HC Deb 02 April 1957 vol 568 cc343-68

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

9.6 p.m.

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

I welcome this opportunity to give expression to the very strong views which are held by many people in my constituency in regard to the future of Aylesbury Grammar School and the additional time which has been fortuitously put at our disposal. I wish to bring out points in my remarks which have a wider application than merely to Aylesbury, and I believe that other hon. Gentlemen would like to comment upon them.

I must briefly outline the history of the controversy which now exists between the county council and the Ministry of Education, on the one hand, and a large number of local people on the other. In January, 1954, the county council, which had been studying the future requirements of education in its district, realised that whereas it had had to cater for about 500 pupils, before many years passed it would inevitably need to cater for about 1,000.

Three courses were open to the county council. One was to enlarge the present grammar school, which is co-educational. The second was to cease making it coeducational, turn it into a boys' school and build a girls' school, thereby doubling the total number of pupils. The third course was to leave the school as it was and to build another co-education school.

As soon as the decision of the county council to turn the present school into a boys' school and to build a girls' school was made known, considerable concern was felt locally because of the break with the successful tradition of the school that the decision would entail. A number of the people concerned felt that it would not be proper to take action in the matter without finding out how far their views were shared by responsible representative bodies in the district and, in particular, by the parents, the staff and the old boys. Accordingly, steps were taken to find out how far their views were shared.

I shall show in a moment that a very formidable array of opinion which protested at the county council's proposals was mobilised, so much so that these people felt that it was their duty to bring the matter to the attention of the Minister. The predecessor of the present Minister gave an undertaking last year that he would not give his final decision until an opportunity had been given to a selected deputation to visit the Minister. They came in December of last year. I am sorry it was not possible for them to see the Minister in person, but they were given every facility to state their case before the officials.

The Minister wrote to me in January, having taken into account all the discussions at that interview, upholding the decision of the county council. A further letter was written subsequently because the case presented at that time by the Minister gave no reason for his views. It sought to allay the fears of the critics with the very remarkable statement that they need not fear that the traditions of the school would be seriously impaired because for 300 years it had been a boys' school compared with the fact that for only fifty years it had been a coeducational school. What the Minister omitted to take account of was that up to 1907 there were only seventy pupils, whereas since then there have been 500 pupils who between them and the staff have contrived to build up a very splendid tradition and record in the last fifty years.

The position at the moment is that the Minister has reaffirmed the decision he reached in January to uphold the conclusions of the county council, but the views of those who differ from him are so widespread and so strongly felt that I feel it only right to take this opportunity of drawing the attention of the House to the situation in the hope that, even at this late hour, we might prevail on the Minister to have second thoughts.

I referred to the steps which had been taken by those who were concerned at the proposal to find how many others shared those views. I referred to a formidable array. There were, first of all, the governors of the school. Here, in parenthesis, I would say that whereas at the outset they were totally opposed to the change, in the end they were somewhat reluctantly persuaded to acquiesce in the policy of the county council on the ground that when a third grammar school was built there would be an assurance given that it would be co-educational. Now we find in the latest letter from the Minister that he sees no prospect whatever of a third grammar school being required, so the acquiescence of the governors of the school obtained on that assurance seems ill-placed. I think we may assume that if there is to be no third grammar school, the views of the governors will revert to those they originally expressed.

They were supported by the divisional executive, which, so far as I know, is set up to advise the county council in matters of this kind. They were supported by Aylesbury Borough Council, by Aylesbury Trades Council, by two local parish councils and, in particular, by the Old Aylesbúrian Association of old boys, by the staff of the school and by no less than 1,300 individuals, the bulk of whom were parents who signed a petition urging that the co-educational character of the grammar school should be continued.

Of course, this controversy has been published in the Press. It is of interest and, I think, relevant to note the reactions which have appeared in the different newspapers which have referred to it. In no single case, so far as I can see, has any responsible journal— or indeed any irresponsible journal for that matter— seen fit to uphold the view of the county council supported by the Minister on the facts and— I emphasise this— as so far presented.

Quite strong comments were made by The Times Educational Supplement and by the Municipal Journal, and there were requests by the New Statesman and Nation and the News Chronicle for some form of public inquiry or referendum through which to discover the strength of local feeling in this matter.

I do not propose tonight to enter into any discussion whether co-educational schools are to be preferred to single sex schools. That is not a matter which I want to deploy. What I am concerned about is the relationship of the Minister to the two disputing parties— the county council, on the one hand, and the parents, the Old Boys' Association and other organisations, on the other.

When the 1944 Act was passed it was foreseen that there might well be differences of opinion between those responsible for education— the local education authorities and the parents, and provision was made for the intervention of the Minister in such circumstances. I should like to draw attention to the wording of Section 76 of that Act, which is very relevant to this topic and which reads: … 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 trainng and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. I do not think any impartial person could fairly describe those words as meaning other than that there is a bias in favour of the wishes of the parents.

