HC Deb 27 January 1960 vol 616 cc331-40

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

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Cray-ford)

I am raising the question of the Kent school building programme in this Adjournment debate because of the unsatisfactory replies I received to Questions I put to the Minister of Education on 19th November, 1959. I said then that firm representations would be made from both sides of the House about the disgraceful way in which the Minister had wielded the axe in Kent. Tonight we are having an Adjournment debate and I believe that this will be followed by many more efforts in this House until the Minister of Education has a change of heart about the educational needs of Kent.

On 23rd November, 1959, I raised in the Adjournment debate the subject of the school dental service. I hope that tonight the Parliamentary Secretary will be less flippant than he was on that occasion and try to deal with the points that I raise.

I should like to put on record two extracts from the British Dental Journal about the debate on 23rd November. The first was: This speech"— that was mine— obviously came from one who was fully informed of his facts and who was deeply concerned about the appalling conditions which face the school dentist. The article then referred to "Ministerial irresponsibility" and said: Mr. Thompson, replying for the Minister, was sarcastic, complacent, misleading, and anxious to absolve his Department from all responsibility, and showed no sign either that he realised the gravity and extent of dental disease amongst children, or that he had any immediate large scale plans for attempting to prevent it. I have pd those extracts in case the Parliamentary Secretary says that I am unfair in accusing him of being flippant with a serious subject.

The purpose of raising this subject tonight is to voice the alarm and disgust felt in Kent about the ruthless action of the Minister of Education in cutting down the barest needs of the County Education Committee for new school building and for improving existing buildings. The Kent Education Committee asked for £3,339,000 for the two years, 1960–61 and 1961–62. So far the Minister has authorised £1,783,000, with the possibility of a further £287,000 if all the projects still under consideration by the Minister are allowed for the period. So approximately £2 million may be obtained. This follows a succession of years when very much less was granted than the needs demanded.

Possibly I would not have been speaking so emphatically if it had not been for the White Paper called "Secondary Education for All—A New Drive "published by the Government in December, 1958—very conveniently before the General Election was fought. That document promised a national expenditure of £300 million in five years commencing with 1960, to end all-age schools; to ensure that all children of secondary school age would be taught in secondary schools; to improve existing secondary school buildings, and to remedy many makeshift arrangements in premises built since 1945.

The White Paper did not promise everything necessary to bring secondary schools into full compliance with the Ministry regulations about school buildings, but its tone, like its title, proclaimed that a very vigorous policy was being introduced. Provision was also proposed for building new primary schools where the necessity for them could be shown.

Kent contains about one-thirtieth of the population of England and, as a rough yardstick, the people of Kent believe that one-thirtieth of the £300 million should be available for Kent—or about £10 million for new work between 1960 and 1965. The Kent Education Committee is not suggesting that £2 million should be available every year, but it is suggesting that during the five-year period it must receive not less than £10 million, even if it is to begin to do its job. If the Parliamentary Secretary can say that whilst only £2 million has been allocated for the first two years, £7 million or £8 million will be provided for the other three years, he will allay a good deal of suspicion. Is it not surprising that there is alarm and disgust when, for the first two years, the amount will be only just over £2 million? I first raised this question on 19th November, when the Minister of Education, in reply, said: I know there has been some disappointment about proposals which must wait, but it was not intended nor in terms of building capacity would it have been possible to start the whole of the five-year programme in the first two years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November, 1959; Vol. 613, c. 1317]. I would have thought that any child in the lowest form in a school who had given an answer like that would find himself in disfavour with his master. Is that an answer of which a Minister of Education should be proud? It is seen through very easily by the people of Kent, and it has made them angry.

It is estimated that in Kent alone £17 million is required to bring secondary schools up to a reasonable state, and the cost of doing the same for the primary schools will certainly be not less than £17 million, so the £10 million would not go very far. But even if Kent's hopes of obtaining £10 million are realised by 1965, the education committee estimates that the whole task could not be completed until 1977, and at the rate of allocation that we have so far seen it estimates that the job will not be completed until 1994. The Education Act was passed in 1944, and it will therefore take fifty years to do the job, during which time five generations of schoolchildren will have passed through the schools before they become satisfactory.

We should like to know what has gone wrong with the White Paper. Was it intended purely for election purposes; or has something happened since which would indicate that there is hope for a vigorous policy? This axe which has been wielded in Kent makes complete nonsense of what was stated in the White Paper. My constituency has come out very badly indeed with not a single ray of hope, yet its needs are urgent and great. I wish to mention a few of the schools where help is needed. There is the Picardy Secondary School for Girls, the Picardy Secondary School for Boys, the Northumberland Heath Secondary School, the Slade Green Secondary School, the Crayford Secondary School and the Erith Grammar School. There is urgent need for replacements for the Crayford Mayplace County Primary School and the Erith West Street County Primary School. I must deal with one glaring case, that of the Erith Picardy Secondary School for Girls. If the Parliamentary Secretary does not reply to that he has not taken the slightest bit of notice of my supplementary questions on 19th November.

