HC Deb 18 June 1956 vol 554 cc1197-204

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

11.5 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

The parish of Whiston is an old and historic part of my constituency. It was a pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, and the coal fields date back at least to the seventeenth century, but it has been an area in which development has been slow until the post-war years. The problems which I wish to speak about tonight are problems which have arisen from rapid post-war development and from the failure to integrate school building with house building, a failure which, of course, is not peculiar to that area. If the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education, who is to reply to the debate, is tempted to say that of course it is nothing unusual and therefore it is not a matter which ought to concern us, I would say what a disgraceful commentary that is on the failure of the Government to balance its school and house building programmes. As a result there has been a very serious overcrowding in the school there.

In Whiston there is one very good new primary school which was built just before the war. It is an active school, with a keen parents' association. It was built originally for a roll of 340 children. It is now accommodating 586 and the situation is rapidly deteriorating. To meet the problem an old school building, which was black-listed and closed before the war, has been taken over by the education authority and opened up again. There are about 150 children in that old derelict building and that still leaves an excess of 100 children in the ordinary, proper school. The decision to open the old black-listed building was taken in 1953, when it was said that it would be required for three years. If that estimate had been correct it would be possible to consider closing it now.

No doubt there are worse schools, but there is all the difference in the world between tolerating conditions which one has always had, while looking forward to them coming to an end, and finding oneself going backwards, which is what is happening to parents of Whiston children at the moment. They find that instead of the children getting better conditions for education they are having to use a building which was regarded as unfit before the war. Already, in spite of the use of that building, there are too many children in the main school. In January this year there were 10 places available and 38 applicants for them.

There is every reason to expect that within a few years there will be a continuing and rapidly increasing development of population in the area. There are 214 houses to be built by the local authority on the Lickers Lane Estate. There have already been 82 private enterprise houses built, and another 120 are expected. There is a caravan site on the Halsnead Park Estate, which has been approved, and in addition one of the main contributory problems has been that the neighbouring town of Prescot is developing to the south and children from Prescot have been coming to the school. It is well known that Prescot is looking for still further sites to develop. Taking these altogether, about 350 new houses are expected.

If on an average one child of primary school age comes from each house there will be 350 children looking for school places. The question is, where are they to go? The hon. Gentleman may be tempted to play down these figures and to suggest that my estimates are exaggerated, but I would say that it lies ill in his mouth to say that, because so far his Department and the authority have been singularly inept in their estimates. It was originally supposed, when the new school in Langton Lane was to be built in the neighbouring parish of Rainhill, that that would relieve the Halsnead school and, thereby, there would be no need for further building.

It is now generally admitted that these estimates were inadequate, and that there has not been the measure of relief which was expected. All along, one of the chief causes of trouble has been the growing pressure on school accommodation, a trouble which the authorities have, ostrich-like, refused to tackle.

The problem is not insoluble; everybody, in fact, knows what is required. The indignation of the parents about the overcrowding and the use of this condemned building has naturally been apparent, but it has been restrained, and restrained only because there was a proposal to build a new primary school in another part of the Whiston area, in the Royal Oak estate. It was always hoped that this school would be included in the current programme of building, and there was bitter disappointment when it was discovered that it had been recommended for the 1957–58 programme because that would have meant that the school would not have provided effective accommodation for at least another two years.

Now, however, to everybody's horror, it is found that this school is not in the 1957–58 programme at all, but has been put on the reserve list. That means that even the hope which the local people had has been frustrated. The divisional executive has agreed that the situation is extremely serious and has, consequently, asked to be received as a deputation by the education authority. Lancashire is not noted for its lack of appreciation of the work of divisional executives, and I think that it is a very unfortunate thing that the county education authority has refused to receive the deputation from the very people who are responsible for school provision and who have to face the wrath of the local inhabitants. This is a shocking commentary on what is too often the attitude adopted by county councils towards the people who are doing the job in the locality. The result has been considerable indignation. There has developed a feeling—I am not saying, necessarily, that it is fair—that there has been victimisation; that because parents have been active in their parents' association and because they have taken an interest in the welfare of the children and pressed for what is a really essential improvement, they are now to be made to feel that they are "being taught a lesson".

To allow such a situation to continue is deplorable, for it damages the whole attitude of the public towards educational problems. The county council—and I say this regretfully—and the Minister, must accept their share of the responsibility in having failed to appreciate the importance of doing something quickly. There has been a lamentable breakdown in public relations, in getting across to the local people what are the problems and the obstacles to be overcome.

It is thought locally that this area is being sacrificed in the interests of the Kirby area, which has to cope with the Liverpool overspill problem. There is a feeling that the reason the school is not in the programme is that a fair amount has been spent on the Kirby area in the same division, a feeling that the Whiston area must wait. Surely nothing could be more calculated to poison the relations between those already in the area and those coming into it than to create the impression that the needs of the one have been sacrificed in the interests of the other.

This really is a serious matter, and the Minister ought not to put up the almost automatic "No" which he is inclined to adopt towards any proposal for altering a local authority programme. I have never raised a matter of this sort previously on the Adjournment during the six years that I have been an hon. Member of the House; and I do not tonight rise because I want to stand on my feet, but because of the serious situation in this parish of which I am speaking. I do so because this is a great problem, which needs to be looked at, and considered independently, to see where and how it has been handled in such a way as to inflate feelings of annoyance and indignation, and to avoid that in the future.

The people who ultimately have the care of the children, and are justifiably concerned about their future, the parents and parents' association, are horrified to see their children's welfare and happiness deteriorate as the result of the failure to build the new school, and are feeling disappointed and embittered.

11.15 p.m.