When this point was submitted to the Minister he sought to defend his action against the charge that he had not carried out the requirements implicit in that part of the Act by referring amongst other things to the Kesteven case. That was a case in which a single parent sought to invoke Section 76 to justify placing upon the local authority a charge for the education of his child at the school of his choice.

In this instance, we are not concerned with one parent who has particular views on where he would like his child to be educated, but with a very large number of parents who have a common view wishing to uphold the traditions of the school which their children attend. In referring to the Kesteven case the Minister regards the court's judgment on that part of the Act which I have read as supporting him. I should like to quote the words of the judge in relation to this matter: Section 76 does not say that pupils must in all cases be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents."— Nor are we saying that— It only lays down a general principle to which the County Council must have regard. This leaves it open to the County Council to have regard to other things as well, and also to make exceptions to the general principle if it thinks fit to do so. It cannot therefore be said that a County Council is at fault simply because it dons not see fit to comply with the parent's wishes. Even those words maintain the bias, inherent in the words of the Act which I have quoted, in favour of the views of the parent.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

In the judgment which the hon. Member has quoted, was the phrase "parent's wishes" or "parents' wishes" — the apostrophe before or after the "s"?

Sir S. Summers

It is curious that that question should be asked. The document from which I read has the apostrophe printed after the "s," but it has been changed in manuscript to the apostrophe before the "s."

Mr. Ede

I am sure the hon. Member will appreciate the implications. It is altered in manuscript to refer to a single parent, which was so in the Kesteven case, but this is quoted in a case where the hon. Gentleman alleges that the apostrophe should be after the "s" because a substantial number of parents take the view.

Sir S. Summers

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point.

There seems to me, therefore, to be no doubt as to what was the intention of Parliament at the time, confirmed by what the court said in the Kesteven case. But, quite apart from the legal aspect, I am indeed surprised that the Minister should seek to justify his attitude by saying, in effect, at the end of a series of comments indicating the circumstances in which he would regard it as proper or improper to intervene, that it would not be proper for him to intervene unless he was satisfied that the local education authorities' view "made no educational sense."

If that is to be taken literally, it implies that he will never intervene, because no one will be so unkind or rude as to assert that some local authority's plan makes no educational sense. These are responsible people, and there is always room for differences of opinion, but nobody can say that such plans will make no educational sense. Nevertheless, only in such cases would the Minister regard it as proper to intervene.

On this question of the Minister's duty, I am rather shocked, in view of the wording of the Act, at the Minister's attitude to the views of parents as displayed in the letter from which I now quote. It says: The existing parents whose children are in fact least affected, since ordinarily the schemes operate after their children have completed their courses, or a great part of them… In other words, we are not to take account of the views of parents of children who are there now, because when these changes are effected these people will no longer be parents with children at school, and it will be some other people who will have views on the way succeeding children should be educated.

I think that it is paying scant attention to the views of parents if these existing parents are to be disregarded for these reasons, particularly if no attempt is made to some succeeding parents as to their views. Why should the views of parents of five or ten years hence differ materially from the views of parents who are there now? There may also, of course, be children of existing parents too young yet to be at school.

I am also rather shocked at the attitude of the county council to the views of parents. When the protesters to this scheme took to the county council a document carrying the signatures of an overwhelming majority of the parents, the county council expressed the opinion: No new matters of substance have been raised by the opposition which were not before your Committee when they reached their decision and subsequently re-affirmed it. In other words, the fact, unknown to the county council when it reached its first decision, that parents are now known to take exception to it, is not a new matter of substance relevant enough to be taken into account. Here we have both the county council and the Minister saying that parents' wishes are of little account. In those circumstances, I think that there is marked evidence of the intentions of Parliament as originally laid down in the 1944 Act being completely disregarded.

I have already alluded to the fact that, in my judgment, Parliament intended that there should be a bias in favour of the views of parents, but, quite properly, Parliament qualified that view by saying that two conditions had to be fulfilled. The first is that efficient instruction and training must be provided. So far as I know, nothing has ever been suggested to show that the co-educational grammar school, as now set up, does not provide efficient instruction and training; that condition is undoubtedly fulfilled.

The second condition which must be fulfilled if the wishes of parents are to have the weight which the Act intended them to have is that there must be an avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure. Again, I have seen nothing, either in letters to me or in any other way, to suggest that to build a new coeducational school and leave the present grammar school alone will be a more expensive operation than changing the present school to a boys' school and building a new girls' school. Accordingly, in both cases, the conditions precedent to giving weight to the views of parents appear to have been fulfilled.

So far as I know, the only reason which has been advanced why the school should not be left as it is and another co-educational school built is this. It is said that there would be unfortunate competition in the district if one school with many years' tradition behind it were, as it were, in competition with another one built only recently. But I have never heard it suggested in the district of Hemel Hempstead, where there are two coeducational schools, that any disadvantage is felt either by parents or children in the neighbourhood as a result of what is feared under the heading of competition. Indeed, there are some who think that it would be of benefit to both to have two schools of similar character operating in the same district.