This situation make nonsense of the Government's White Paper and shows the hypocrisy of the lip-service paid to education by the Government. I am told on reliable authority that this is the worst secondary school in Kent, which is saying something. In the Kent draft building programme, which is before the Minister, it is entered as stage one of new buildings at a cost of £135,000. To the shame of the Minister and of our educational system it does not appear in the list of approvals. It is scandalous that there should be even second thoughts about this school. It is an insult to the staff and to the pupils.

This morning I again visited the school. Had I not known it was a school I might well have believed it to be an old isolation hospital with bits and pieces spread over quite a big area. Of it might have been an old workhouse, or even an old mental hospital where the windows were so high that people could not try to escape. What worries me is that money is being spent in providing new toilets and wash-hand basins. It is a shocking place and I invite the Parliamentary Secretary to visit the school with me to see what it is like for himself. I must warn him that there will be no peace until the "right of way" has been given regarding this school. A lot will be done if there is not good news before long. The gymnasium is a shocking place. When it rains, buckets have to be provided to catch the water which comes through the roof. Anyone who calculated the amount of time lost by children going from one classroom to another would be surprised at the result. The heating system is inadequate. How can children learn if they are cold? There are draughts all over the place in the assembly hall. In summer the children are packed in like sardines. On occasions some have fainted and had to be taken out. In the winter it is a shocking place in which to put children.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say why this school is not included in the schemes which have been approved and what hope there is for the future. Will the hon. Gentleman accept my invitation to visit the school so that he may see the worst secondary school in Kent? This project has been eliminated from the programme. Indeed, no school in the Erith and Crayford constituency is mentioned.

The local newspaper wants to know what is happening to the school programme. I refer to the last issue of the Dartford, Crayford and Swanley Chronicle. The headings are, School outbreak of Dysentery and K.C.C. is criticised over sanitary conditions. The report mentions that dysentery affected 64 of 79 pupils at St. Paul's Primary School, Swanley Village, within about ten days. It says that the building is ninety-eight years old. Meals are served to the children in the passage from a trestle table which, when not in use, is propped against a wall. The children eat their meals at their desks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving) asked me to mention this. I suggest that the Ministry of Education should be in the dock, not the Kent County Council, because the Ministry does not give the county council the tools with which to do the job.

Mr. Sydney Irving (Dartford)

This is not the only school of this kind in my constituency and it is certainly not the worst.

Mr. Dodds

I was not putting it forward as the worst. I wanted to give an example of what is appearing on the front page of our local newspaper about education.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

Would the hon. Member please repeat the name of the school?

Mr. Dodds

It is the St. Paul's Primary School, Swanley Village.

We have been told that we have never had it so good. It may be that there are more television aerials, more cars on hire purchase and more refrigerators, but when we see what other countries are spending on education, is it not vital, if we are to survive in a competitive world and to pay for all the things that we need, that we should invest more in education? When the Ministry brought out this circular, did it not indicate that a much more vigorous policy was to be pursued? It seems from what we have seen that this is not so and that the Ministry is paying lip-service only to it.

In speaking for the County of Kent, I am also speaking for denominational interests, because Church school projects of major programme size are included in the allocation. In addition, the minor works allocation is also held down because of the ruthless cut by the Minister. This affects primary schools most and it strikes a severe blow at many primary schools which are now far from satisfactory but which, I am informed, could be transformed at comparatively small cost.

Unless the Parliamentary Secretary gives some contrary indication tonight, the authorities believe that the future for Kent is bleak. I can promise the Minister that he will hear much more about this matter—and, I believe, from both sides of the House, because this is not a party political matter; it is a matter of vital importance to people of all political parties and those of none.

The plain fact is that Kent is being denied the means to carry out what is expected of it. As I well know, the county authorities have been particularly reluctant to make a row about this, but it is now time to have one unless there is soon to be some better news. If the White Paper, "Secondary Education for All—A New Drive" is to apply to Kent, that is what is expected by the people in the county who are interested in and concerned about the future. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will realise that I am deadly serious about this. I hope that he will appreciate that the matter is particularly serious.

11.54 p.m.

Mr. R. P. Hornby (Tonbridge)

May I make one or two points in answer to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds)? One would not appreciate from what he said that Kent is one of the more advanced educational counties in the country. In the west Kent division, in which my constituency falls, there are only ten primary classes with more than 41 pupils in a class, compared with 169 with between 30 and 40 children in a class and 230 classes of fewer than 30 children. Nevertheless, there is worry in Kent and in other of the better placed education authorities that perhaps they are being a little penalised because they did well in the earlier years. Although they recognise that the Ministry has to look at a national picture, they would like to feel that some financial incentive might be given to them to go ahead in the way they have been doing. They feel rather that they are being held back so that others who did not do so well earlier can catch up.

