HC Deb 27 January 1956 vol 548 cc560-72

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

1.38 p.m.

Mr. David Griffiths (Rother Valley)

I welcome the opportunity of introducing a subject which is not only a constituency problem, but has been causing grave anxiety and concern to many people who are interested in education and the relationships between members of local education authorities, local governors, and schools and colleges. The college to which I wish to refer was opened in January, 1950. It is the Lady Mabel College for Physical Education, at Wentworth Woodhouse, in Yorkshire. A Miss Nancy Moller was appointed principal of that college.

If we are to retain the good relations and good government which have existed in education the Minister of Education—who, I am sorry to say, is not here—must consider the position once again and institute an inquiry. I realise that this may be a late hour to ask for that sort of thing, as it will be a physical impossibility to get Miss Nancy Moller to return to be the principal of that college. I am certain that I am voicing her views when I say even if an inquiry were held she would not go back to be principal of the Lady Mabel College under the governors who have been conducting its affairs.

Miss Moller was appointed as first principal when the college was opened in January, 1950, and never has there been one moment of anxiety or complaint. She carried out her duties efficiently and well, and until she resigned in June last year she did so with undoubted ability, sincerity and efficiency. That was the opinion of everybody concerned, from the most humble student to the most distinguished county councillors at Wakefield.

The facts about this lady's work and abilities resulted in her being besought by the Director of Education of the West Riding County Council to become the principal of the college. Let me quote a paragraph from the letter sent by the Director of Education to Miss Nancy Moller, on 21st June: When I besought you to apply for the Principalship, and I think that the word besought' fairly describes what happened, I believed that you were just the person needed to establish the new College on sound lines. I think I have been proved right, and I am deeply grateful for all that you have done. He went on to say: I do not know what you propose to do, but whatever it is, if I can be of any help, I hope you will not hesitate to call on me In view of that letter there must have been something definitely wrong. Here is a woman who has had for a long period the confidence of everybody concerned, and then all this comes along. The Minister himself will agree that the competence of this lady at this institution has never been in question. I have a feeling that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind something similar to what the county council has. I hope that that is not so and I hope that before this Adjournment is ended he will be convinced otherwise.

I emphatically deny that Miss Moller knew anything about the letters that were sent to Members of Parliament of all shades of opinion. It will be accepted that for many years there never has been, about the principal of a school or college, so much public indignation as has been displayed from pupils, parents and various public people, not only within the village but throughout this country. That position condemns some of the actions which have led up to it. I tell the right hon. Gentleman that these are spontaneous expressions of opinion and are not produced by any organised effort whatsoever. I deplore the attitude of the West Riding County Council in accepting a narrow-minded view of this aspect of the matter.

Letters have been written. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the agitation is not by any organised effort. It is true that a meeting was held in the junior common room. The principal of a college should know what takes place and should see the agenda at junior common room meetings. The matron saw the agenda, but there was nothing on it about the business that ultimately took place, and which expressed the indignation of the pupils in the suggestion that their parents should circularise Members of Parliament. Please believe me that this lady was entirely ignorant of what took place and was not aware of anything about it. In my firm conviction she has acted with the utmost possible decorum.

I would recount, very briefly, some of the events that led up to the resignation of Miss Moller. It was not a spontaneous outburst by her, because there was a good spirit in the relationship that existed there for the welfare and well-being of the school. The previous remarks of the right hon. Gentleman were in relation to the well-being of the college. Although we cannot get Miss Moller back let us make inquiries to see what happened to lead up to the unfortunate events that took place.

These were many and various. The ultimate conclusion is that there was undue interference with the provision of fish, fruit, vegetables, etc. I appreciate that spending departments must have regard to estimates and act as nearly as possible within them. One accepts also that one is entitled to accept the lowest tender, other things being equal, although anyone with public experience knows that it is very often most unwise to accept the lowest tender. In this case, the governors of the school recommended the proposals of the principal and of the domestic bursar, but the county council turned them down. The governors accepted the county council's decision.

Was that fair to the two ladies who had been conducting the affairs of the school for so long and so well? Miss Moller proved conclusively that she was getting unsatisfactory supplies and deliveries, that the amount of waste was colossal. and that it was more economical to accept a tender slightly higher than the lowest. I am sure that the Minister will have been given many figures by the county council. I, too, have been given some figures, but my experience is that figures can mean what they are made to mean.

The important thing here is the broad principle. I am sure that this dispute arose primarily over foodstuffs, and that, when Miss Moller and the domestic bursar could no longer tolerate what was going on Miss Moller handed in her resignation. It is very significant that there were four domestic bursars in as many years. That fact alone demonstrates that there was something not quite right. It is perfectly true that the present bursar has been there since September, 1954, but she also intends to leave as soon as she can get another post.

