HC Deb 03 December 1954 vol 535 cc561-72

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

4.0 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

When I reached my constituency early in August this year, I received a complaint from a woman whose daughter had a very fine record at Dornoch Academy, one of the two secondary schools in the County of Sutherland. She desired to follow a commercial career, and she had taken a test for entry to a commercial course at Golspie Technical School, where she would be taught shorthand and typewriting, but she had failed. Her father could not understand how this came about in view of the fact that his daughter had passed first in her class at Dornoch Academy, and had obtained almost 70 marks against a class average of about 55 marks.

Some of the facts in this case are disputed, and I must make certain quotations from letters that have been received by the girl or by her parents. I crave the indulgence of the House in that respect. This matter begins on 11th June, when the girl received a letter from the director of education, saying: All applications for admission to the Commercial Course at Sutherland Technical School are now in my hands. The applications considerably outnumber the places available and it has been decided that admission to the course this year will be by an entrance test. Arrangements for the test are now in hand and you will receive further information and instructions at an early date. In my submission, the sentence about applications considerably outnumbering the places available is the crux of the case. My submission is that the girl failed, not through lack of merit, but through lack of places. On 22nd July, the director of education wrote another letter to the girl, saying: Sutherland Technical School. Intensive commercial course. I regret to inform you that you have not been successful in gaining a place in the above classes at Sutherland Technical School. If you are still anxious to take up commercial subjects, I would suggest that the best preparation for next year's examination would be a further year at school. While admission cannot be guaranteed next year, a further year's schooling would greatly improve your prospects of success. When the girl was to take her test, she developed appendicitis during the weekend before the test was due to take place. The Rector of Dornoch Academy very kindly agreed to give her a special test, which she took. She was far from well, went into hospital next day, and was operated on after a day or two. The additional schooling for this working man's daughter, who is now 16 years of age, and to whom the suggestion was made that she should spend another year at school, is something which I doubt whether the family could afford.

In view of the admission, which has now been made by the Department of Education and by Sutherland Education Committee, that the girl never had the necessary intelligence, it was wholly wrong to suggest that if she had another year's schooling she was likely to succeed. The argument now is that she is of such low intelligence that she could not possibly succeed.

I want now to quote a letter, dated 30th July. It was shortly after this that I came on to the scene. This is a letter to the parent, who protested to the director of education about the failure of his daughter. He was indignant, and, in my opinion, rightly so. This is the reply that he received: I reply to your letter of 28th July. The allocation of places in the Commercial Course at Sutherland Technical School this year has been a different process from that obtaining in former years for the simple reason that the number of applicants far outnumbered the places available. There were, in effect, 25 applicants for 11 places. What "in effect" means is beyond my comprehension. Either there were 25 applicants or there were not.

The reply goes on: The only fair method of selecting next year's students was, therefore, by an entrance test. Therefore, while I agree that"— then he refers to the daughter's record— at Dornoch Academy is a very creditable one, it must also be remembered that with this degree of competition for places, the general standard among successful applicants will be very high. There is no way of seating 25 pupils at 11 desks. The present intake including second year students stretches the capacity of the accommodation for the course to the full limit and I regret it is impossible to accept any further enrolments. The only promise I can make is that should there be a withdrawal before the session begins"— that was in September—the student— will be given sympathetic consideration for the vacancy. Otherwise there is no way of admitting her before the next intake which will not occur till the beginning of Session 1955–56. I enclose … Report Form. Here is the report. It is an exceptionally good one. The girl passed first in the first term; she passed second in the second term; and first again in the last term of the season ended 30th June. She obtained 68.7 marks in her first term, the class average being 56.1. The rector's remarks are: Very good marks in all subjects. In her second term she obtained an average of 65.8 marks as against the class average of 56.5. The rector remarks: Very nice work. In the third term she obtained 69.6 per cent., against a class average of 56.1, and the rector's remarks are: The best yet, and now good luck to you. On this report there is a school leaving record, and it says this: A 'School Leaving Record' is now being issued to all pupils when they finally leave School. As a good 'Record' forms a valuable testimonial to the capabilities of any pupil"— There is nothing in this report that would convey to any potential employer that this girl was not an exceptionally good student. She was first in a class of 15 girls, and that is quite a lot for a class in a school in the Highland County of Sutherland. We have schools with only two or three pupils in a class. In her class she was competing with 15 others.

