HC Deb 04 June 1954 vol 528 cc1601-39

11.20 a.m.

Mr. Mayhew

As I was saying, I hope that this subject will be settled purely in terms of the welfare of the school children in the area. That is the real criterion. I hope that no political pressure or party dogma will interfere with that. I have some doubts about it in respect of the Minister's decision, but I hope that in the debate we shall say nothing which can injure the prospects of either Kidbrooke or Eltham Hill Schools, or in any way prejudice the education of the children there.

If I may, I shall look at this from the point of view first of the girls at Eltham Hill and then from that of the Kidbrooke Comprehensive School. I put Eltham Hill girls first because they are the most directly effected. Certainly, I would not be party to any proposals which jeopardised their education or did any harm to their future.

It is very sad that the school itself—in those buildings—should be closed. That it is a fine school is not disputed by anyone, and it has a good tradition. That it should be closed is obviously sad, but that is not the end of the story. Under the L.C.C. proposals those girls would have been transferred en bloc. The same teachers, the same girls with their same friends, the same courses of study, in many cases even the same forms, would have gone to Kidbrooke Comprehensive School.

At Kidbrooke they would have had a greater variety of studies even than they had at Eltham Hill school—such things as secretarial and commercial courses, which some of them might have liked. I see no reason why the same traditions, the same spirit and certainly the same high academic standards could not have been maintained for and by these girls at Kidbrooke as at Eltham Hill. They could have been given full facilities for the same kind of education as they had been receiving.

The Minister, I think, is to tell us that she has not stopped the transfer of the girls to Kidbrooke; that even now there is nothing to prevent them going to Kidbrooke, but that they must go as individuals and not, as under the L.C.C. proposal, as a school. I hope that she will not put that plan forward. It seems to make no sense at all that the school should be transferred not as a whole but as individuals. In such circumstances there is a very strong case against Eltham Hill going into Kidbrooke.

If one takes pupil from teacher or teacher from pupil, or one girl from her school friends, and interrupt the courses and the forms, one is dislocating the education of the girls. That would be a thoroughly bad, even an inhuman thing to do, and I would certainly not be a party to it. I hope that we shall not hear from the Minister that this is the suggested way out. As a scheme it seems to be a non-starter.

Before we stop looking at this from the point of view of Eltham Hill I want the Minister to tell us what is to happen to that school if she persists in her decision. Is her plan to try and maintain it indefinitely as it now is, with three comprehensive schools covering this area and competing with Eltham Hill for pupils and for specialist teachers? That seems a wasteful and indeed a bad thing from everyone's point of view.

Or is she to suggest that it should form part of Avery Hill Comprehensive School? Again, looking at it from the point of the girls at Eltham Hill I do not think that that is very satisfactory. Avery Hill caters for boys and girls and not, as does Kidbrooke, for girls only, and to that extent it would be a bigger disturbance for the girls of Eltham Hill. As she is disrupting the original L.C.C. plan will the Minister explain how she envisages the future of Eltham Hill?

Now, what about Kidbrooke? I am quite confident—as, I think, are all those who have been concerned with this—that in spite of all Kidbrooke will be a success. I understand that the headmistress is a most able, enthusiastic and sympathetic person. She is very pleased with the recruitment of the first academic form that she has in the school today. Even though it is not possible to transfer the academic system en bloc from Eltham Hill she nevertheless has high hopes that she will be able to build well in the years ahead and that Kidbrooke will be a great success.

That, of course, does not alter the fact that a better start would have been to go ahead with the proposals of the L.C.C. To have stiffened and strengthened the school in the early years by carrying the whole tradition and academic system from Eltham Hill would have given the school a fairer and better start. Considering how much all of us on both sides rely on this being a fair test of a big and good principle it seems a shame that the test should be invalidated at the beginning by the Minister's action.

The London County Council assumed that there would be no objection. It is true it was not in the London schools plan. Under that, the Eltham Hill school was to go to Avery Hill, but that was a matter within the competence of the L.C.C. to decide. As the schools plan had been accepted by the Ministry I would have thought that any Minister of Education would have allowed the L.C.C. to decide. In any case, what a pity it is that a sudden, last-minute change should disrupt the plans. It is really not very fair on the headmistress, who accepted the job on the assumption that the school was to come to her. I do not think that this will put her off—she is not that kind—but it is really disappointing that the plans should be changed and disrupted after her appointment.

If the Minister wished to make this disrupting decision why should she delay that decision until only four months before the thing is about to begin? The Minister of Education was notified on 16th February, 1953. It was not until 5th June, 1953, that she said a public notice would be required for the closure of the school, and not until 1st March this year that she actually reached a decision. That is leaving it terribly late, on humane and administrative counts, to take the decision which she has taken. As I say, it is going to be harder now for Kidbrooke to make those first years that valuable success which we all hope they will be.

In the meantime, there will be hundreds of places unfilled. At this stage in the crisis which is affecting education in this country, to leave unfilled places must be an administrative mistake—whether they are unfilled at Kidbrooke or unfilled in a wider sense, because this decision of the Minister does not affect only Eltham Hill and Kidbrooke.

It also affects the two other comprehensive schools which are planned there —Avery Hill and King's Park. Their recruitment of the boys for the academic stream is to be taken from the empty buildings of Eltham Hill. Thus the Minister's decision has had wide repercussions in the area. As to the wider repercussions outside the area, I am sure that my hon. Friends will deal with those later.

From the point of view of Kidbrooke itself, the Minister's decision was a great mistake. Why has the Minister acted as she has done? I hope that she will give better reasons than she has given so far, because if she does not, the conclusion will be inescapable that she has been subject to political pressures and has allowed party considerations to override the benefit of the school children in the area. We shall listen with interest to what she has to say, but I feel that she has betrayed one of the best traditions of Ministers of Education in this country, which is that one stands up to one's partisans sometimes in the interest of the continuity of policy in education.

One of the right hon. Lady's predecessors, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, won respect on this side of the House for some of the educational policies which he put into operation, and he knew that education must to a much larger degree than in almost any other branch of national administration stand outside the party political arena. We cannot have at every General Election all the children's textbooks and teachers being changed. There would be chaos. Therefore, all Ministers of Education should be above the party battle as much as they possibly can. I am afraid that the Minister does not seem to have passed the test on this occasion. This decision was initiated in the worst possible atmosphere in the worst possible way, by a thoroughly partisan speech by the Minister to the London Conservative Women's Conference. This is the speech that started the ball rolling, and I want to read the report of that speech from "The Times Educational Supplement."

The speech falls into two parts. In the first part the Minister lays down the principle of non-partisanship and non-interference with local authorities in educational policy. She does so in a way which will command assent on both sides of the House. In the second part of the speech she says exactly the opposite. In the first part she says, "The L.C.C. has taken this policy decision. I have no power to interfere, and that is that." Then in the second part she says, "But I have found a trick, a device for sabotaging the plan, and I want to explain it to you and I want you to co-operate with me in bringing it about."

Here is the report of the first part of the speech: She was not against all schools which were sometimes called comprehensive—there were, for instance, good reasons why it might be necessary in country districts to have a single secondary school for children of different ability and aptitude. But the L.C.C. schools were different. She had been asked what she could do about them. She had no power to interfere; her predecessor had authorised the building of these new schools, and that was that. That was quite right constitutionally and in every way.

