HC Deb 05 April 1957 vol 568 cc781-8

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

For a few minutes I am glad to have the privilege today of bringing to the attention of this honourable House one of the blights of our age, namely, organised bureaucracy. I am sorry that many of the hon. Members who have spoken about education will, perhaps, not have the opportunity of listening to this case, which deals specifically with education. The case of Mrs. Garbett and her daughter, Marion, offers a very good local example.

In years gone by, it has been the fundamental duty of a Member of Parliament to protect his people from the hands of the Revenue officer, but today it seems often necessary to protect them from the local official. Let me say that in one respect the local officials of the Midland Regional Hospital Board, Birmingham, will never be forgiven because of their dilatoriness. People of The Wrekin will not get the new hospital wards for some time.

What are the facts about Mrs. Garbett and her daughter? I feel sure that it is the wish of most people that the wishes of parents shall be respected and that children shall be brought up bearing in mind the parents' wishes and not the commands of local officials. As Conservatives, we deal with the individual. We do not deal with a number on the Socialist State file.

Marion Garbett was born on 5th November, 1941, and has been a pupil at the County Modern School at Shifnal, since September, 1953. She therefore reached leaving age at Christmas, 1956, and since that time sat an examination for Wulfrun College of Further Education, near Wolverhampton. I should explain that Shifnal is in Shropshire, while Wulfrun is administered by Staffordshire County Council, but there are many homes along that border. That is why this particular case is being raised today.

Having qualified for her examination course on 1st December last year, Marion Garbett applied, in the normal way and following the custom of that area, to the county education officer at the Shire Hall, Shrewsbury, for permission, like the three other children before her, to go to the educational college selected by her parents and for which she had passed her examination. It was, therefore, a shock for two families in Shifnal, without any warning whatsoever, to be told that permission was refused.

I should never have objected or brought the case before the House had the authority taken the trouble to inform the headmasters of the schools in the area that such further education in Staffordshire would not be permitted. That did not happen. Indeed, I received a letter from the headmaster of Shifnal Secondary Modern School yesterday explaining that this was so, and that neither he nor the parents were warned of the arbitrary change of policy.

We know that in his letter the county education officer said that he was sorry that the difficulty had arisen. But who created the difficulty? He created it himself.

We in The Wrekin know very well the attitude of Shrewsbury and the County Hall towards The Wrekin. There are plenty of acres of tarmacadamed roads in the north of the county, but little or nothing for the tracks round Old Park, Malins Lee, Wrockwardine Wood and Dawley, which I mentioned in the House in 1955. They are not even able to arrange for a footpath along many of the main highways at Waters Upton for the children.

In this case of Marion Garbett I telephoned to the officer concerned, who replied that permission was definitely refused. Marion Garbett would remain at Shifnal County Modern School. The education officer said that she would be considered for the Walker Technical College, at Oakengates, in September. This meant that Marion would have to stay nine months longer at the county modem school and not go to the technical college for which she had really passed her examination.

I had hoped that there would be no need for me to raise such a small matter about education knowing that the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, was now at the Ministry of Education. The noble Lord is renowned for his John Bull fighting spirit, and when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, in his Hornblower uniform, he was able to fire salvos, following the second landing of Suez, at the United Nations, General Wheeler and the United States of America. I had hoped that the noble Lord would direct his huge cannon towards the Shire Hall, at Shrewsbury, and let off a salvo in that direction, but I am sorry to say he is now, as we say, grounded.

It is a great pity that it took from 11th January, when I first put the question to the Minister, to 11th March to obtain an answer—two months to obtain an answer from one of the country's Ministries. I do not know what those in the Ministry can be doing for all that time for it to take so long to answer one letter. It was not as if it was a difficult question; it was a very simple one. As I said, I hoped that we should be able to avoid raising the matter in the House because it is generally felt that we are here to govern the country. It is our duty to govern.

This is the second case of failure that we have had in The Wrekin division. Last year, the Minister of Transport failed to make an order for the placing of level crossing gates over the A.5 road, at Ketley. Two people had been killed there by a train crossing the main trunk road. The Lilleshall Company has now got the gates ready and the council has done its part, but we have waited a year for official loan sanction to enable the gates to be put across that high road. There has been a total disregard of public safety.

Here again, I regret that in the case of Marion Garbett we are not to govern. We are to allow the orders of the Shire Hall, at Shrewsbury, to override the wishes of parents at Shifnal and the surrounding area. The Minister must realise that there have been three previous cases where children have been allowed, on leaving school, to go to Wulfrun College. I beg leave, on this occasion, to draw the attention of the Minister of Education and the Parliamentary Secretary to what we and the parents of Shifnal consider to be an undoubted injustice. We hope that my noble Friend will order that Marion Garbett be permitted to take up her studies at Wulfrun College, Wolverhampton, where a place still awaits her, immediately,

4.11 p.m.

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

I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you will be relieved to know that this is positively my last appearance at this Box this week, after two previous Adjournment debates and one Private Member's Motion earlier today.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. W. Yates) is the first person to suggest that my noble Friend the Minister of Education has been grounded since he arrived at the Ministry. Most people, I think, have the impression, and very rightly, that he has been pretty active and pretty forthright in putting his views.