When I got this correspondence I went to the old eviction village of Embo, where the girl's parent was employed as a forester on the Government plantations there. His two elder girls are also employed as foresters. The student is the youngest of the family. He told me that he liked his work and liked working for the Forestry Commission, and so did his daughters, but it is a hard job, out of doors in the wind, the rain, and the cold of Sutherland all the year round.

He wanted his youngest daughter to have a better chance in life, and a better education to fit her to follow the career which she herself wanted. She wanted to become a shorthand-typist. The London County Council is a giant compared with the Sutherland County Council because it administers services for a vast population. Sutherland County Council has, comparatively speaking, a midget-sized job. The education authority of the London County Council saw 78 per cent. of its girls who left school in July last year go into commercial life in offices. This girl in Sutherland is denied that opportunity because she has been erroneously described as of not high enough intelligence.

I have had a long experience of people in offices, and a long experience of many shorthand-typi9ts. I would say that the work of a shorthand-typist calls certainly for intelligence but not for intellectual capacity. It does not require that to take down dictation in shorthand, and to transcribe the words on to a typewriting machine.

A shorthand-typist's work is a form of clerical work, but it is not the highest one, although it is of importance. Bearing all this in mind, I think the decision in respect of this girl, a girl of good character and with this record, was wrong. When I heard about it I felt I must take some action, even though I had hoped to enjoy a holiday after a long Session here.

I journeyed 14 miles to Brora to see the director of education in his office. He was abroad, so I saw his deputy, and I told him about the case. He said, "You do not need to tell me about it. I know all about this girl. Of course she has a creditable record. It is very good indeed. The trouble is that we have not got the desks."

I asked him, "Can you not make room for one or two more? Surely you can crowd them in a bit." "Oh, no, we could not do that," he said. I asked him, "Can you not get some other premises? Can you not put up some temporary accommodation?" He did not know about that. Yet he was on my side. He fully agreed that this girl should not be kept out from this school. He promised me that he would report to the director, and he felt that every consideration would be given. He thought that a vacancy would arise, and, in fact, two vacancies did arise after that.

I went back and reported to the parents. They were delighted. I went to see the family in their home. It was the finest type of a Highland working man's home, scrupulously clean inside and out. It was a pleasure to meet the family, to see their garden, and how well kept was the whole place.

I felt that that would be the end of the matter. But to my surprise, in October I got a letter from the father to say that the girl had been asked to go to Brora on 11th September. She thought that she was going to be told of the vacancy which she had been promised; which had been promised to me when I went there; promised in the letter which I have read, which stated she would have every consideration, and promised by the director.

When the girl got there, instead of being told that she was to get a vacancy, she was told to go into the director's private office and was subjected to another test. I think that it was wrong to ask anyone without notice to undergo an examination like that, If I may quote again, this is the letter she got, dated 17th September: I have to inform you that your application for a place in the Sutherland Technical School, Commercial Course, along with those of 10 other applicants, was considered by the Further Education Sub-Committee on Tuesday. They decided that none of the applicants had attained the desired standard for admission it the course. I have, therefore, to inform you that your application has been unsucessful. I have lived for quite a long time and known of all kinds of examinations for the professions and for the major and minor universities, but I have never yet known of a test where all the candidates failed. I think it rather cruel to bring 11 candidates up for only two places. It must be remembered that this education authority has had this girl from the time that she was five—

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

Surely the hon. Member would agree that it was fair that every girl should have the same chance as this pupil was given.

Sir D. Robertson

I concede that point, but I did not know that there were other girls involved in this. I was dealing with one particular case.

It seems to me extraordinary that 11 candidates should be called for two places and that they all should fail, and that the authority preferred to keep the places vacant rather than give two girls a chance of training to earn a living in the world outside.

Naturally, the father protested again, and the letter from which I now quote—and I apologise for all these quotations, but the case I am trying to make has been made by the education authority itself—is dated 14th October: Dear Mr."— then there is the name of the father— I thank you for your letter of 12ch October and I am sorry that you are disappointed at "— your daughter's— failure to secure admission to the Sutherland Technical School Commercial Course. Her rejection may well turn out to be a kindness. In the first two years of the course the Authority enrolled generously and had a suitable number of disappointments"—

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

The word is "sizeable."

Sir D. Robertson

No, it is "suitable." Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain what that means— as quite a number of the girls, fascinated by the glamour of office work, had really not the basic educational attainment to make a success of commercial education.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I am very interested in the statement of the hon. Member regarding the attainments of the girl, but he did not tell us what were her marks for English, and that is really the sine qua non for a shorthand-typist.