Now for the second part of the speech. The report said: What she still had to do, however, was to authorise the closing down of the existing schools to 'feed' the comprehensive schools, and in considering the plans of local authorities to close schools…she had to consider the views of local residents. She reminded the conference that the L.E.A. had to advertise its plans for two months before the Minister was asked to approve them. During that time it was open to any 10 local electors to raise a protest to the Minister. Miss Horsbrugh read out a list of the schools which were listed for closure, and put it to the conference that if they wanted her to act they had to give her local support by protesting. It is absolutely disgraceful and totally inconsistent with the first part of the speech. It is partisanship of the worst kind. Where do the school children come in, in all this? They are used as political pawns at the London Conservative Women's Conference. That is not good enough. It is not in the tradition of education in this country, and it is not in accordance with the best interests of the school children in my area. "The Times Educational Supplement" said: The speech was as near incitement as possible. We all know the history of the matter. A petition was duly organised, but not a very big one, and it was very quickly out-petitioned by the weight of public opinion in my area, and a much bigger petition against the Minister's decision was quickly raised. But the damage was done. The Minister then had no excuse for intervention, but she intervened and made this political decision. That was a disgraceful thing.

I think the Minister is subject to political pressures, and not only on this occasion either. This is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened. There is the question of school buildings, commercial television, and so on. It is disgraceful that the Minister should sit quietly and calmly in the Cabinet which takes a deliberate decision to commercialise children's television programmes. No Minister of Education worth two-pence would remain in a Government which deliberately commercialised children's television. I find that the Minister is always too subject to these political pressures. She is hounded by the diehards of her party, and she manages to save herself by throwing the schoolchildren to the wolves.

I should like her to consider again this whole question of intervention in this matter of Kidbrooke School, because there is another principle at stake which I hope my hon. Friends will refer to. That is the very good British tradition that there must be give and take and good sense and compromise between the Minister and the local authorities in educational policy. That has always happened in this country, and it must continue to happen if our educational system is to work. The Minister has unquestionably lost the confidence of the London County Council in this matter, and has given them a great many administrative headaches. I ask her to retrieve her ground by standing up to the die-hards in her party on this issue and give a fair chance to the Kidbrooke School.

11.38 a.m.

Mr. William A. Steward (Woolwich, West)

I have listened with interest to the speech made by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew). Eltham Hill School has achieved, and has always maintained, a consistently high standard of education, as has been admitted by the hon. Gentleman. It is the only girls' school of grammar school status in Eltham and the immediate neighbourhood. This school has been housed at Eltham Hill for 27 years, and its buildings and exceptional facilities for research are still admired by educationists visiting London, and the adjacent sports field caters adequately for the girls' recreation.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it not be better for this House to receive a speech from the hon. Member which he himself will have possibly prepared, instead of reading, word for word, a brief which has been given to him?

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member himself who raises the point of order is himself in danger of getting out of order. He should not make such a suggestion against another hon. Member. The hon. Member was making his speech from notes, so far as I could see.

Mr. Williams

I accept what you say, Sir, but is it correct that a Member should read a speech word for word in this House?

Mr. Speaker

It is not in order to read speeches as a general rule, but Members are permitted to make use of notes. There seems to me to be no ground for suggesting that the hon. Member's speech was written by somebody else.

Mr. Steward

I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that not a soul other than myself has had a hand in the preparation of the few words I hope to contribute to this debate.

Under the admirable leadership of a succession of able headmistresses, backed by a talented staff, the school has a tradition in education, both in the arts and the sciences, which is second to none in South-East London. Incidentally, in the London School Plan this school was not scheduled for inclusion in the Kidbrooke Comprehensive School scheme.

For many years the people in this area have been happy and proud of the standard of education reached and the really good type of scholar turned out from this school. They want no change, for they have no confidence in the comprehensive school idea. When it became known that the London County Council intended to close Eltham Hill School a very large number of parents and people who were genuinely interested were literally shocked, and got together to fight for the retention of this school which they all knew so well. After all, the general principle laid down in Section 6 of the Education Act, 1944, provides that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents.

The action of these good people was not sponsored by any political organisation, as suggested by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East. As a member of the constituency in which the school is situated, I can truthfully say that the only part I played was to pass on to the Minister the correspondence which I had received, together with my observations. The efforts of this body of parents and others were those of people genuinely concerned, and they were successful in their endeavours in that they contributed to the saving of this very good school. I have every reason to believe that the counter-protest which was organised later, after the decision of the Minister became known, was not so non-political.

I am informed on good authority that some of the petition forms were circulated by the local secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, whose address is the same as that of the local Labour Party. The whole effort was a concerted endeavour to rouse antagonism against the decision of the Minister. It was not genuine, and I cannot believe that the hon. Member for Woolwich, East, for whom I have great respect, really has his heart in the arguments which he has put forward.

The fact is that the all-powerful London County Council has been checked in the carrying out of one of its unpopular schemes, and that august body does not like it. If Eltham Hill School and its sister grammar schools are allowed to continue in their present status and the comprehensive schools are built up stage by stage the desires of all who have at heart the true welfare and education of all the children in the area administered by the L.C.C. will surely be met. I cannot see the purpose of spoiling a first-class set-up, such as exists at Eltham Hill or anywhere else, to bolster up the idea of comprehensive schools, which, we would all agree, is at least only experimental.

Why should not Eltham Hill School be allowed to continue its good work without being interfered with? The hon. Member for Woolwich, East inquired what would become of it when the three comprehensive schools really got working. It may well be that Eltham Hill School will still be favoured by the people of Eltham as the best one for their children. Why should it be wrecked, so as to give a "phoney" picture of the merits of the comprehensive school? I can quite appreciate the anxiety of the London County Council that its first comprehensive school should be a success, in order to prove its theory that comprehensive schools are the complete answer to the educational problem, but it will prove nothing if six other good schools are to be wiped out to achieve this.

To me, even the thought of uprooting good schools from their present backgrounds, traditions and environments shows an utter disregard of all that goes into the making of a school. The losses involved would far outweigh any advantages which it may be hoped to gain. To prove that the comprehensive school idea is a good one it is surely fair that each should be built up from the start with an entity of its own. I submit that the step proposed by the London County Council was a retrograde one, and indicates a complete lack of understanding both of the purpose of education and the best methods of building up a school. It has yet to be proved that herding together 2,000 children at a time will advance the standard of education.

Hon. Members on this side of the House, while being against mass-production in education, nevertheless await with interest and with as open minds as possible the result of the comprehensive school experiment, but we say that it is not a fair experiment when, in order to make sure that it is a success, it is necessary to close down schools and transfer teachers and pupils to the new education factory. This method of proving a theory makes the word "experiment" a farce, entailing as it does a complete abuse of public money.

A local education authority may not close a school without publishing notices of its intention to do so, and there follows an interval of three months, during which the managers or governors of the voluntary school affected, or any 10 of the local government electors for the area, may submit objections to the Minister. It then becomes the duty of the Minister to consider any such objections very carefully before she decides whether or not to approve the authority's proposal.

In this case my right hon. Friend fully considered the proposal made by the London County Council to cease to maintain Eltham Hill County Secondary School. She considered all the arguments submitted by the authority in support of its proposals, and she also studied the objections received from people who were entitled to object under the Act, and noted the grounds upon which those objections were made.

My right hon. Friend further examined the London County Council's observations on those objections, and, finally, took into account, as she had every right to do, the reputation of the school and the success with which it has served its purpose as a grammar school. Having done all this, the Minister came to the conclusion that it would not be educationally advantageous for this school to cease to be maintained. I submit that the Minister should be commended for the wisdom she exercised in arriving at her decision and I, for one, offer her my sincere congratulations.

