HC Deb 22 July 1960 vol 627 cc1034-44

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

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

At the end of July, last year, when I last sought on the Adjournment to raise the subject of the provision of textbooks in schools, the debate began at half-past three in the morning. At one point today, when my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) was speaking, I thought that we would be glad to be able to begin this debate at half-past three in the morning. However, I am glad to say that this year the hour is better and the situation is better.

I am glad to say that the expenditure on textbooks as shown in the statistics for the financial year 1958–59 prepared by the county and municipal treasurers shows a considerable improvement. In that financial year the total expenditure on books, stationery and materials in maintained schools in England and Wales rose from £13,200,000 to £14,700,000. If all the local education authorities had reached the good standard recommended by the Association of Education Committees the expenditure would have been £16,400,000. So there is still a gap of £1,700,000 between the actual expenditure and the recommended good standard. However, in the period under discussion, the gap has shrunk by some £500,000.

There is, I believe, general agreement that the quantity and quality of textbooks is a factor of substantial importance in education. It is, therefore, particularly depressing to find how inadequate the statistics are in this field. The statistics now available and prepared by the county and municipal treasurers follow last year's regrettable precedent of combining books with stationery and materials.

This obviously obscures the position. I have been in correspondence with the county education officer of Kent because I have been distressed to find that Kent does not show up at all well in the current figures. The education officer wrote to me saying: The situation in Kent schools is much better than one night infer from reading the statitics published by the National group of the Publishers Association. Those statistics necessarily relate to a great variety of materials other than books. Of course, we cannot have it both ways. If an authority claims that it is spending more on books than the statistics suggest then it must be spending less on other materials.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

Could the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he has been in correspondence with the County of Durham? I understand that when he raised the matter at roughly this time last year he quoted some figures which were strongly challenged by the Durham authorities rather on the grounds that he is now indicating. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) regrets that he cannot be here today because, before he became a Member of this House, he took up the matter following the remarks of the hon. Gentleman last year.

Mr. Goodhart

I have been in correspondence with a number of education officers following the debate last year and this point came out. If one is spending more on books, then one must be spending less than the figures suggest on other materials. But that is not the point. The real issue is that Mr. Haynes is not the only education officer to point out that the present figures are imprecise, and one may get a slightly misleading impression from them. To my mind it is the clear responsibility of the Minister to provide them. Indeed, on 27th July, 1959, the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury said in reply to me: It is not easy for my right hon. Friend to get a really clear and reliable idea of the scale on which books are provided."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th July, 1959; Vol. 610, c. 278.] That seems to me a very odd admission indeed. He then trotted out the excuse that local authorities would have to do a lot more work if proper statistics were to be obtained. This is just nonsense. In my submission, the school authorities obviously already know the precise figures, otherwise they could not produce accurate figures for the combined statistics. It seems to me that it is not the local authorities which are being lazy; it is, I fear, the Ministry of Education itself which just cannot be bothered.

It is perfectly clear from these statistics that there are tremendous variations between authorities in the provision of text books. I am afraid that the position in Durham and along the north-east of England generally is still very bad, though there have been improvements. Frequently, we get good and bad authorities cheek by jowl. Manchester, for instance, has an excellent record, but Salford, next door, is bad and seems to be getting somewhat worse. Portsmouth is surrounded by enlightened authorities, but its own record is bad, and one can only assume that the chairman of the education committee or the local education officer just do not care.

In the West Country, Devon and Cornwall are not too good, but they are not too bad either; but Plymouth continues to be an absolute disgrace. Last year's figures for Plymouth were appalling, and this year's figures are, if anything, rather worse. They are not even half-way to the good standard in the provision of textbooks suggested by the Association, whereas I understand that Manchester spent £100,000 more than is suggested. I can only say that the education authorities in Plymouth do not seem to be able to face their responsibilities.

Then there is the Midlands area. Birmingham has an excellent record, and so has Warwickshire as a whole, but Coventry has a really wretched record. Last year, I said, and I quote: Because of weakness or gross folly, the Coventry education committee is cheating children in that Oily out of essential aids to education."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th July, 1959; Vol. 610, c. 276.] I regret that I have to repeat that charge now. The Ministry of Education cannot escape full responsibility, however. What has been done in the last twelve months to bring the black spots such as Plymouth and Coventry to their senses? I should very much like to know whether the Minister of Education has taken any positive action.

By and large, however, the general picture is improving. West Ham, which I criticised strongly in last year's debate, is now improving, and, far from being a black spot is now only a grey spot, whereas; East Ham next door has shown a remarkable improvement. Monmouthshire which had a very poor record in the period under discussion last year, is now one of the twenty-two authorities which have actually improved on the good standard suggested by the Association of Education Committees.

