is not so easy to export coal as it was, it is therefore all the more necessary that we should find ways in which brains can be exported for hard currency. I think we are all very conscious of that.

Mr. Morley

We do not want to export brains, but want those people here.

Mr. Pickthorn

In a way we export brains: not by actually taking the cerebellum out and sinking it in the sea, but by using brains to turn some more or less cheap material into a more or less desirable object of merchandise. I do not think we are any less conscious of the necessity of all that than anyone else. I was asked how conscious I am of the degree of urgency: I am as conscious of it as I can be, and so, I am sure, is my right hon. Friend.

Then I was asked how much notion we could give of the greatness of the degree. That I find much more difficult to do for various reasons. One is one to which my hon. Friend half alluded—and I do not say this at all by way of criticism or complaint—but the fact is that the National Advisory Council on the Training and Supply of Teachers was set up in 1949 for dealing with precisely this sort of problem. It got down to this particular problem, I think it is revealing no secret to say, almost a year ago; but I am not in a position to say when the result of that inquiry will be finished. I can, however, assure the House that it will be very soon.

It is the kind of inquiry, as we all know, in which the period of gestation is very commonly a little over a year. Until that result is complete anyone in my position must be a great deal embarrassed about giving figures or evidence, because this is a body which is authorised to advise my right hon. Friend, and it would have just cause of complaint if I used figures or evidence it has not had or if I were to use figures or evidence which it is just about to get ready properly for publication, or at least official presentation. So that I cannot be very specific about how bad the thing is.

In each of the last three years there has been a small increase in the number of men graduates teaching mathematics and science, and the number of women graduates has remained just about steady. A special return showed, for instance, that during the 12 months ended October, 1952, there was an increase of 2.6 per cent. that is, from 8,278 to 8,490, in the numbers of teachers with degrees in mathematics and science employed full time in all maintained and assisted secondary schools offering courses leading to the G.C.E. That is not enough; nothing like enough; but it is better than nothing, and it is the latest figure that I can give.

The thing is probably going to be at its worst, of course, as far as one can tell, in a few years' time as the additional children born just after the end of the war get up to the sort of level where they may expect to have science graduates to teach them. That will be the worst moment that must frighten us and give us a sense of urgency at the moment. On the other hand, there is some slight consolation in the thought that it will begin—there are arithmetical reasons why the thing should begin—to get better about 1965, partly because the number of additional children in school will not then be so great, and partly because by that time children who were born in the years of the greatest numbers of births will then be beginning to be at the age at which they can be young teachers.

Thus, the worst of the problem—lam not saying this in the least to minimise the problem, but am facing the facts, and facing the less disagreeable as well as the more disagreeable facts—ought in some way to be reduced in a foreseeable period.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

The Parliamentary Secretary used the word "problem."

Mr. Pickthorn

I began by saying that if I rebuked my hon. Friend, I was aware that I was rebuking myself and everybody else. I still think that the word is a dangerous one and that we should be careful about it.

Points were raised about salaries. This is a most unfortunate moment at which to raise the matter. This is just the moment at which the Burnham Committee is making up its mind exactly what advice to give my right hon. Friend, and when that advice comes she will consider it with the utmost care and deal with it as promptly as she can. I do not think there is any way round that difficulty if the subject is brought up in the middle of October, and there we are.

About early leavers, my hon. Friend was in some respects too pessimistic. He slightly overdid his vicious circle. The vicious circle is completely continuous only when it is in logic. When it is in the practical world, the vicious circle is hardly ever absolutely continuous. So when he said that even if you could get more intelligent boys, and, of course, girls, to say on at school, that would not do any good, because you could not get more teachers to teach them, and there you are for ever and ever going down in this vicious maelstrom, I think that was treating the thing too much as if it were a piece of circular logic rather than a human problem.

Nobody knows very much—that is another of the things on which I hope we may get advice from the Council soon—about how big the classes are—I will not say "on the average," because in this matter the average is almost worthless—in particular, among scientific sixth forms. It may well be, and my own guess is, that though no doubt most classes in most schools are larger than we should, educationally, wish, it may yet be true that in scientific sixth forms the classes are not necessarily very great. Indeed, it looks as if that is so and from the other half of the argument, that we have not enough children to go on to the scientific side or have not enough children to stay on in the sixth form, it looks as if it might be so.

Therefore, we may well hope that we can increase the supply by increasing the number of children taught science in sixth forms without or ahead of or faster than the increase of sixth form science masters. I think that may be so, and I do not think it is over-optimistic to have that hope.

I have only one minute left, and there is one thing that I must say, especially as there are some Scottish hon. Members present. The Secretary of State for Scotland has appointed a Committee under Sir Edward Appleton parallel with the English National Advisory Council, of which I have spoken, to consider and report on the causes and effects of present and prospective shortages of teachers of mathematics and science in Scottish secondary schools and to suggest remedies. Sir Edward Appleton and his colleagues will have the closest liaison with the inquiries and so on that are being made in England. Although it is no responsibility of mine, it would not have been proper for the debate to have ended without that being said.

The Question having been proposed after 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 Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.