I think perhaps it may be useful if I give a brief outline of the facts of this case before I say something about the merits of the Shropshire local education authority's action upon it. Marion Garbett is at present in attendance at Shifnal Secondary Modern School. She reached the age of 15 in November, 1956. Marion Garbett wanted to attend a one-year full-time commercial course 'beginning in January of this year, and, for this purpose, her parents approached the Principal of the Wulfrun College, Wolverhampton, and she was offered a place from the 1st January, 1957. It was then necessary for her home local education authority the Shropshire authority, to decide whether it would take the financial responsibility for Marion Garbett's attendance at the Wolverhampton course, and, in the event, the authority decided to withhold permission.

I know from correspondence between the Ministry and the Shropshire authority that the authority considered this case very carefully indeed before reaching its decision, and, incidentally, when my hon. Friend talks about delay in replying, I am sure that he will not object to the fact that the authority had considered the case very carefully and also that we continued some correspondence with it. I think it is one of our duties at the Ministry to keep in close touch with the authorities, and correspond with them fully before an important decision affecting an individual is announced.

They were two main reasons why the authority decided not to accede to the parents' requests. First, the authority says that it is its general policy to encourage pupils to stay on at its secondary modern schools in order to complete the full four-year course. In this case the authority felt that the further two terms of general education at Shifnal Secondary Modern School would be of value to Marion Garbett herself.

Secondly, it states that its own commercial course at Oakengates is provided especially for leavers from secondary modern schools and would offer the same facilities to Miss Garbett as the course at Wolverhampton. The authority did not think that the difference in the starting date of the two courses was a sufficient reason for accepting financial responsibility for a place at the Wolverhampton course while it had running a perfectly adequate course within its own area. Nor was there any reason in terms of the distance involved or the transport facilities available which would make it more convenient for Miss Garbett to attend the course outside the county.

The authority has made it clear in its letters to the Ministry that it fully appreciates the arguments on Miss Garbett's side. In the first place it was reluctant to reach a decision which would run counter to the principle of parental choice.

Mr. W. Yates

Did the authority give my hon. Friend the reason why it did not warn the headmaster of the school or the schools in the area that this decision, or decisions like it, were likely to be made?

Sir E. Boyle

I will come to that point later. I am trying to set out all the facts as clearly as I can.

Secondly, the authority thought very carefully before deciding to adopt a course which seemed incompatible with its own policy of free trade in further education. But when all of that is said, the ultimate responsibility for deciding how best to provide a suitable course for a particular student must rest with the authority working in close consultation with the pupil's teachers.

In common with all the best authorities, Shropshire is making every effort to build up fully integrated four-year courses in its secondary modern schools. The authority regard it as a false attitude to think of secondary modern schools as establishments which simply fit their pupils with the barest of the rudimentary skills and then launch them out into either the world of work or into narrowly vocational courses.

The headmaster of the Shifnal School is making a great effort to build up four-year courses. The school offers courses which cover five different biases and Miss Garbett is actually taking a commercial bias course at the school. While this does not contain any substantial amount of purely vocational work, it is nevertheless a valuable preparatory training for the full-time commercial course which she wishes to take.

From the school's point of view, it would be bad if there were too many withdrawals before pupils had completed the whole of the four-year course, and the authority maintains that it would be even worse for the pupils concerned. Furthermore the authority also believes that the full-time commercial course at its own Oakengates College for ex-secondary modern boys and girls has been running successfully for five years, and it correctly points out that it has been quite liberal in giving consents for students to attend out-county courses when adequate reason for it can be produced.

When the out-county centre is clearly more convenient and easier of access to the student's home, the authority has given permission for students to attend it. The authority receives on an average 54 applications from students to attend full-time courses at out-county technical colleges each year. This is the first occasion on which consent has been withheld.

There are really two main questions at issue here: first, whether the authority should maintain its right to consider individually applications from students who wish to attend a college of further education in another area rather than one in Shropshire. Secondly, whether in this case the authority has acted reasonably in using the opportunity of Miss Garbett's application for consent to attend the Wulfrun College to persuade her to stay longer at Shifnal School instead.

On the first question I can promise my hon. Friend that we shall shortly be discussing the authority's views with it as part of a general review of out-county arrangements which we are now carrying out. On the second question I am quite clear that my noble Friend could not say that the authority has acted unreasonably in a sense which could justify the use of his powers of direction. I am sure that my hon. Friend will realise that the powers of direction under the 1944 Act are like the power of excommunication in the Middle Ages, and are a weapon which would become blunted through over frequent use. My noble Friend would certainly not wish to consider for a moment using those powers in this case. This is a part of the educational field in which a great deal of discretion is rightly left in the hands of the local education authorities. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Shropshire's decision in this case, I think that anyone reading the evidence must concede that it has been reached in good faith and has been based on genuine considerations of the best interest of Marion Garbett herself.

My hon. Friend asked me the specific question about a warning. I can best answer in this way. There is no general warning to children that the passing of an acceptance test for what, in our rather ugly jargon, we call an extra-district college does not guarantee admission. It is, however, generally understood that this is not the final stage, and that any extra-district cases are subject to consultation between the college and the authority, which will, after all, have to pay an extra-district fee.

Mr. Yates

So there was no warning given.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Four o'clock.