HC Deb 06 November 1957 vol 577 cc303-10

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

9.58 p.m.

Mr. William Blyton (Houghton-le-Spring)

Tonight I want to raise a very vexed problem concerning the area of East Herrington in my constituency. This village lies on either side of the main road from Sunderland to Durham City and extends along the road for about one and a half miles. There is no school for about one and a half miles. There is no school of any kind in the area, and the absence of a school, especially for young children between the ages of five and ten, has been a source of considerable discontent and much inconvenience to small children and their parents who have to take them to school.

There are 616 houses in the village, nearly all of them of the middle-class bungalow type. In this area there are sites for 180 private houses to be built, and for 72 local authority houses.

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. Blyton

At the present time 190 children are going to schools at Silks-worth and New Herrington, and of those 190 children who are going to schools outside their area because none exist in the village, 47 are going to private schools. Of the child population of East Herrington going to school next year, 28 will be between 4 and 5 years of age; 28 between 3 and 4; 33 between 2 and 3; 35 between 1 and 2; and 27 under 1 year of age. In addition, 28 children will become eligible for school next year, making a total number travelling outside their area of about 220.

The Minister may tell me that at Silks-worth and New Herrington school places are available, but if we examine the position we find that the New Herrington school is due for demolition as a slum school and the Church of England school at Silksworth is a dreadful building. There is no doubt that there is a case for new schools being built to replace these very old schools on the slum list. The condition of the Church of England school is really deplorable.

Out of the 47 East Herrington children going to private schools, the contacts that I have made convince me that if a new school were built for the inhabitants the great majority of those children would be likely to go to that new school. All these children have to travel nearly two miles to get to school, and the hardships which the parents and the children have had to endure in years gone by will undoubtedly be aggravated in the years that lie ahead because of the increase in the child population which I have illustrated. The mothers are very worried because the very little children are exposed to danger from the heavy traffic which travels along the main road from Sunderland to Durham.

When I raised this issue in a letter written to the Minister on 1st October, he replied by saying that the Durham Local Education Authority did not consider a new school to be sufficiently urgently needed to merit inclusion in the proposals they sent my predecessor for the 1958–59 building programme, I think this was very unfair, to say the least. I can assure the Minister, from my dealings with the Durham County Education Authority, that they are as keen as I am to have a 5-classroom school for children between the ages of 5 and 10 in East Herrington. I can also assure him that nothing but good will exists in the Durham Education Committee in regard to this problem.

What has been the reason for our not getting this school in the 1958–59 programme? Ever since 1953 we have agitated for this school. I am concerned only with children between the ages of 5 and 10. We are prepared to put up with the inconveniences to children over that age. The Minister ought to know why the school was not put in the 1958–59 programme.

In March, 1955, this school was submitted to Durham Education Committee to be embodied in the 1956–57 programme. In February, 1956, this was considered, but it was not submitted because of the unsuitability of the site owing to mining subsidence. If there had been clearance of mining subsidence that school would have undoubtedly figured prominently in the programme, but the education committee could not submit the school if clearance was not forthcoming. In March, 1957, proposals were made to the Minister in connection with the 1958–59 programme, and again owing to mining subsidence the school could not be submitted.

The Minister should know that in my area, especially in relation to school building, we will always have the problem of mining subsidence. It was not use submitting this school if land clearance could not be obtained. I am sure that if it had been submitted to the Minister he would have crossed it out, quite rightly, as it would have been a waste of public money to build a school when the strata beneath the site was continually moving.

I made representations to Durham Education Committee in April this year to discuss the whole situation. I had to face the chronic problem of mining subsidence, and I was told that the members of the committee were as keen as anyone to get the school, but they could not do anything until the N.C.B. gave clearance. The education authority during that period asked the Minister to allow a modern school to be built as an extra item, but he informed the committee that no projects could be added to the 1958–59 programme except by substitution of some other project. Because of that reply, the school at Herrington was not put to the Minister as an extra item, but it was decided to give consideration to this school in the 1959–60 programme.

I met the National Coal Board on 18th April on the mining subsidence problem and the N.C.B. was good enough to show me the plans. As an ex-miner, I understood the problem very well. It was ultimately agreed that clearance of this site would be given in September, 1958. In the light of that, I wrote to the Minister asking him to allow it as an extra item in the 1458–59 programme in order to try to alleviate the hardships of these little children.

I have a minute of the education authority informing us that the school will be considered for the 1959–60 programme. Whilst I am dissatisfied that the Minister would not allow any school as an extra item in the 1958–59 programme, I was alarmed by his letter of 21st October in which he indicated that because of Peterlee, Newton Aycliffe, Jarrow, Hebburn and Boldon, together with new secondary school places for years ahead, the resources of Durham County Council would be fully utilised. The paragraph which alarmed me was that in which the Minister said: The Durham Local Education Authority's major building programme is needed entirely for either meeting the needs of developing areas like Peterlee, Newton Aycliffe, Jarrow, Hebburn and Boldon or for providing extra secondary school places throughout the county, and they will be obliged to concentrate on these tasks during the next few years. Am I to take it from that paragraph that this school will be vetoed by the Minister if it is put to him in the 1959–60 programme? Is there to be no hope at all for these constituents of mine in East Herrington who have no school at all? Am I to deduce from the Minister's reply that the schools which he mentioned in his letter will become a fact before East Herrington can be considered for a school for its children? If that is the Minister's outlook, it is a very gloomy outlook indeed for this developing area of East Herrington.

Even if we cannot have the school as an extra item this year—and I hope that we can have it—will the Minister give me some assurance about the interpretation of that paragraph? Does it mean that these people are to be condemned for years, until other projects have become a fact, before they can have a school? If that is the position, it will mean that in the years ahead 300 schoolchildren will be travelling two miles to school.

