HC Deb 26 October 1953 vol 518 cc2575-84

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

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

The Select Committee on Estimates, in their 8th Report, which dealt with schools, stated that the worst feature of our educational organisation was the old school buildings. They mentioned that in many areas children had to go to these old school buildings because there was no alternative accommodation. They went on to say that very many of these buildings were slums and they should either be immediately demolished or substantially repaired, no matter how much the cost might be. But they also said that the Ministry seemed to be quite resigned to these buildings serving as educational establishments for another decade.

The statement in the Select Committee's Report was really an understatement. In 1925 a black list was drawn up of schools not fitted for the teaching of children. Today, 28 years after, there are still nearly 600 of those schools remaining on the black list. These same schools which were condemned 25 years ago, and have had no alterations made since, are still in use. I think that if a new black list were to be drawn up today and related to modern requirements and standards of education there would be thousands of schools, especially in rural areas, which would have to be placed on that list. There are many schools which were built in the '70s, '80s, and '90s of the last century, and even earlier.

In the Ministry of Education Report in 1949, it was stated that in one area 20 per cent. of the primary schools were over 100 years old, and that 72 per cent. were constructed in the last century. We have those schools throughout the country without proper heating, lighting, sanitation, water supply, and none of the amenities we should expect to see in schools today. In many of them there is no woodwork or metalwork room, no housewifery room, and no lavatories, and although in the country even having no playing fields.

In June of this year the "News Chronicle" asked one of its staff, Mr. Royer Davis, to make a survey of these ancient school buildings, and they published his reports on 29th and 30th June. It is one of the strange features of the contemporary scene that although people are much more interested in education today than they have been during the last 50 years—and I know that from my personal experience—yet most organs of the daily Press pay little attention indeed to education. The "News Chronicle" is an honourable exception, and it did send this very competent journalist round to make a survey of these old schools. I quote some of the conditions he found during the course of this survey. The Midlands.—One school is high, gloomy and grimy, built in the 1830s. Plumbing and sanitation grim. Only heating is by open fires with inadequate chimneys which quickly fill classrooms with smoke. On cold days ink is frozen in the inkwells and sometimes children wear gloves all day. Yorkshire.—There is a school where the fire brigade calls once every three months to flush out the sanitary arrangements. The children look even more round and solemn-eyed than usual sitting in old fashioned pew desks for eight. I think it was to this school that an old boy returned recently to see the dear old place for the last time.' He was sitting at those same desks 72 years ago. Dealing with the schools of Bedfordshire, Mr. Royer Davis said: Twenty-two schools of long ago drowsing in the peaceful countryside. Most of them have no water. One is almost in the farmyard and has pigstyes built against the wall. None has anything but pails for lavatories. Walls are badly cracked and sometimes rainwater pours through the roof so badly that the pupils have to be moved. The ceiling looks like coming down at any moment. In the front porch the ceiling did come down years ago. It has never been repaired. I have also a number of cuttings which I have received from various local newspapers describing conditions in the old school buildings in their areas. I have only time to read a very few of the cuttings I have received, and I crave the indulgence of the House to quote a few. The "Middlesbrough Evening Gazette" says: If the children at Great Stanton Village School, near Darlington, want a drink they have two alternatives, to drink rainwater from the roof gutters or to go to a house in the village for one. The "Manchester Guardian" of 24th February, 1953, commented: One Manchester school has had to be closed because the building had decayed to such an extent that it was unsafe for children to stay in it any longer. Several others are nearing this condition. At one school a line of half a dozen lavatories have but one window pane between them. The gaps in the other frame are boarded up with sides of the boxes. The "Evening Advertiser," Swindon, says: Councillor Chapman at a meeting of the Marlborough Town Council said: 'The Ministry of Education's attitude to schools was, "If you have enough places it does not matter whether you have schools or cowsheds."' The "Bedfordshire Times" of 8th May said: Alderman Yates said that the sub-committee were appalled by the revelations of the sanitary officers dealing with conditions in Bedford Rural District. Some schools were condemned a quarter of a century ago and it seemed as if they would be unable to make real improvements for another quarter of a century. I could quote many other cuttings—I have received scores of newspapers cuttings describing conditions similar to those—but I have not the time tonight. The cuttings that I have already quoted substantiate the statements which were made in the Report of the Select Committee. It is noticeable from most of those reports in the local papers that the chairmen and other members of education committees, when commenting on the bad state of the schools, especially in the rural areas, under their jurisdiction, always pay tribute to the devotion and the skill of the teachers in those schools. In fact, I think were it not for the devotion and the skill of those teachers, we might write over the portals of those schools the words that Dante said were inscribed on the gates of Hell: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here."

