HC Deb 01 March 1960 vol 618 cc1178-88

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

10.52 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I rise this evening to press upon the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education the strong plea of my local education authority that it may be allowed to proceed without any further delay with the building of the new technical and grammar school in Blackburn. I do so with great confidence that by the reasonableness of the case I shall put to him he will be able to persuade his right hon. Friend to meet my education authority half way on this matter.

As I am sure he is aware, it was as long ago as June, 1956, that Her Majesty's Inspectors first spoke strongly about the inadequacy of the building and equipment of the present premises of this very important technical and grammar school, and the Blackburn education authority has been struggling ever since then for the inclusion of this new building in its current school building programme. We had been fighting for the building of two completely new schools—one the girls' high school and the other the technical and grammar school—and after a very long tussle we had got the girls' high school.

But we then found that the Ministry's device for fobbing us off took the form of playing off one against the other. It asked us which one we thought was most important, and after we had chosen and had got one approved we were told that we could have that and not the other. Our answer to that has always been that they were of equally pressing urgency and that it was quite wrong to play them off in this way in our school building programme. If Blackburn was to shed the legacy of the long years of depression in which so little fundamental building was done, and was really to take a stride forward into the second half of the twentieth century as a modern town, we needed both those schools; they were minimal educational requirements.

In December, 1958, the Blackburn education authority passed a resolution urging the Minister to include this new school in the 1959–60 programme along with two other schools, a Church of England junior school and a Roman Catholic secondary modern school. Unfortunately, we were not able to get more than the junior school and the secondary modern school accepted by the Ministry. Of course, they are both important projects, but neither of them is a local authority school and the local authority technical and grammar school was turned down. The Minister replied that he regretted he was unable to agree to any more items for inclusion in the main 1959–60 programme at this juncture, but he was prepared to consider these proposals when the authority submitted its proposed programmes for 1960–61 and 1961–62, in accordance with the appendix to Circular 342 dealing with extension of Government policy to start dealing with replacement of unsatisfactory schools.

That letter raised our hopes, because it pointed to the prospect that in 1960–61, or in 1961–62 at the worst, we would get a technical and grammar school as our instalment of the new Government policy under the White Paper and Circular 342. In April, 1959, I saw the Minister personally about this matter—not the present Minister, but his predecessor. I had a long talk with him in which I pointed out very strongly the big discrepancy between standards and development in our State technical and grammar school and those obtaining at the independent Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, a school of a very high status which, in its independent rôle, has been forging ahead and which, with one development after another, has become one of the most up-to-date grammar schools in the country.

The more it has progressed the more glaring has become the deficiency of the technical and grammar school. This is one of the strong points of the local education authority. It thinks it a very bad principle that the State grammar school should be the Cinderella of education compared with the independent school which is getting resources from private industry for its educational needs. I pointed out to the Minister the difficulty in which the technical and grammar school is expected to do its work.

I pay great tribute to the staff of the school who have done wonders under circumstances which would have reduced most normal people to despair. As the headmaster pointed out and as I expressed to the Minister, the school was built in 1913 as a selective central school and was never intended for specialist work of the kind it is having to do. It has no specialist room of any kind for this grammar school level. It has no gymnasium. It shares playing fields with other organisations bus rides away from the school premises. In view of the inaccessibility of the playing fields, it is amazing that it has an outstanding record in athletics and games. For practically every period in the week there are eight classes leaving the building to be taught in accommodation, elsewhere.

I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary can visualise what this means in a town with the Lancashire climate. Bad weather and loss of time make an intolerable burden for the staff and the pupils. It has no school hall big enough for the school to meet as one body. It has no kitchen or proper washing-up facilities for school meals. The library is a small converted classroom which is also used as a classroom, which means that the sixth form have nowhere to do private study and have to set up desks in the school hall for that purpose.

Although this is a technical and grammar school, there is no room for commerce. There is no special geography room, and in the room in which geography is taught there is no possibility of practical work as there is no space for side benches in the room, which has to be used in a makeshift way. The biology laboratory is a small room converted from an old laundry. It has no store room and no accommodation for growing plants. The chemistry laboratory is in prefabricated huts 20 yards away from the school. The general science laboratory has no store room and is thoroughly out of date in design.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to remember that Queen Elizabeth Grammar School has just been able to spend £64,000 on a new laboratory block which has been built partly with a contribution from industrial funds and partly with the help of the local authority. Nobody begrudges Queen Elizabeth Grammar School its new laboratory, but surely the minimum we can do is to enable the technical and grammar school to begin to catch up in a moderate way.

The school cannot purchase the machinery needed for metal work because there is no floor space on which to put it. An engineering workshop is desperately needed. The cookery room is old-fashioned and too small, and there are no facilities for craft work in the art rooms.

