HC Deb 24 March 1958 vol 585 cc184-94

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

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

It is part of the strength of this honourable House that hon. Members are enabled to debate not only the great, fundamental issues which exercise the imagination of the nation as a whole but the lesser, single matters, like the subject of this Adjournment debate, which are yet grave and important for those who are immediately concerned with them and who wish to see them satisfactorily resolved. The strength of Parliament lies also in its ready willingness to hear individual grievances, even at this late hour and, equally important, to redress them wherever possible.

I wish to lay before the House the serious grievance of my constituents, with which I have very warm sympathy and which I support, regarding Huish's Grammar School, Taunton. Last week we had a full debate on education, during which both my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary deployed with great ability the Government's shining record in education. They detailed a catalogue of achievement in which the country takes great pleasure and pride. One of the things which we have learned in particular recently is that during the next five years the Government plan to build 98 new grammar schools and to carry out major extensions to 146 other grammar schools. That is a very fine record and these are fine plans, but upon that record and those plans there is one very serious blemish, which worsens from day to day and from year to year. I refer to the absence, it would seem, of a definite policy to replace old, worn-out, inadequate, unsatisfactory schools with new, modern premises.

There is great concern in Taunton about this matter and, to put it into its full context, I believe that there is great concern throughout the country. The full extent of the need for replacement is not known. The Minister said, in a Parliamentary Answer to me a few weeks ago, that the extent of the problem is not known. It would be a pity of that spreading sense of grievance in educational circles, and in those localities such as Taunton where replacement is an urgent necessity, tended to overshadow or obscure the good things done or planned to be done in education. That that will happen is unquestionable and inevitable unless the problem is tackled promptly. The greater the delay the greater the problem will be.

I come now to the detail of the difficulties of Huish's Grammar School. I will not trace the whole of its very long and honourable history but only those aspects which bear upon the problem. There was a grammar school in Taunton in medieval times, and grammar school education has played a considerable and important part in the cultural development of Taunton and a very wide area of the surrounding countryside for centuries. Huish's Grammar School has a distinguished record, and many distinguished old boys. Among them, if I may not spare his blushes, is my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Sir F. Medlicott), who has taken a continuing interest in the school's problems—an interest which is very much appreciated by all those who are concerned with its welfare.

The school's endowment by the Huish's trustees is a fine example of local enterprise. The entire provision for build- ings and playing fields until very recently has been made by local efforts. Apart from grants for free places made by the local education authority after the passing of the 1902 Act, not a penny of public money was spent on the school, or on any grammar school in Taunton, until the Education Act, 1944, was passed. Since that time, precious little public money has been spent—almost none in fact.

Suffice to say, finally, to underline the purpose of this debate, that the line of the school buildings follows the old fossatum burgi, or town ditch, which was the scene of many bloody struggles in Taunton in the past, particularly during the period of the Civil War. I hope very much that tonight there will be no civil war, that no blood will be shed, and that all will be sweet agreement between my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and myself.

How stands today "this fine and ancient school," as the Minister was good enough to call it in a Parliamentary Answer on 20th February? It still plays a very important part in Taunton. It still has an outstanding academic record, but there is a strong danger that that fine academic record will very soon be lost, for reasons which I will detail, for conditions in the school are extremely bad. The buildings are precisely the same as they were in 1927 when the school had a pupil population of 190 boys. Today, the population of the school is 476.

There have been certain additions to the buildings, but they have all been temporary. I will give examples. A scout hut was built. That now serves as a class room. After the 1914–18 war, a former American Army hospital hut was brought into the school for use as a temporary class room. It is still in use as a classroom. I have seen that hut. It is in so bad a condition that the floor and the walls do not meet. If one leans against the wall, as I did, one feels that the hut is bound to collapse at any moment.

The school is so short of space that it has to rent a room from a Baptist chapel on the other side of the road, in Silver Street. It is so short of space that it has to rent a room on an auctioneer's premises nearby. It is so short of space that the boys have to take examinations, which have to be invigilated, in the sitting room of the porter's cottage. That is an extraordinary state of affairs in the twentieth century.

The premises are utterly unsatisfactory for present day needs and I do not doubt that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has received reports from his inspectors confirming that very fact. In parentheses, may I say that I was very interested to see that one of his officials visited the school a short time ago. We hope that that official will have given him an up-to-date picture of the appalling conditions at the school.

The school has no assembly hall, no library and no storage room. Many of the rooms are of sub-standard size. There is no proper handicraft accommodation. There are no metal work teaching facilities. The playground space is grossly inadequate and in the last few weeks has been further reduced by the erection of another temporary hut, to house the headmaster who had to leave temporary accommodation which the school had been hiring on his behalf from a local firm of auctioneers. Playing field facilities are a considerable distance from the school.