As to the suggestion that the Minister has no ground on which to intervene, he has, perhaps, failed to notice the grounds which were thought proper by his predecessor, the right hon. Lady the Member for Moss Side (Dame Florence Horsbrugh), who intervened at Eltham when an attempt was made to change that school. She upheld the existing traditions of the school, for what seemed to her perfectly valid reasons.

Apart from the matters to which I have referred, at the conclusion of the letter which the Minister has sent setting out his judgment in the matter, he alludes to various matters which the county council has to take into account and gives his opinion of the way in which it did it: In considering this issue, the Authority had to consider the relative cost of maintaining the two different types of school… We have never heard what was the financial comparison between the two alternative methods of dealing with this educational problem. Next, he refers to the demands each would make on the staffing sources available … We have never heard whether either the one or the other would be an easier or more difficult problem to solve in relation to staffing. Lastly, the letter refers to the advantages and disadvantages of competition between two schools of the same kind, one old and one new, in close proximity, compared with the possibilities of co-operation and shared activities between a boys' and a girls' school. The letter goes on: The Authority concluded that the balance of advantage lay in having two single-sex schools. The Minister upheld that view.

That is not a reason. That is a conclusion. If we find that many responsible local people with a perfectly proper stake in this decision are at variance with the judgment of the county council, and if the matter is referred to the Minister and he is unwilling for the reasons I have given, to support the parents, as was the implied intention in such circumstances under the 1944 Act, the very least he can do is to give chapter and verse for the reasons why the county council came to the conclusion it did and why he believes that those reasons are well founded.

In this instance we have neither support for the parents not proper reasons advanced for upholding the county council. It may well be that the role of the Minister in matters of this kind will be a matter of significance, not merely in this instance but elsewhere. So I welcome the opportunity afforded tonight, and I urge the Minister this evening to have second thoughts, even at this late hour, and to see whether it is not possible to reconcile the views of the Act and the wishes of the parents in this matter.

9.31 p.m.

Mr. John Edwards (Brighouse and Spenborough)

I want to support what the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) has just said and to plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to persuade his noble Friend in another place to look at this again.

I have an interest in the matter because I went to this school myself in 1914 for six years, and I would be lacking in the most elementary sense of gratitude if I were not to speak up tonight in defence of the school to which I owe so much and of which I have such agreeable memories, due in part, no doubt, to its collective character as a mixed school.

It was true that it was in original a boys' school, in the days when, apparently, girls were not thought to be worth educating. Let us be clear, however, that for all practical purposes the tradition of the school goes from 1907 onwards. There was a school before; sometimes it had a few, sometimes it had more pupils; but the school we are talking about tonight is the one that has been running for fifty years and which has been a mixed school.

When I knew it in the dreadful years of World War I, it was then a good school, but it is a much finer school today. I follow its record with interest and with enthusiastic admiration. I was interested when the hon. Gentleman referred to the decision about Kidbrooke. It is worth reminding the House of the grounds on which the Minister refused to approve the decision of the London County Council to close the Eltham Hill High School for Girls and to transfer its pupils to Kidbrooke Comprehensive School. What did the Minister then say? She said that she would not agree to the school being closed because she had taken into account: … the reputation of the… school and, the success with which it has served its purpose as a grammar school …"— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th May, 1954; Vol. 527, c. 1417.] I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the record of this school. Perhaps I am not objective, but I know a good deal about many schools, and it wuld be hard to find a school of this kind and size whose academic record is finer. I see the school magazine and I see the university entrance year by year, and so on. Every year that passes the school has added to its tradition and, I believe, is serving the town and the district extremely well.

This is to be abolished. Why? I have read, and carefully read, the letter which the Minister has sent to the hon. Member for Aylesbury. In that letter I cannot find the real grounds on which this decision has been taken. The Minister said that Section 76 requires him to secure that there are sufficient schools of the right kind to serve the area. I agree, but what is a school of the right kind for this purpose?

I would suggest that there are two things that the Minister has to bear in mind. First, he has to make what is educationally the best system that he can, having regard to the views of the parents who may be involved. This, I believe, he has completely failed to do. I do not believe that the county council ever properly took into account the views of the parents at all. Indeed, it took its decision, but it was not until there was such a row brewing that it even recognised that there was a local opinion or a parents' opinion at all. This, I think, is a serious matter.

It is serious because, if the county council does not fulfil its part, then it is all the more important that the Minister shall fulfil his. What was the point of this Section 76? I do not believe that the Minister's recollection of the intention of this part of the Act is sound. There are others who have memories about it, and I think that it is absurd to suppose that the only point of this Act was that individual parents might choose between a number of schools. If this administrative act is to be taken, it takes away from the parents any choice at all because, as things are now, the parents will have no choice. If the views of the county council prevail, there will be no mixed school left in the area, although at an earlier stage, as has already been pointed out, the county council was trying to persuade local opinion to agree on the ground that, within seven to sen years. It would need another school and it would say that even now this school would be a co-educational school.

It has withdrawn this. It has tried to allay discontent with what was in fact a pledge that there would be a co-educational school in due course. Unless the right hon. Gentleman can demonstrate, which I think he will find it hard to do, that it is educationally impossible to contemplate in this town two mixed schools, I do not believe he has any case at all. The view which has been put up by the parents and by many other people in the locality ought to be sustained.

I agree that I have a viewpoint here which perhaps I feel more strongly because I am so familiar with the school and with the views of so many people in the town and in the district. I would impress on the hon. Gentleman the need that he has to prove and to show that an attempt has really been made to assess parental opinion and to reconcile it with sound educational policy. Unless that has been done, the purpose of the Statute has been frustrated and the Minister's obligations have not been fulfilled.

Finally, because I would not wish to detain the House long, there are just two other considerations which I want to advance. The first is this. Would it not on the whole, in all the circumstances, have been desirable to have had a local inquiry? The Minister himself and the Parliamentary Secretary have not received a deputation on this subject at all. Officials may have been told to receive the views of the people who were protesting, but the Ministers themselves have not at first hand heard this case, nor has there been any local inquiry.

Would it not really have been better in the circumstances when one local authority and a number of other people were involved and large numbers of people in the town and district were anxious about this to have had some kind of inquiry so that the Minister could have been properly informed? Does he really need to rubber stamp what the county council has done, especially when it has done it in a way which, I think, the hon. Member has shown, and as I have supported, is not really consistent with its duties as a local education authority?

The thing that really bothers me is this. I am absolutely convinced— and this view, I think, is shared by all the leading citizens in the town; certainly by all the people whose opinion I value— that the life of the town and the district will be poorer if this school is closed down as a mixed school. Aylesbury will not be the same. A tradition which has grown up over fifty years has ended. A school of which all of us connected with the town are tremendously proud goes and we have to start all over again in building up a tradition in a new school in entirely different work. The right hon. Gentleman knows the value of tradition in schools. Cannot he see that in this county town of Buckinghamshire many people have contributed towards building up a fine tradition and that he and the county between them, unless there is some change, will destroy that tradition, which would be a great pity? I beg him to reconsider the matter.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. W. R Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)

I had not intended to intervene in this debate until I heard the case that was put forward by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers). I was rather afraid that the information which I had received from one of the local schools in my constituency might have differed in some respects and I was not too happy about what side I would take until I had heard the hon. Member's speech.

After hearing the hon. Member, however, and his excellent exposition of the case— no one could have made a better case for the Aylesbury Grammar School than the hon. Member has made tonight — I am quite satisfied that the case of the Aylesbury Grammar School is not an isolated one. Whatever indifference has bean shown by the Ministry of Education about the wishes of the parents in Aylesbury is not an isolated instance either, because, according to my information, exactly similar conditions have applied to the Chadderton County School, in Lancashire.

I have received voluminous correspondence from Chadderton parents, some of whom live in Failsworth, in my constituency, protesting strongly about the lack of consideration shown to parents and others who are interested in the school, not only by the Lancashire education authority and not only by the divisional executive authority, but by the Minister himself.

It seems to me that the Minister has done what my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) obliquely suggested — he has simply rubber-stamped a decision arrived at by the county education authority without making any effort whatever himself to carry out what, I am sure, my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Aylesbury would regard as one of his first obligations towards the main principle of the Education Act, 1944, which has already been quoted. It seems to me that that has imposed upon the Minister an obligation at least to ascertain in a tangible manner the wishes of parents in various localities, especially when there is a divergence of opinion between the local education authority and a substantial number of parents in the area.

The position concerning the Chadderton school is quite simple. A new school is proposed about a mile away from the site of the present co-educational grammar school. In other words, the one existing school is to be replaced by two single-sex grammar-cum-technical schools. There has been considerable opposition on the part of the parents and the old boys' association. Although I am not one of those who worries a great deal about old school ties, we sometimes have to bear in mind that the tradition and prestige of a school is to a very large extent borne not only by the existing pupils but by the old boys and old girls of the school.

There has been considerable opposition on the part of parents and the old students' association to the proposed change. These people did what was reasonable, in my opinion. First, they made known their difference of opinion with the local education authority and with the divisional executive authority expecting, as I think was reasonable in the circumstances, that their protest would be noted and that representatives, in the form of a deputation, would have been called to the Lancashire education authority, or at least to the divisional educational authority, in order to have an exchange of ideas and views upon this rather controversial subject.

My information is that when they approached the divisional executive committee they were told that that committee could see no useful purpose being served by its receiving a deputation, because a decision had been already taken by the county education authority. The committee, therefore, did not feel that any useful purpose would be served by going into the matter on a divisional basis. I understand, however, that the Lancashire county education authority refused point blank to receive a deputation. As far as I can see, it was not interested in the point of view to be expressed by the parents and the old boys' association.

Someone sent a letter of protest to the Minister, signed by ten local residents. It is fair to say that the Minister regards it as an argument for taking no action that only one person has written to him and that that person drew attention to the fact that only ten other people felt like himself. I think, however, that the Education Act, 1944, refers to the fact that if as many as ten people are opposed to certain projects on the part of the local education authority they are entitled to make their views known to the Minister and to have them examined by him.

Perhaps it is rather unfair to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with particular cases, unless he has the papers before him. If he has these papers, or remembers the occasion, I should like him to tell the House why the desire of these people for a further inquiry has been rejected because only ten people signed the letter. I have already told the hon. Gentleman something further in correspondence with him. I have told him that the petition which was sent to me was signed, not by ten people, but by 6,495 local residents in that area and that of the people who were approached to sign, only 10 per cent. were opposed to the petition. Therefore, it seems to me that there is an almost universal objection in the area to the proposal made by the Lancashire Education Authority.

When the matter was brought to my notice, I thought that I ought to write to the chairman of the Lancashire education authority and ask him to be good enough to give some information which would help me in bringing the matter to the notice of the Minister, or, alternatively, in giving reasonable explanations to the people who had written to me. As far as I can see, three points were advanced by the chairman of the Lancashire education authority. In the first place, he said that the new school is only one mile from the present school and, therefore, the danger would be that one school would eclipse the other in popular favour. I do not think that there is anything new in that. My experience is that in most congested areas where there are these large conurbations exactly the same thing exists.

Someone told me the other day that in Leicester, for example, there are as many as six schools within a mile radius of each other. Therefore, the danger of one school eclipsing the other in popular favour does not seem to me a very sound argument. In fact, my experience of schools near one another is that one gets very healthy competition between them. There is competition not only between the pupils, but between teachers and others to make their school the most attractive one to children and parents. I cannot see anything very wrong in that.

The second reason was that if two schools were provided, neither would have enough boys in it to form a technical wing as well as a grammar school. I do not say that there may not be some strength in that argument, but it is a matter which could have been debated. It could have been argued with the parents, with a possibility of convincing them that there was something in it, although I take the view that if the Minister and the local education authorities are thinking in those terms of the future of technical schools, and ignoring the place of girls in technical schools in the future, they are making a great mistake from the points of view of the national interest and the welfare of boys and girls.

I should have thought that at the beginning of the nuclear age, when there was such a need for technicians, technologists and scientists, one of the best things we could do would be to make available to every school a wing for technical information and education in addition to the normal facilities.

The third reason was that in every area — this is really too rich for anything— there are some parents, particularly those of girls, who prefer a single school to a co-educational one. This is a queer argument from an authority which has refused to listen to the views of some parents who desired to express their preferences. In one of the arguments which it put to me it is relying on the fact that it is pleasing some parents, whose numbers and identity are undefined. Yet other parents have not even been allowed to send a deputation to the Lancashire education authority to put their views forward. If the views of parents are important, then the views of all parents are important and not only those of the parents who happen to agree with the decision of the local education authority.

The case has been put to the Minister most carefully. It was well prepared and has been cogently delivered. The arguments are clear. The points that we desired to put have been put in a simple form.

I cannot understand why, when pressed by parents and myself to hold an inquiry to ascertain whether there is any merit in the case put forward by the parents, the Minister replies "No, I bank on the information given me by the local authority. It says that this is the scheme which will be best for the area, and because it says so, I accept that point of view." I submit that a Minister who acts in that way is not acting in accordance with the 1944 Act and is not carrying out his responsibilities either to the House or to the parents of children in the area.

I sincerely hope that, as a result of the debate, the Minister will have second thoughts and will again ask the education authorities concerned at least to consult the parents. I am not asking them to reverse their decision as such, although I should like them to do so. I am asking that the people who have been so enthusiastic and so concerned about the two schools should at least have an opportunity of being received by the education authority and having their representations considered independently by him in furtherance of the purposes enumerated in the Education Act, 1944.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) has brought to the notice of the House the fact that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) does not stand alone in the difficulties now being encountered by parents in securing the type of education they want for their children. There is no doubt that Section 76 of the Education Act, 1944, is a most important one. I ask t Parliamentary Secretary to consult his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and Lord Privy Seal about the history of this Section and to ask him whether there would have been an Education Act, 1944, if he had not agreed that this Section should be inserted.

I am surprised to hear of the scurvy treatment meted out to the ten local government electors. That was a phrase— I hope I shall not be accused of a breach of the Official Secrets Act— which I got into the Education Act myself. The right used to be vested in ten ratepayers, but that excluded people on the Service voters' list, who did not pay rates direct, from petitioning the Government. The phrase was altered to "ten local government electors" so that it should be quite clear that parents of children— because both husband and wife would be local government electors— should be given that privilege.