I do not want to take up too much time, but in conclusion I want the Minister to give me some assurance about and definition of the letter of 21st October. My constituents have suffered for a long time, and I think they are entitled to have a school for their school-children between five and ten years of age to save the great inconvenience which they face at present. I ask him to give us some hope that a school will be built in this area. I assure him that we have the good will of the county council and its support for this school. In a letter to me in April this year the county council wrote: Thank you for your letter of 21st April and for the trouble you have taken to meet Mr. Kellett in connection with the school site at East Herrington. The necessary machinery will now be put into operation in an endeavour to provide the new school. I ask the Minister to give us the same good will for this village to have its school, and I ask him to support the project for a school in this area.

10.12 p.m.

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

This is the first time that I have stood at this Box since the Summer Recess ended and I hope, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you will allow me to say how pleased I am for one, as I am sure is every other hon. Member, that you are back with us in such good health.

The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) has put his case very clearly and very comprehensively and I will certainly give him an answer which, although I am afraid he will not altogether welcome it, he will regard as clear and unequivocal. First, he asked whether the last paragraph of the Minister's letter of 21st October, meant that parents in the East Herrington district would have to wait a long time for their school because we have to meet the needs of developing areas such as those which he mentioned. I must tell him frankly that that is so.

I hope that the hon. Member has borne in mind the previous paragraph of the Minister's letter, which. I think, put the position very clearly. Perhaps I may read that paragraph: All over the country our school building resources must be concentrated at the moment on the most essential tasks of providing new school places in developing areas and extra secondary school places in all areas to meet the increase in the secondary school roll. These essential tasks absorb all our major school building resources, except for a small part which we are using for building secondary schools for rural areas which did not have any already. That is likely to remain the position for a considerable time. The project for which the hon. Member has so fairly and so reasonably put his request is one of a kind that we shall be likely to have to turn down for a good many years to come. If we agree to put on building programmes primary schools for all new communities of this size which are at present served by existing primary schools a mile or two away, we should need building programmes of substantially larger size than those we have at present.

I am sure the House will realise that I say that with no pleasure at all, but I thought that it is important to be as explicit and unequivocal about this as I could be. Of course, there cannot be any parents who would not like to see primary schools as conveniently available to their children as possible, but one has to look at this question in the light of school building priorities all over the country.

The Durham local education authority has, I know, done a great deal of excellent building since the war, and it is an index of the problems that are facing it that its major building programme, like those of all other local education authorities, must be devoted entirely either to the provision of new school places in developing areas, or to the provision of extra secondary places to make room for the increased number of secondary school pupils we must expect to fill the schools in the next few years.

Just to cover the hon. Gentleman's point about subsidence—which he put very clearly, and I take his point—I can only repeat, as the Minister's letter of 21st October said, that it must be very disappointing for people that, now this difficulty has been resolved, the school is still unable to get a place on a programme for other reasons.

However, that I must say frankly to the House that it is quite clear to me that the East Herrington school in no way comes within the categories that I described a moment or two ago. After all, pupils from East Herrington can he found places in school, admittedly at some inconvenience to their parents and themselves, whereas there are still many places ail over the country where some children will not be able to attend school at all unless new buildings are provided for them. Surely, these areas must have the first call on our building resources.

The children from East Herrington now either attend private schools in Sunderland—I am aware of the sort of social complexion of this area, which the hon. Gentleman described—or they attend the new Silksworth County Primary School, which is just under two miles away. This school is fairly full, but two additional classrooms for the junior department will quite soon, I am told, be ready for occupation.

Having looked at all the papers on this subject, and bearing in mind the present system of priorities, my own feeling is that the local education authority was fully justified, on all grounds, in not putting this project forward, because this is Just the sort of project, as I have already said, which we shall be unlikely to be able to approve for some years to come. I think that it is essential to put this point to the hon. Gentleman as fairly and clearly as I can.

Perhaps I could just end on a personal note. During the ten months that I have been at the Ministry I have, so far, paid 34 visits to local education authorities. That leaves me with 112 local education authorities still to visit, but I am trying to get through as wide a range of areas as I possibly can. Much of what I have seen is evidence of absolutely first-class work in administration—and, incidentally, in school building, too. We have, in fact, built nearly 3,500 schools since the war in England and Wales alone. I think that that has been one of our greatest national achievements in that time.

I have also seen some wretchedly depressing and unsuitable school building, which, in my view, should be replaced as soon as we can manage to do so. At the same time, I know, from the correspondence I receive from hon. Members on both sides of the House, that some areas have not even the schools they need, let alone schools in unsuitable premises. In the next four years, somehow or other, we must concentrate, first and foremost, on providing places for the greatly increased numbers of children who will be entering secondary schools for the first time.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that my right hon. Friend regards a new school for East Herrington as, in principle, highly desirable. In the next few years, however, we shall have consciously to delay a number of desirable projects all over the country in an attempt to ensure that nothing absolutely essential is overlooked. Within current policy, my right hon. Friend cannot see a sufficient case for including this school in a current building programme.

I ask the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring, however disappointed he may be with this decision, to accept it as being consistent with a policy designed to ensure that no child fails to gain admission to school over the next few years. We must, first, achieve the task of beating the bulge. We shall then have the problem of replacing highly unsuitable schools. Therefore, as I say, however disappointed the hon. Gentleman may be, we must face the fact that, if we were to agree to put on to building programmes primary schools for communities of this size, which are, at any rate, served at present by a school in which there is room, even though it be two miles away, we should then be forced to have a very much bigger programme than we have had at any time during the past few years.

Question put and agreed to.

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