HC Deb 22 February 1961 vol 635 cc748-58

Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

3.36 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

In September, 1960, Lancashire County Council was informed that its education committee's major building programme for 1962–63, totalling £4,200,000 and comprising 49 projects, had been slashed by the Ministry of Education to £2½ million covering only 28 projects. The decision caused great indignation throughout Lancashire, particularly in Haslingden and Ramsbottom, because plans for rebuilding Haslingden Grammar School, a mixed school which serves both those towns, had to be abandoned for 1962–63.

The present school is overcrowded, housed in inadequate unsuitable premises with two classes in an adjacent church and a third in another church 220 yards away. Under such conditions it is a great tribute to the headmaster and his staff that the school's academic record is remarkably good and its activities so varied. It is, moreover, a great tribute to the caretaker and his staff that the school is so well cared for and looked after. But even the most energetic headmaster and most loyal staff ultimately get tired of hope being deferred year after year, and these conditions have lasted for more than twenty-five years.

The school was inspected by His Majesty's Inspectors of Education in 1936 and they Listed nine physical defects in the school of which I shall tell the House about six. They reported that the gymnasium, measuring 1,150 square feet, was too small for its purpose and there were no facilities for changing other than those provided by the cloakrooms. No change has been made since that time. Secondly, they complained that the accommodation for science was unsatisfactory. They said that the chemistry laboratory was small and awkwardly shaped and the physics laboratory was uncomfortable and noisy because it was directly below the gymnasium and added that it was insufficiently ventilated. There has been no change in the accommodation for science in the meantime.

They went on to say that there was no separate room available either for the senior mistress or for medical inspection. Even today the headmaster has to leave his room when medical inspections take place. Their next complaint was about the storage accommodation which, they said, was meagre throughout the building and I understand that today it is more congested than ever it was. Another complaint was that the playing-field, which was six acres, was rather small. They said it should contain a hard surface and they complained that the showers in the pavilion, consisting only of one for boys and one for girls, were inadequate numerically.

I think that perhaps one of their more important complaints was that the room set apart as a library had also to be used as a classroom, so that it was mainly used by the sixth form as a classroom and for private study. They complained that the function of the library as an entity was lost sight of because it was used for other purposes, and that the valuable help which pupils could derive from being able to rely on a central collection of volumes was lost because volumes had to be dis- persed throughout the building. All the six complaints I have referred to still have not been remedied in the intervening years, twenty-five years. Since the report I have referred to the number of pupils has increased from 246 to 300 and the sixth form has doubled.

The headmaster has been outstandingly successful in developing sixth form work and has had a profound and beneficial effect on the school by adding to the variety of activities undertaken. But his very success, I think, has added to the difficulty, and when the school was last inspected in 1956 Her Majesty's Inspectors of Education once again reported adversely upon the physical conditions in the school while paying great tribute to the standard of education which is available.

The inspectors complained—and paraphrase—that the deficiencies of these obsolete and restricted premises, which had been underlined twenty years ago in the previous report, still remained, if anything with greater rigour. They went on to complain about the use of the basement for teaching in general subjects as well as in practical subjects. They complained that there are no separate rooms for the senior mistress or for medical inspection or for prefects, and they went on to say that prefects are obliged to use the library as their base with consequent interference with its proper function.

They complained, once again, that there were no changing rooms for work in the gymnasium and that the gymnasium was still much too small. They said that the playing field was too small. They complained about the pavilion and said that there was a lack of separate changing rooms for men and women teachers, which they regarded as unsatisfactory. They concluded, as on the previous occasion, by regretting that the usefulness of the library, especially for borrowing, is curtailed by its use as a prefects' room and meeting place for various school societies.

In addition to the complaints listed by the inspectors, I would add that the playground is lamentably inadequate and that there are no lavatories inside the school. They are in a separate building across the playground, without either heat or light, and the climate in Haslingden is very different from that in London.