The phrase is to be found in Section 13 (3): After any proposals have been submitted to the Minister… the authority or persons by whom the proposals were submitted shall… give public notice of the proposals in the prescribed manner, and the managers or governors of any voluntary school affected by the proposals or any ten or more local government electors for the area … may within three months after the first publication of the notice submit to the Minister objections to the proposals. It is, of course, a revelation to some people that the duty of educating a child in this country is not imposed by law on the education authority. It falls on the parents and has done so ever since 1876. Section 36 of the Education Act says: It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability, and aptitude, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise. That is the fundamental Section of the whole Act, because it is the Section which secures that every child shall receive an education. The duty of securing the education rests not on the local atuhority or the teacher but on the parent. If the parent likes to discharge the duty in his own home, that is a quite sufficient discharge of the duty imposed on him. Section 76 is the necessary corollary of Section 36 and Section 13 (3).

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Ede

I hope that the Minister will look at Section 76 and notice the position that it occupies. It has a special heading of its own, in addition to the rubric at the side. The heading over the Clause, and not the rubric, says: General Principle to be observed by Minister and Local Education Authorities. The hon. Member for Aylesbury read the Clause, and I do not intend to do so again. As one who had some responsibility for the Act, I can only say that I was astounded at the decision given in the Kesteven case, but I admit that so much depends upon the position of the apostrophe in the word "parents" that the decision can be understood. In that case only one boy was involved, and the school to which his parents desired to send him did not come within the ambit of the local education authority.

It is interesting to note that in both the cases referred to by the hon. Member for Aylesbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Openshaw the schools concerned excited considerable interest among the parents of the children in the neighbourhood. Surely it is a very desirable thing that these parents should not merely take the school which is run by the local education authority, but should express their own views as to the kind of school they desire.

To one who remembers the old controversies it is also very interesting to find that parents are now petitioning in favour of co-educational schools. I went to a grammar school which, in my time, accommodated 70 boys. It later accommodated about 150 boys, and there was a similar girls' school in the district. Two schools of 150 pupils each are about the most expensive schools to run, and one does not get a very good staffing. As chairman of the county council concerned, I amalgamated the two, but I had a terrific fight with the governors of the girls' school, who were quite certain that the most appalling fates were going to overtake the girls if they were ever mixed with the boys. I now attend the old scholars' association of the mixed schools. In Dorking we are faced with exactly the same suggestion, that instead of having two co-educational schools we should have a boys' school and a girls' school. I am glad to say that the combined feeling in that area is the same as that which has been expressed here.

I listened with attention to the points raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury about the reasons for not hang two co-educational schools. As one who has had a good deal to do with educational administration and legislation, I find that the financial arguments just about cancel out. Co-educational schools are more expensive in some ways and less expensive in others. But I cannot think that even if the difference weighs against two co-educational schools it is sufficient to override the general principle laid down in Section 76.

It is with great regret that I ever oppose the views of a local education authority, but it must be borne in mind that local education authorities are not authorities on education. When I hear them sometimes giving voice to views on education I think that it should be left to those who are practising education in the schools, and I gather that in the case of the Aylesbury Grammar School at least the school staff is in favour of maintaining the co-educational atmosphere.

I think also that in the modern world it is sometimes harmful to distinguish too much between the education of boys and girls. We had a debate last Friday week on technical education when the best that the hon. Gentleman could say was that that was the largest untapped reservoir for technical education. This is not technical education for what are regarded traditionally as women's subjects— cookery, housewifery and millinery— but technical education in the highest ranks, even going as far as nuclear physics. To suggest that we cannot run a technical school to meet the needs of the modern world in a co-educational school should reduce the hon. Gentleman to a state of despair, if he ever wants to tap this reservoir, because over great tracts of the country he will never be able to get other than co-educational schools unless he is prepared to have the most expensive form of staffing, especially on the technical side.

I am disappointed at the result of the efforts made in the Education Act, 1944, not merely to place the responsibility on parents, but to elicit their interest in the education of their children. I always think the more detailed interest the better, as my hon. Friend the Member for Openshaw knows. When I opened a school in a constituency he used to represent I laid stress on the fact that the only way in which we can do the best for the children is to get co-operation between parents and teachers. To thwart the wishes of parents in what are quite reasonable desires, even in the conservative desire of sticking to the form of education with which they are familiar, is something which ought to be avoided. Their desires should be welcomed and not ignored and frustrated, unless the greatest possible argument on financial grounds can be brought against them.

I do not think there is anything in the doctrine that two similar schools in a neighbourhood create difficulties. I know that in a good many areas there is what is called a "posh" school to which parents desire to send their children. it is generally the old British and foreign school which has been resurrected, first as a council school and then as a county school, and in which the sons of the small tradesmen of the district used to be educated. Because in the fee-paying days the school fees were fixed high, it has always remained the one place which everyone wanted to get into, particularly now that no fees are charged.

Frankly, I deplore the way in which the wishes of parents are being ignored by local education authorities and by the Minister. I hope that in future as a result of this debate a better practice will prevail.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I will take only a little time to draw attention to the fact that all over the country the number of children at secondary schools will increase and that one authority after another has to make provision in some form or other for more secondary school places. If the kind of thing which is to happen at Aylesbury, and in the case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), is to be general, without intervention by the Minister, no co-educational secondary school will be safe. I think that that is one of the reasons why we had had so much anxiety expressed in this rather unusual Adjournment debate tonight.

