HC Deb 11 May 1954 vol 527 cc1194-202

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

12.6 a.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I wish to take this opportunity of raising a few questions about technical education, in particular, as it affects my constituency in Sunderland. I cannot be too greatly encouraged by the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education is going to reply. Those of us who remember the recent debate on the size of classes in schools were all greatly shocked by the unsympathetic nature of the reply he then gave, and we were ashamed by the passing reference he made to the housing programme when he described it as "the one thing which we should have to allow them "—that is, those who had fought for their country—" was a brick box of their own to crawl into and get a child." I think anyone who speaks so contemptuously of the homes and families of the people of this country should not remain in the Ministry of Education which, in any Government, is one of the humane Departments.

I wish to raise the question of the present position regarding technical education in Sunderland, which has a very great pioneering record in technical education, a record which is very much to the credit of the managements and men of one of our great industrial towns. Technical education itself has undoubtedly made its contribution to the development of our industries in Sunderland. In some respects, it seems that Sunderland today is suffering, partly at any rate, as a result of its past pioneering record. Certainly it is handicapped as far as its buildings are concerned.

I was looking at the Report of the Ministry of Education for 1948 where it illustrated the urgent problems of school and educational accommodation and showed how bad some of our present premises were. It included descriptions of some of those worst premises based on reports by His Majesty's Inspectors. It included a description of a secondary technical school. The Report says: this was opened as a junior technical school in 1919 in a building that had been a Presbyterian Church since 1825. Most of the rooms now in use must date from that time, though adaptations of a minor sort have been carried out since the school has occupied the building. This is the only secondary technical school in the town. There are about 280 pupils. Most of the rooms are of good size, but are horribly dark. Gas is still the means of artificial Light and has, in some rooms, to be used during the whole day. There are dark, dungeon-like passages. One of the rooms used as a laboratory, has to serve as an assembly hall and as a dining room. The dust arid grime that collect in the rooms seem to dishearten the cleaners, who tend to give up the unequal struggle. There is no playground at all. Thus there can be no mid-session recreation breaks. This quite obviously describes the premises of what used to be known as the Sunderland Junior Technical School which, as the Report indicates, is now the only secondary technical school in Sunderland, notwithstanding the importance paid to these schools by the Percy Committee. It is the only technical school in Sunderland with some vocational and occupational bias. I know the school from the fact that General Election meetings are held there and the Report, if anything, under-estimates the disadvantages of this building and its discomfort and inadequacy for the purpose for which it is used.

The Report was made six years ago, but the premises still remain. I should have thought that it was quite clear that a town of the importance of Sunderland industrially merits better premises. This is really an urgent question. I concede at once that this is not merely a constituency matter; one can find similar premises in other great industrial towns of Britain.

We also have a college of art, and here the position is no better. It serves a wide area and, indeed, the majority of the pupils come from outside Sunderland. The premises are completely unsatisfactory and the proposed extension has been postponed from time to time. In view of all that is rightly said about the increasing importance of design in industry, this again is a matter of very real urgency.

Finally, we have the Sunderland Technical College, which has a very fine history and is now affiliated to the University of Durham and occupies a very important position in the North-East. In passing, I think the relationship with Durham University should be strengthened. Admittedly the position here is more fortunate. It is one of the few technical colleges which have obtained the special advanced technology grant under Circular 255. Moreover, we now have the extension of which I had the privilege and honour of laying the foundation stone as long ago as the early part of 1951. It has provided new accommodation for a physics department and the establishment of two new departments. But this new accommodation is already full to capacity and I am informed that in the first year of its existence it has attracted no less than 1,200 pupils.

This in itself is a very great tribute to the Sunderland Technical College, but also a demonstration of the very real need for good technical education in an industrial area such as the North-East. I appreciate particularly what was done under the previous Government relating to technological education at our universities, but we have a far wider duty than that. We have to meet this very real and urgent demand for technical education, especially in heavy industrial areas. Take the position in Sunderland. Since the war very heavy capital expenditure has been incurred publically and by private enterprise. We have had considerable capital resources invested in new factories and considerable capital invested in the yards and other industrial undertakings in the town. But what is the good of that if we are not making comparable investment in the people who work there?

From the figures I have given regarding the pupils who have come to fill the places in the extension of the technical college, it is quite clear that there is a very real and justifiable demand which should be met as a matter of urgency. It is a very creditable thing that the people in the North-East are anxious to improve themselves in industry, to better their knowledge of industry, and to increase their craft and skill.