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

The previous occasion on which the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) and I took part together in an Adjournment debate we joined forces to persuade the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation to approve the new Run-corn—Widnes bridge. He will recall that we were not successful on that occasion, but that our words have now borne fruit. I mention that lest he should think my reply discouraging, as at one stage he anticipated it would be I do not dispute what hon. Member has stated about the history and present state of this school. It was built in 1940, and in that sense is a good school. Rather less than three years ago the Church of England school was taken over as an annexe to provide for the increasing population. That was considered—I think the hon. Member will support me in this—better than to have oversize classes in the new school.

To enable that annexe to be used to good purpose a fair sum of money was expended on improvements. It was then found that the Longton Lane County Primary School, opened more recently, did not provide as much relief as had been anticipated and so this annexe to the Whiston Halsnead School is being kept in use.

The position today is as the hon. Member stated. There are 15 classes in that school, with a total school population of 586. Of those 15 classes only three are today over the statutory size of 40. I do not wish to deny that the conditions in the school are far from ideal, and I can well understand the attitude of the parents. I would say, however, that conditions are by no means exceptional, and they do, of course, as the hon. Member realises, arise from the vast increase in the school population in the post-war period. I much regret that there are many schools throughout England and Wales similarly overcrowded, and that we have to retain in use additional premises which we should like to see dispensed with.

This situation arises from causes beyond my right hon. Friend's control, and it was a little unfair of the hon. Gentleman to say that the Ministry's building policy did not have regard to housing developments, and to the increase in population, because that is exactly what it is designed to do. For seven or eight years the Ministry has been following a policy which has been called "roofs over heads," and offering new schools only where, if they were not so allocated, the children would not be admitted to school at all.

That, and in more recent years the policy of reorganisation, which provides for the separation of primary and secondary classes in rural areas, has taken up all the school building resources since 1949. School building has thus been co- ordinated and correlated to housing developments, which is the opposite of what the hon. Member said.

It is for that reason that Lancashire, which is the responsible authority, although I support its decision, has found itself unable to include in an immediate programme the new school which the hon. Member's constituents want. It is still unable to include the school because, although Whiston Halsnead School is overcrowded at the present time, we are now in the summer term which is, of course, the most overcrowded term of the year. We are also beginning to see a decline in the infants' and junior classes. In Ministry jargon, the bulge is now passing into the secondary schools.

The council has been unable to include it for a very important reason, and that is that in the neighbourhood as a whole —and this the hon. Gentleman did not mention—there is overall provision sufficient for the next two or three years. Although I appreciate that those resident in this area may not like it, there are vacancies in three other primary schools, namely, the Prescot County Primary School, the Longton Lane County Primary School and Rainhill Church of England School. Those three schools between them have upwards of 200 vacancies at this moment without increasing the size of classes in those schools to over 40.

I fully realise that this policy is not popular, but it is a policy which circumstances force us to employ in many parts of the country, in my own constituency in particular. The provision in those three schools, together with the school which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, should be adequate for the next two or three years to provide accommodation for the existing pupils, those who are about to enter the schools and those who are likely to enter the schools as a result of housing development.

I would not wish to dispute the hon. Gentleman's figures for housing in the area. He did not, when mentioning the children likely to come with housing developments, make, I think, sufficient allowance for those of denominational families who will go to other schools. Provision is made for at least the full number of children from new housing development to go into these schools as the need arises if the four schools are taken as a whole—and taken as a whole, I am afraid, they must be.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the divisional executive. I appreciate that it is commonly thought, in Lancashire particularly, that if an area is under a divisional executive which has an expanding new town or area, as is the fact in the case of Whiston, then the old town suffers at the expense of the expanding area. But that is not the case, because it naturally follows from the policy of "roofs over heads" that schools are allocated according to the needs of the school population irrespective of the boundaries of the divisional executive, and, for that matter, irrespective of the boundaries of local authority areas. And so the needs of Whiston have been assessed regardless of the expanding area, to which quite naturally the hon. Gentleman's constituents must have regard.

I do not think I can be responsible for the fact that the Lancashire Education Committee has refused to meet a deputation from the hon. Gentleman's parents and teachers.

Mr. MaeColl

It is much worse than that. It refused to receive a deputation from the responsible divisional executive whom the committee itself appoints to take responsibility in these matters.

Mr. Vosper

I am afraid that I still cannot take responsibility for that particular decision, but I hope the fact that I am trying to be as reasonable as possible in reply to the hon. Gentleman will at least make some amends for what he considers to be an unfortunate decision.

My opinion of this school—and it is reinforced by a full inspection in recent weeks, the details of which I unfortunately cannot disclose on this occasion—is that the physical conditions are not good, but at the same time they are not intolerable.

I conclude by saying that I am satisfied that the local education authority has come to a fair assessment of need when it has put this school in the reserve list for 1957–58, and I have no reason at the moment to doubt its view that the existing provision in the area—that is, the four schools taken as a whole—will be sufficient to accommodate the children already in the area and those which it thinks are likely to come into the area. If that forecast should prove to be inaccurate, then, of course, some emergency arrangements must be made.

I will examine further after this debate —and I have no doubt the local education authority will examine—the hon. Gentleman's arguments, together with any new figures which he may have produced regarding housing development in the area, although those must to some extent be speculative. I do appreciate the difficulties which exist in the area, but at the same time I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will realise that our resources are fully extended at the moment, and that they are devoted to providing school accommodation for children for whom accommodation would not otherwise be provided.

Therefore, where existing accommodation, although not very suitable, is adequate overall, I am afraid that area must take second place to the expanding area. In case the parents concerned feel that the education of their children is suffering as a result of these conditions, I must say that it is my experience and that, I think, of many of Her Majesty's inspectors, that very often the best education can be provided in the worst conditions, and I see no reason why, because of what I admit to be poor physical conditions, the education of children in this area should suffer.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock.