HC Deb 04 July 1957 vol 572 cc1461-70

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

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Donald Sumner (Orpington)

I want tonight to raise the matter of grammar and technical education in the area of St. Paul's Cray, which is an estate in Kent. I want to raise it because the comparative figures seem to show that there may be something definitely wrong with the facilities available for the education of children in that area.

I should explain that this estate is shared by the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Miss Hornsby-Smith) and by my own constituency of Orpington. It is a very large and recent housing estate largely accommodating people from London and being a fair cross-section of the community. It includes professional laid business people and skilled workers. To add to the importance of the matter I am raising, I am told that there are about 2,000 children or more on the estate and that every year about 400 or more come forward for examination for further education. That the creation of such an estate with so many children must have created problems for the education authorities in that part of Kent is something which no one would deny; but the question is now whether the children are, in fact, getting proper education and proper and full opportunities to proceed to technical and grammar schools.

I understand it is generally accepted that the fair proportion or proper overall figure of children who should pro- ceed to such further education is, throughout the country and, at any rate, in Kent, about 25 per cent. The comparative figures to which I wish to draw attention are those for the area in which St. Paul's Cray is situated, namely, the Sidcup, Chislehurst and Orpington County Division and the St. Paul's Cray area which forms part of that division. I am afraid that means referring in some detail to figures, which are not things which ever appeal to me very much. It it, however, essential to refer so them in this connection.

Dealing first with grammar schools, only, in 1953–54 the division had a percentage of 15.3, and St. Paul's Cray had 5.6 per cent. In 1954–55, the division had 15.9 per cent. and St. Paul's Cray had 8.8. In 1955–56, the last year for which I have figures, the division had 15.3 per cent, and St. Paul's Cray had 8.5 per cent.

For technical schools, I have the figures for boys only, because, as I understand it, girls go on later; that rather confuses the issue. Again, taking the figures in the same way, in 1953–54 and 1954–55. St. Paul's Cray and the division held an even balance, and St. Paul's Cray was, therefore, apparently getting a fair percentage. But in 1955–56, it is very significant that the division had a 7.6 per cent. and St. Paul's Cray's figure had fallen to 2.25 per cent. It was, therefore, no longer holding its own, but was, indeed, getting a very small part of the percentage which went to the division.

Bearing in mind that for technical and grammar schools together one's target should be something like 25 or 26 per cent. for Kent, and also remembering that the technical school figures do not include girls, one finds that for St. Paul's Cray the combined figure for 1953–54 was 13.2 per cent., for 1954–55 it was 18.8 per cent., and then for 1955–56 it was 10.75 per cent. There has been a serious falling off in the last year.

I give these figures because they are available to me, and I believe them to be accurate, but it is right to say that there are in my own constituency areas which are probably worse off and which receive fewer places even than these figures indicate. I am thinking of some parts of St. Mary Cray. However, from those figures, certain serious points emerge. So far as grammar schools are concerned, we in St. Paul's Cray still enjoy only a little over half of the overall percentage. So far as technical schools are concerned, dealing only with boys, the figure has fallen right away in the last year. Taking the combined figures for grammar and technical schools, the figure is certainly far below the overall accepted percentage of 25 per cent. I would emphasise again that it has fallen in the last year.

There may be many causes for the present situation. There may be a combination of causes. At first, there was a tendency for one to be told that it was because the children were disturbed by the move from London down to this part of Kent. But that surely is something that is no longer a valid argument, if it ever was, and one must face the question that if they were disturbed, and therefore had the natural ability which was not being brought out because of the move and so on, what is happening to them now? One would expect to find a larger number of late entrants, whereas, in fact, I believe there have been virtually no late entrants from this estate in the past three years or so.

It may be said that the children have not the same natural ability of other children in the area with which we are concerned for that overall percentage. One hesitates to say that of children who come from London, where everyone is always said to be rather brighter than in some other districts—even if we do not all accept that—but one would think that children from London would at least be able to hold their own. Indeed, those who have been most concerned with this have tried to make some sort of review, necessarily difficult and sketchy, of the academic abilities of the parents of these children, and of their elder brothers and sisters. I am told there is nothing to suggest that they do not come up to the ordinary standard of the area, and that housing estate contains a good cross-section of the community.