Sanitary and washing facilities in the school itself are totally inadequate. There are seven lavatories to accommodate this very large number of 476 boys, the same number of lavatories as in 1892 when they were first installed. There are no facilities whatever for sanitary accommodation or washing at the playing fields. If the boys wish to change for "gym", they have to change in the open air under a lean-to corrugated iron shelter.

All that is bad enough, but the blackest spot of all is the woefully inadequate science facilities. According to standard, a school of this size should have five laboratories each of about 960 square feet. The school has only two laboratories, both ill-equipped and both half the standard size. So crowded are these laboratories when classes occupy them that boys have to take their lessons standing, because there is not room for chairs to be brought in. There are no preparation rooms and no preparatory workshops and no proper store rooms.

Therefore—and this is a remarkable fact—each year the school is forced to refuse science instruction to boys anxious, competent and qualified to receive it, simply and solely through lack of space. In any one year, between 12 and 20 boys who would opt, normally when entering the third form, to take chemistry, are precluded from doing so. That means that in any one year in the third, fourth and fifth forms there are likely to be between 36 and 60 boys who are unable to take chemistry.

That this should be the situation in a grammar school in these days at a time when schools are being urged to do everything possible to increase their output of scientists is simply deplorable. When I visited the school, I thought that conditions there were disgraceful, and resolved to do all in my power to press the Government to see that a new school is provided as early as possible.

What can be done? It is impossible to extend the school on its present site. The only remedy is to build a brand new school. There is no doubt about the need, nor can there be any doubt about the urgency. I should like to quote the Ministry of Education on this, in a memorandum which I received. It said: This project ought to be very high up the list. There is no doubt that the premises are extremely bad". To that extent the Department is on record. Lord Hailsham, when Minister of Education, wrote to me on the subject, in reply to a letter, and he said: I entirely agree that the buildings at this school are inadequate and ought to be replaced as soon as possible". The present Minister of Education has written to me as follows: Huish's School still retains its strong claim for early consideration. I can certainly repeat Hailsham's assurance to you that when a new school building policy can be announced the new buildings for Huish's Grammar School will stand a very good chance of being included in an early building programme". On 20th February, he said: I agree that a new school is needed as soon as circumstances permit".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1958; Vol. 413. c. 1375.] This is formidable backing, but there is more. The provision of a new, three-stream entry school is the top priority of the Somerset County Council, who made the point in a deputation which came to London a little time ago. My plea in respect of this school has the full support of Taunton Rural District Council, Taunton Town Council and Taunton Trades Council.

The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that on 20th February I presented in this House a Petition, signed by 17,600 residents of Taunton and the surrounding countryside, asking for the matter to be given the earliest possible attention. When that Petition was presented, reference to it was made on the front page of The Times Educational Supplement. Under the heading, "Black Listed", it said: One of the advantages of Question Time is that such scandals can be brought to public notice". I agree with that comment. I believe the present situation in this school is indeed a scandalous state of affairs.

There is no doubt about the need or about the urgency. The only question is, "When can the new school be begun?" My constituents do not ask for any special advantages. They only ask for what is reasonable and just. They realise, as I realise, that it may be impossible for the Parliamentary Secretary to announce tonight a complete change in policy in the current economic context, but we do say, "May it be soon".

To quote again, The Times Educational Supplement: Surely some emergency procedure can be brought into play to help Huish's school. Is that not a reasonable suggestion? If a completely new policy cannot be announced, cannot a start be made on Huish's and some of the other schools in a similar category? For Huish's, the site and the plans and everything are ready—everything bar the signal to go. That we can only await from the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary.

There has been grave disappointment about this school in the past. It has often been hoped for, and the headmaster and staff, who do a most difficult job, are anxious not to be disappointed again. Unemployment is now beginning to show in the building trades in Taunton, and I believe an announcement that this project could go ahead would be of some help in alleviating that trouble and distress.

The Parliamentary Secretary may know that the motto of the school is: Spes Certa Quid Melius. What could be better than knowing a certain starting date for the relief of anxiety and giving people something to look forward to? I do not raise this matter lightly, but in a spirit of great interest and on a note of confidence because I know I have the sympathy of the Minister of Education and of the Parliamentary Secretary. They have been good enough to express it to me. Knowing that they are doing so well in the educational field in general, I hope that in the interests of my constituents, and of better education it will not be long before a completely new building for Huish's Grammar School, Taunton is authorised, and my constituents will be able to look to the future with hope.

11.46 p.m.

Sir Frank Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)

I am glad to be able to add a word to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). I have the privilege of being a former pupil of Huish's Grammar School. This was the school that educated me, and any school that can perform such a formidable task is entitled to consideration. We have read only in the last day or so of a very ancient school foundation, the Mercers', possibly having to close down. We have to bear in mind the value of schools that have stood the test of time for many years.