During the last nine years, there has been a tremendous expansion in educational opportunity in this country. The amount of money spent by the central Government and by the local education authorities has doubled, and the amount of money spent on teachers' salaries has also doubled. We stand on the brink of three-year teacher training. This is admirable, but it is an immensely expensive undertaking to see that every child in this country is well taught by a fully-trained and qualified teacher in a small class and in a pleasant classroom. It would be comparatively inexpensive, however, to make quite certain that every child had a sufficient number of good textbooks, and I urge my hon. Friend to be a little more positive in his reply today than was his predecessor last year.

4.20 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

There are only two things I should like to say. Ore is that, like the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), I regret that the statistics available do not appear to be as clear as one would wish, and I would have rather wished that the hon. Member, having raised this subject last year, himself might have given a little more detail. I have mentioned Durham, but the hon. Member has again referred to Coventry. It would have been very much more helpful to the House, I think, had he told us whether he had had any correspondence with the authority at Coventry, and whether he found any difficulty over the basis of computation. There seems to be a quite genuine difficulty in deciding whether an authority is a good one or a bad—as the hon. Member rather over-simplified it—because the basis of calculation is not by any means clear—

Mr. Goodhart

I was not in correspondence with Coventry, except through the local Press. The Coventry Education Authority made an announcement to the local Press saying that they were intending to invite me to Coventry and show me that I was mistaken. That invitation was never made. As to the basis of calculation, one can make marginal miscalculations of 5 per cent. or 10 per cent, because of the imprecision of these statistics, but Coventry is so far below the general standard that there is no room for doubt.

Mrs. White

Frankly, I think that it would have been much more satisfactory if, having got so far, the hon. Member had taken up the matter with the Chief Education Officer there, or with the Chief Education Officer for the County of Monmouth, which, I know very well, is normally a generous county educationally. I must say that I am surprised to be told that Monmouthshire is behind in its expenditure on books. That may be for a particular year, but I simply cannot believe that that county would, over a period, be less than generous in its supplies of books.

I hope that the Ministry will take a much clearer responsibility in getting this information. This is by no means the only field in which the Ministry's statistics are very defective. I agree with the hon. Member for Beckenham that it is no good the Ministry saying, "We do not know." Time after time we seek information, and Ministers reply that it is unobtainable. One does not wish unnecessarily to multiply clerical work, but in these days of mechanical aids it is not impossible to get this information, without which we, in this House, cannot possibly judge whether or not the educational service is being adequately administered. The service is very much decentralised, and it is therefore extremely important that we should have adequate information on these important matters—and the supply of books is very important.

It is not merely the supply of textbooks. There is another matter that I shall raise on another occasion—the whole question of grants for library books. I find in some parts of the country that the provision is very generous, but that, in other places, the amounts given to modern schools, and even to grammar schools, to enable them to replenish their libraries—especially when the present cost of books is taken into account—is quite ludicrously low. The result is that the children who particularly need to have as wide a background of reading as possible are being starved of that provision in some educational authority areas, at least. If the Parliamentary Secretary has any information on that that he can mention briefly today, we would be glad to have it.

4.25 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) for raising once again a matter in which I know he has a considerable interest, and certainly it is a matter which both my right hon. Friend and I regard as being of the greatest possible importance.

We cannot have a good, successful and efficient education system unless it is supported and buttressed by a proper supply of textbooks, library books and reading matter of all kinds. That is not quite the same thing as saying that, because that is a sound enough statement of principle, we must, therefore, provide a vast-ranging and intricately detailed supply of statistics.

The hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) suggested that we needed more statistics on this point, as I think she said on so many other aspects of education and other public matters. That may very well be true. The Crowther Report went to some trouble to point out some of the defects in the Ministry's supply of statistics. The Crowther Committee did not comment on the lack or insufficiency or inadequacy of our statistics on this subject. It seems to me that the reason it did not do so is fairly obvious.

Of course, we could get statistics of every kind. We could design a system or a supply of forms which would require local authorities to tell us what they are spending on education of this kind or that kind, whether books are being bought wholesale or retail, through a local supplier or a national supplier, whether they are textbooks as such used for distribution among scholars in the classroom or whether they are the kind of books which find their way into the library corners of primary schools or the libraries proper in secondary, grammar or technical schools. We could require lists of titles or the subject matter covered by these textbooks. We could supply a plethora of statistics which would bedazzle my hon. Friend, the hon. Lady and, I imagine, the Association of Education Committees, and give nobody any satisfaction.

The hon. Lady used a phrase which, I think, goes to the heart of this matter of trying to solve where to draw the line in the statistics one seeks to accumulate. Our education system is devolved to the local education authorities so far as it is possible to do that, bearing in mind the responsibility that lies on my right hon. Friend to see that education according to the age, aptitude and ability of the scholars is available to them all in their respective neighbourhoods.