I hope it will not be said that the reason for the matter I am raising tonight is lack of natural ability in these children, or that it will not be said without some concrete evidence to support it, which I think would be difficult to produce. Another reason could be that they are not being sufficiently well taught in the schools in which they are before they proceed to examination and the possibilities of further education. I would hesitate to suggest that, and most certainly do not in any way criticise or cast any aspersion on the people who are teaching them. In fact, there are excellent, modern schools situated near London and one would think they would attract a very able and competent teaching staff. So far as I know they do, and the children are adequately taught, but perhaps my hon. Friend will deal with that possibility.

Another thing that one can think of is that there might be unfair methods of selection. That is the last thing I would put forward, and I say it only because one tries to get rid of the possibilities, to come down to what might be the true cause of this state of affairs. Then, if one has run through those possibilities, one is left only with the question of whether there are adequate facilities for further education in the neighbourhood. Of course, when one sees the figures, there has been nothing seriously wrong, at any rate except in the past year, with the number of children going to technical schools, and one's attention must be focussed largely on the grammar schools.

It is true that in Orpington a new girls' grammar school is being built, and I understand it should be opened in September of this year. I hope my hon. Friend will be able to assure us that that is so, and that there will be no delays there. I think a new boys' grammar school is scheduled for 1960–61, and one hopes that there will be no delay and that it might be somewhat expedited. There has, in fact, been a tremendous increase in population in the district since the war. One might almost say that the figures of population have virtually changed the character of the district, yet the increased number of places provided for grammar school pupils has been very small.

The importance of the matter seems to be that we should be able to go ahead without delay in getting girls into the grammar school and providing a new grammar school for boys. I hope that my hon. Friend will not only allay the anxieties about how this situation has arisen, but also give some consideration to the question of late entries for any children who may have been passed over. I hope he will tell us that the provision of the girls' grammar school will go at least some of the way to meet this problem and that the provision of the boys' grammar school can be expedited, so that they can receive the opportunities to which it would appear they are entitled by their natural ability. I hope my hon. Friend will be able to say why this situation has arisen and what can be done about it in the next few years.

11.11 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Sumner) has put his case fairly and reasonably, and I am sure the House will have noticed that tonight we have also present my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is also the hon. Member for Chislehurst. By virtue of her office she is estopped from actually taking part in the debate, but I know that she is concerned about this matter, because she has corresponded with me. I will do my best to reply to the points which have been raised on behalf of both the Orpington and the Chislehurst areas.

The St. Paul's Cray Estate consists for the most part of a large post-war London County Council housing estate which presented a special problem to the Kent education authority. The rapid growth of the population has compelled that authority to give special attention to the area. If hon. Members consider the record of education building during the last few years, they will feel that the area has at least had its full share of the available resources. I can assure my hon. Friends that whenever there is any question of an area growing in numbers which seems to be getting less than its proportion of grammar school places, we at once try to see that the building programme is adjusted as fairly as possible.

My hon. Friend asked specifically about grammar schools. Orpington girls' grammar school was included in the 1955–56 programme, and it is also included in the current building programme. The boys' grammar school is included in the development plan, but it is true that it has not yet actually been included in a programme. The Orpington Ramsden Secondary School has been included in the 1956–57 and the 1957–58 programmes, and, in addition, there has been a considerable number of primary schools in recent building programmes. This means that children moving into the St. Paul's Cray Estate have not as a general rule had to be taught in overlarge classes. The average size of primary classes of this estate has been a little below the average size for the country as a whole.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the Kent education authority look upon 25 per cent. as the appropriate proportion of the secondary school population for whom grammar and technical school education should be provided. This is usually taken as being 15 per cent. for grammar schools and 10 per cent. for technical schools. These are the figures which my noble Friend feels reasonable for the country as a whole. I should make clear that 25 per cent. is regarded as appropriate as for the area as a whole.