During the Recess I visited some of the schools in my constituency which are not likely to get the improvements one would like to see done during the next three or four years. The chief impression with which I came away was that the pressure at the moment is on the secondary phase of education and there is danger, particularly with the Crowther Report ahead, that some of the primary school projects which are the most urgent will not get done in the foreseeable future. I hope that my hon. Friend will pay particular attention to the needs of primary education. Are we making as much use as we might of the minor works projects? I believe that there are cases when a great deal of good could he done by an extension in that field when we recognise that the amount remaining to be done, if we take the full replacement programme at its original development plan value, will take a very long time.

11.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) referred in his opening remarks to exchanges which took place between us the last time he raised a subject on the Adjournment in connection with education. I think that he was unwise and discourteous to do so and not inform me of his intention before he did it.

Mr. Dodds

On a point of order. Will the Parliamentary Secretary deny that I wrote to him and sent him these details? He is well aware of them.

Mr. Thompson

It is customary, nevertheless, to let an hon. Member know if one intends to raise a matter on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman appears to labour under the delusion that it is all right for him to be as rude, hectoring and bullying as he cares to be, but that nobody must deal with him on anything but the most gentle and kid-glove terms. I do not intend to pursue that course any more than I intend to adopt his kind of policy. He pd to the House from an article which appeared in a journal following our debate. He would have done better had he pd his letter to me. It was quite the rudest document which has reached me in my whole public career. If he feels it necessary to send letters of any kind following a debate such as this, I should be grateful—I think that he would do the public service good—if he would consider their terms more carefully before he sent them.

This is an important matter. The allocation of such resources as are available to the Ministry of Education for carrying out the programme "Secondary Education for All", which met with such scorn from the hon. Gentleman, is one of the most difficult problems. We are determined to carry out the programme to the letter vigorously, to the very best of our ability, bearing in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) reminded the House, that we have a duty which is national. We must see that this progress is maintained on a broad front over the whole country. It is true that Kent and some of the Home Counties have been extraordinarily successful in tackling their very considerable educational problems since the end of the war. No county has a better or prouder record of achievement in that period than Kent. This means that, as the influx of new population into the county has taken place, the county has had to provide what we call the "roofs over heads policy" and make provision to be able to do that. The Kent authorities have taken the challenge vigorously and have been highly successful.

Other parts of the country have a counter-balancing problem. In the North of England—I happen to come from the North of England and to know most of it very well—there are far more very bad schools providing conditions for children which we ought not and do not intend any longer to tolerate. This means that as the "roofs over heads policy" has been achieved very largely in areas such as Kent and some of the other counties where populations have grown rapidly since the war, we can now shift our emphasis, as we must, to those areas which have other school building problems, perhaps of a different kind, but no less urgent and no less pressing. This means that we must say to Kent and some other properly ambitious and energetic authorities that they must allow some of our resources to be channelled into those other areas. That is the reason which resulted in Kent being provided with rather more than £2 million of new building projects in the period 1960–62.

This is not the end of Kent's building programme. It is unrealistic to suggest that Kent ought to be able to work out, on a "£s-for-nobs" basis, how much it should be able to get as a proportion of the national whole, but this is not the end. Kent will be required to carry out Kent's share of the programme proposed in "Secondary Education for All", which means that the Picardy Secondary School for Girls, to which the hon. Member referred, will get its place, all being well, in the programme, if the authority brings it forward again.

We have dealt so far only with the first two of the five years and there are still 1962–63. 1963–64 and 1964–65.

Mr. Dodds

Does that mean that the Picardy Secondary School for Girls must wait until later in the five years?

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Member would be doing even himself less than justice if he thought that all projects could be tackled in the first two of a five-year programme. All authorities must make an order of priorities and accept some judgment of that order and phase them over the period which the programme is designed to cover. Not all can be done at one time. To suggest in the offensive way he did that this document, issued in 1958, long before the General Election, was issued for election purposes shows that although the hon. Member has obviously faithfully read the letter which was circulated by the county chairman, he does not take the interpretation which his own chairman placed upon our intentions as expressed in the building programme allowed.

We intend that Kent shall receive as fair a share and as generous a share as possible. I very much hope that the Kent Education Authority will not feel that, because this different emphasis must now be applied in our judgment as to where the building programme money shall go, in larger or smaller proportion here and there, it should in any way be discouraged from getting on with the very difficult, complicated and expensive job which it has been doing.

Kent has shown itself capable, perhaps more than most other counties, of vigorously tackling work of this kind and I should like to think that it feels that we want it to keep on with it. The Ministry is faced with having to accept a total sum of money which, rightly or wrongly is considered by the Government to be a fair share of the national resources available for devotion to school building and education building projects of one kind and another. That being so, it demands that not only is the whole limited, but the parts of it year by year must be limited and the parts allocated between county authorities must be limited.

Mr. Sidney Irving

Would the hon. Gentleman say what has been approved in total for the country?

Mr. Thompson

One hundred and fifteen million pounds for 1960–61 and 1961–62. The White Paper spoke of £300 million for secondary and primary school building in that period. That programme we intend to carry out, and we very much hope we can be assured that all authorities will tackle that part of the jab which falls to them with the same enthusiasm which Kent has shown, thereby providing an assurance that the whole of the work will be carried through.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.