The Parliamentary Secretary will agree that that does not add up to a picture of a technical and grammar school in any satisfactory sense of the term, and that is why I went to see the Minister. In view of the very encouraging reply in January, 1959, about including the school in the 1960–61 or 1961–62 programme, we all lived in hope, and we were astonished by the Minister's answer, "I am sorry that you cannot be included in the period 1960–62 but we will try to fit you in before the end of 1965." My local authority saw red. It is red, and the members saw red. I am not surprised at their reaction.

The Minister's reply made us particularly angry, because the total amount that the Minister was prepared to authorise us to spend in the programme in the two years 1960–61 and 1961–62 was only £154,000. That is an average of £77,000 for each of the two years. This was about half the average that we had been allowed to spend in the preceding two years. Frankly, we thought that this was not a very promising outcome of the much-heralded new development in education outlined in the White Paper and in Circular 342.

Last July I took a deputation to the Minister to see one of his chief officers, and there we again urgently pressed the importance of this matter. We were not making empty gestures, for we pointed out, for instance, that we should soon have no customers for our technical college unless we developed the intake of the college by developing the technical and grammar school, and that if the two worked in proper complement we needed 120 pupils in the sixth form of the technical and grammar school, which would mean a minimum floor space of 33,000 sq. ft., whereas the school had only 26,000 sq. ft. We also pointed out that the. White Paper referred to the Government authorising expenditure of £300 million in the next five years on these new phases of education, the replacement of unsatisfactory secondary schools being one of these new developments that we were to see.

In instalments, the £300 million worked out nationally to £55 million in 1960–61 and £60 million in 1961–62. if Blackburn had its proper share of the first of these sums, £55 million, we should have been allowed to start programmes at the rate of £140,000 a year, instead of which the Minister has authorised building amounting only to £77,000 for each of the two years. So we are getting half of what we consider to be our share of the national figure.

We were all the more upset because we found that other county boroughs of similar size and status were coming off far better in the programmes for the next two years. Gateshead, for instance, which is very little larger than Blackburn, is being allowed to spend £1 million over the next two years, compared with our £140,000 for the two years. St. Helens is being authorised to spend £427,000 in the two years. We really feel that Blackburn is being discriminated against.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that the White Paper said that one of the priorities we had to concentrate on is the reorganisation of schools, and Blackburn has completed the reorganisation of its schools. The Minister even wrote to us, turning down our overtures, saying that Blackburn is very "fortunate" in having completed its reorganisation. I reply that Blackburn is not just fortunate. These things have not fallen from the heavens. During the last few years Blackburn has been driving ahead. It is one of the most keen and go-ahead local authorities. We in Blackburn have pressed ahead with the job, as other authorities should have done. We have had as many difficulties as other local authorities, and, in addition, we have had the cotton problem, the problem of unemployment and the legacy of the terrible depression years. Because we were determined not to submit to these difficulties, we have gone ahead. Yet now we are being penalised. The Minister says that other authorities are to have two, three or four times as much as we can have, because we have gone ahead. I suggest that that is not the right basis on which to encourage development in education.

It is against that background that I now bring my plea up to date. I put it with some confidence to the Parliamentary Secretary, because I think there is not now a great deal separating us. I hope he will give me something definite to take back to my authority as a reward for all its drive and initiative during the post-war years. In December, 1959, the education committee in again asking me to take up this matter asked that it be allowed to go ahead with the technical grammar school. Now that we have given up hope of 1960–61, we are concentrating on 1961–62. The committee informed me in December last year We are preparing the schedule of accommodation for the new school, and I can say quite definitely that we should be ready to commence building operations in 1961–62 if the Ministry will agree to our request". The Minister has now given us a little more specific ground for hope by saying that we shall be included in 1962–63. He has, as it were, shortened the odds a little. What I ask him quite simply tonight is this. Will he say that we may start building as soon as soon as our plans are ready? What the education committee asks is to be allowed to start the new building earlier than the 1st April, 1962, i.e., some time during the building year 1961–62, and, as you know, the Minister has agreed to consider whether an early start can be allowed if the preliminary work is completed substantially before 1st April, 1962. As I say, the schedule of accommodation has been prepared, and we are ready to go ahead with the plans. The committee goes on to say: If permission were granted for an earlier start, we could commence building some time between the 1st April and the 1st July, 1961, assuming there were no undue delay in the approval of the plans at Ministry level. There is not much dividing us now. We have been unfairly and harshly treated in some ways. I ask the Minister to reward our patience, our perseverance and our public-spiritedness in education by saying that, as soon as our plans are completed, in 1961 we can go ahead.

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

It is not given to many hon. Members to be able to withstand the charm and blandishments with which the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) put her very powerful case. If I appear to be less gracious than her presentation of her argument merits, I hope that she will not think any less of me than she led me to believe she thought during the time when she was being so sweet and reasonable.

