§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sharples.]
§ 2.25 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I desire to raise as a matter of importance the discontinuance of a denominational school without prior inquiry. The school in question is Avigdor Secondary School, a Jewish school situated in the Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington, which is part of the constituency that I have the honour to represent.
The matter is one of very great importance to all denominational schools, be they Church of England, Roman Catholic or Jewish. The action of the Minister in this case, so far as I know, has created an unsatisfactory precedent in the closing of such a school without an inquiry. The short facts are these. The school was established in 1929 and commenced its real existence about 1933. It continued from 1933 to 1950, a period of seventeen years, as a Jewish secondary school supported by funds raised by the Jewish community. It then received in 1950 recognition.
It is important to note that over these years about £300,000 has been spent upon it by the Jewish community. Indeed, even during the period when it was aided, the community has provided about £3,000 a year. The Minister said in a Written Answer on 24th May, this year that in 1956:A report of Her Majesty's Inspectors raised serious doubts about the propriety of continuing to maintain it.I do not want to go into the unfortunate events which preceded this report. The Minister added that the London County Council…gave the governors till 1958 to put it right. A further inspection in 1958 showed that they had failed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th May, 1960; Vol 624, c. 40.]Rightly or wrongly, the governors contend that they were in fact given no such opportunity. They say that they were during this period prevented from exercising their normal powers as governors. They contend that, during that period, from 1956 until 1958, the 930 London County Council was in effective control, that it starved the school of supplies of equipment and building improvements, that it failed to carry out its statutory duties to care for the grounds and decoration of the school premises, that it prevented the school from continuing to recruit or retain suitable pupils and teachers. If they are right in their conclusions, the failure was clearly on the part of the London County Council. The governors say that to impugn such a failure to them is a travesty of justice. They may be right, or they may be wrong; I know not. But clearly their contention is very serious, and on the face of it an inquiry ought to have been held.
I am also very concerned about the way in which the Minister has acted in this matter. I understand that when the governors lodged their original objections they explained that they had dealt with the matter in outline and they asked for an opportunity to supplement their reasons. I am told that they were given no such opportunity and that they have persistently been refused an opportunity of discussing the matter with the Minister.
On 15th April, I wrote to the Minister asking him to receive a deputation of Members of Parliament who were interested in this matter. The Minister replied to me on 25th April saying that he was arranging to see the Chief Rabbi and that in those circumstances it would not be appropriate to receive a delegation of hon. Members. He saw the Chief Rabbi, but after this interview he did not do me the courtesy of inviting me or other hon. Members to see him and to discuss the matter with him before he came to a decision.
He reached this decision despite protests from many quarters. Apart from hon. Members who desired to see him, the governors, the Chief Rabbi—whom he saw—the Bishop of Peterborough, the Roman Catholic newspaper The Universe, the Jewish Secretary of the Council of Christians and Jews—the Rev. W. W. Simpson, the Board of Deputies for British Jews, the President of the Anglo-Jewish Association, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Post, the Jewish Review, the Hackney Gazette and the North London Press have all commented upon the need for an inquiry.
§ Mr. John Arbuthnot (Dover)
I should be grateful if the hon. Member would give us the authority for his statement that the Bishop of Peterborough wishes an inquiry to be held. My information from the Bishop of Peterborough is that he is anxious not to commit himself or the Church Schools Council in any way on the merits of this case.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I have a mass of material which has been supplied to me, and perhaps a little later in the debate I can give the authority for it. At any rate, I have mentioned the considerable amount of representative opinion expressed to the effect that an inquiry ought to take place in this case. The Mayor of Stoke Newington, the borough in which the school is situated, wrote to the Minister in strong terms. The Council of the Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington passed a resolution that, owing to the existence of considerable local feeling, it considered it reasonable that an opportunity should be given for the expression of the views of interested persons, and it supported the request for a public local inquiry. These requests met with no response.
The school was originally a mixed secondary school—that is, a school which provided for the education of Jewish boys and girls. It is this school which is said to have failed. Since September, 1959, it has been, to the knowledge of the Minister and the London County Council and without objection by them, a secondary school for girls. This is the school which has been closed without an inquiry—that is, the secondary school for girls. I am informed that there has been no inspection of this school.