Without wishing to be offensive, I consider that the attack made by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East in the latter part of his speech was unwarranted, rather unfair, and unjustified.

11.49 a.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

My London colleagues have honoured me by inviting me to try to catch your eye in this debate, Mr. Speaker. Nothing will be said from hon. Members on this side against the Eltham School in question or Eltham parents, or against grammar schools in general. I only wish that the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Steward) would be as fair to the comprehensive school, which he calls an education factory, as we are to the outstanding achievements of grammar schools in the last 50 years.

There is no doubt that the Minister has the power to do what she has done. Section 13 of the Act gives her power, if a voluntary school is to be closed or its user altered, to receive from the governors or any 10 electors in the area representations against the action of the local authority. That Section is in the Act mainly to protect Church schools.

Mrs. Freda Corbet (Peckham)

This is not a voluntary school.

Dr. King

I know it is not. I am discussing all the powers given to the Minister to override local authorities. This Section, as I said, was primarily designed to protect Church schools. Section 68 gave the Minister power to interfere if the local authority … acted or are proposing to act unreasonably … The story of how Section 68 got into the Act is of significance to this debate. The first draft was debated in Committee of the whole House in one of its worst moments, not long after it had voted for equal pay and then had voted against equal pay on the instructions of the Prime Minister. The debate on the Clause lasted only five minutes. The power to interfere with the local authority was defended by the then Minister of Education on the ground that it might be used to protect a teacher who was wrongly dismissed by school managers. That was the only instance he gave in the debate. The Minister said that it might seem a large power but it had to be in the Bill in order to have an overriding opinion in doubtful cases.

But the Lords threw out the Clause. The then Lord Chancellor, defending the Clause in another place, said that such powers could be justified by examples, but the one example he gave was of a child being sent by a local authority to a school of a religious denomination other than that of the parents. In spite of his pleas, the Lords threw out the Clause and made the Government introduce a new one, under which the Minister is acting.

When it came before this House it was attacked by that doughty champion of local authorities, Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson, who said it was a serious thing for it to be said that a Minister of the Crown is satisfied that a local authority has exercised its powers unreasonably. Another hon. Member bitterly complained that under the Clause a Minister could not only tell authorities what to do but could tell them how to do what they had to do.

The Clause was grudgingly accepted by the House on certain assurances given by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler). He said the powers would be used only in the last resort to deal with small questions of disagreement which might arise between an authority and a person.

He pooh-poohed the idea that the powers would be used to override a local education authority's discretion. He gave an undertaking that the Clause would be operated in the proper spirit, and not in the wrong spirit. That was a sincere but very foolish remark. The right hon. Genleman could not bind his successors. He did not anticipate what use the present Minister would make of this power.

Most important, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Minister's powers under the Clause were quasi-judicial and that the Minister would act as an impartial judge. Neither this House nor another place visualised that the Minister would act as an unelected Member of the L.C.C. Opposition and go around making speeches urging a defeated minority to send in appeals to her so that she could in her quasi-judicial position smash a majority decision of the L.C.C.

My hon. Friend this morning has quoted a recent speech of the Minister, and I shall not requote it, but I would emphasise the last part of the report in "The Times Educational Supplement": Miss Horsbrough read out a list of the schools which were listed for closure, and put it to the Conference that if they wanted her to act, they had to give her local support by protesting. "The Times Educational Supplement" is seldom opposed to the Minister, but it commented: It was as near incitement as possible. I believe it was worse. The right hon. Lady incited to mutiny knowing she would preside over the court-martial afterwards. When in this country has a judge gone round whipping up emotions and whipping up evidence and announcing the verdict before the trial?

The Minister belongs to a party that professes to be for the local authorities and against government from Whitehall. I have here quite a number of Conservative local election leaflets, and I quote from "Eight Points for the Electors": The Conservatives wish to restore the essence of local government destroyed by the Socialist policy of centralising everything in London, and will oppose interference and unnecessary control by Government Departments in local affairs. They liked this so much that they repeated it in "Fifty Things the Tories Will do." saying in paragraph 29: We'll restore the essence of local Government, destroyed by the Socialist mania for centralising decisions in London, and will oppose interference and unnecessary control by Government Departments in local affairs.

Mr. Henry Brooke (Hampstead)

Will not the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a duty on all local authorities to have regard for the provisions of Acts of Parliament?

Dr. King

Yes, and the leaflets should have said so, and if the L.C.C. were breaking an Act of Parliament it would be the duty of the Minister to interfere. That is common ground between all the intelligent people of the community.

I believe in local government. It is centuries older than central government. I am uneasy about even my own party's educational proposals, if they should carry with them the power of a Minister to impose on all local education authorities the duty to provide comprehensive secondary schools all at once. I believe that comprehensive secondary education is inevitable and right, but we want to encourage local education authorities, not to dragoon them.

This action of the Minister vindicates any future Socialist Minister of Education if he argues that the powers given in the Act of 1944 and used in this way by the Minister allow him to direct local authorities to establish comprehensive schools. Only he will not need to go round, as this Minister has done, whipping up petitions, because millions of people will request them, as the electors did in London County Council elections.

Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)

There is surely a very big distinction here between the action in this case, which is to ensure the continuity of that which on both sides of the House is admitted as being and having been thoroughly good, and what the hon. Gentleman is arguing, that the Section gives a right to the Minister to direct the initiation and creation of something absolutely new. That is a positive direction, whereas this is a negative one.

Dr. King

Obviously the two things are different, but what is common to both of them is a request of a minority group—for the preservation, on the one hand, of the grammar school and on the other hand for the establishment of a comprehensive school. If a Socialist Minister were in power he could incite, in the area of any local authority which did not set up comprehensive secondary schools, a group of citizens to petition for the setting up of comprehensive secondary schools and would be perfectly justified in imitating a Conservative Minister in conceding the request.

Mr. H. A. Price (Lewisham, West)

Where is that power contained?

Dr. King

In the same Section. The hon. Gentleman has not followed the argument.

Why has the Minister interfered with the L.C.C.? Is it failing to carry out its duties under the Act? There is not a word about grammar, technical and secondary modern schools in the Act. The Act says that local education authorities must provide primary and secondary education in separate buildings. If the Minister wants to use her powers under the Act, let her use them on local education authorities that are still denying one-seventh of our children separate secondary education provided for under the Act. As a matter of fact they want to provide it. They want to provide a reorganisation which will give all the children separate secondary education, and it is the Minister herself who at the present time is preventing the local education authorities from carrying out their duty to provide secondary education—so that 750,000 children are deprived of anything like secondary education.

Section 8 of the Act says that it shall be the duty of every local education authority to provide … all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes … But the L.C.C. is doing this.

There is nothing in the Act about deciding the destiny of all English children except the rich by an examination at 11-plus. The elected representatives of the L.C.C. believe that it is wrong that three types of secondary education should be fixed on London for ever merely because one happened to exist—grammar schools—one was beginning to emerge—technical schools—and one had to be invented in 1946—modern—because up to then we had made no provision for secondary education for five million out of the six million children. They think it is wrong to separate all children, in their infinite variety, in their infinite differences in rate of development, into three arbitrarily-chosen channels, at an arbitrarily-chosen age, and then make it difficult, if not impossible, for the child to move from one stream to another.