Sir D. Robertson

I thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) for interrupting me. The marks were: English, 68 per cent.; history, 15 out of 50—she was bad at history; geography, 35 out of 50; arithmetic, 42 out of 50; mathematics, 96 out of 100; science, 66 out of 100; art, 32 out of 50; domestic subjects, 64 out of 100.

Mr. Willis

But that is not the test to which he refers. Surely in the test for clerical ability which was taken by the candidate she actually scored 48 out of 176.

Sir D. Robertson

I am referring, of course, to the girl's school report.

Mr. Willis

And I was referring to the test.

Sir D. Robertson

A few days ago, after various evasions and shifts, there was an attempt to give her a lower status in intelligence, and if that is so, it is a great reflection on this education committee, which had this girl for 11 years.

May I relieve any anxiety which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) may have about this girl. I have arranged that she should have the chance which was denied to her by the Sutherland education authority. She was interviewed by a well-known firm of chartered accountants in Inverness, and I have received a telegram from that firm, which reads as follows: Have interviewed"— then follows the girl's name— today and found her interested and suitable and have offered her post commencing 4th January. Unfortunately, no shorthand classes for beginners in Inverness until next September. This girl is not able to pass the test for training because of lack of places, but she goes to the town of Inverness and to one of the leading accountancy firms there, and in competition with plenty of girls who want jobs she passes the test given with flying colours. What is more, the firm is taking her on.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to tell us why it is that in the large Highland town of Inverness—the largest in that part of Scotland—it is not possible for a student to enrol for shorthand classes at the beginning of the winter term. It seems to me extraordinary that an applicant has to wait until the beginning of September next before getting the tuition she needs. I hope that by what I have said I have removed any doubt in the hon. Member's mind about this girl not being fit to be trained in shorthand and typewriting.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman must have mistaken me. I did not say that. All I asked was, would the same conditions that applied to her apply to the other applicants who were refused places? Would they all succeed in Inverness? Another point I should like to put to the hon. Gentleman is this. To what extent did he consult the director of education in Sutherland about this case and also with the education committee because it seems to me that he could have had all this information long ago, had he taken the right steps to get it?

Sir D. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong in that. He must not have listened to my speech, because I said at the beginning that I went to the office of the director of education, and I thought the whole matter was settled. I know that in 99 cases out of 100 an hon. Member would have taken the letter and posted it to the Secretary of State, but I did not do that. I was impressed by the letter which came from the parent of this girl, and that is why I followed it up. There can be no charge of discourtesy. It was no part of my duty to go to the director's office, but I did it.

I only raised the matter in the House of Commons when I got this dreadful letter to which I have referred, saying that the 2 million women in offices throughout Great Britain are fascinated by the glamour of their work. That is just sheer nonsense. "Glamour" is a word we use about bathing beauties, or people on the stage or connected with the cinema, or may be those who model elegant clothes, but we do not use it about women who earn their living in offices throughout the country. It is all humbug.

Then they talk of a fuller life, and of her rejection being a kindness. How can it be a kindness if a pupil is prevented from following the sort of work she wants to do? Then there is the suggestion about a bursary of £100 for domestic service, which is called home-craft. That is just washing stairs, scrubbing pots, and doing all the chores that have to be done about a house. I take the view that people of our race are greatly privileged who have other people of our race to do their domestic work for them. I have been privileged in that way, and I shall be eternally grateful to a number of women who have given that service.

I have a high regard for women who want to go into domestic service. What I object to is the temptation put before the daughter of this working man of a bursary of £100 which would have equipped her with new clothes, and would have enabled her to go away and have a good time at Bridge of Allan, and then turn her out to do what? Domestic work in Golders Green or Garnet Hill, or in some Victorian mausoleum or institution. It may be a great wrong, not a great kindness, to pitchfork a girl of 15 or 16 into domestic service in a big city.

I do not want to get heated, but no case in my long experience has made me more annoyed. The women of the Highlands and of Northern and Southern Ireland have been exploited over the years because we have had no industry which they could enter. The only jobs available for them have been in the fields or gutting herring, so they have taken the traditional road to Glasgow to earn their living, knowing nothing of industry. Many girls have gone to fine families who have looked after them well, but others have not been so fortunate. Domestic work has become an unwanted occupation, and in London it is frequently foreign women who apply for these jobs because they had little chance of getting other work.

I must stop now, because the Minister must have a chance to say something. There is, however, the constitutional issue involved in this case, mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, namely, of my bringing this matter to the House of Commons.