I hope that I have said enough to show that the Ministry's decision to drop the rebuilding of a new school from the programme for 1962–63 is greatly to be deplored. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us that the Lancashire County Council will be allowed to go ahead with the project earlier than is at present contemplated. I believe that we owe that to the governors and staff as well as to the pupils in the school.

3.43 a.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) for bringing forward this subject for discussion, since it is part of the wider problem of the Lancashire school building programme. I think that I can best deal with the conditions of this school and its prospects in the future building programmes of the county if I fit it into its proper context.

I am aware of the deficiencies of the Haslingden Grammar School, and also of the very high standards reached by the school under these admittedly difficult conditions. My advice is that the headmaster and his staff handle their task with skill and devotion, and that the results they achieve reflect the greatest possible credit upon them. I am sorry, as is the hon. Gentleman, that they have not yet had the opportunity to deploy these skills in better conditions.

The planning of a new school for Haslingden to replace these old buildings seems to me to draw together all the factors which underlie the general complaint that Lancashire has made about the building programme and which the hon. Gentleman expressed in somewhat extravagant and partisan terms.

I will deal with this more fully in a minute or two, but I assure the House that this school awaits its turn simply because everything cannot be done at once. We are in the thrall of priorities and of priorities within priorities. We now have the benefit of Lancashire's own assessment of the relative priorities of the many improvement projects she wishes to undertake. The authority asked for this school for the 1962–63 programme, but it had to give way to other more urgent work. I know the difficulty that the Lancashire authority has had in deciding which new schools should have first places in subsequent programmes. Haslingden Grammar School will almost certainly find a place not later than the 1964–65 programme if the authority wants it then. But I remind the House that it is just one of a number of schools which have still to be provided.

There is nothing more encouraging to a Minister of Education than the knowledge that local education authorities are anxious to make the best possible progress with their school building programmes. All our hopes for improving, all round, the opportunities for educational advance rest on this as much as on any other single factor. This was the theme which inspired the White Paper of 1958. And there is no lack of evidence that authorities throughout the country are ready to co-operate to the utmost in carrying through the large and expensive programme which the White Paper forecast. The Lancashire authority is an excellent example.

It would be as well to remind the House of what we are trying to accomplish. The White Paper sets out a five-year building programme to be achieved during the years 1960–65. Three hundred million pounds are to be spent, mainly on providing good conditions for secondary education according to the high standards we set today. In the event, the programmes will be divided into £55 million, £60 million, £61 million, £62 million and £62 million of building starts, as we term them, to take us up to March, 1965.

The planning of the programmes rests on three principal presumptions of priority. First, new schools would be provided where needed to accommodate new populations in housing estates and new towns. Secondly, new schools would be provided to facilitate the reorganisation of existing all-age schools so that senior children would get truly secondary education. Thirdly, many existing secondary schools in inadequate premises of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred would be improved if possible, or replaced if not.

As would be expected, much of the earlier programmes is concerned with the first of these priorities. This has been the dominating theme of post-war school building. In spite of the massive movements of populations which have taken place in recent years, we have had no children of school age for whom a school place was not available where it was wanted and when it was wanted. That is a very considerable achievement. We must still reserve a large part of our resources for this purpose as new house building goes on.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

That is all very well, but the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware that during the last two years, when the bulge has been moving into the secondary schools, it has led to an increase in the number of over-sized classes in secondary schools. Although it is true that places have been found, it has been done by increasing the size of the classes or the number of oversized classes in secondary schools, which is a serious problem.

Mr. Thompson

If that were precisely true in the terms in which the hon. Member expresses it, it would arise not from the logistics of school places, but from our difficulties in teacher recruitment, which is the principal limiting factor. The fact remains that where a school place has been needed it has been provided when it was needed. We still have to reserve a large part of our building resources for this purpose while the present rapid rate of house building is maintained.

At the same time as we have done that, satisfactory progress has been made with the reorganisation of the former all-age schools. Except in a few areas where special conditions apply, reorganisation will be accomplished when new building already included in the building programme is completed. The remainder, in the more difficult areas, will be disposed of in the 1963–64 and 1964–65 programmes that we are planning now.

I acknowledge with pleasure the successful record of the Lancashire Education Committee in these two fields. Lancashire's job is a big one. When we consider the third category of school—those which require remodelling or replacing—I know from my own experience of Lancashire that a big programme still lies ahead. I am glad that the committee is so keen to tackle it. But I cannot acquiesce in an argument which says, in effect, that only my right hon. Friend's niggardliness or unfairness is holding the county back. That simply is not true, as I shall show.

Given a limit to the total resources available to be spent over England and Wales, given that some types of project must be provided for as a matter of urgency or absolute priority and given a total demand far in excess of the resources, some system of allocation becomes unavoidable. If the first two categories to which I have referred—basic needs and reorganization—have to be dealt with continuously throughout the five years, the process of allocation will bite first and hardest on this third priority. And according to whether an authority has more or less of this work to do, it will feel this bite more or less acutely. It is into this category that both Lancashire's case and the Haslingden Grammar School's case falls.

Let me, therefore, turn to Lancashire's case as it has been put forward on a number of occasions. I have had the benefit of personal discussion with a delegation from the county which I saw on 19th October last. If I may summarise briefly what was said at length, but with great courtesy—for they were talking to a Lancashire man—the members of the delegation argued that a building programme of £2.6 million for 1962–63 was too small—unfairly small. They complained that too much of it was absorbed in the two priority types of project and that although they had a large number of old, inadequate schools, they could set about no more than £½million worth of improvement projects in the year in dispute. They said that they found it hard to accept a building programme of £2½6 million for 1962–63 when they had had larger programmes in each of the two preceding years.

There are two important considerations that I must put before the House, as I put them to the delegation, which my right hon. Friend must have in mind when deciding the deployment of resourees. First, he must have a constant concern for the needs of the country as a whole and the interests of 146 education authorities. Secondly, he must plan in the context of a unified plan to cover a period of five years. If it were possible to regard each year as complete in itself, and each authority as a mathematical fraction of the whole population, my right hon. Friend's task would probably be easier and certainly less productive of controversy. The balance of the school building programme would, however, be seriously impaired.

I must make it clear that it was not expected that the five-year White Paper programme would remove all the known deficiencies in all the existing secondary schools throughout the country; that would have been too ambitious a target. The total resources available were carefully assessed and authorities were invited to put forward annual programmes in the light of their own known needs. My right hon. Friend seeks the advice of his inspectorate, and a great deal of discussion precedes the final determination of what each authority is to undertake. Not surprisingly, opinions differ about relative priorities and about the needs of one area compared with the needs of another. This difference becomes more acute as we move more into the sphere of improvement and replacement. Questions of how bad is "bad" inevitably arise. I can do no more than—

Mr. Greenwood

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the discussions that he had with the Lancashire Education Committee. He has not referred to what it said about its commitments for overspill, which, I think, is one of the principal factors in the situation.

Mr. Thompson

I have not been able to separate the tasks which any local education authority of Lancashire's size and kind has to face—the tasks of providing for new populations either in overspill or in ordinary town development within their own populations, which comes as a No. 1 priority. Lancashire has to do a great deal of that. The second priority is given to reorganisation projects. Lancashire has a good deal of that to do and is getting on very well with it. After those have been disposed of, Lancashire has £500,000 in the year in dispute to spend on these replacements and improvement projects; and the complaint is that the £500,000 is not enough.

I am endeavouring to show, first, how it comes about that it is £500,000, and that, both absolutely and relatively, that figure is arrived at on a fair basis. As I say, it is not to be expected when one gets into this realm of opinion as to whose need is greatest that there will be universal agreement. There never will be. All we have to do is to try to be as fair as we can.

In coming to these decisions, my right hon. Friend seeks the advice of the inspectorate, and a great deal of discussion goes on until we finally determine what each authority can do, as I have said. I can do no more than assure the House that the assessments on which we must finally rely will be made as objectively as we can make them as between authority and authority. After the closest consideration of this matter I am satisfied that Lancashire's treatment for the year in question passes this test.

If the Lancashire Education Committee will look at the allocations in total, it will see that it has no cause to complain of the way things are working out. Far from it. Taking the five years as a whole, the county will make great strides with all three parts of the programme. So far as future needs are known, she will keep pace with providing new schools for new population. Her reorganisation needs are either provided for or are already in a building programme. This work, we know, has made up the bulk of the programmes in three of the five years. These three programmes total £9½ million worth of new school buildings.

When the delegation saw me it was suggested that by virtue of her size and her school population, Lancashire was entitled to one-twentieth of the total resources available. Although I reject this as a basis for planning, I am able to say that over the three years the county has had more than this proportion. I know that Lancashire, which has always been a progressive education authority, is disappointed that the 1962–63 programme should be somewhat smaller than the two previous programmes. I am sorry that this should be so. I assure the House, as I assured the members of the delegation, that only the pressure of other more urgent commitments has made this necessary.

The White Paper programme, I repeat, covers five years. We have been able to give assurances to Lancashire which I had hoped would convince her of our determination to go as far as we can in those five years to meet the needs of many of the older schools in the county. Large sums have been allocated in the two final years of the programme for improving or replacing these unsatisfactory schools. I know personally that, generally speaking, these needs are greater in the North of England than they are in the South, and my right hon. Friend promised some time ago that more of our resources would go there to meet these needs.

Although complete building programmes for 1963–64 and 1964–65 cannot be formulated until the needs are known in greater detail, the Lancashire Education Committee was informed at the beginning of this year of the allocation to it of £1½million for 1963–64 and of £1 million for 1964–65, solely for improvement projects—my third category. With the £500,000 in 1962–63 this makes an average of £1 million a year over three years—twice the 1962–63 rate. This seems to me to be a very reasonable rate of progress.

I know that even these considerable programmes will leave many schools in the county below the standards we must look for today. But it is wrong to proclaim this as a departure from the White Paper. It was never expected that everything could be done at once, either within the time or within the resources. The great advance of which the White Paper spoke will be made, and Lancashire will have her full share. We can then look forward together to tackling the tasks that remain.

4.2 a.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I have sympathy with Lancashire's problems and support my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) in the demands that he has put forward. In eleven hours' time I hope to put forward similar demands for Staffordshire, when we may have an opportunity to tackle the Minister of Education at Question Time.

The Parliamentary Secretary's answer has shown in general terms the continued complacency that exists in the Ministry. The fact is that we are not investing enough in education, especially in secondary education. It is no good propping up these figures as though they were big.

The Parliamentary Secretary knows we are not substantially increasing our investment in the education of our children year by year. He also knows, from his examinations of statements made recently by U.N.E.S.C.O., that our investment is one of the lowest amongst the advanced nations. In the process of replacing old and archaic buildings and trying to provide new opportunities we are not keeping pace with the rest in the numbers of children who have to be educated in secondary schools.

One of the illustrations of that is the fact that the number of over-sized classes in secondary schools is increasing, and the Ministry is not able, at present, to stop it, because its sights in the recruitment of teachers in the last few years have always been too low. As a consequence we are not reducing classes as we should. I am sure that it is true for Lancashire and other places that the sights of the Ministry with regard to new buildings are always much too low. We are moving forward very slowly in the provision that ought to be made. Those who have had the opportunity to examine the results of much bigger investment in education in other countries know that we are not keeping pace as we should in raising educational standards.

The recruitment of teachers and the provision of new buildings go very closely together. One of the problems in recruitment is the continued existence of the sort of archaic conditions my hon. Friend described. We will not get the kind of people we want into the profession until we tackle more vigorously this kind of problem. What Lancashire is demanding, other places are demanding. Their demands amount to a bigger programme of school building as a whole.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes past Four o'clock a.m.