I talk to many parents. Two months ago I was talking to parents of a village infant school about infant education. At the end of my speech there were questions. What were they all about? Every one was about the selection examination which, as far as those parents were concerned, was still six years ahead. The selection examination is a nightmare in the minds of millions of English parents. It is a nightmare even in the minds of hundreds of thousands of sensitive, keen and ambitious little children.

The L.C.C. has decided to stop the artificial canalising of London children. Not entirely; there will still be a certain number of London grammar schools, but for most London children there will be secondary education of a quality, of a variety and a range which as yet is unknown in educational history—and all inside one building. The only limiting factor will be the capacity of the child to profit at any age in his life.

No child will lose anything. The so-called grammar school child of high intelligence, demanding academic training, wanting to go to the sixth form and the university, will find in the comprehensive school a graduate staff, a library, technical provisions, laboratory provisions, to enable him to go as far ahead as he wants to go. If London were proposing to sacrifice the élite of its children, that would be a crime and I should be opposed to it as bitterly as my old pupil, Dr. Eric James, in his fear of the sacrifice of the élite. But London does not propose that. London wants, as all who love children want, to retain all the rich achievement of the first 50 years of grammar school education. London wants the cultural, the moral, the social and the spiritual achievements of 50 years of grammar school education to remain and to expand.

But good things are not lost by sharing them—certainly not the good things of education. The future scientist does not suffer because he does his advanced studies in one laboratory while the humbler child is getting to know something about the wonders of science in probably a less spacious laboratory inside the same building. The future teacher or doctor or clergyman does not suffer because the future busman breathes the same air in the same school. After all, they breathe the same air in a London primary school, and it does not hurt any of them.

I liked to hear the hon. Member for Woolwich, West sing the praises of a good grammar school and can understand the pride of Eltham School parents. But if there is a glorious tradition in Eltham School, it does not disappear suddenly overnight because we allow duller children to share with profit the wonders and the glories of the tradition which Eltham has built up. In the school dramatic society, music society, debating society and the various hockey and football teams, nothing is lost because a child who failed to put down the right answer at 11-plus takes part in them by the side of the more able child. Indeed, the football and hockey teams will probably gain.

Do we believe that knowledge is something to be hived off, something to be hoarded—or is this the fundamental difference of opinion which produces this debate? Is it that our opponents want education merely to give special advantages for one group of children over another? Do they think that education is something like money—only valuable if somebody else has not so much of it?

It is for the L.C.C. to see that the so-called grammar school child does not lose in the process of building Kidbrooke. That is purely a technical and staffing problem. The L.C.C. will have to be generous with staffing and choose its leaders very carefully. I believe it is doing so. But it is not doing its new job of providing comprehensive secondary education in a negative way. It passionately wants to give all London children a positive opportunity for secondary education.

Some of its children develop later than 11-plus. They have a chance to emerge inside the comprehensive secondary school. Some children emerge too soon, score high marks at 11-plus and, under the separate system, find themselves in grammar schools, floundering in academic courses which are too difficult for them, and then join the early grammar school leavers, having failed because they were in the wrong kind of atmosphere.

There are a host of as yet undeveloped potentialities among our English children which will emerge as secondary education expands. What folly it would be to say that the sixth form of 1902 was the last word in sixth forms—or the sixth form of 1924; or even to say that the sixth form of 1954 is the last word in sixth forms. One of the most remarkable by-products of Holyhead and the early London comprehensive schools, was the expansion in range and quality of the sixth form.

What about the ordinary children of London? According to classification tests, that means three-quarters of them. It is not shameful to be born average. The crime was not in having one talent; it was in burying one talent or 10 talents inside the napkin. Education is not merely an intellectual process. Eton and Winchester mean a lot, not only to the clever lads who went there but also to the stupid lads and the not-so-bright. And Eton manages to give all that is most precious in Eton to most of its pupils—not merely to those who take the Close scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge.

What there is good in the old school tie, the L.C.C. passionately desires for all London children—the corporate life of a great school, the mutual impact of different abilities and social groups and a common core of our island's precious cultural heritage; the Christian basis enshrined in the Act of 1944; loyalty to a community; teamwork; the sense of belonging to one single community—just as in our prayers today we speak of belonging to one single community—instead of being divided into upper, middle and working classes, or academic, technical and modern, or highbrow and lowbrow and no-brow, with brick walls and social prejudices dividing children after they have been separated into three groups.

The amenities of the best London secondary schools, including all the amenities of the Eltham school, are to become the possession of all children in this district and in all secondary schools—libraries, laboratories, workshops, engineering shops, art rooms, music rooms, of a quality unsurpassed in any London grammar school. I wish I could add "playing fields."

Even the mingling of the staff in comprehensive schools—university men and training college men—will be of value. I have spoken in some of the great training colleges—in St. Mark's and St. John's, King Alfred's, Winchester, for example—and I have found among training college staff and students some rich qualities which I have not always found in every university which I have visited.

Universities must not imagine that they have a monopoly of all that is good in culture. It is good that the non-graduate should learn that it is not as easy as he thinks to teach mathematics to a future senior wrangler, and it does a graduate good to learn that it is not a soft option to teach the 12 times table to classes of dull children. It is good for both to learn from older grammar school teachers what infinite possibilities there are for education outside the classroom, in a good school's corporate life. Education is one indivisible whole. It may be that we have to start at the bottom to end the foolish stratification which often exists at the top.

But the Minister does not like comprehensive schools. She has said that she does not like big schools at all—except big public schools. That is why she is so much enjoying cutting down the building standards for the schools, a process which her predecessor introduced, and which she is gaily extending.

It is the Minister who is doctrinaire who reads into the Act what is not there. It is the Minister who is saying, "My predecessor passed the London Development Plan. London has endorsed it in two county council elections, and I myself have approved plans for the building of Kidbrooke School. But I am determined to wreck Kidbrooke School by preventing it from being truly comprehensive. I shall cut out from it a grammar school stream."

Her action will make things more difficult. The L.C.C. may have to take action and think out detailed counter methods. But the L.C.C. will go on with Kidbrooke, and I hope that it will pour in all its enthusiastic backing to make this comprehensive school succeed. I believe that the day will come when those who signed the petition to the Minister will realise that they were wrong. I am certain that the day will come when the Minister will be sorry.

I believe that she has misused the powers given under the Act to make a party political decision. She has for all time strengthened the power of future Ministers of Education against local education authorities. She has made the L.C.C. waste 500 places in Kidbrooke at a time when every inch of school place in the country is precious. If County Hall were committing some breach of the Education Act, all that she has done would be justified. As it merely seeks to carry out the Education Act more fully, comprehensively and generously than any other local education authority up to the moment has tried to do, her blunder becomes one of the greatest magnitude.

London, like other great capitals—New York, Paris, Moscow and Berlin—leads the country in education. Fifty-four years ago the London School Board was prosecuted for teaching elementary children more than they ought to be taught. That was the famous Cockerton judgment. Out of that prosecution began the extension of the secondary education to all working-class children. History repeats itself in this action of the Minister—an act which, I believe, will be prove as ineffective as the Cockerton judgment of 1900.

12.12 p.m.

Mr. H. A. Price (Lewisham, West)

It has become the custom in this House when discussing educational matters to say that we ought not to allow politics to intervene, but those who are honest in the matter know that that is just humbug. Anyone who has listened to the speech just delivered will realise that. Education in general, and comprehensive education in particular, has become a political issue, and if anyone has any doubt about that, they have only to read "Challenge to Britain" which proposes to abolish all grammar schools and to make all secondary schools comprehensive, and that, despite the fact that out of 146 educational authorities in this country, only six have decided in favour of comprehensive education.

Such an expression of opinion—one might have thought—would have weighed with the Socialist Party in general and the L.C.C. in particular. Obviously, it has not. That dogmatic, intolerant and politically ossified body proposes to continue with its plan for the provision of 67 comprehensive schools in London, irrespective of what anyone else says about it. Least of all, does it consider the parents. We have had quoted this morning Sections of the Act, and I quote Section 76, which reads: In the exercise and performance of all powers and duties conferred and imposed on them by this Act the Minister and local education authorities shall have regard to the general principle that, so far as compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. I believe that that is one of the most important Sections of the Act. The London County Council have forgotten it; it wishes that the Section did not exist. So far as the Council is concerned, the wishes of the parents could hardly be of less importance. All that matters to the Council is its ideological conception of education, which must be comprehensive. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, is suspicious of comprehensive education, which has already been tried and abandoned elsewhere in the world.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes, and Harlington)


Mr. Price

In America.

Mr. Skeffington

This is an important point. We should be glad to follow it up. As there are 48 States covering 150 million people in America, perhaps the hon. Member will be a little more particular.

Mr. Price

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to ascertain the climate of opinion in Denver, Colorado. At the moment when comprehensive education has been abandoned elsewhere, the London County Council has initiated it in this country.

Our attitude to it is quite simple—give it a trial by all means, but do not prejudice the future irrevocably by providing all comprehensive schools. The comprehensive school is a large building and a very tangible building, and once it is built it is there for probably a century. It cannot be written off. If the experimental schools are a success let us go ahead and make all secondary education comprehensive, but if they are a failure, let us see that the pass is not irrevocably sold.

Dr. King

I share some of the views of the hon. Gentleman. While he holds the view that what we want is an experimental comprehensive school, the London County Council have twice gone to the electors and put a different point of view and have had the approval of the electors against the approval of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Price

That is a fair point which I will come to in a moment. If I remember rightly—I may be wrong by two or three—before this Government came into office, of the 67 comprehensive schools which the L.C.C. proposed, 23 were approved by the previous Minister. Surely everyone will agree that one-third is a very generous scale for an experiment. To try out one-third of the total can hardly be stigmatised as niggardly or inadequate.

I will now come to the question which the hon. Gentleman raised. He quoted one or two Conservative pamphlets which referred to our need for a great element of local control and less unnecessary interference from the centre. That is something with which I entirely agree. I would personally make one exception—that is the L.C.C. and I will tell the House why.

I think that the L.C.C. is far too big and far too powerful for a local authority. It is the largest and most powerful single local authority in the world. It covers a population larger than some States and I think that it is quite anachronistic to consider the L.C.C. in the same category as some of our urban districts. The same argument cannot be applied to both. In my view, the L.C.C. system should be changed and there should be a form of regional government. One cannot apply the same arguments here as to an obscure local authority.

Although it is possible to say that throughout the London area there is a majority in favour of comprehensive education—although even that is yet to be proved; there may be a majority in favour of a Socialist L.C.C. but that is not to say that there is a majority in favour of comprehensive education and although the hon. Gentleman may be entitled to use that argument in respect of the L.C.C. he is not necessarily able to use it as applying to South-East, South-West, North-East or North-West London, and he is certainly not entitled to use it so far as Eltham is concerned.

That brings me to my last point. In Eltham, the parents of children at a school which it is proposed to close gathered together and presented to my right hon. Friend the Minister a petition signed by 4,000 people. Hon. Members opposite are saying that my right hon. Friend should have ignored that petition and local opinion and should have imposed upon those people the will of the London County Council. That is not my idea of the tolerance and compromise to which the hon. Member for Woolwich, East referred.

Mr. Mayhew

To which petition is the hon. Member referring? The small one in support of the Minister, or the large one against her?

Mr. Price

I am referring to the small one in support of the Minister, which was presented to her before she made her decision. The large one was presented to my right hon. Friend after she had made that decision.

The question of political influence has been raised. It is customary for hon. Members opposite, whenever a body of citizens combine to present a petition or a protest against anything which the Socialists propose to do, to call it a political stunt; but whenever they get together to prepare a petition or a protest against a Conservative proposal, they are fighting the battle of the people against the reactionary Tories.

Mr. Mayhew

I do not think the hon. Member was here when his hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Steward) complained—

Mr. Price

Yes, I was.

Mr. Mayhew

—that whereas the petition against the Minister was political, the petition in favour of the Minister was wholly spontaneous. I do not know whether the hon. Member has made a study of local conditions. If so, I do not think he would have raised this question.

Mr. Price

I was here and I heard my hon. Friend. I am not defending anybody who tries to condemn expressions of local opinion as political stunts. There is almost always—as we know, if we are honest about it—a political element in these things, and it is right that there should be. In fact, I suggest to hon. Members opposite that it would be very much to the credit of the local Lab our Party in Eltham had it said to the opposers, "We disagree with you, but you have a right to state your opinion. If you want to use our office and our duplicating machines to do it, they are at your disposal." That is my view of democracy, but apparently it is not universal.

What the Minister did was—

Mr. Mayhew

Stir up.

Mr. Price

—take account of local opinion.

Mr. Mayhew

The hon. Member agrees with me that the Minister did, in fact, stir up local opinion.

Mr. Price

I did not say that I agreed. What the Minister did was to have regard to Section 76 of the Act, which practically every Socialist wishes did not exist. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] I am entitled to express an opinion. That is my experience. The hon. Member suggests that the Minister stirred up local opinion, but as to the comment in "The Times Educational Supplement" I do not accept it for a moment.

What my right hon. Friend did was to point out to the people the democratic rights which they own and enjoy under the Act. I wish that the Socialist-controlled London County Council would do the same. I wish it would be as meticulous in pointing out to those who wish to oppose the L.C.C. proposals the methods and machinery open to them for doing so, instead of which the London County Council tries very hard not to do so. It complies with the law, but only just.

I support the Minister on this issue, not because of my views on comprehensive education, but because she has given full weight to local opinion. She has given full weight to Section 76 of the Act, which says that so far as is practicable children shall be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. That is the principle in which I believe. In doing that, my right hon. Friend has preserved a very valuable grammar school tradition. That is important, but not so important as having regard to the wishes of parents. The parents are the first who should be consulted in these matters—not the last.

12.26 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

It would probably not help the course of this debate if I spent very much time in attempting to answer some of the rather small debating points made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price), but there is one point in which he has, no doubt unconsciously, misled the House. It was in his reference to the Section of the Act which he quoted three times.

If the hon. Member looks at the debates that took place during the passage of the 1944 Act, he will find first that that Section originated as a Clause which was inserted to meet the wishes of parents in regard to religious matters. The hon. Member has completely misinterpreted it. Secondly, the Clause was most strongly supported by Members of the Opposition during the period of the National Government. That should be remembered, otherwise hon. Members may be misled, particularly into the belief that Members on this side do not support the Section to which the hon. Member referred.

After the excellent speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) and Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), there is not a great deal left to be said. My hon. Friends, if I may say so, have put their case very well, and so far we have had practically no answer. There remain two points to which I should like to direct attention. As a member of the Education Committee of the London County Council, my first comment is on the timing and manner of the Minister's decisions; and secondly, there is the surrounding political atmosphere of the decisions which possibly the Minister now very much regrets, and which everybody else who has to deal with this problem certainly regrets.