Admissions to grammar and technical schools are dealt with on an area basis, and St. Paul's Cray comes within the north-west area, which, apart from the north-western division, comprises also Penge, Beckenham, Bromley, Bexley, Orpington, Chislehurst and Sidcup. St. Paul's Cray cannot be treated, if I may use the expression, as a self-contained island. The needs of St. Paul's Cray have to be treated as part of the overall needs of the north-west area, and this arrangement of looking at the area as a whole means not only that the authority's resources are used to the best advantage, but that there is, more or less, an encouragement of a uniform standard among the technical and grammar schools of the area.

I think my hon. Friend will agree that if we were to plan for particular "islands" within the area, then we should really defeat the whole object of the selection tests and that would also be unfair to the children outside St. Paul's Cray who were not selected for grammar schools. But, at the same time, the Kent Local Education Authority is not unaware of the disadvantages in which the St. Paul's Cray children have found themselves because of a disturbance in their primary education. Because of this, it takes into account a candidate's educational history when assessing examination results. Head teachers of secondary modern schools have been asked to keep the work of these children under special consideration for late transfer to a grammar or technical school. My hon. Friend has said, quite correctly, that there have not been many late transfers, but, of course, few children during the period of which he has spoken have yet reached the thirteen year group; and, as I have said, head teachers have been asked to keep special watch on their work.

I recognise the force of the figures which he gave to the House about the proportion of children selected from the four primary schools serving in the St. Paul's Cray area. I agree that they were below the figures for the area as a whole, but the proportion had risen from 5.6 per cent. to 8.8 per cent. in 1955, and last year there was a further rise to 9.5 per cent. At the same time, I agree that the figure was appreciably below that for the area as a whole, and that is even more the case if one looks at the figures for boys selected for technical schools.

I am asked if there are special reasons for this. We can rule out, straight away, any inadequacy of head teachers in the primary schools. From all that I have been able to gather, and from all the advice I have been given, the heads of both the infant and junior schools on the St. Paul's Cray estate make up a very good group indeed. Obviously, there must be some variation of ability in any area, but I can tell my hon. Friend that there is not a single head who can be looked on as a weak head teacher. Indeed, several are above the average, and I do not think, personally, that there could be any complaint about leadership or the way in which the schools are run.

So far as selections in Kent are concerned, I can say that they seem to be perfectly fair. Of course, there can always be criticisms, and as I have said on many occasions in this House, we are never content with the existing system of selection. We want to improve this system as much as is possible, and my noble Friend, the Minister of Education, is the last person to disapprove of experiment or to expect all local education authorities to behave exactly alike. But, in general, the system of selection seems fair. The opportunities for St. Paul's Cray children are the same as for any other children in the division, or, for that matter, in the whole of the northwest Kent area, where the percentage of entrants to grammar schools is rather higher.

It is difficult not to feel that the low percentage of admissions to grammar schools from the St. Paul's Cray area is simply due to lack of success in the selection tests. One really cannot say very much more than that. To what extent this may be due to the unsettled start that many of the pupils have had in their earlier life is extremely difficult to judge. It simply seems to be that there is not a very large proportion of really able children on the estate.

There is one point which I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for making. I think I ought to make it. It is that one school—I shall not mention its name—includes a certain element which is rather irregular in attendance, and inevitably that does not help.

I really do not think that anyone looking at the facts could say any more than that it simply happens that the proportion of children on the estate who are successful in the selection tests which they take on the same basis as the children in the rest of the area is not a very high one.

There has been some improvement, and 1957 may show a continuation of the improvement, in the selection for grammar schools. I very much hope that will prove to be so, but at the moment we cannot say any more than that there is not an overall shortage of grammar school places in the area. We in the Ministry have done our best to see that the needs of the St. Paul's Cray Estate have been met from the point of view of school building. I would merely repeat that children in the area have not been notably successful in the local authority selection tests.

I think that anyone who has been at the Department for even a period of six months, as I have, must be grateful for the co-operation that we always have from the Kent Local Education Authority. It is certainly an authority in which my noble Friend has every possible confidence. I think the ratepayers of Kent are extremely lucky that their affairs are so well managed by the local authority and by so able a chief education officer.

I do not think anyone can say any more that-, I have done about the matter. I sincerely hope that I am right in my forecast that the upward trend in admissions to grammar schools in the St. Paul's Cray area may prove to have continued in the next year for which we have precise statistics.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eleven O'clock.