I quote from a letter sent by the Chief Rabbi to the Minister on 28th September, 1959:I am most anxious that this particular Jewish school, with its site and premises built up over many years of Jewish communal effort and financial expenditure, should not be lost to the community. The suggestion of converting this school into one for girls only was submitted to me and meets with my full support. It would fulfil a definite need in our community.This is the school—the secondary school for Jewish girls—which, as a result of the Minister's decision, ceases to exist without any inquiry, although an inquiry on the Minister's part has been requested. If my facts are right, it is 932 to be closed down without inspection. Surely there is at least a case for maintaining this school. The net result otherwise will be that over £300,000 raised by the Jewish community and the great efforts made over many years will be lost and the premises will remain to bring in only their site value.
It may be that an inquiry will show that the Minister is right. I do not know. I stress the point, however, that in the face of what I have said it is a gross injustice to take this action without holding such an inquiry. The Minister has power under Section 93 of the 1944 Act to do so, and I ask for that inquiry now.
I would add only this: if, in spite of what I have said, the Minister is adamant, I only hope that he will endeavour to assist in minimising the loss resulting from his decision. Adjoining the premises of the secondary school there is a primary school which is independent. The site should be utilised to extend this primary school and to give it aided status. If this is not done, the Minister's decision means the heavy loss to the Jewish community which I have mentioned.
Secondly, there is only one other Jewish secondary school for girls—the Hasmonean Grammar School for Girls. I have mentioned that the Chief Rabbi drew attention to the existing need for a Jewish secondary school for girls. The Minister, in justice, should help to solve the problem created by the discontinuance of the Avigdor School by providing maintained places at this school. Another way which I put to him of easing the situation to some extent, although it cannot possibly deal with the whole problem, would be to provide a further stream for the Jews' Free School and the Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys. I do not wish to deal with these matters here in detail. They are in any case measures which demand sympathetic consideration on the Minister's part. They are made more necessary as compensating measures, if I may put it that way, if the Minister adheres to his decision.
On the facts which I have placed before the House, so that justice shall not only be done but shall appear to be done, I ask that an inquiry should be held.
§ 2.38 p.m.
§ Mr. John Arbuthnot (Dover)
I do not want to take sides in any way on the merits of this case; I have not sufficient information to be able to do so. But I have been asked to say a word in this debate on behalf of the Church of England Schools Council, to make its attitude in the matter quite clear.
The Council does not want to commit itself on the merits of this case, either. I was therefore sorry to hear the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) imply that support for an inquiry had been given by the Bishop of Peterborough who, as Chairman of the Church of England Schools Council, must remain completely uncommitted.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I have found the authority for the statement which I made. The Bishop of Peterborough apparently wrote a letter, in which appear these words:Thank you very much for your letter of 18th May. I had not noticed that Lord Burden had introduced a Bill into the House of Lords to make it compulsory, before the Minister takes away the Avigdor Secondary School, to hold a public inquiry if the Governors so wish, and I am very interested in it.That is the extent of the letter. If I have over-emphasised it, I apologise. I merely desired to point out the interest of various people in this matter.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I am grateful for that explanation. It confirms the statement which I have been asked to make, that the Church of England Schools Council wishes to remain completely uncommitted on the merits of this particular case. I am grateful that the hon. and learned Member has withdrawn the implication that the Bishop of Peterborough is taking sides.
The one point on which I should like to express an opinion and a hope is that there should be some clarification by the Minister of the situation, When a problem arises in future of the closing of a voluntary school. The procedure adopted at present seems to be indefinite and anything but clear. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend could clarify the procedure to be adopted for the future.
As things are at present, a proposal is notified by public notice under Section 13 of the Act. That gives an 934 opportunity for anybody who wishes to to enter formal objections. When those objections are received by the Minister, he may, at his discretion, order a public inquiry. I do not suggest that he should always order a public inquiry, since a public inquiry may not be suitable in the particular case. It may only serve to encourage local differences if an inquiry is compulsory and must always take place.
In practice, it has been found that the Minister is sometimes willing to meet the various parties together. In other cases he says that the matter is sub judice and he will not receive any deputations. He sometimes agrees to meet various deputations separately.