As has been said from both sides of the House, we all ought to deplore, not that educational policy should be the subject of acute political controversy, but that educational administration should be the subject of acute political party difference. The policy of the comprehensive school has been hotly and consistently attacked by Conservatives, certainly in London, although not necessarily by Conservatives everywhere else. They have every right to do that, and I in no way criticise Conservatives in London for their opposition. But this cannot go on for ever. Surely there must come a time when a decision has to be taken about plans and administration, and then, once the decision has been taken, the responsible course for members of both political parties is to get on with the organisation.

In this case, as has been said, the issue of the comprehensive school has been before the electors of London. I would not say that it was the major theme of all political speeches and controversies, but certainly in 1948 and particularly in the last Election the Conservatives prominently attacked the conception in all their literature. I spoke on it at all my Election meetings during the last Election, endeavouring to explain the policy but not attacking other people who differed. That policy was certainly not not endorsed, if I may put it that way, by the electors of London who returned the Labour Party to County Hall overwhelmingly.

Therefore, one would have thought, particularly as the Conservative Party has said that it is not against experiments in education, that the time has now been reached when this skirmishing, particularly behind the scenes, could be dropped, and we would get down to constructive advance. Even if the Conservatives in County Hall, despite what they have said about favouring experiments, attack every major plan and every large school proposal that has come before the council—they have not objected to some of the smaller comprehensive schools—if the Conservatives in County Hall are so purblind and stupid, need the Minister follow them? Would it not be wiser to stand up from time to time, as all Ministers have to do, than to follow those who may be enthusiastic but not particularly sensible in educational matters?

The position of all Ministers is very difficult. Ministers are entitled—

Mr. H. A. Price

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Skeffington

I know that the Minister wants plenty of time to reply, and I would rather proceed with my argument. All Ministers have the right to go on to public platforms to defend their policy and to attack their opponents, but in matters over which they themselves will have to act in a quasi-judicial capacity, Ministers must exercise great restraint. That is one of the penalties of office.

One remembers when the then Minister of Town and Country Planning made a speech which did not go nearly as far as the right hon. Lady went in her speech to the Conservative women in October, 1953. The former Minister of Town and Country Planning made a speech in favour of some new town. As a result, his action was challenged right up to the House of Lords, who finally supported the Minister and said that he had given his decision about the town in his Ministerial capacity and that he had not been prejudiced. I quote that example to show how careful a Minister must be.

I would suggest that this matter not only began in a political way, but it appears to be ending in a political way, as I shall presently show. The Minister, in her speech to which I have referred, said this: Miss Horsbrugh read out a list of schools listed for closure and put it to the conference that if they wanted to help her they must give her local support by protesting. It seems, with all the generosity in the world and trying for a moment to be as calm and dispassionate as possible about it, that that was political provocation of a grave kind, which one rarely sees in this House, and I hope will never be shown again by a Minister of Education.

I want to say a word about the timing. The Minister's intervention came so very late that it makes us all the more suspicious. The School Plan was discussed during the latter part of the war. It went to the Ministry of Education some time in 1948, and in May, 1949, the Council received general approval for Kidbrooke and one or two other schools. The schedule of accommodation at that date made it clear that Eltham Hill would go into Kidbrooke. On 25th May, 1950, the plans were approved, and in October, 1952, a full report was published by the Council which showed that it was for those educational reasons that it was desirable that Eltham Hill should be transferred and not closed down. It was never the Council's intention to close down Eltham Hill. In that report to the Council it was stated: To supply the academic side the obvious choice is Eltham Hill S.G. school, not merely on grounds of geographical convenience but even more as representing a natural translation for the school. The report went on to say that the school had been proposed for incorporation in the comprehensive school, that Avery Hill would be a mixed school and in many ways it would be better for Eltham Hill to be incorporated in a girls' school rather than a mixed school and it added: It would also give the new Kidbrooke School"— and this is what the Minister is smashing up—" the advantage of a strong group of senior girls, pursuing advanced courses, who could help to establish firm foundations and high standards for the social and educational life of the school. It seems impossible to be able to support the action of the Minister in view of the expressed educational object proposed by the Education Committee as long ago as October, 1952, and of which she must have been fully aware, as the Ministry had already approved the general schedule for accommodation as far back as 1949.

It was only on the 16th February, 1953, that there was a suggestion that notices would have to be issued. I may say there is very considerable doubt whether the Minister is correctly operating in this matter under Section 13, as this case of Eltham Hill is one of transfer: not of closure. I shall not weary the House with the legal details of it, because I want to give the Minister time to reply. But, judging from the principles of the case, the Minister would appear to have been wrong and that may have been another reason why she should have exercised caution in this matter.

There was this suggestion about notices from the Minister, but no objections, apparently, were heard for some time after the notices were issued, because it was only in October, 1953, that the Minister made her fatal speech. One cannot help wondering—I hope this was not true—but she made it because from the time of the issue of the notices no protests had, in fact, been made by any group of electors about Eltham Hill. It was only in March, 1954, that we reached the last stage in which the Minister said, very lamely, that, despite the brief extracts of the Report that I have read, that the London County Council had not satisfied her that this scheme was educationally desirable.

I want to say a word about the future because it is quite clear, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test, that the administration of education by local authorities is going to become impossible if this kind of intervention becomes general. It would be wrong to assume that because the Minister has intervened in this case that she is going to do it consistently, but I must draw her attention to what happened at the Conservative and Unionist Teachers' Association in May, 1954, as reported in the "Evening Standard." Making due allowance for the source of the quotation, this is what was reported: ELTHAM IS A GUIDE FOR FUTURE, SAY TORIES Miss Florence Horsbrugh, the Minister of Education, was praised today by the Conservative and Unionist Teachers' Association for her recent decision to prevent the closing of Eltham Hill Secondary School for girls—which the London County Council wanted to merge with the new Kidbrooke Comprehensive School. The Association at their conference in London expressed"—

this is the significant and dangerous thing for the whole future of local government— the hope that it would be a precedent if other grammar schools were threatened. I think this is an extremely serious matter, a deliberate incitement to the Minister to act in a politically prejudiced manner. It appears to have started in a political atmosphere generated by the other side at a Conservative women's conference and it is ending in a political atmosphere of the Conservative teachers.

I hope that the Minister, even if she cannot go back on the decision she has made in relation to Eltham Hill, will make it clear today that she does not intend to use these powers in the very doubtful manner she has used them in this case, that the wishes of electors and of local authorities must be paramount, and that she has no intention of undermining the administration of local authorities in this matter. Her action has caused the gravest doubt not only in London but throughout the country and we hope, although we shall lament her decision over Eltham Hill, that we may get an assurance from her for the future.

12.37 p.m.

Mr. Henry Brooke (Hampstead)

I shall keep my remarks very brief, but if a member of the London County Council on the other side speaks on this subject then the House may think it desirable that a member of that council from this side should also speak. I should like to go back to the original subject of the debate, because the most important speech from the benches opposite was made by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), who addressed himself to the crucial question whether the Minister was right in refusing to allow the Eltham Hill School to be closed.

With respect to the hon. Member for Test (Dr. King), I do not think this is the occasion for a debate on the whole issue of comprehensive schools. The Minister has shown, by permitting a number of comprehensive schools in London, which did not include or depend upon the closing of a grammar school, that she does not dislike all comprehensive schools, but she has reached this decision about Eltham Hill because she thought it was wrong for that school to be closed. On this Motion for the Adjournment, when we are not discussing whether the law should be changed but whether the Minister has properly administered the law, I am going to submit that her decision was correct.

