HC Deb 17 November 1954 vol 533 cc522-34

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

10.0 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

Selecting children for university education, about which I wish to speak tonight, is of high importance for two reasons. Britain needs to give every ounce of native ability the fullest training; and children have a powerful sense of justice. Anything in the method of selection which appears unjust does incalculable damage to a youngster.

I first want to call attention to the vast disparity in the number of university awards given by different local education authorities. From the Minister's figures for 1953–54 which were given to me yesterday, I quote the following numbers of university awards per 10,000 population. The national average is 16.5. Here are some figures: Dorset 6.7, Hampshire 12.9, Durham 20, London 10.1, Middlesex 19.6, Surrey 26, Southampton 17.7, Bournemouth 20, Portsmouth 18.1, Isle of Wight 7.7, Gloucestershire 9.8.

From the National Union of Students' Survey for 1952–53, I quote the following amounts per head of the population spent by the same local education authorities on all university and college grants: Dorset 3s. 2d., Hampshire 2s. 6d., Durham 5s. 0½d., London 1s. 11d., Middlesex 4s. 11½d., Southampton 5s. 6½d., Bournemouth 5s. 5¾d., Portsmouth 3s. 2½d., Isle of Wight 3s. 11¾d., Gloucestershire 3s. 7¼d. Now, while one year's figures may be misleading, year by year some local authorities show consistently good figures, and some show consistently bad ones. It is maddening to think that a boy's chance of going to the university depends on geography. Indeed, wise parents with able boys are moving into areas with progressive local education authorities.

If the number of awards varies, so do the standards on which they are given. State scholarships are awarded on pure academic results. From State scholarship level down to the Minister's lowest permitted level is a vast range of academic score, and it is from among all these, from the bare minimum of two passes at advanced level to the one who just misses a State scholarship, that the local education authority selects children for university education.

Two bare passes in one county may get an award, but in another it may be rejected as insufficient. Three subjects may be ignored as qualifying for an award in some counties. Some authorities disregard "bare passes" and insist on a "good pass." Some insist on the university examiner's mark of A or B. Others are quite content with the examiner's C or D.

In a boy's last year at school he applies for a place in several universities. If he is good enough, he gets a provisional acceptance from some university in the spring, and after his examination result is known in August, if it is good enough, the university confirms that acceptance. But if the university accepts the boy it does not necessarily mean that he goes to the university—unless his parents are rich, when his worries are all over. While some local education authorities accept the offer of a university place as justifying a county major award, some do not. The meanest may refuse an award even when a boy has a university place offered, and a really good examination result.

What happens to the sixth-former may be rather sad. A boy may do well at advanced level, may have his place at a university confirmed in August, and then may have to face the bitter disappointment of learning that the local education authority has refused an award. I know of a Dorset boy who gained inter-B.Sc. exemption at school. He received in the same post a letter from the university welcoming him to Southampton University, telling him what books to get, where to lodge, all about the college union, and a letter from the county council telling him that he was not to have a county major award.

I am also concerned about the variety of methods by which local education authorities choose their university students. A local education authority selection committee may consist of laymen. It may have some university men on it. It may—I believe it should—include some grammar school headmasters. But, by and large, it is a committee of laymen which is responsible and is very often dominated by the local education authority's finance committee. The financial policy of the finance committee very often causes the disparity I have already mentioned. An authority may fix the number of awards, or the maximum amount to be spent. But, the selection of university children is a matter of education, not of saving the rates. Some authorities made the economies that the previous Minister of Education asked for by cutting down university awards.

As local education authorities vary in financial policy, so they vary in their techniques of selection. Some—indeed I would hope all—take notice of a boys' school report. They are investing public money in a lad and they want to know that he will work and that he has character, energy and perseverance. Some authorities—Berkshire and Hampshire for example—add to these two methods an interview to see if a candidate has, as the Chairman of the Berkshire Committee said yesterday, "that mysterious quality, personality."