As a result, the managers of voluntary schools concerned find themselves in a difficult position, since they do not know what will happen after the matter has been referred to the Minister. Not knowing what will happen, they naturally try to seek all the support they possibly can to ensure that the decision goes in their favour. They may start to lobby Members of Parliament or anybody else they can get hold of whom they think may have influence with the Minister. The result is that, if the public inquiry eventually takes place, the representations and lobbyings which have been going on because of the uncertainty about what the Minister will do may have clouded the issue.
The appeal I make to my hon. Friend is that he should lay down an established procedure which will be followed for the future when a proposal is made for the closing of a voluntary school. In that way I believe that he will give a direction to the efforts of managers and other people interested in the voluntary school. If there is an established procedure and they know exactly where they stand, they will be able to take the appropriate action. This should lead to a settlement in the light of the merits of the particular case, with less confusion and uncertainty than prevails today.
§ 2.42 p.m.
§ Sir Henry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid (Walsall, South)
For different reasons I am perhaps in the position of the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Peterborough, in that I am keenly interested in the matter but not a protagonist on 935 either side. I want to bring to the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary the position of Jewish schools in London, which is an unfortunate one.
Prior to the war there was one main Jews' Free School, which had been established in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Whitechapel area and maintained by the Jewish population of Britain. It performed a most valuable and useful service at that time when there was considerable immigration in the 1880s and 1890s, mainly from Russia and Poland, of Jewish people who did not speak English. The education of their children was a first requirement to them. The Jews' Free School catered for very large classes and large numbers of children and performed a most valuable service.
During the war the school was bombed and destroyed. It was clear that there was no point in rebuilding it on the same site after the war, because the Jewish population, by then, had moved from what one can roughly call the East End to North London.
I was very much concerned in the negotiations which took place between the governors of the school, of whom I was one, the Ministry of Education and the L.C.C., as to the resiting of the school. The point I want to bring to my hon. Friend's attention is that when, eventually, all the formalities were concluded the new school, which is now built in the Camden Hill area, was given not transferred but substituted status.
This form of words meant a considerable financial loss to the school. Had it been granted transferred status, the L.C.C. would have acquired for it the land on which it was to be built. As it was being granted substituted status, the governors of the school had to provide from their own funds the cost of the land. This made a difference to the school of about £60,000 to £70,000. It is many years ago now and I have not got the exact figures. That was a considerable bite out of the endowments of the Jewish school movement in London and the United Kingdom.
I ask my hon. Friend to look kindly at the proposal which has been put before him by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and 936 Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman). One of the main reasons for my request is the fact that the Jewish schools movement has not benefited much from the assistance of the Ministry of Education. In the case, I have quoted it suffered very severely, being granted only substituted instead of transferred status for the new Jews' Free School in Camden Hill. For that reason I hope that my hon. Friend will look kindly at the application now in front of him.
§ 2.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I wish to commend the views expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman). I was Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education when the Act in question was passed. With the present Home Secretary, who was then the President of the Board of Education, I attended a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, at which arrangements were made for what we hoped would be the future friendly relationship between the Jewish community and the educational authorities, national and local.
So cordial was the statement made by the present Home Secretary on that occasion that in another place an attempt was made to insert an Amendment into the Bill to confine the activities of the Ministry of Education, which was to be constituted, purely to the Christian religions. Needless to say, that received very little sympathy at the time. It was never pressed, but it shows that this is a matter which has engaged the attention of the national and local authorities over a very long period.
Subsequently, after I became Home Secretary, I was invited by the Jewish secondary schools movement to be the principal speaker after a dinner which was arranged to raise funds for the establishment of Jewish secondary schools of high status. I was very gratified to find how good was the response to my appeal. I am quite certain that it was the cause and not the speech that produced that result.
I do not want to enter into any dispute there may be about the merits of this case. To my knowledge, this school has had somewhat troubled history, and I shall not attempt to apportion responsibility for that to either the local 937 education authority, the governors or the staff of the school. All I say is that I know of it. I regret that those troubles occurred, and I am sorry to think that they may have been a contributory cause to the closing of the school, because I am convinced that there is a need for denominational schools of this kind in the neighbourhood that has been served by this school.
I am also very certain that, not merely among the Jewish community—of whose zeal for secondary education I cannot speak too highly—there is a need for girls' secondary schools of high quality, and any voluntary effort made to supply them should receive the support of the local education authorities and of the Ministry whenever their establishment can be justified.
I regret that a public inquiry under Section 93 has not been held. On that, I do not wish to adopt the standoffish attitude adopted by the Lord Bishop who has been quoted. I believe that the voluntary schools system is an essential part of our educational service—
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I should hate to think that the attitude of the Bishop of Peterborough was regarded as stand-offish. An attempt was made to involve him in this matter, and it is important that he should not be involved in it.
§ Mr. Ede
An attempt has been made to involve me in it, and to my conscience it is important that I should be involved in it because, although I belong to a denomination that in recent years has not played a very important part in the establishment of schools, it still retains some schools that were established before the Act of 1870 and have been doing good work ever since. I value the work of the voluntary schools in this particular, because it enables school and home to work together.
I speak as one whose parents were strongly Nonconformist, but the only school that I could attend was a Church of England school. I regret the occasions that may occur when people holding strong religious views have to send their children to a school in which the primary faith expressed is not that of the home. From every point of view, it is desirable that school and home should be in unison in the upbringing of the children.
938 It does not need me to speak of the important part that the school mentioned by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) played when I was a pupil-teacher, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Key), in educating the children of the immigrant population in London in an atmosphere that would give the parent absolute assurance about the education of his child, particularly when religious oppression had been one of the reasons for his desire to leave his country.
I should have thought that if a school for which so much sacrifice had been made by the denomination, as is the case here, had to be closed, it merited a public inquiry at which the whole matter could be expressly set out, particularly when that was desired by the governors, and where, as I understand, some of the unhappy incidents to which I refer—and possibly other matters—made the Ministry feel that the desire of the local education authority to close the school might be justified.
I should have thought it desirable that, after the closure of the school, there should not be left any feeling that it had been done for reasons that could not publicly be justified. I can well understand that, while he does not want to intervene in this case, the Bishop of Peterborough wants to feel that if a similar case occurred with regard to a Church of England school he would have an opportunity to ventilate the matter publicly.
Section 93 was inserted in the Act in order that the Minister, in dealing with disputes of this kind—which, from time to time, arise between local education authorities, governors and managers of schools and the Ministry—should have power to order a public inquiry. The Minister has the final word, and I understand that his decision cannot be disputed. In fact, the present Home Secretary and I took jolly good care, as far as possible, to ensure that that should be the case, and we were attacked in another place for trying to obtain powers that Parliament had sometimes, very reluctantly, granted to King Henry VIII.
I want to see the relationship between voluntary schools, their governors and managers, the parents of the children, 939 the local education authority and the Minister remain on a friendly basis. I do not expect that no disputes will arise. I know they will. I have no desire to find out who is mainly to blame. What I am desirous of securing is that where parents desire that their children shall receive education in accordance with their religious faith they shall be able to get it if undue expense to public funds has not to be incurred, and that where the local education authority or the Minister or the local education authority and the Minister think that, for sufficient reasons, the school should be closed, those reasons should be given where the parents or the governors or managers of the school desire it to be done before a public inquiry.
I hope that some of the pleas made by my hon. and learned Friend with regard to what is now to happen may be sympathetically heard by the Minister and that, in association with the local education authority, those pleas may be granted. I know the zeal of the Jewish community for appropriate secular education for their children. When I make that plea I speak from knowledge of a county school in my hon. and learned Friend's constituency where a high proportion of the children are Jewish, for I am sure that the zeal of the parents of Jewish faith there for the secular education of their children has set a standard among the parents of the neighbourhood that people, irrespective of their religious denomination, ought to be glad to see promoted in such an area.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)
The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) has made an eloquent plea for an inquiry. I am not sure whether it is possible now to have an inquiry—I suspect not—but I should like my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with the reason very fully, because where an inquiry has been refused in such a case as this all too often wholly false inferences are drawn. I should like this matter to be disposed of altogether, no matter what the merits of the squabble underlying it may have been.
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has said a good deal 940 about the need for denominational schools in general and Jewish denominational schools in particular. I echo every word that he uttered in that respect. The other schools which have been referred to—the Hasmonean Grammar Schools, and in particular, the Hasmonean Grammar School for Girls —are mainly in my constituency. I think that the action in closing the Avigdor School will certainly throw some additional burden, if not on the school in my constituency, at least upon parents who would like to send their daughters to that school.