What we have to satisfy ourselves about is this: is my right hon. Friend in a position to discharge that duty in the light of this situaton relating to statistics covering the supply of textbooks? The House would properly inquire how my right hon. Friend satisfies himself on that point. The House knows that we have a very wide and complete range of Her Majesty's inspectors covering the whole of this country, making regular and frequent calls upon the schools, examining the way in which the schools conduct their systems of education within a system of independence for the schools and for the local authorities.

The inspectors report regularly and in great detail, both formally and informally as a result of their visits to the schools, and I assure the House that there is no lack of information either in the local education authorities about what the inspectors think of the schools that they have seen, or in the Ministry of the results of the inspections carried out by Her Majesty's inspectors.

A great fund of information on these very points is available to my right hon. Friend without imposing upon local education authorities the necessity—whiith, if I have time, I will show will be unnecessary—of completing long, complicated and detailed forms.

Mrs. White

It may well be that this information is in the vaults of Curzon Street, but that does not make it availably to hon. Members who also have some responsibility.

Mr. Thompson

Hon. and right hon. Members have the well known right, which is very frequently exercised, of asking unlimited and wide-ranging Question. If they wish to ask Questions about whether a particular school is using a particular textbook or whether a local authority is maintaining an efficient system of education within its schools, those questions can be answered. When we are asked to provide a table of information which goes beyond what we think it reasonable to demand of the lock I authorities, then we think we ought at that point to draw the line, provided always that my right hon. Friend's powers to discharge his statutory obligations are maintained. That is the situation at the moment.

I will take the consideration of the matter one stage further. Even supposing that all these statistics, in reasonable and sensible form—I am not trying to over-paint the picture—were provided by the local authorities, collected by my right hon. Friend, analysed and published by the Department and made available to hon. Members, we should delude ourselves if we then imagined that that enabled us to sit in judgment upon the efficiency of any education authority in this country. It would be no more than one pointer, and, in many cases, as the hon. Lady herself suggested, a wholly misleading one for, in a bad year, as she calls it—which may be a year in which the education authority is living on the fat accumulated in previous years or is gathering strength for a great burst forward in subsequent years—the figure would be grossly misleading. and the Horse might set itself on an entirely wrong course of unfair and unjustified criticism.

The fact of the matter, as I am sure the hon. Lady well knows, is that great changes are evident all around us in our education system today. One cannot visit the schools of this country today without being greatly impressed by the enormous fundamental changes which are taking place in teaching methods. "Chalk and talk and textbooks", as the system in this country 30 years ago has been derisively described, is either out or well on its way out, and a very good thing too, I think. In its place is coming a new approach to the way in which children can be taught to learn.

Library books are supplied either by the local education authority to the school library as its own property and renewed and supported by fresh additions and fresh expenditure, or as part of the general services of the county library service as a buttress to supplement the school library. All these things are now coming to play an increasingly significant part in the way education is made available to the scholars of our schools.

To say in these circumstances that because some figure or other is now more or less than it was 12 months ago, without taking into account the other changes, is simply to delude oneself and to deny oneself the opportunity of appreciating the true significance of the advances which are being made.

What is true, as my hon. Friend quite fairly pointed out, is that the expenditure on textbooks and materials, lumped together purely for convenience to save unnecessary work and not to hide anything, is increasing. The sum total is increasing. One cannot use one successfully without the other; they are married together in the education process. The gap between the actual expenditure and the total of good standards referred to in the figures produced by the Association of Municipal Treasurers is narrowing. Last year the gap of £1,700,000 was £500,000 less than in the preceding year. I am assured that the same process will be evident in the later figures as they are accumulated and made available. I should have thought that this process ought to give us all satisfaction, so long as we maintain the best information we can about the day-to-day changes which are taking place in the education system and at the same time keep ourselves informed on the facts relating to the general growth of the library services available to schools, the increasing use being made of libraries, and the increasingly successful efforts of modern teachers with modern teaching methods to teach children that a book is there to be used not only when handed round in a classroom but is in itself a stimulus to knowledge and the spirit of inquiry on which successful education depends.

Mr. Goodhart

Can my hon. Friend say whether any positive action has been taken during the last 12 months in regard to any authorities which do appear to be not fulfilling their duties in this matter?

Mr. Thompson

As I hinted, it would not appear in the form of a "rocket" from the Minister to the local authority. What would happen would be that there would be thrown up in the course of regular inspections by Her Majesty's inspectors deficiencies in the education system of the particular school or authority. At that point, my right hon. Friend would take the steps which the Act not only authorises but requires him to take to see that the standard of education in that school or authority was brought into line with the conditions required by the Act. That does not happen very often because the need for it is not frequently thrown up, but when it is, it takes place without any hesitation at all.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Five o'clock.