The question whether schools should be co-educational or single-sex schools is surely pre-eminently a matter for the parents' choice. The more those who are experts on educational matters study the question, the more they refuse to be dogmatic about it. There are excellent schools of both kinds, and it is a very great pity when there is in existence a really successful co-educational school, admired and respected in its neighbourhood, for it to be brought to an end against very strong local feeling. It ought only to be done if there are overwhelming reasons, and I would only ask the Minister whether he thinks that he can make any sense of the reasons that have so far been advanced.

In the Minister's letter to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) there is a suggestion that what the county council proposes to do will be too expensive. Can any real body be given to that? It is also suggested that there will be much more difficulty to start two co-educational schools of 500 children than two single-sex schools of 500, but the Minister is far too intelligent to place any reliance on that line of argument. It is also stated that there are technical difficulties, and we are left wondering what that means.

Finally, it is said that there will be undesirable competition between the schools. There are in my constituency, not a mile from each other, two grammar schools for girls. One is an old foundation, and one is an ordinary county grammar school. Of one thing I am quite certain— that probably both these schools are the better, and quite certainly neither of them is the worse, for any comparisons that may be drawn between them. It is purely begging the question to suggest that any competition or comparison is bound to be undesirable, and what I think we are all really bewildered about and I sometimes think that the Parliamentary Secretary is also bewildered about—is why, in face of these apparently very inadequate reasons, a school's living traditions should be destroyed or genuine local feeling be disregarded.

10.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Sir Edward Boyle)

I am very glad indeed that we have had nearly an hour and a half for this debate this evening, and I am sure that the House is extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) for having raised this subject. I shall bring to the attention of my noble Friend, when he returns from America, not only the record of this debate, but also give him as fair and accurate an account as I can of the spirit shown by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House during the course of it. It is one thing to convey somebody's words, but it is another to convey their spirit, and I will fully undertake to put to my noble Friend the spirit in which the debate has been conducted tonight.

I realise, also, that this matter has received a lot of serious attention in the Press, both local and national and educational, and, in addition, that what we are discussing tonight does, to some extent, transcend the affairs of a particular school, though that was one of the major points which has been raised, and much of that has been related, if I may put it in this way, to Section 76 of the 1944 Act and its relation to certain other Sections.

Let me start by very briefly recapitulating the case put by my hon. Friend. The Aylesbury Grammar School takes about 500 children, and we in the Ministry are satisfied that provision for about a further 500 children is already overdue. Indeed, no one disputes that. The only question concerns the form in which the places are to be provided. I must say one word about the position in the future of a third separate school, because I should like to give the facts about this to the House so as to clear up any misunderstandings which may have arisen.

The population of Aylesbury has lately been fairly static at 22,000. The schools in Aylesbury serve a catchment area wider than the borough itself, so that the population already served is actually greater than 22,000, but it does look at present as if two three-form entry schools will satisfy requirements for pretty well beyond the ten-year period immediately ahead. If and when further expansion is needed, the addition of one form entry to existing schools to provide two four-form entry schools might well be a better solution than establishing a third separate school. I should like to make it quite clear, so that there is no misunderstanding about this in the future, that there is no prospect in the near future, or even in what I might call the middle-ground future, of a third separate school being provided.

Another thing that I would like to make absolutely clear now is that the statutory objectors have been very well and very fairly led by Mr. Kenneth Roberton, parent of one of the pupils at Aylesbury Grammar School. Everyone in the Ministry would like me to pay a tribute to him for the very reasonable and fair-minded way in which he conducted his protest all along. He has spoken ably in his cause and he marshalled his deputation admirably when he came to the Ministry. We are very grateful to him for having put his case so carefully.

I think that the House would wish me to spend a few minutes in going over the objectors' case and the local authority's views. I will summarise them as briefly as I can.

The objectors stress the respect in which the school is held locally. They maintain that fifty years of experience as a co-educational school has given the school a wealth of practical experience within and without its academic curriculum that it would be impossible to replace. They say that they are not concerned with the abstract merits of coeducation, but simply to see that something valuable is not destroyed. They say that if the enlargement of the present school to six-form entry size is out of the question the objections which the authorities see to having a second mixed grammar school on the adjacent site are imaginary. They say that the reorganisation of the existing school would have a bad and a disastrous effect upon both pupils and staff.

The local authority believes that the needs of the area will best be served by a single-sex grammar school. It thinks that its proposals do not involve the destruction of anything that is irreplaceable and that similar changes elsewhere in the county have proved successful; and that, in any case, two single-sex schools on adjacent sites would permit boys and girls to undertake some joint activities. Furthermore, it believed that the charge that it has ignored public opinion is not true. Very little adverse comment has reached the local education authority. It obviously believed that the objections to its proposals do not reflect the majority of public opinion. It considers that a six-form entry mixed grammar school would be too large a unit to be satisfactory from the educational point of view and further, that the other alternative of two mixed grammar schools on adjacent sites would be unusual in a town the size of Aylesbury. It would be more expensive to build and to maintain than two single-sex schools of similar size.