One of the most disgraceful incidents in the whole business was the refusal of the governors to allow the domestic bursar to state her case about the unsatisfactory kind, and delivery, of vegetables and fruit and the large volume of waste. That refusal was most discourteous; it was in bad taste and bad judgment. Furthermore, that sort of undue interference in such matters is a challenge to the wisdom and judgment of the principal, and Miss Moller, knowing that she had a most satisfactory domestic bursar, could hardly tolerate such a situation. To any woman of moral courage and character it would be tantamount—and in Miss Moller's view was tantamount—to the governors saying they had no confidence in her.

I do not accept as a fact that the governors lacked confidence in this lady. I am satisfied that, by and large, the governors had the utmost confidence in Miss Moller, but that petty bureaucracy in County Hall, Wakefield, prevented the college governors from doing what, in the opinion of Miss Moller and the domestic bursar, was in the best interests of the college and its staff. I suggest that the governors were over-ridden by the West Riding County Council. That is not a good thing. I know that there have to be over-ruling bodies, but very often the West Riding County Council, like Whitehall, is far too remote from many local matters. People on the spot must know better than those living miles away.

I do not think that I have expressed my views too extravagantly. We want to retain good relationships with the local authorities. Our local government system is not beyond reproach but, for administrative morality, dignity and sincerity it cannot be matched anywhere in the world. I want to retain the loyalty that is given to the public, but this is a case where people who were carrying out their duties most efficiently have been over-ruled by county bureaucrats.

I ask the Minister to consider the welfare and well-being of this college. We cannot get this lady back, but if there is or has been something wrong let us put it right. I recommend the Minister to look at the magazine which I hold in my hand. It contains clear evidence of the confidence Miss Moller enjoys on all sides. I do not hesitate for one moment to suggest that there is much more in this case than the question of vegetables—an important principle is involved.

I know that it is difficult for a Minister to revoke something done by a junior, and the right hon. Gentleman will probably argue that he must not interfere in such a matter. I would remind him that his predecessor interfered with Socialist authorities in the matter of comprehensive schools. If it was logical for his predecessor to do that then it is quite within the bounds of practicability for the right hon. Gentleman to look into this affair once more.

1.58 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I intervene in the debate because I think that here there is involved a general principle of some importance. Important as the case of the Lady Mabel College is in itself—as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. D. Griffiths) has amply demonstrated—there are wider aspects. The general tenor of the Minister's replies to earlier Questions about this was that he did not think an inquiry would be desirable, and that he could not interfere between the employers—the local authority—and the former principal of the college.

I know quite well that Ministers of Education are reluctant—and, on the whole, rightly reluctant—to interfere with the autonomy of local education authorities, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me that the Education Act places on him the responsibility for directing the country's educational system, of which the training of teachers is an important part. In this the central and the local authorities are partners. One of the requirements of the Education Act is that local authorities shall appoint boards of governors for the schools, colleges and other institutions within their jurisdiction. That is an important statutory duty and I believe this to be its purpose.

County councillors cannot possess adequate local knowledge, and particular knowledge, of all the schools and colleges for which the county council is responsible. The device of appointing boards of governors enables those local authorities to call in the help of people who, though not members of the council, can devote special time and care to the particular institution of which they are appointed governors. When a local authority sees its appointment of governors in that light most valuable work is done. Persons who are not members of local authorities are brought in to give valuable help in running the public services.

But all too often local authorities interpret their duties of appointing governors far too narrowly, and the board of governors is often, as is the case in this instance, merely a sub-committee of the local education authority. The result very often is that the so-called governors have not a sufficiently intimate knowledge of the institution that they are supposed to be running.

Some time ago I put to the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor the question whether she would inquire into the use made by local education authorities of the power and duty of appointing governors. She took the view—I think mistakenly—that that would be an interference with the rights of local authorities. But surely that is not so. It is the duty of local authorities to appoint governing bodies, and the implication of that is that it is their duty to see that the relationship between the local authority, the governing body and the staff of the school or college runs smoothly and pleasantly. If there are reasons to suppose that this part of the Act is not working well, surely it is a matter for the Minister to concern himself with.

Part of the importance of this case of Lady Mabel College is that it illustrates what can happen when relationships between the local authority, the governing body and the staff of the college are not satisfactory. As my hon. Friend said, we pride ourselves on the working of local democracy in this country, but if local democracy is to work well, one thing that members of local authorities must understand is that when they appoint people to responsible positions, to be head teachers or principals of colleges, having appointed them they must be prepared to give them confidence, trust and responsibility. If they create a situation in which those people cannot do their work without constant interference and reference back over details to a more distant body, what they do is to bring the whole principle of local democracy into disrepute, and that again is a matter in which the Minister ought in general to interest himself.

I want to refer now to the particular incidents that were connected with Miss Moller's resignation, because that exemplifies this principle of a local authority not understanding properly what ought to be the relationship between itself and the people whom it appoints to responsible positions. It was clear that Miss Moller, as principal of the college, was rightly concerned over the fact that the quality of the food supplied to the college was not satisfactory. There had been several changes of domestic bursar, and the lady most recently appointed to that post had, with Miss Moller's support and encouragement, set to work to deal with this problem of unsatisfactory food supplied to the college.

That involved the changing of a number of contracts, and the interesting thing is that, as a result of this activity of the principal and the domestic bursar, not only was the quality of food in the college improved but the cost of supplying it went down, and the cost was kept within the estimate which the local authority had required. That was something that had not happened in previous years. The administration under this domestic bursar was both better in quality and more economical and ought to have been, therefore, more gratifying to the local authority.

As time went on, however, it appeared that the local authority was not satisfied with the arrangements made about contracts, that further they would not sanction some further changes of contract which Miss Moller and the domestic bursar required, that when complaints were made by Miss Moller with regard to the contractors who had the contracts at the time those complaints were dealt with in a most dilatory manner. That is partly the result of not having a really effective governing body with whom the principal can be in close contact. It is the result of the local authority restricting its conception of a governing body to merely a sub-committee consisting of members of the council.

This kind of irritation, of an attempt at control at a distance by people who have not adequate knowledge of the real circumstances, went on until an intolerable situation was created. I would instance one episode. At a certain stage in this long argument about contracts, the local authority announced their intention to over-ride the wishes of Miss Moller and the domestic bursar on a particular matter, and they refused even to hear any representations from the domestic bursar before making their decision. That is not the way in which local democracy is supposed to work. They appointed this principal and this domestic bursar. They ought to have regarded them—I presume they did—as people thoroughly competent to manage the college. Surely, before reaching a decision on a matter which was very much within the domestic bursar's province, they might at least have been prepared to hear what she had to say.

The general point I wish to make is that when we have an instance which shows local democracy to be working so badly, it is a matter in which the Minister ought to interest himself, and that really is all we are asking him to do at this stage. We know that all of the mischief which has been done cannot be undone. Nobody suggests that the right hon, Gentleman is to blame for it, but we do suggest that the events indicate a state of affairs into which the Minister ought to inquire so that they shall not be repeated in other localities through the failure of local authorities to understand how the machinery of local democracy ought to work.

I wish to make two other points. It is interesting to notice that when Miss Moller had resigned, she was at first, very surprisingly, refused benefit by the Ministry of Labour on the ground that she had resigned without proper cause. It is gratifying to know that that decision was set aside on appeal, and it was decided quite categorically that it would be entirely incorrect to say that Miss Moller had resigned without proper cause.

This matter first came to my attention some time ago because constituents of mine who had daughters at this college wrote to me in some concern about the matter. I believe that they had been urged to do so by their daughters. My hon. Friend referred to this matter, and I should like to amplify what he said. Apparently, what happened was that the students at the college, who had the greatest admiration for Miss Moller—nobody disputes that, and plenty of evidence can be supplied for it—were, naturally, very indignant at the way she had been treated and put in a position where it was almost impossible for her to continue in her work. They therefore met together and decided that they would take such action as would show their support and sympathy for her, and they agreed to urge their parents to write to their Members of Parliament about the matter.

I understand that the entirely improper and unworthy suggestion has been made that Miss Moller put the students up to this. Nobody who knows anything about student bodies will swallow that for a moment. A number of us have been members of student bodies. We are well aware of the natural generosity and indignation of which young people are capable. They came together and decided. One may argue whether their judgment was right, but one cannot question the generosity or spirit that inspired them. The fact that they took that action is again indicative of the respect and affection which Miss Moller acquired during her five years' principalship of this college.

The Minister knows how difficult it is to get enough really competent people into all branches of the teaching profession, whether into schools or training colleges. Here we have lost the services of a very able and respected principal. We are likely to lose the services of a very able and competent domestic bursar. It has happened because of a failure of the working of the local democracy which is inherent in the Education Act, for the good working of which the Minister is responsible.

We are not asking him now to make a final pronouncement on the merits of this matter. What we are suggesting to him is that what has happened is sufficiently disquieting to justify his holding an inquiry and informing himself fully of the facts. I hope that he will also consider this as part of the general question of the proper appointment of governors and the proper operation of those parts of the Education Act which deal with the relationship between local education authorities, governing bodies and the people whom they appoint to responsible posts.

2.11 p.m.