Therefore, I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to indicate that if this action is to be taken something will at all events be done to help that section—I do not say "deserving section" because that would appear to be patronising, and I do not intend anything of the kind—of the community which, whatever the merits of the quarrel may be, certainly deserve every possible facility and which can probably now get it only through this channel.
§ 3.3 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)
One or two of the things which have been said in the later stages of the debate excite from me at once complete concurrence. I share the view of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) that the structure of voluntary schools within our education system is one of the most important and most effective buttresses of our way of life as well as being a lacing and strengthening of the education system itself.
I have the highest possible regard—so has my right hon. Friend—for the contributions which the Jews and the Jewish movement in London and throughout the country have made to education generally, and it is in that spirit of, I hope, sympathetic understanding that the problem of the Avigdor School was approached from the very beginning. I will not repeat the history of the school since I endorse in its details the account given by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman). I go back instead only to 1955, five years after the school was first given aided status. From that point, it seems 941 to me, we must consider the two separate branches of the argument: first, whether it was and remains right to have withdrawn recognition from this particular school in the circumstances following 1955, and, secondly, whether that shodd be done with or without the process of public inquiry. I shall endeavour to divide what I have to say between those two separate sections.
It may be convenient for the House—it will certainly answer the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Arbuthnot)—if first I give an account of what happens when a process of this kind is set in motion. It is not an idle or flippant "catch-as-catch-can" process resulting in a clerk in a remote and not very important office in the Ministry's headquarters deciding that a school should close. Very far from it. The process is laid down in the Act itself and it is repeated in various Departmental documents which have from time to time been circulated through local education authorities to the voluntary bodies and which are very widely known throughout the education world.
A decision may be tentatively considered by a local education authority maintaining a school that the time has come to make a change, for one of a variety of reasons, perhaps size, perhaps efficiency, perhaps the condition of the premises, or perhaps a combination of all these different considerations. The local authority then enters into discussions with the authorities responsible for the conduct of the school. If it is not possible to reach agreement or to go further than to reach agreement that nothing can be done, the statutory procedure to be followed is quite clearly laid down. The authority, having had these preliminary discussions, must publish notices in the area in which the school operates and inform the other schools which may be immediately affected by a change in the status of the school in question or the closing of it.
The notices must be allowed two months in which to have their effect, during which time certain people specified in the Act and referred to in the notices have an opportunity to submit their views, including their protests and objections and the reasons therefor, to the Minister. The Minister is given a 942 chance to consider them at that stage, if he wishes to.
Thereafter, such documents of that kind as are received are sent to the local education authority which has put forward the proposal, and it is then invited to submit to the Minister its comments on the objections produced by the publication of the notices two months before. In due course, the authority's comments upon the objections made to the proposal come to the Ministry. Here, then, are the two sets of papers and, one presumes, two sets of arguments. Presumably, they are two complete sets of arguments. I shall come to the specific conditions in respect of the Avigdor School in a moment.
These two sets of arguments are then considered, usually at great length, always in great detail, by officials of various grades within the Ministry, including those who are concerned with administration and the organisation of Her Majesty's inspectors, who are concerned with the various educational factors involved. Their comments are added to what becomes by then a growing volume of documents. It is this volume of documents at this stage, presenting, I must say, a completeness which always astonishes me and excites my admiration, while, at the same time, appalling me at the amount of work I am given in reading them, which finds its way to the Minister's desk.
No decision has been taken up to that point whether the school shall close or not or whether there should be a change of any kind in its status. All that has happened is that the arguments on both sides of the case have been carefully marshalled and succinctly set out in full. The Minister, or, for administrative convenience, the Parliamentary Secretary, as a rule, is required to consider them, removed from pressures, special interests and lobbying and the effects of opinions which might be prejudicial outside the immediate case. It is in those circumstances that the Minister reaches a decision to close or not to close.
It is always possible to disagree with a decision which a Minister takes in any set of circumstances. One has only to have a short experience of life at the Dispatch Box to know how easily possible it is to be wrong in almost any 943 case. But that is the process which is followed. I cannot imagine a more complete process of revelation of intention, examination of motives and display of all the details and minutæ can be produced by what quite often is a complicated case but in many other instances is a quite simple case.
It is that process which began to happen in 1955 in the case of the Avigdor School. From 1950 to 1955 the school had proceeded under aided status, recognised by the London County Council education authority and supported by public funds. I do not propose to recount in detail the vicissitudes and torment of the school leading up to the first suggestion that the school might be less efficient than it ought to be. Suffice it to say that by 1955 Her Majesty's inspectors, not, in the first case, those of the London County Council, but of the Ministry of Education, decided that some examination ought to be made of the conditions in the school, and, after due notice, a full inspection was carried out by Her Majesty's inspectors in 1956.
There was nothing secret or unusual about it. The sort of process which is going on every day throughout the country for a variety of reasons, including suspicion of inefficiency, was carried out. Her Majesty's inspectors' report revealed deficiencies of one kind or another in the Avigdor School, and I propose to detail them later. So much so that when the report was published in 1956 a copy was sent to the governors and the local education authority, the London County Council So disturbing was the condition which the report revealed that Her Majesty's inspectors thought that it might be time for this school to be discontinued as an aided school. That was in 1956.
Following a discussion between the Ministry and the London County Council, which was held with the knowledge of the Governors, it was suggested that the Governors, having been informed of the shortcomings of the school as revealed by the 1956 report, should have time to put their house in order. The Ministry agreed. I hope that the House will agree, and that the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North and those on whose behalf he speaks will 944 agree, that whatever else that process revealed, it revealed no hostility towards or lack of sympathetic consideration for the difficulties which the school was facing.
By agreement between the Ministry and the London County Council, it was agreed that the school should have a further period beyond 1956 in which to put itself into reasonably good and efficient order. The governors were notified that after the lapse of this time a further inspection would be made, this time by the London County Council inspectors, with a view to finding out whether the situation had changed sufficiently for aid to be continued.
In 1958, a further examination was made by the London County Council inspectors. I am sorry to say—and it would give no one any pleasure to say this—that that inspection revealed that the troubles which were present in 1956 and prior to 1956 were still there.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Is it not tremendously important to ascertain what happened between those two years and whether the governors have been given the opportunity of putting the matter right? I may be quite wrong about this, and I am merely repeating what I have been told, but their case is that they were never given an opportunity to do that. The school itself was under the direct control of the L.C.C. What I complain about is the decision to close it without an inquiry, based upon that two-year period.
§ Mr. Thompson
I am trying to be fair and comprehensive in what I regard as a very important matter, and I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will bear with me. I hope to deal with the point which he has mentioned as I go along.
I had reached the point of saying how disappointed everyone was to find that in 1958 the faults which had been uncovered in 1956 were still there. The London County Council and the Ministry were then faced with a difficult decision. After much consideration, on both sides, by everyone, it was decided —I assure the House, without anything in mind other than the best educational interests—that the school would have to close and that the process of publication of notice and consideration should be 945 begun. It did not begin, of course, for some time, until 1959.
When it became known what was in the mind of the London County Council, when the Council revealed its intentions, the process of objection began, quite properly. It is wrong to say that the governors had no opportunity of stating their case, no opportunity of amplifying their case and no opportunity of saying in full what they thought about what had been happening. I have on the Table of the House a file five inches thick of documents which have been built up in the course of this process. No one can say that the governors have not had a chance of putting before the Minister everything they considered to be relevant in the case of the Avigdor School.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I am sorry again to interrupt, but I now speak from documents which I have seen and from information given to me by the head of the school. I am told—and from the documents which I have seen, it would appear to be correct—that what the governors did was to outline their objections and to ask for an opportunity to supplement them. Thereafter, they pressed on the Ministry, both in writing, by telephone and by personal interviews, that they should be given the right of supplementing the information as they had merely given their objections in outline. I am told that the Ministry persistently refused to give them that opportunity.
§ Mr. Thompson
It then becomes a question of having to decide what we mean by the words we use. It is true that the governors claim that at one stage they had only been given an opportunity of putting their case in outline. A little later, that expression of opinion was followed by a 15-foolscap-page letter from the solicitor to the governors, followed at a later stage by the interview which my right hon. Friend gave to the Chief Rabbi in the hope of being able to be sure that all the facts and arguments in the Avigdor case had at least been put before him.