It seems to me that in spite of all the emphasis there has been on the various aspects of technical education, and the various committees, conferences and discussions there have been, the Government are still not tackling this essentially basic problem of increasing the educational aid that must be given to our industries. Technical education has not attained a position in the national economy commensurate with its importance to the national well being. So far as I can see the position has deteriorated. I know the difficulty of isolating figures from those which are given by the Government, but so far as I can see there has been a reduction in the capital expenditure for projects to provide technical education in the past two years, so that the position which was satisfactory has deteriorated. There is the present unsatisfactory position about teachers which has been criticised by the A.T.T.I., and which essentialy arises from the fact that teachers in technical education are not afforded a sufficiently attractive status.

I raised a constituency matter in calling attention to the various branches of technical education in Sunderland, which is an industrial town of vital importance to our industrial recovery, but really this is a matter which affects us generally as a nation. As long ago as 1945 the Percy Committee reported that the position of Great Britain as a leading industrial nation is being endangered by our failure to secure the application of science to industry, and this failure is partially due to deficiencies in education. That is very true in Sunderland today, and it is something of which we arc particularly conscious. We welcome the industrial development which has occurred there during and subsequent to the war. We now want educational facilities to match these industrial developments. The great result of the expansion of technical colleges in attracting well over 1,000 pupils shows that the demand is widespread in and around Sunderland. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to do what he can first of all to increase the realisation of the need for increased resources for the expansion of technical education, and, in particular, for recognising the needs of Sunderland, which has always been in the forefront of technical education, and to give us some hope that it will not be long before we will be building a new secondary technical school and that we will be able further to extend the technical college.

12.18 a.m.

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

I would not wish, if I could possibly avoid it, to make any complaint, and am extremely unwilling to say anything in defence of myself personally, but it is usual on Adjournment debates to give warning if it is intended to raise any particular question or complaint. The hon. Gentleman has not given me that opportunity, so I did not understand that there was to be this criticism of an expression used by me. If the expression was misunderstood, it may be held in the light of eternity that I was wholly or mainly to blame for that; but if it is to be attacked on this occasion, I think I may reasonably have hoped to have been given warning of the fact.

So far from anything I said on that occasion bearing any kind of connotation of contempt, exactly the opposite is the truth. I was trying to make plain that, on any basis of decent human feeling, men who have been separated from their women-folk for four, five, six or more years—even where they were probably unwilling to claim any other preference —might have at least claimed from the society to which they returned, having saved that society, an opportunity to begin or to continue their family life. No one attempting to understand anything I said on previous occasions, or on that occasion, could have supposed that I was being contemptuous. Entirely the opposite was the fact. In any case, were this to be raised against me, I should have hoped to have had previous knowledge of it.

It is true that the secondary technical school in Sunderland is in a very unsuitable building. That has been known for some time: it was known during the time of the Government of which the hon. Member was a member. There are many schools which are in unsuitable buildings. New schools are now being put up faster than at any previous period, but it remains true, and particularly true in Sunderland—because of the geography, because of the river and the one main bridge and the great mass of new habitations being placed where they are—that we cannot turn resources to the replacement of existing schools so long as they are needed for facilities essential in the strictest sense.

I think that principle has only to be stated plainly—as I hope I have stated it—to be accepted, and it has been stated over and over again. It applies particularly to Sunderland. It is true that the local authority has submitted proposals more than once for a new school to replace this school, and they have been rejected for the reason I have indicated. That has been the policy of all Ministers of Education in recent years and I make bold to say it must be the policy which must continue for some little time.

The authority did propose to put it in the programme three or four years ago, although it was not in fact put into the programme. A substitute school was suggested three or four years ago. In a subsequent year they did not put in such a proposal, though I do not use that against them as an argument: they may have thought that, as the Minister was not able to allow it to go into the programme in previous years, it was no use submitting it again at once.

The difficulty is that the proposal would provide for, I think, a school for 600 pupils to replace the present 270, so that money would be spent to produce a school for 600 when there were not much more than 300 additional school places provided. So long as there is in the strict sense a necessity to produce needed school places, it is not possible to welcome a proposal which would use resources for 600 places in order to provide something like 300 or 350 places.

If any such proposals are made again, and, if I remember aright, it is now just about the time when proposals for the coming year have been made, they will be most carefully considered. Sunder-land's need for more secondary school places is fully understood, and any proposals will be most carefully considered in the light of those needs. Of that, the hon. Member may be assured, and he may also be a little consoled on reflecting that, if the policy of directing building resources where they are strictly needed, rather than where they would make an improvement, has left this school in unsuitable buildings, yet it is the same policy which has done a good deal for the Technical College in Sunderland.

I have seen that college myself. The visit of a minor Minister perhaps does not result in a judgment of any great value, but for what such judgments are worth, I certainly gained the impression that it was not now badly housed nor badly equipped. Indeed, I thought that it felt proud of itself; that it was going up in the world, and improving, and that is important in institutions which have to train the young people, be they schools, or colleges, or regiments. It is not so much a matter of importance that one goes into a good regiment as that one goes into a regiment which one thinks is very good and which is improving, and the Sunderland Technical College did make that impression. A great deal of money has been well and usefully spent there, and the resulting building is now being well developed. One has also to remember that further provision is being made for technical colleges in places not far distant, Newcastle, Durham, Gates-head, and South Shields.

As soon as one puts up a new building it is quickly filled with new machines and equipment, and with pupils, but it is not yet possible to say that there are in Sunderland further needs which the local authority is beginning to ask us to meet. As further needs may impinge upon their sense of local duty, and as they may put such needs to the Ministry, they will be most fully considered.

I ought to put that statement in relation to what the hon. Member has said about provision for technical education having actually gone back. I really do not think that that is true. So far as the number of persons getting technical or technological education is concerned, it is far from true. As to the interest taken by Government in general, or the Department for which I am speaking, then it also is not true. There has never been any doubt in the minds of Her Majesty's present advisers of the importance of technical education.

As for my personal interest, there has been no matter with which I have been more concerned. Nobody is less tempted than I am to think that there is some superiority about untechnical education, about pure education if I may call it that: there is no superiority, even though technical education may be needed for bread and butter purposes. I think that it is a dreadful heresy to assert such superiority. I do not think those who have taken any great trouble to try to understand the intellectual and scientific history of humanity believe it, and nobody is less tempted to believe it than the present Ministers at the Ministry of Education.

Turning to the amount of money spent on buildings, I did not have the figures analysed in such a way as to make a dividing line at the point at which the hon. Member and his colleagues decided that they had got themselves into such a series of tangles that they had better ride for a fall; I do not want to argue the matter upon that basis. It is certainly true—and nobody looking at the figures can doubt that it is true—that there has been as much building or more building since, compared with before, that watershed in our affairs.

New buildings and extensions to existing buildings for technical education are being approved at the rate of about £4½ million a year. Between 1st January, 1948, and February, 1954, projects valued at £11½ million had been completed. In February, 1954, projects for over £17 million were under construction but not yet completed. In addition, buildings in the 1953–54 and 1954–55 programmes, approved but not yet started, were to the value of about £6 million. There is thus work worth over £23½ million which has been authorised and may be expected to come into use in the course of the next three or four years. It will make an immense difference to the brick and mortar provision for technical education.

Perhaps I should answer another point put by the hon. Member, and then I think I shall have dealt with almost all his specific points. This was his point about the teachers and principals in technical institutions, and their pay. The fact is that there was an understanding reached between the panels, but the constituents of one of the panels—the teachers' panel—were not able to authorise the endorsement—I forget the technical term—of that understanding.

There is therefore one of these positions which might almost be called an impasse, a deadlock, which are bound sometimes to occur in a system like the Burnham system. My right hon. Friend is very much concerned that no recommendations have been submitted to her for her approval. She has not seen how she can do anything to help the Burnham Technical Committee to reach the stage of submitting agreed recommendations to her, but if she can discover any way of being useful to the Committee she will take it. I do not think that there is any complaint which ought at this stage to be laid against the Minister.

In conclusion, I will go back to say a word about the finance of the matter. There was one point the hon. Member mentioned, that he thought there were very few colleges which had been authorised to run the courses which are to receive 75 instead of 60 per cent, from the Ministry. I do not know whether he meant "very few" to be condemnatory, but in fact it was never intended that there should be very many. Sunderland is a distinguished technical college, and it is natural that it should be one of those selected. There are, in fact, a couple of dozen, I think actually 23, colleges in that position, and some 411 courses for which the additional Ministry grant has been authorised. So that it does not look as if there were any reluctance on the part of the present Government to do what can be done to help technological, rather than technical, education—though I should hate to distinguish between the two.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-four Minutes to One o'Clock.