These interviewing committees are not like Dartmouth, where the skilled selection boards knew for what they were looking and spent two days trying to find it. Even at Dartmouth, as I have pointed out before, they were sometimes unsuccessful. Hampshire had 360 candidates last year. The interviewers are laymen, have their own livings to earn and at the most an interview lasts 15 minutes and sometimes less.

What does a boy really need to qualify for a university education? First, ability. It is extraordinary that one should have to say that, but some folk are moving away from the elementary fact that to complete an academic course of which the final test is an examination, one has to have ability which has been tested by an academic examination. But, at present, some local education authorities roam between the high calibre of a boy who has just missed a State scholarship and the boy who has just scraped two passes, and they are choosing at will, by personality interviews.

Secondly, a boy needs character. We want to know the moral fibre of the lad. Is he himself going to try, when he gets to the university, to justify the award? Now who is going to measure the moral character of the candidate? Certainly not interviewers in a few minutes. This estimate can come only from those who have known the boy for a number of years and known his part in school games and societies, his house captainship, his bearing in face of the many trials and tests of school life, his industry, his initiative, his sense of responsibility. It is from his headmaster that we can obtain a measure of a boy's worth, which is second only to that provided by his academic result—and it is a question whether it is second.

One might agree then that a selection committee could temper the academic result by carefully weighing the boy's character as shown in the school report—especially if there were only a slight difference between two candidates—in deciding who might be selected. Indeed, that might be said to be the chief function of a good selection committee. But this third test of an interview makes me fearful and produces manifest; injustices. What are the qualities to be spotted in a brief encounter? I know the usual answer, personality, breadth of interest, quickness of response and the like.

The story of the boy who won a university place because when asked what he would like to be said "Prime Minister," and when asked why said "Well the country is in a rotten state isn't it?" is well known. The interviewers proudly said that although his maths paper was not as good as somebody else's who did not intend to be Prime Minister if he could help it, his answer revealed originality, ambition, self-confidence, intimate bonhomie with his examiners, and a host of wonderful qualities which would stand him in good stead at Oxford.

I am not so sure. The boy may have been a Milton or a Hampden who was neither mute nor inglorious. He may on the other hand have been just a cheeky pup—a Bottom eager to play the lion's part, and Thisbe's too. And if the selection committee passed over in his favour a boy who had done better in his examination, but who was tongue-tied or shy, or with a poor cultural background, then it may have been the work of supreme selective skill or one of crass stupidity.

Let me illustrate what I have been saying. As the Minister of Education knows, boys in Hampshire have been passed over in favour of boys with inferior examination results, not because of the headmaster's report—indeed, despite the headmaster's report—but because of some mysterious personal qualities revealed to the county's interviewers. One case has appeared in the Press. To me a grave feature of that case was that it spotlights the double standard of entry into the university.

A boy had been accepted by the university and strongly recommended by a headmaster. He was turned down by the interviewers because he was shy and slow of speech. Then, two good Hampshire folk supplied the money and sent him to the university. That is bad. It shows that a good boy can buy a place at a university. A boy is qualified to go to the university or he is not. If he is, and his parents are poor, local education authorities should send him to a university. If he is not, no money should buy him a place. Not every victim of the present set-up is lucky enough to find a benefactor.

There was another Hampshire boy accepted by one university. He had three A subjects but he was turned down by the local education authority. He stayed at school another year, was accepted by another university and was turned down by the local education authority again. Only keen parents with sixth form children can appreciate what that family has gone through. There was a girl in Berkshire with three A subjects. She was accepted by a university to read for honours French, but was turned down on interview, despite pleas by her headmistress and, in this case, the Chairman of the Governors.

A man worked after 65 years of age to keep his boy in the sixth form. That boy took three subjects at advanced level, passed the entrance examination for the London School of Economics, was accepted by two universities and chosen by the Council for World Citizenship as a delegate to the International Students' Seminar in Berlin in 1954. He was turned down at his interview. His parents are sacrificing their life's savings to send him to college for his first year, and are hoping that something will turn up in the meantime.

Yesterday's "News Chronicle" mentioned the case of a Berkshire County Council boy with three advanced subjects—two of them distinctions—who was turned down at the interview. Then Britain awarded him the high distinction of a State scholarship. A farm labourer's son did well in his Higher Certificate examination, but failed at his interview because he compared badly with lads from cultured homes. His headmaster, one of the finest in the southern part of the country, generously met the cost of his entering open scholarships at two Oxford colleges. He won places at both. He just missed a First, and was awarded a research studentship. He got a commission during his National Service. But the interviewers had thought he was not good enough for the university.

I have here one of the finest school reports—and I have seen many—that I have come across. I have given the Minister details of it, and I shall quote some extracts. It says: A really first-class character … wonderfully cheerful, optimistic and unselfish personality … reliable, responsible and enterprising … in the Upper School has shown a developing sense of leadership … interested in science and sports … fond of camping, cycling and rambling … a keen student … works intelligently with a minimum of direction … enjoyed his studies and tackled them with consistent thoroughness … a very high standard in one Advanced1 Subject and nearly as good in two others … gained admission to university … First XI Hockey, Third XV Rugby, House Hockey, Rugby, Cricket. Athletics Cross-country. He did not satisfy the interviewers. He was not sent to a university. But the headmaster was right. The boy went into industry, studied for two years on part-time day release and then took a degree in two science subjects. The country is crying out for highly trained scientists. Here was a scientist who should have gone to the university.

The heart of the matter is that boys know their marks and know that other boys with lower marks have been given awards. I know two boys in one sixth form, placed there by different local education authorities. The one with the lower examination result was sent to a university by a generous local education authority; the other was turned down, despite the plea of the headmaster.

Dr. Alexander the eminent educationist, is worried about the number of scholars who fail to make good at the universities. I am not surprised when I look at the national picture. But it is a fallacy to think that we can improve things merely by cutting down the number of awards, or extending the abandonment of intellectual and moral standards to give greater weight to chancy personal interviews.

What we want is sound and just selection. The meanest L.E.A.S are not the most scientific. I realise that the group I am speaking about is a broader group than the intellectual elite who get State and open scholarships, but the problem is just as grave, and moral as well as intellectual issues are at stake.

I want to make some tentative suggestions. First, I should like to see an effort by the Minister to stimulate backward L.E.A.s—those under the national average in providing university awards for their children. Second, there should be a narrowing of the field in which an L.E.A. may manoeuvre. By all means keep the Ministerial minimum, but at some higher point insist that there is a level above which no L.E.A. may turn down a boy merely because he fails to titillate a group of interviewers.

Then I want an examination of what acceptance by a university really means, and whether some authorities are right in regarding it as a criterion or others are wrong in not accepting it. Is it right for an L.E.A. to override the university in this matter? I want the selection panel of local education authorities to be advised by a committee consisting of the grammar school heads of the area, whose life work, after all, includes recognising university potentialities in sixth formers, and who can normalise and assess varying school reports, academic quality and character, and balance them most accurately.

I believe that some day we shall accord the teaching profession the status which we award to other learned professions, and let it play a full part in this vital matter of selection for the universities, and, indeed, in the selection at 11 plus. The alleged personal qualities to be found in an interview ought to be used, if at all, merely to tip the balance between candidates whose academic results and school records are of equal value, and certainly not as an instrument for rewarding inferior academic ability.

We all profess to believe in equality of opportunity. In this field of education, as in many others, it manifestly does not exist. Anything that the Minister can do to make the awarding of university places more fair, and to make that fairness more apparent to ambitious young boys and girls and to their devoted parents, will be something well worth doing. I wish the Parliamentary Secretary well on his promotion to high office. He has a great opportunity to serve our children. I hope that he will seize it with both hands.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)

As a number of cases have come to my notice in connection with the policy of the Hampshire County Council, I should like to add a word or two to what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr King) has said. The first addition I should like to make is that, in my observation, the education officer of the county is a very capable education officer, and I am sure that the hon. Member would not disagree with me on that. The second is with regard to the interviews.