I claim the virtue, which, I suppose, is not a virtue in a junior Minister, of having read everything in the file and I cannot help but claim that if ever a case was fully deployed by the objectors, it is the case against the closure 946 of the Avigdor School as put by those who thought that it would be a wrong decision.
I have not yet come to the question of whether there should be a public inquiry, either in this case or generally; I am dealing with the processes that have produced the situation in the Avigdor School. From the publication of the notices came the process which led to the production of the file to which I have referred. In due course, since this is one of the difficult cases—and we recognise that—I considered that my right hon. Friend himself should be personally acquainted with the details and the file and the papers were put to the Minister of Education himself.
Leaving aside the arguments about whether the decision is a good one, it seems to me, therefore, that, at least the objectors have had a fair run in the case of the Avigdor School. Since their objections may have failed in the long run, I do not expect them to be satisfied that justice has been done. At least, taking an objective view, the observer must be convinced that everything has been done to ensure that the case against, as well as the case for, was given the most careful and sympathetic consideration.
I want to refer to the facts in the case. This is a Jewish grammar school for 300 boys and girls—I am speaking about up to the end of 1959—which presupposes a two-form entry grammar school of 30 in each stream. The school has never at any time attained an entry of that size, with the exception of 1954, when it got 64 admissions. Every other year since it was given aided status the number of admissions has varied between 19 and a figure hovering mostly around the 30s and 40s. At no time has the school had its full complement of children. Of the population in the school—I have the figures before me—very few that were admitted year by year were of grammar school standard.
I must give the House the information that I have had passed to me by those qualified to judge these matters, since it would be idle for me to pretend that this is my own judgment of individual children. If the school intended, as I understand it, to maintain the educational standard and the curriculum basis on which it was proceeding prior to the 947 second inspection of 1958, then it seems highly improbable—to put it no higher —that with this quality of entry it would ever make the grade as a grammar school. There were other deficiencies revealed by various reports. In justice to those who had to recommend this decision or consider the facts, I should let the House know what they were.
First, the school failed to recruit and retain a sufficient population of the standard of intelligence necessary. This answers the point raised by the right hon. Member for South Shields and referred to, in a way, by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid). When we talk about the system of combined State and voluntary schools, this involves providing for children the kind of education which their parents would want them to have, and we have to bear in mind what the parents do when they have the chance of taking advantage of this kind of education. Here it was available for the children, but the children did not go. The parents did not want it. When my right hon. Friend is asked to provide considerable public funds for the maintenance of an aided school, either directly or through the local authority, that is a factor which he must take into account.
Further—I am speaking now of the 1956 inspection—the school failed to attract good enough teachers. I am not concerned with the reason, for that is not my right hon. Friend's business. But the inspection showed that the teachers who were being attracted to serving in this school were not of high enough quality, and there was also criticism at that time of the limited allocation of time to secular subjects.
Those, on their own, are very serious deficiencies. But in 1958, when the second report was made, not this time by Her Majesty's inspectors, but by the local authority, the school was found to be in the following condition. The annual entry, which should have been 60, was only 35. Of this, no single child was qualified to follow a grammar school course, resulting in a serious lowering of standards and a serious pressure upon the capacity of children to undertake courses for which they were not qualified to deal.
948 The school had no sixth form. The number of pupils as a whole was only half the size for which the school was intended. Attainment was generally low. Discipline was lax, the curriculum was unsuitable for the children in the school, and there were serious difficulties over staffing. With whatever generosity, tolerance and sympathy one may approach the problems of a school, disregarding denominational considerations or any other, that list of deficiencies would compel any Minister of Education to step in at once.
But the hon. and learned Gentleman is no less than fair, and is within his rights, to suggest that perhaps these results were brought about by the curious agreement reached following the 1956 inspection, whereby certain agreements were written into a bond between the local education authority and the governors as to how the school should be run. The deficiencies which were revealed in the second inspection in 1958 were of a kind which were not affected one way or the other by questions of who should look after the playground or who should decorate the interior of the school. They were entirely different considerations and I am bound to say that I support the view that at all material times the school was properly and thoroughly under the control of the governors of the school for these essential purposes.