The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) asked me about cost. It is not an easy thing to dogmatise about. Obviously, two single-sex schools must be more economical than two mixed schools because certain provision has to be made separately for one sex in each school. [Interruption.] Certainly. There are matters like the teaching of cookery and, as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) himself said, like housework, which would be more expensive to maintain.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

Surely that would be counterbalanced to a great extent by the fact that one could staff a co-educational school far more cheaply than a single sex school?

Sir E. Boyle

I agree that there may be some savings, but from the point of view of getting a new school going there must be some economies in having two single-sex schools rather than two coeducational schools.

Finally, the authority do not share the view of the objectors that the reorganisation of the existing school would be disastrous for the pupils and staff. It says that when the time comes the authority would take care to avoid disturbing pupils approaching examination and as far as possible to ensure continuity in the case of girls transferred to the new school.

My noble Friend was faced with those two points of view and came to the conclusion, after examining the two cases, that he must uphold the view of the local education authority. He reached that conclusion after considering the educational merits of the case, but my noble Friend believed that even if the arguments had been more nicely balanced between the two views he would still have felt bound, in the absence of any evidence that the authority was definitely being perverse, to approve the proposal of the authority. He believes that this is the kind of decision which normally should be left to a local education authority.

I come now to what I think is the most important point, which is how the provisions of the Education Act should be interpreted. My noble Friend believes that it is the business of local education authorities to organise their schools in a way which they think will meet the requirements of the area and that while certainly they must be careful not to override minority views, they ought, none the less, to give priority to the fulfilment of their functions under Section 8 of the Act.

Sir S. Summers

My hon. Friend referred to minority views. In this case, as far as I am aware, we have been referring to majority views.

Sir E. Boyle

Not majority views in the area as a whole. I quite agree that my hon. Friend made the point about parents perfectly fairly, but those were not the majority views of the area.

Sir S. Summers

Is there any evidence to support that view?

Sir E. Boyle

I think that what the local education authority honestly believed to be the case was that the objections to the proposals did not reflect the majority views of the people in the area. If my hon. Friend has evidence the other way, I will consider it further, but the local authority, in carrying out its functions, did not believe that the objections to its proposals reflected the majority of public opinion in the area for which it holds responsibility.

Mr. W. R. Williams

Whatever may be the case in Aylesbury, I thought I gave sufficient evidence from Failsworth and Chadderton that the majority was definitely opposed to the decision of the local authority.

Sir E. Boyle

I am coming to the question of Chadderton—

Mr. Ede

The Act refers to the wishes of the parents, not to the trend of local opinion.

Sir E. Boyle

I am coming to that now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and the right hon. Member for South Shields said that in their view my noble Friend ought to have intervened because of the provisions of Section 76 of the Act. I have read very carefully today the Education Act, 1944, and Sections 8 and 76. I think that the fairest way I can put it to the House is that while it is quite true that Section 76 lays down a general principle which local authorities must bear in mind, if one looks at Section 8 it is quite clear that that Section lays a positive duty on local education authorities to provide what they regard as a suitable structure of primary and secondary education for children in their areas.

I put it to the House that local education authorities cannot lay down their statutory duty to consider all the educational pros and cons of a proposal, which is the statutory duty laid upon them by Section 8, simply because parents quite understandably feel strongly in defence of the existing educational set-up in the area. In Section 8 they have a positive duty which they must perform to the best of their ability; in Section 76 there is simply a general principle to which local authorities must have regard. For that reason, if there is any conflict between the two Sections, I believe that it is Section 8, which places the positive duty on the local education authority, which must guide them.

The hon. Member for Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) raised the question of Chadderton Grammar School. I have a note of the facts and I will write to him if he would like further information. I will gladly write to him, in particular, in reply to the points made by Mr. Beswick and the nine other objectors. I am aware that this was raised only recently in a letter in the Manchester Guardian, but I can assure him that the objections of the ten objectors were very fully considered. The 6,500 objectors, as he is probably aware, objected out of time; there is a statutory period of two months for objections to be sent to the Ministry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has done the House a service by raising the matter this evening. I think that the points which have arisen in the course of the debate have been important and I am sure that my noble Friend will wish to consider them. But he does believe, in view of the evidence which had been presented to him, that he must regard this as the kind of decision which ought normally to be left to the local education authority. After all, the parents have exercised their right to object under Section 13 and the divisional executive and the governors of the school have been fully consulted. I do not believe that we would have been acting in accordance with the duties placed on local authorities under Section 8 if we had taken a different view of this matter. The proposal that the principle set down in Section 76 should take priority over the special duties placed upon local authorities under Section 8, would, I think, be serious. In those circumstances, I believe that the House ought to be ready to endorse the decision to which my noble Friend has come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.