The Minister of Education (Sir David Eccles)

I think we are all agreed that the Lady Mabel College is a very valuable experiment. It is the first college where we had a three-year course on physical education started for that purpose and where the students are taught other things—and very rightly, too—besides their own specialised subject; and it is of great importance, not only to the West Riding, but to the educational system as a whole, that this college should be a success.

I agree with what was said by both the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. D. Griffiths) and the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) about Miss Moller's good work in starting it off and building it up. There is no doubt that it had a good start. But of course the case which we are discussing is one of those regrettable incidents which occur from time to time where the employer and the employee fall out and part company because they do not see eye to eye. I could find nothing improper and nothing discreditable in the record, which I looked at very carefully. I am sorry that Miss Moller tendered her resignation and that what might have been a long and fruitful period as principal had to stop; but it is the local authority who is the employer of the principal of the college and the Minister's duty is to leave the local authority to get on with that job, unless he is made aware of circumstances which lead him to think that something improper has occurred. I do not think that can be alleged in this case.

This was by no means the first instance of friction. Indeed, Miss Moller said so in her letter of resignation to the chief education officer of the county council. Within the Act which governs local authority contracts, there is no doubt at all that the governors had full right in the stand which they took on the question of accepting tenders other than the lowest. The relevant words of the West Riding's standing orders, which derive from the Act, are a tender other than the lowest shall not be accepted until the committee or subcommittee concerned have considered the written report of the appropriate officer or other person. For the purpose of this standing order the Governors are considered as a subcommittee.

Well, there it is; they looked on their duty as one which concerns public money and they found that they did not see eye to eye with Miss Moller on the most advantageous way of running the feeding arrangements of the college. I cannot say that I have any judgment on who was right from the point of view of the feeding of the students, but I must say that one has the feeling that the subcommittee of the local education authority might be expected to take a keen interest in the domestic running of the college. After all, this is not a small bureaucracy the governors are a sub-committee of the authority itself and, not just for the last year but for several years, have, I understand, taken a particular interest in the financial running of the college.

That, of course, has a compensating advantage for the principal in that, whatever else one may say about sub-committees of local education authorities being the governors of schools, it generally results in their leaving great freedom on the academic side to the principal to work out the organisation of the studies. I think no one would say that these governors have done other than give Miss Moller a very free hand in organising what is, after all, her chief duty of being a head of a college—namely, the studies and curriculum.

I very much regret that this incident has happened, but since Miss Moller herself tendered her resignation to her employer, and since I find nothing in the record which is improper or discreditable—indeed, the hon. Member for Rother Valley said it was a question of discourtesy, bad taste and bad judgment on the part of the governors—I see no sufficient reason for an inquiry into the circumstances of Miss Moller's resignation.

Mr. D. Griffiths

I appreciate that the Minister is saying that there is nothing in the record to indicate that he should have an inquiry conducted. Our view is that it is not a matter of what is there but of what ought to have been there.

Sir D. Eccles

The hon. Member is entitled to hold his view, but, as Minister, I have to consider the proper relationship between my office and the local authority. The local authority is the employer. One of the local authority's servants resigns and the resignation is accepted. For me to inquire into that requires some evidence that something wrong of a fairly substantial nature took place. I see nothing. All I have is a record of a number of incidents where the employer took one view and the employee took another. People do differ quite often, and it is not uncommon that employers and employees part company because they do not see eye to eye on how to run the job in question. That appears to me to be the case here.

The hon. Member for Fulham has raised the question of the appointment of governors to institutions such as training colleges for further education. That is a very important subject and one to which I am now giving some attention. The regulations were amended last year by the Training of Teachers Grant Regulations, 1955. The old Regulation No. 6 has been amended to include a statement, in the new Regulation No. 5, that every college shall have a suitably constituted governing body. That is a matter of great importance; and it will also be of very great importance in the technical college world, where it is essential that we should have governing bodies drawing on local interest which can be of use to the principal in bridging what he is trying to do and the people in the area whom he is trying to serve. The same is true of the training colleges. I am in favour of having outside members. There are two on the governing body of the Lady Mabel College, one who is from the Sheffield Institute of Education and the other the chairman of the divisional executive. So it is not quite true to say that the governors are 100 per cent. a sub-committee of the L.E.A.

I hope that perhaps this debate may have served the purpose of drawing attention to the need to widen the composition of the governing bodies of training colleges and other institutions. I think there are a lot of men and women ready to come forward to give public service in this field. I have never thought we should have any difficulty in getting people of wide experience to serve on the bodies of these colleges. Whether or not that today local education authorities are sufficiently interested in this matter to recruit these people, I cannot say, but it is a question into which we shall have to look.

On the point of Miss Moller's resignation, I cannot see any grounds for the Minister interfering where the employee and the employer have fallen out on what really is a question of the handling of the business of the college.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Two o'clock.