Mr. Willis

No, I merely asked why.

Sir D. Robertson

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman reminded me of it. There is a constitutional duty on the part of hon. Members to bring complaints, or even the views of their constituents, to the Minister responsible for the specific service, in this case education.

There is another issue involved here—the right of the individual concerned to choose his or her job, and there is a responsibility on the local educational authority to see that this girl gets training. In the neighbouring County of Caithness there are commercial courses in primary and secondary schools open to children from the age of 12 years. The rural boys and girls are brought in by bus to the secondary schools so that, when they are 15 or 16, and have completed the course, they are ready to take employment. Hundreds of them have done that. However, in this backward educational county there are no commercial courses at the schools, only this closed shop of 12 places at a technical school.

This cannot go on. The Government should introduce at the earliest possible moment facilities similar to those in Caithness and in other parts of Great Britain. Neither in the L.C.C., nor in Pitmans, the Polytechnic, Royal Society of Arts, are there such tests. Everywhere but in Sutherland the British conception of a widespread, free education is practised. Instead of catering for a few gold medallists, there should be a reasonable training for the greatest number of children to enable them to satisfy the demands of reasonable employers. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will say something which wil bring about those reasonable conditions in Sutherland education which I demand.

4.25 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) has made it very difficult for me to say anything, since he has occupied 25 minutes out of the half hour allotted for Adjournment debate. I am, therefore, left with fewer than five minutes in which to deal with the very serious charges that he has made. I must do my best, but I realise that it will be inadequate.

The short facts are that the Sutherland Education Committee took the view—and the view is supported by many good educationists in Scotland and by the Scottish Advisory Council—that the best education to give to children between the ages of 12 and 15 is a general education on general subjects. Some authorities do not agree with that, and some have introduced into their courses shorthand, typewriting and commercial instruction. Caithness does it, as my hon. Friend says, but there are many good educationists who believe that the Sutherland idea is a good one and the right one.

Nevertheless, I can tell my hon. Friend that this question of whether to include or exclude commercial subjects in secondary school courses is constantly being examined by the authorities and educationists throughout the country, and I have no doubt that the Sutherland authority will from time to time look at the matter again and consider whether it is the best and the proper thing to do to take that view.

Mr. Herbert Morrison (Lewisham, South)

What is the hon. Gentleman's view?

Mr. Stewart

If the right hon. Member is also going to interrupt, I shall have less time than ever in which to reply.

It is not for the Secretary of State to adjudicate. It is laid down in the clearest terms in the Education (Scotland) Act. 1946 that It shall be the duty of every education authority to secure that adequate and efficient provision is made throughout their area of all towns of primary, secondary and further education. The duty of the Secretary of State is that of general supervision, but it is not his duty to interfere with, or dictate to, local education authorities about what they should do. But whore he is satisfied that an authority is not performing its duty, most certainly he must do so.

Having gone into this matter with the greatest possible care, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is satisfied that there has not been any dereliction of duty on the part of this authority, and, had there been time, I think I would have been able to prove to the House quite conclusively that this child was given precisely the same tests as the other 25, that she and the other 11 were excluded because they failed, I am sorry to say so publicly, miserably in those tests which they had to sit. My hon. Friend has given this matter a good deal of publicity, and has charged us with great short comings.

Mrs. Mann

She had 96 per cent. in mathematics.

Mr. Stewart

I have all the figures here, but I am reluctant to give them, though I will certainly supply them in confidence to the hon. Lady. I do not think it is fair to give them here, but the figures show that she failed lamentably, and, in fact, was among the lowest four of the 25. While I very much regret that this girl cannot enter for this special course, I think we have to defend the authority, because unless people pass the preliminary tests for this further education, these special courses will really be wasted. Of course, Golspie has evening classes as well, which provide shorthand, typewriting and commercial instruction.

I very much regret that I have not been given time in which to develop my case, and that I must ask the House, because it is all I can do, to accept the assurance of my right hon. Friend and those who are skilled to advise us, that, having gone into the case with the greatest care, we have come to the conclusion that the authorities acted fairly by this girl. I much regret that she has not passed, and I will do everything I can in the matter, and perhaps my hon. Friend will consider contacting the local education authority. After all, that is the best way in which to help this girl, which I am sure is the real desire of the House.

Sir D. Robertson

Will my hon. Friend answer one question? Will he give this girl a bursary of equal value so that she may train for commercial studies, as they were willing to give her for domestic service?

Mr. Stewart

It is not for me to say that. It is in the discretion of the local authority.

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