The original idea about school building was to have a capital allocation of £70 million for a period of 15 years in order to deal with the increased school population and the situation which had been created by the new housing estates. In 1949 we were reached that figure, but last year, according to the Minister's statement last week, expenditure was only £42 million for new school buildings, and she also said on Thursday of last week that it would be about the same sum, namely £42 million, for the new school buildings this year. I do not think that that £42 million will cope even with the increased number of children entering the schools and with the increased needs which arise from the erection of numerous housing estates which have large child populations. I do not think that such an expenditure can deal with those two considerations except at the cost of overcrowded schools and a very considerable increase in the number of large classes.

Unfortunately, on Thursday last the Minister gave figures which admitted that in the last year between January, 1952, and January, 1953, the number of classes of over 40 children had increased by nearly 9,000 and that more than 44,000 classes had over 40 children on the roll. It is an appalling thought that nearly 2,000,000 children are being taught in classes of over 40. There is no hope of anything being done about these old school buildings from the £42 million which is at present allocated for the construction of new school buildings.

There is another aspect of the case and that is that, especially in rural areas, there are now 350,000 children of 11-plus who are not receiving any form of secondary education. The great Act of 1944 laid it down that every child should receive an education suitable to its age, aptitude and abilities. Inherent in that statement was the fact that all children over 11 should receive a secondary education, because the only education suitable to a child over that age is a secondary education. But 350,000 children are still being taught in all-age schools, which are classified as primary schools, and they, are, therefore, not receiving a secondary education. The combination of very bad buildings with lack of secondary education is handicapping country children in relation to the children of the towns.

We have seen a steady drift of agricultural workers from the land to the towns in spite of higher wages and better conditions. I imagine one of the reasons why we get this unfortunate migration is that the agricultural worker knows that in many instances his children will receive a much better education if he migrates to the town than they will if he remains in the country.

It is imperative in my judgment—and this is what the Select Committee on Estimates said—that a building programme should be started in addition to the existing programme of the £42 million in order to rebuild the very old schools, to bring them up to date and give children in those areas some chance of a good education. It was suggested by Dr. Alexander, the secretary of the Association of Education Committee, in a weekly periodical recently that that could be done with an additional expenditure specifically for this purpose of £15 million a year for a period of 15 years. That would be sufficient to renovate all the old school buildings.

I have no desire whatever to attack the Minister of Education. I have no desire to attack any Minister of Education. I would very much rather praise him or her, whoever he or she might be. I recognise that the right hon. Lady the present Minister has defended the policy of her Department with skill and stubbornness at the Despatch Box and in Committee upstairs. But, if I may say so, she has so far done nothing constructive in the realm of educational advance.

The right hon. Lady has not shown that capacity for surprise, for audacity, which is the hallmark of great and high statesmanship, and I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary, that he should try to persuade his chief—who is now a member of the Cabinet, and in the innermost counsels of the nation and, therefore, has correspondingly increased influence—to seek greater capital allocation for school building. Cannot he try to persuade his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has a very sincere sympathy with, and keen interest in, educational matters, to allow greater capital allocation to be earmarked for the renovation and reconstruction of these disgraceful old buildings? That would be a really constructive action on the part of the Minister of Education, and she might then well go down in history as one of our truly great Ministers of Education.

11.22 p.m.

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

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for the kind words with which he praised my right hon. Friend's skill, a quality which one would wish to have. Stubbornness, perhaps, is a quality one can bear to have attributed to one by one's critics, but whether audacity is a good quality for a Minister of Education to possess, I am not sure. I am not sure if it would be even relevant in this matter, let alone whether it is good or bad.

I do not propose to go at length into the Report of the Select Committee. I was, at one time, as familiar with it as any hon. Member, but I cannot say that now, and it has been fully debated in this present Session in this House; although it would be in order, in the strict sense, to speak of it tonight, I think the fact that it has been fully discussed is sufficient reason for me not to deal with it at length.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Only hon. and right hon. Members on the Front Benches debated it.

Mr. Pickthorn

I cannot remember that now, but I do think I can recall that having happened with some subjects when I was on the back benches. But the House came to a decision on the Report, and I do not propose to go into the matter tonight.

Some of these schools were termed slum schools; it was never suggested in the Report that they should be pulled down at any cost—rather that some should be reconstructed at considerable cost. But, in any case, where does the logic of that take the hon. Member? Is every slum, as soon as it is discovered, to be pulled down at considerable cost next day? One cannot accept that the argument of some schools being very bad takes us much further; and it is a point upon which there is no great difference of opinion between the two sides of the House.