Section 1 of the Education Act of 1944 says that it is to be the duty of the Minister … to promote the education of the people of England and Wales and the progressive development of institutions devoted to that purpose. My right hon. Friend is being criticised because she has refused to close an institution devoted to that purpose, an institution which by common consent has great educational achievements to its credit. Secondly, she is being criticised because she has failed to support the local education authority.

I submit as a minority member of that authority that it is the Minister who has been right and that the authority which has been wrong in the respective interpretations of Section 76, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price) referred in his very effective speech. That Section says that … the Minister and local education authorities shall have regard to the general principle that, so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. Surely hon. Members opposite are not arguing that to maintain Eltham Hill school and keep it open will in any way interfere with the provision of efficient instruction and training. That is one consideration which must weigh in the balance. The other which the Act says must be weighed is the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, but I have not heard this case argued on that ground either. I have heard it argued solely on the ground that it would be for the convenience of the education authority to fill a part of the new comprehensive school at Kidbrooke by transferring all the girls from Eltham Hill there. If that is the point at issue, the main direction in Clause 76 must prevail and we must consider the wishes of the parents.

Dr. King

So that if parents from other localities petition for comprehensive secondary education for their children when the local authority is not providing it, it is the duty of the Minister to concede that by his argument?

Mr. Brooke

I think the Minister should always have regard to local opinion, and I do not hold that all local education authorities are all-wise. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and I agree about that. There is no doubt, however, in this case as to the opinion of the parents. There was a petition signed overwhelmingly by the parents and presented to the Minister. Even before these troubles arose, the new idea of transferring Eltham Hill to Kidbrooke School proved itself so unpopular in the neighbourhood that in 1953 the number of parents of primary school girls who put down Eltham Hill School as their first choice of a secondary school fell by 70 per cent., compared with previous years. That fall was directly related to the fact that at that time they thought that Eltham Hill was to be transferred to a comprehensive school.

Finally I must rebut the argument that the petition brought forward by the parents was simply a political move. I have here extracts from letters published in the "Kentish Mercury" of 9th April, 1954. One is from the chairman of the committee appointed by the parents of the girls, which organised the petition. He wrote: We chose Eltham Hill School for our daughters because it was undoubtedly the best of its type in this part of London. … Surely, if 99 per cent. of the parents wish their girls to remain at the school, any Minister of Education, be he Conservative or Socialist, must take serious notice of this, and the present Minister's decision, instead of being labelled as 'interference,' should be hailed as a wise interpretation of the provisions of the Act. In that same issue there was a letter from a lady who was the previous headmistress of Eltham Hill from 1931 to 1952. She surely cannot be represented, or misrepresented, as merely a party politician. She wrote: It has been said that the petition sent to the Minister was a political move. I am in a position to say that the parents who organised the protest were stirred by educational considerations alone, and that the proposed closure of Eltham Hill School was deeply deplored by many people of all parties.

Mrs. Corbet

Would not the hon. Gentleman admit that the fact that practically all the girls and all the staff were prepared to move to the new premises when the scheme was explained to them suggests that the parents had less fear of any educational disadvantages for their children than is suggested by the letters read by the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Brooke

But they do not appear to have been particularly enthusiastic about the move, because it is still possible for any of them to go there, and I understand that the only ones who have so opted are one member of the staff and four girls. As there are over 460 girls in the school, it does not strike me that the move was popular.

Mrs. Corbet

May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he would wish to leave the rest of his school mates or, if he were a member of the staff, he would wish to leave the rest of the staff and go on his own? When the principle of going as a body was presented, both the staff and the pupils agreed to the proposal and it was looked forward to by many of the girls with the greatest pleasure.

Mr. Brooke

I must leave my right hon. Friend to answer that question, for my time is up. But I think the hon. Lady will agree that we shall now have a fair comparison and experiment, and it will be interesting to see the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East what will happen to Eltham Hill School? We shall see whether parents wish to send their girls there, or to one of the comprehensive schools.

12.46 p.m.

The Minister of Education (Miss Florence Horsbrugh)

I have listened with interest to this debate and it is a good thing that it has taken place because we shall be able to make more clear than before to hon. Members and the country what are the powers and responsibilities of the Minister in regard to closing schools, since there is still a great deal of misunderstanding.

It has been said that I should not attend any meeting under the auspices of any political association and that I should not point out to people what are their rights under the Act. I disagree. What I said at that meeting I have said up and down the country, that people have the right under the statute, if 10 or more local government electors object. What often happens is that people write single letters and those are not statutory objections; there must be at least 10 and they must be sent during a certain time. The time has now been reduced from three months to two months.

The responsibility of the Minister of Education is a statutory duty. I am referring to Section 13. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) appeared to think that we were dealing with this question under Section 68. It is not the case here. The local authority cannot act; it puts proposals to the Minister and the decision is that of the Minister. Section 13 has nothing to do with an authority acting unreasonably.

Dr. King

But it talked about acting unreasonably or proposing to act unreasonably.

Miss Horsbrugh

This is done under Section 13 of the Act which reads: (1) Where a local education authority intend—

  1. (a) to establish a new county school;
  2. (b) to maintain as a county school any school which at the time being is not such a school; or
  3. (c) to cease to maintain any county school or, save as provided by the next following section of this Act, any voluntary school;
they shall submit proposals for that purpose to the Minister. So they submit proposals and it is for the Minister then to decide.

Mrs. Corbet

But does not the Minister realise that there is a great deal of disagreement as to the interpretation of that Section? The meaning of "cease to maintain" is very doubtful and is being argued out.

Miss Horsbrugh

The statutory duty of the Minister has been acknowledged and used for some time. A short time ago I gave figures to the House of the number of cases of schools which had come up for closure since I took office. Most of them were village schools. This is exactly the same procedure. I should like to make it clear to hon. Gentlemen opposite that, if they think I have been wrong on this occasion in not agreeing automatically with the local authority, I have done it several times before, so the case against me from their point of view will be much worse.

Up to the end of last January I received 132 proposals for the closure of village schools. Of these, six related to schools which had, in fact, closed some years earlier, and 10 to schools which were replaced simultaneously in the same village. Of the remaining 116, I approved 89; I agreed with the local authorities. In 27 cases I did not agree; I rejected the proposals. Of the 65 proposals to which objection had been taken, I approved the local authority's proposal in 39 cases, in spite of the objection, and I may say that there was one case where there were no objections and yet I did not agree with the local authority.

I think that in each case the duty of the Minister is to judge whether he or she thinks it is good from the point of view of the education of the children to accede to the proposals, and I would point out that it is not a case of interfering or intervening. The action has to be the action of the Minister. The Minister does not go out and ask for proposals; the Minister does not intervene and ask the local authority. It is the local authority that makes the proposals in all these cases, and has to do so under Section 13, but the final decision is that of the Minister.

The Minister will, naturally, take into account the reasons why the local authority has made the proposals and will take into account objections if there are any. We all get as much information as we can to enable us to come to a decision. Whether the decision is right or wrong in the view of hon. Members, that is a matter of opinion, but there is no doubt that the decision under the Act has to be the decision of the Minister.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

The Minister is constantly quoting village schools. She has referred to about 130 of them. I take it that none of these are comparable in any instance to Eltham Hill, which is unique?