Now I come to the question of a public inquiry. The right hon. Member for South Shields reminded the House that the 1944 Act lays it down that in the course of the discharge of any of his duties under the Act the Minister may cause a public inquiry to be held. It is true that no Minister at any time since the operation of the 1944 Act has found it necessary to hold a public inquiry into the proposed closure of a voluntary school, so to that extent what the right hon. Gentleman said about precedent was not altogether correct. A precedent would have been set had my right hon. Friend held a public inquiry before coming to a decision in the case of the Avigdor School. He decided not to do so.
As to a public inquiry into the Avigdor School; the Minister was in possession of a great mass of detail relating to the school. If the details had 949 been deficient in any way, then my right hon. Friend and I would each have been willing to read even more pages in the letter from the governors' solicitor, or to hear at even greater length representations made by the Chief Rabbi, or any of the other statutory objectors, prior to coming to a decision. There was no lack of opportunity.
However, having that great mass of information and believing it to be complete, a ministerial decision to hold a public inquiry could have had two very serious consequences, apart from the establishment of what seemed to be a not very comfortable precedent. First, it would have delayed matters for a considerable time. I do not regard that as an overriding argument, but it is a factor to be taken into account when the schooling of children is at stake and the expenditure of public funds has to be borne in mind. Secondly, and much more important in this case, it would have been possible at the public inquiry, in public before the Press and before a world looking for things which might excite imaginings, to have brought out facts which, while nothing of which to be ashamed, are best left in the history books.
The right hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that we did not want to go raking over where the blame was in the past. It would do no good to anybody and it could not have been to the advantage of the school, or to denominational or Jewish schools generally, to go over the history of events at the Avigdor School. It was much better, having satisfied oneself that it was possible to do justice without an inquiry, not to do these things in public.
While it may be possible to argue that there may be cases in which a demand for a public inquiry would be overwhelming, that would flow from cases where there were large numbers of pupils and parents involved and where the weight of public opinion arising from a direct interest in the school would be so strong that it could not be satisfied in any other way. That is very far from being the case here. So far as I have discovered, there has been no widespread public interest in the matter until now.
Why do not we generally have public inquiries in these cases? First, the process is a fairly good one as it 950 operates now and, secondly, a public inquiry is costly to set up and manipulate, and public funds are already being expended over a prolonged period. As a rule a public inquiry would throw no new light on the case unless somebody had been withholding something as a last shot in the locker. It seems to me that, as this process of considering the closures of schools of all kinds, for one reason or another, has gone on quite satisfactorily since the 1944 Act, in view of the fact that we do not have a lot of great battles to fight over the closing of schools—although the closing of even the most modest and ancient village school causes heartburning in some breasts, and we must always take account of that—we do not often find ourselves in the difficult dilemma that was thrown up by the Avigdor case.
I hope that I have satisfied the House, first, that it was right to reach a decision that aid to the Avigdor School should be discontinued, secondly, that that should be done without holding a public inquiry and thus inflicting unfairness and injustice upon the governors and other interested parties, and, thirdly, that our present procedure in these cases is a reasonable one.
I want to finish by responding, in a way, to the concluding sentences uttered by the hon. and learned Member. Certainly there is, in my Department and in the minds of my right hon. Friend and myself, the most urgent desire that, at the end of this business, there should not be any feeling among friends of the school or among the Jewish population generally that there is anything but a warm interest in the well being of their educational system, and a desire to see that it is given every opportunity to play its full and proper part in our system. I can assure the House that the same feeling motivates the activities of the London County Council, which has been concerned in this matter.
Projects now under consideration and which have already been referred to—the Jewish Free school and the proposal that it might be possible to make some use of the resources available at Avigdor for the extension of the primary school—are all in the minds of those responsible for the further development of the system, and I promise the House and the 951 hon. and learned Member, whom I thank for the temperateness with which he expressed what I know is a matter of great importance to him, that we will do our best to see that decisions are reached with a proper sense of fairness and of our public duty, in the various ways in which it falls to us to make them.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Perhaps I may be allowed to say that I thank the hon.
952 Member for the way that he has dealt with the matter. I may not agree with him, but I am grateful for what he said in conclusion, and I hope that the Minister will give very sympathetic consideration to the points that have been raised.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Four o'clock.