Huish's Grammar School is quite a senior school. Its history goes back a hundred years and its endowments are nearly 350 years old. I have come back from my constituency, where I have been present at the opening of one of the many magnificent schools which have been built in Norfolk. I cannot help feeling that if the Norfolk Education Committee had the responsibility of dealing with Huish's School it would not be a matter of fifteen or twenty years for the rebuilding. I recall with some disquiet that it is nearly forty years since I left the school, but I still have a great respect and affection for it. The motto of the school is, "What is better than a sure and certain hope?" After the energetic, persuasive and eloquent speech of my hon. Friend, and because of the merits of the case, we who are interested and associated with the school, feel that they have tonight a sure hope that something will be achieved.

11.49 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) and Norfolk, Central (Sir F. Medlicott) for the very moderate way in which they have put the case for the replacement of the Huish's Grammar School. I am, naturally, always interested to reply to a debate about Taunton. My grandfather, who bore the same name as myself, represented Taunton in this House from 1906 to 1909.

The constituents of my hon. Friend have every reason to be grateful to him for the very persistent way in which he has reminded, first, my noble Friend Lord Hailsham, and, more recently, my right hon. Friend and myself, of the need to replace the school building. I know that there is a very strong local feeling about this, and that it was not very many days ago that the House received a Petition signed by no fewer than 17,500 of my hon. Friend's constituents.

The House will be aware that the Ministry of Education must bear in mind certain rather severe criteria before approval to a major building work is given. At present, almost all of the school building programme is devoted to the provision of school places for children who would otherwise be out of school altogether.

In recent years we have been able to approve schools only where either new housing development or an increase in the numbers of school children have made it absolutely essential. In addition, since 1954, and since Circular 283, we have been able to approve a number of projects which will do away with all-age schools in rural areas. Country districts—in Somerset and Norfolk, which I visited a short time ago, have taken advantage of that Circular.

As I explained in the debate last Thursday, even this programme has had to be suspended in the present financial circumstances. As I also explained on that occasion, there are no resources available at the moment for the replacement of the bad, old schools which everyone agrees ought to go. These restrictions have not only applied to major building projects, but in recent months we have been compelled to apply very much the same criteria to projects costing less than £10,000. The limit on minor works means that we have to concentrate on new school places when we should like to provide more for the improvement of such things as bad sanitary accommodation.

The problem of school replacement is a very big one. One of the agreeable tasks that falls to me as Parliamentary Secretary is to perform the official opening of a number of fine new schools and, in the field of further education, of technical colleges. Whenever I visit an education authority, I also try to see some of the bad schools. Certainly, the bad, old schools are very bad indeed. All over the country children are being compelled to spend their school lives in buildings which cannot provide the proper facilities and which are a discouragement and a hindrance to the teachers. It is a sobering experience to see children changing their shoes and having to cross an open space to get to Nissen huts just as a shower of rain is coming down in earnest.

If we were to replace all the old and unsatisfactory schools that would itself cost about £600 million. It is this sort of problem that I have in mind when I say, as I have said in the House and elsewhere, that we are still a long way from a full implementation of the 1944 Education Act.

At this point in time, when we are using all our resources to meet the bulge in the school population, and are straining hard to produce proper facilities for technical education, we cannot make any promises about replacements. While this remains so, I am afraid that this particular school, and many like it, must continue to work in their present unsatisfactory buildings.

The history of this particular school has been a difficult one. It reminds one of the familiar phrase of so many officials in so many Government Departments: this case has an unfortunate history. As far back as July, 1940, the then Board of Education gave permission for the acquisition of a new site, and, since then, the Somerset local education authority has urged on the Minister and his predecessors the imperative necessity of replacing the building. The present building is grossly inadequate. My hon. Friend itemised a number of inadequacies, and, in particular, I know that it has not got proper accommodation for the teaching of science. But, as I said, this is a problem common to many schools. For example, I well remember seeing a grammar school in the West Riding of Yorkshire last year where conditions were very much as my hon. Friend tonight described the conditions at Huish's.

My right hon. Friend deeply regrets that this must continue to be so for some time yet, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we know well that this school should be replaced as soon as possible and that when it is possible to make money available for this purpose Huish's will be given full consideration for priority treatment. When we can start on the replacement of old, unfit and unsatisfactory schools we must then work out some fairly precise criteria for deciding which schools should come first to be replaced, and I can assure my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central that we will certainly consider very fully whether Huish's is not one of the schools which ought to have priority.

I am sorry that I cannot go further than that this evening, but I think that it is always worth reminding ourselves, even at this late hour, just how much there is still to be done before all children can be said to have a proper secondary education within the terms of the 1944 Act. If I may say this without being too controversial, when people read in their local papers about the unsatisfactory conditions of Huish's School and many other schools, they ought to consider with slightly greater selectivity of mind the leading articles which we sometimes read elsewhere in the Press about the desirability of lopping off great chunks of Government expenditure.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Twelve o'clock.