I am very glad to have the opportunity of discussing this matter in public, because it is one of the not so easy cases for both the local authority and the Ministry. There is even less between us than the hon. Lady would lead the House to believe. I do not think that either the Ministry or its officials who have seen and examined the school would part company with the hon. Lady over her description of the facilities and amenities that are available within it. Nor would there be disagreement between us about the need to put these amenities in their proper order and about the value which a school properly built and organised in Blackburn would be to the citizens of that very important city, which I know quite well and which I should like to see properly rewarded for the enterprise which it has shown in education and other matters.

Therefore, the difference between us is not on whether or not there should be a first-class technical-grammar school in Blackburn. The Ministry of Education, which relies upon keen local authorities to do the work of the Department in various parts of the country, is profoundly grateful at having an authority as keen and ambitious and go-ahead as the Blackburn education authority has shown itself to be. One of the consequences of its keenness and ability has been that it has built a school which, in spite of the difficulties which the hon. Lady has properly described, is doing a very good job indeed. I join with her in congratulating the teachers who manage in these circumstances and the authority which knowing the problems, has persisted in trying to serve the community. Therefore, the question about a new school is not one of whether but of when, and that raises the question which the hon. Lady spoke about, with a little fervour but not heat, whether or not Blackburn is being treated fairly.

There is no greater problem for a Government to deal with than the question of where priority should fall. It does not matter what part of our social work we are considering, whether hospitals, children's welfare, education, or the dental service. The question of deciding where priority should fall, both over the long term and from time to time, has to be decided. The history of the school building programme since the end of the war has been one of clamorous needs and limited resources and therefore compulsion upon somebody, somewhere, to decide the order of priorities.

As the hon. Lady has said, from the early days after the end of the war until 1958 or 1959 the need for new schools and accommodation all over the country had to take priority over everything else. Basic needs had to be met throughout the country and, generally speaking, they were met. Then came the problem of reorganisation. Blackburn has a very proud record in this matter, but I hope that the hon. Lady will not think it unfair to say that if one authority gets ahead my right hon. Friend's job is to see that the laggards are brought up to date. If it involves giving them what may appear to be special treatment in order to get them up to date, that does not absolve my right hon. Friend from doing it.

I am sorry if the Blackburn authority feels that, having done well, it is now being penalised because someone else is being given the necessary resources to do belatedly what Blackburn did voluntarily and in good time. But the Statute binds my right hon. Friend to see that provision is made.

We come now to the contentious years of the White Paper, from 1960 to 1965. Now that the way ahead is a little clearer, how are we to allocate the resources to see that the national policy contained in the White Paper is put into operation fairly and effectively over the whole country? Although the resources are greater, the problem of deciding the priorities still remains, as I have no doubt it would were the resources double what they are now.

Blackburn has not been completely overlooked, as the hon. Lady was fair enough to point out. It is getting some share of the provision. I will not repeat the list of schools to be provided in Blackburn. But conditions vary greatly from town to town and authority to authority. I have spent today journeying to West Suffolk where I visited four little village schools and two larger ones. They were in remote areas with scattered communities. I have been given an account of the problems which face an authority of that kind. They are different from those facing Blackburn—the product of the Industrial Revolution and the victim of years of neglect—but they are no less pressing. The people there feel that the Minister must bend his principles and distort the order of priority so as to satisfy their needs. And so it goes on over almost the whole of the country.

We have to make an objective assessment of the possibilities or the necessity for doing something for the Blackburn school and we have to decide when something can be done. I am sorry to say that is not possible to fit it into the current 1959–60 programme, nor into the 1960–61 programme, the first of the new White Paper programmes. It cannot be fitted into the 1961–62 programme. This is the result of simple mathematics, of adding up the resources available and subtracting the various demands sent to the Minister by authorities all over the country.

I do not want Blackburn to feel that its preparedness and sense of urgency is not appreciated by the Ministry; it is. I want to go as far as I can to meet the request of the hon. Lady. We have said that we are willing to see this school included in the 1962–63 building programme if the authority gives it number one priority. I hope the authority will consider that is a good thing to do. On the advice of our own representatives in Blackburn, we took the view that the school, with all its limitations, is capable of providing good education, taking that as the time by which it would he replaced.

We have asked local authorities to get their preparations as far advanced as possible in relation to the programmes they have in the pipeline. We are giving local authorities a chance to work well ahead by giving advance notice of what will be available to them. As the programmes develop and the months pass, we will see whether it is possible to allow an earlier building start.

The hon. Lady was good enough to drop a hint about the kind of date she had in mind. I do not propose to be bound by a promise made here on the Floor of the House tonight about which dates we will be able to accommodate. Much depends on how various other local authorities get on with their work and what other change of emphasis may be brought to bear on the education scene in Blackburn itself. Who knows? I shall be prepared to keep an open mind on this matter and, if it is possible for this project to come into effect before the 1962–63 programme would properly be in effect, we shall do what we can to help the local authority to discharge its obligations and serve the people whom it has the job of looking after.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.