While I agree with much that the hon. Member has said about their possible abuse, I am sure that they have a useful purpose to fulfil, and I should not like to see them done away with; but, subject to that, I think that many of the questions the hon. Member has raised about the discrepancies in policies between various county councils, and about some of the practices at present used in Hampshire, need investigation. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will consider seriously what has been said.

10.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) for his words of welcome. I can assure him that while I cannot boast his teaching experience, I am not less enthusiastic than he about the very worthwhile job of education. The subject he has raised tonight is certainly important and interesting, but I think he has painted a somewhat alarming picture. For my part, I do not intend to deny that disparities exist, but I would suggest that the figures and some of the examples the hon. Member mentioned tend to exaggerate those disparities.

Before I deal with them, it is important to consider for a moment the background of university awards, because there have been considerable developments in the last few years. Before we condemn the present-day anomalies, we should see what has gone before. As a result of the expansion in the universities today, the number of students of any age group who go to the universities is about double the pre-war number, and in each age group, I think the hon. Member will agree, there is a much greater cross-section of the social strata than there was before. Even if we have not equality of opportunity from area to area, I think we have moved much nearer to equality of opportunity as far as the income of parents and social background is concerned.

The able boy today can, first of all, go for a State scholarship. If he does not win one, or if he chooses, he can try for a university scholarship, in the knowledge that if he gets one his award will be "supplemented" by the Ministry of Education. If he is not a State scholarship boy, he can, if he has all-round ability, apply to the local authority for a local authority award, and it is this third type of candidate with whom we are dealing tonight.

We ought to place on record that in 1953 the universities took 1,250 open scholars, 2,000 State scholars and no fewer than 10,000 students with local authority awards. The whole intake of the universities in 1953 was 18,000, which means that over 70 per cent. of those who went to universities in that year had an award of some nature—an award which would enable the child of even the poorest parents to complete his course.

In that year there were 10,000 local authority awards, compared with only 1,500 in 1938. In recent years local authorities have taken on a very great additional financial burden. In 1948 they spent £2 million on these awards, whereas in 1953 they spent almost £6 million. I want to place on record—and I think the hon. Member will support me in this—appreciation of the work which local authorities have done in a short time to make this scheme work. To my mind, it may be surprising that there is not less uniformity than exists at the moment.

The hon. Member did not make it quite clear, and I should like to emphasise, that the intention is that, while university and States scholarships are for students of outstanding academic ability, local authority awards should be regarded as a proper form of assistance for students of good all-round1 ability for whom it as in the public interest that a university education should be provided. The words are not mine; they are taken from the circular governing selection, and the phrase is "good all-round ability."

As the hon. Member knows, in 1948 a working party was set up to consider the whole question. It initially recommended that local authority awards should be made on a basis of recommendation from a university. I mention that because I wondered whether the hon. Member was suggesting that we should return to that state of affairs. It was not considered satisfactory from the university point of view. I think they found difficulty sometimes in differentiating between acceptances and recommendations. Certainly the local authorities were anxious to accept more responsibility since they paid the bill.

In 1952, all the parties got together and, as a result, the Note of Procedure and Circular 263, which govern the present procedure, were sent out. This procedure, which is in force today, operates on three principles: first of all, that responsibility for local authority awards is with the local authority; secondly, they were asked, and are asked today, to consider all the candidates with a minimum standard of two advanced passes. They were allowed to exercise some discrimination amongst those attaining that standard, but were asked to consider all of those on that minimum standard. Thirdly, the circular suggested certain additional ways in which candidates might be considered. It referred specifically to the headmaster's report, and to the interview panel which the hon. Member has criticised.