Miss Horsbrugh

I am coming to the question of Eltham Hill. There are three points in this debate. First of all, the Minister of Education has the statutory duty of making these decisions under Section 13 of the Act.

Mrs. Corbet

The Minister must admit that she has to be guided by some principle in this matter, and in this case I should have thought that she would have been guided by the good of the children. Is it not a fact that the London County Council was providing less good education for that particular stream of pupils?

Miss Horsbrugh

I am trying to be as brief as I can. I am coming to the case of Eltham Hill. Proposals are made by local authorities; the local authorities publish their proposals and the local electors may object, but it is the statutory responsibility of the Minister to make the decision, whether one thinks it is right or wrong.

My next point concerns the case of Eltham. There has also been reference to the London Development Plan. When the London Development Plan is passed, each of these separate projects has to be considered under Section 13 of the Act. The London County Council published notices of closure of Eltham Hill School under Section 13 of the Education Act on 25th September, 1953. It has been suggested that perhaps it was considered that it should not publish notices, but I am told that that is not correct. I am certain that if the London County Council, when it discussed the matter with my Department, thought that it was not its duty to publish notices, it would have gone much further in resisting the idea that it should publish notices.

The notices were published in September, 1953. One hon. Member said that there was such a long time between February when the discussions first took place with the Ministry, and when the objections were taken. But the hon. Gentleman must know that objections before the publication of notices are not statutory objections. Statutory objections can only be made during the two months after the publication of notices. Therefore, in reply to any suggestion that I was seeking objections before the publication of the notices, I would point out that they would have been of no value at all.

For two months after 25th September there was the possibility of 10 objectors or more getting together and sending in their objections. Three sets of statutory objections were received. Parents who write singly are not included in the statutory objectors. In the first set there were 114 signatures, in the second 15 signatures, and in the third 3,842 signatures. The objectors stressed the risk to the high standard of education at Eltham Hill School, which they had a perfect right to do.

I considered those objections and I asked for observations, which I always do in these cases. I asked for the observations of the London County Council on the objections. I got their observations and I studied the matter as a whole, and I came to the conclusion, as I have said before, that it would not be an educational advantage to close Eltham Hill School. It was a good grammar school and it had a tradition.

Mr. W. R. Williams

Did the right hon. Lady think there would be any disadvantage? She emphasises that there would be no advantage, but would she go further and say that there would be no disadvantage?

Miss Horsbrugh

I looked into the matter of Eltham Hill School and, having summed up the advantages and disadvantages, I thought that it would be an advantage to keep it open and a disadvantage to close it. Here we have a very good school, with a great tradition of which it is very proud, and it was quite clear from the objections that I received that a great number of people wanted that school to continue.

But hon. Members have gone further and they have said that in doing that it was an attack on the system of comprehensive schools. I want to take that as my first point. Here we have a good grammar school. There are people who want that grammar school to continue, and I am told that unless I allow that local authority to close that grammar school the comprehensive system cannot be tried out in London. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, delayed, shall we say?—it cannot be carried out fully in London.

Mr. Skeffington

In Kidbrooke.

Miss Horsbrugh

Let us take London first. Because I would not agree to the closure of Eltham Hill School, I am accused of attacking the idea of comprehensive schools. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test said that I am attacking the whole system of comprehensive schools by not agreeing to the closure of Eltham Hill School. I have always said, and I shall continue to say, that I think that when a local authority wants to try an experiment in comprehensive schools, it ought to be allowed to do so.

I have always said that I would not agree to any new development plan in which there were comprehensive schools only. Excluding the 12 existing comprehensive schools, 32 proposals to establish comprehensive schools were approved under Section 13 between the end of the war and 31st May, 1954, and seven of those I approved myself. I give those figures because I am perfectly willing that local authorities who want to try the experiment should do so.

In the building programme approved for London up to and including 1955–56, there are 17 comprehensive school projects. According to the proposals in the London school plan, 10 of those projects do not affect grammar schools at all. Two involve the closing of a county grammar school. One is Kidbrooke, but that school has not been closed.

Kidbrooke will start in exactly the same way as the other 10 comprehensive schools, in respect of which there was no thought of closing a grammar school. Kidbrooke will not start in an entirely different way from the other schools. It may be said that, if this grammar school were in, it would help Kidbrooke to get a better start, but we have to look at the matter from both sides. As one hon. Member said, we have to think of the girls at Eltham Hill as well as at Kidbrooke.

I quite agree and, rightly or wrongly, I have come to the conclusion that Eltham Hill should not close. It is an advantage to those who wish to keep Eltham as a first-class grammar school. We should not say that, because it will not be so easy for Kidbrooke, we must close Eltham Hill and force all those people to transfer. We have left them the option. Had all the parents and the teachers agreed to transfer to Kidbrooke, the position would have been very different. The position was fully explained to them. They could have transferred to Kidbrooke. Every parent in Kidbrooke whose child was at Eltham Hill could have said, "I want my child to go to Kidbrooke." Presumably, the teachers could have done so, too. The whole lot of them could have decided voluntarily to go. By keeping Eltham Hill open we have given them the opportunity of choosing whether to stay in Eltham Hill or to go to Kidbrooke.

The other plan would be to force them all to go to Kidbrooke. After all, Kidbrooke will be starting as a test of comprehensive schools, and it would not be a very clear test if we took into that comprehensive school to start with girls who had been educated at a grammar school. The test—and I wish it well, as I shall explain in a few moments—will be to see whether Kidbrooke Comprehensive School can bring about an academic side of the highest possible character with the most academic-minded pupils, but they must build it up from the start.

Mrs. Corbet


Miss Horsbrugh

They must see how it is to be organised right from the time the children come in, from the time the 11-plus children come in from the primary schools.

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)

What about freedom of the local education authorities?

Miss Horsbrugh

I have often explained at Question time in the House that the local education authorities have their freedoms but there are certain statutory duties laid upon the Minister under the 1944 Act. I have often told hon. Members who have asked me to say this or that to a local education authority, "No, I will leave it to the local education authority." There are duties placed upon the Minister, and making this decision is one of them. I have made the decision. I believe that it was the right decision.

It is in no way an attack on the idea of comprehensive schools. While I have been in office I have approved comprehensive schools. I have approved one which is to be built in blocks so that we can see if the school should be organised in a different way. The hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) said that he did not want to harm the prospects either for Eltham Hill School or of Kidbrooke. I agree with him thoroughly. I want to see both those schools giving the best possible advantages to the girls who are in them, according to the aptitude and ability of the pupils.

I have already received from the Leader of the London County Council an invitation to visit Kidbrooke, and I accepted it with great pleasure. It would be much better, when these decisions have to be made, if we tried to look at them from the point of view of what is really the best for the education of the children. I did not believe that it was best for the education of the children in Eltham that I should force them, if their parents did not wish it, to go to Kidbrooke school.

An hon. Member spoke of petitions from his constituents against the keeping open of Eltham School, but those constituents wanted Kidbrooke School. It does not harm them if other people send their children to Eltham Hill School, and it will not take any of the benefits from those constituents or from the parents in this area, who will have their comprehensive school and will send their children there. Parents are not being forced to send their children to Eltham Hill School or to Kidbrooke School; they can take their choice.

I wish both schools well. The headmistress at Kidbrooke has taken on a great job and she has all our good wishes. She has a big job. She is going to begin to organise 1,500 children. I wish her well, as I wish well to Eltham Hill Grammar School in the carrying on of its great traditions.