It is recognised, and has been for some time, that some schools are very bad, and in so far as that is agreed we start from the same beginning. But what the hon. Member is doing under the guise of a Motion for the Adjournment is something which, in other circumstances, could not be in order; for he asks that Her Majesty should somehow be bound to the extra expenditure of some £15 million on old buildings for the next 20 years. That is really what is being proposed. I should be willing to debate that proposal at length, but it is obvious that to that proposal nothing which the hon. Gentleman has said is relevant: nothing else is relevant to that proposal except where we get the millions from.

We were told the other day by a party which met at Margate—I will not mention which party—that difficulties about expenditure were not to be allowed to stand in the way of education, even if that meant going without some other things. However, we were not told what were the other things. This subject is a matter of general debate between everyone in public life, to which it seems to me that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education at this Box cannot make anything like a full reply with propriety, even were he in order in so doing.

The bad condition of many schools we all know about. There is nothing new about that: we have had the spectacle for a long time. In 1924 and 1925 lists were drawn up which have since formed the famous black list. If I may give some figures which the hon. Member did not give, by the end of 1938, of the 2,827 schools originally on the list, 1,983 had been removed, either by being so much improved that they were no longer to be retained in that category, or by being abandoned.

It is fair to add that there is something on the other side of the account; none of us know how much. On the other side of the account is the destruction wrought by the war, when I think something like 5,000 schools were destroyed or seriously damaged. So there is nothing left between us on this question, that there are many old school buildings which ought to be very much improved, or in the great majority of cases abandoned and replaced.

The Education Act of 1944 laid on local authorities the duty of surveying the needs of their areas, and hon. Members will remember all about that. The development plans which emerged made it clear that there were thousands of schools falling short of modern requirements. These plans were given full publicity at the time, and the Socialist Minister in his Annual Report for 1948 devoted five pages to what might be called an almost lurid account of these schools. There is no dispute between us; there is no distinguishable responsibility falling on Her Majesty's present advisers.

But before any large scale programme of improvement could be contemplated there was the abnormal and surprising increase in the number of children born in the years immediately after 1945. It then became clear, as was announced by Mr. Tomlinson, that the needs of the old schools would have to wait.

I must insist that was made clear by Mr. Tomlinson in a speech in July, 1949, and on very nearly the same date he had to issue a circular saying that, owing to the financial emergency, local authorities would not be surprised to know that they would have to cut down expenditure in several respects. All that happened by 1949.

The amount of work there was to be done, quite apart from having to accommodate the abnormally large birthrate, was indicated by another Socialist Minister of Education, Miss Wilkinson: she said it was a job for a generation. Though the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Education are trying to arrange how this work is to be carried out eventually, it is not a job about which any budgeting on a national scale can usefully be done beforehand. The size and scale of the task is enormous, and it is certainly true that the task is greater than any probable financial allowance. It is also true, on the other hand, that inspectors and education authorities do year by year, and I might almost say day by day, give information to my right hon. Friend enabling her to have adequate and, as far as such things are capable of precision, accurate information of the immediate and most urgent tasks.

We should be less than fair if we did not go on to say that something is being done about the old schools: it is not true that nothing at all is being done. It has not been the policy of any Government to make repair and maintenance work the subject of direct control by the Minister. L.E.As. have been free to provide as they thought best within their estimates, and to put in hand any essential projects without the Minister's formal approval.

Mr. Blackburn

Is it not a fact that in September of last year the Minister issued a circular to local authorities asking them to limit the amount spent on minor repairs?

Mr. Pickthorn

That does not affect the argument which I am giving. My right hon. Friend does not attempt to control specific projects for repair and maintenance, but if she is given evidence that any local education authority, or body of managers for that matter, are acting in an irresponsible manner in this respect she has publicly pledged herself to use her powers, and she would not hesitate to use them——

Mr. Morley

Surely the Minister has laid down by regulation the extent to which local authorities can engage in minor capital expenditure, namely 10s. per head of the pupils in their charge, plus £25 for each school with an overhead ceiling of £7,500. They cannot go beyond that, which would be of very little use to deal with this problem.

Mr. Pickthorn

The hon. Gentleman is now on a different point, and is mistaken upon my point. I was talking about maintenance and repair, but he has gone off into improvements, which is a distinguishable case.

Mr. Morley

These old schools——

Mr. Pickthorn

I listened with very great care to the hon. Gentleman and it will be impossible for me to answer him in the time at my disposal, which he had within his choice to make long or short, if I am to be interrupted at every sentence. Even if we cannot do all we should like, it is very often possible to carry out a substantial job of improvement which will turn an old building into something quite effective and even sometimes into a not disagreeable school. This kind of work has been going on at the rate of——

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-six Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.