These arrangements have been in operation for just about two years and, for what they are worth, the figures undoubtedly show that over those two years there has been a move for more uniformity rather than in the opposite direction. Only six authorities in the country, out of 146, do not now accept the minimum standard laid down in that circular.

The present position is that, apart from these six authorities who do not accept the terms of the circular, there seems to have been much improvement. Some of those authorities who, in 1951, showed figures much below the average have increased their awards, while some of those who possibly gave an excessive number of awards have decreased their figures. The figures which the hon. Member quoted are, as he rightly stated, for one year only, and I think that we should not attach too much importance to figures for one year, particularly those relating to the smaller authorities where the addition of even a handful of awards can completely alter the percentage.

Secondly, there may be deferments on account of National Service, and so the Authority may have made more awards than is apparent. Thirdly, I do not think that it is possible ever to have complete uniformity between every local authority. There will always be found, even in the most ideal system, some differences, if only because of the social and economic background of the area.

Mr. P. Smithers

Too many.

Mr. Vosper

I am coming to that point. My fourth point here is that we have not yet reached equality so far as the provision of grammar schools is concerned, and that must have some effect upon university awards.

Nevertheless, I believe that the figures show that some improvement has been made. In the two particular years with which the hon. Member is concerned, it is notable that in Hampshire in 1951, 8.5 awards per 10,000 of the age group concerned went to the universities. The figure which I have for 1953 is 12.9, so there has been an improvement in the Hampshire area. The Southampton figure in 1951 was 29.9 awards for 10,000 of the population. In 1953, it was down to 17.7 so that an authority which seemed possibly over generous in 1951 has come down to what is the national average, which is about 17 or 18 per cent.

Dr. King

I have said that one year is not a correct measure. Some are consistently mean.

Mr. Vosper

I accept that. I am trying to prove that, generally speaking, there has been an averaging up between most, if not all, of the authorities. It is not surprising when this system is administered by 146 different authorities that there are some disparities.

The hon. Member has suggested that possibly we might consider alternative methods, first of making an award dependent upon university acceptance. Secondly, if that is not the case, he suggests that possibly the awards might be made by the Ministry of Education.

Dr. King

I have not suggested that.

Mr. Vosper

I thought that possibly that was underlying his thoughts. So far as the question of making the awards dependent on university acceptance is concerned, my information is that the universities at the moment do not feel able to undertake this work, and that neither they nor the local authorities are prepared to consider that suggestion.

So far as making it dependent on the Ministry of Education, while it may be possible for us to select the 2,000 State scholars each year on academic achievements, it is more difficult lo select 10,000 students of all-round ability, and I do not think that is a possibility.

The hon. Member did make a third suggestion that as well as having a minimum standard we should have a maximum standard. My fear there is that if we make an "automatic" level that level will tend to become the minimum, and there will also be the added danger that schools will tend to play for safety, and it would have an undesirable effect on the youngsters themselves and on the sixth form standard if all candidates were automatically entered for three advanced subjects.

So far as the interviewing boards are concerned, I think that it should be clear that this is only one of four methods of selecting students for local authority awards. The others are acceptance by university, the report of the headmaster and the result of the G.C.E. The hon. Member would be wrong to suggest that local authorities are basing the whole of their machinery on the selection panel, but for my part I think that this panel has a useful part to play. G.C.E. results in themselves are not a sure passport to a degree.

Certainly we are prepared to do as the hon. Member suggested, to continue our pressure on authorities, not only on the six which are not accepting the minimum standards, but upon other authorities to bring their standards up to the average of the country. That we shall continue to do. Individual cases brought to our notice will be thoroughly investigated.

Much progress has been made, and I believe that the results achieved are proof of this. We shall do more, and I think that the hon. Member has done a service in raising this matter tonight.

The Question having been proposed at 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 Half-past Ten o'Clock.