HC Deb 31 July 1961 vol 645 cc1104-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Sir H. Harrison.]

12.7 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I draw attention to the effect of the regulations, made in 1959 by the Minister of Education, on the school attendance of very young children. It is fairly commonly known that few nations have a compulsory school age as low as five. Almost universally, the age when by law a child must go to school is either six or seven, but why in this island, where children mature relatively late, we come to have a starting age of five can only be due to some accident of our fairly recent history.

However, my object tonight is not to suggest that the starting age should be changed. I am afraid that it fulfils a useful function in providing a free repository for children while some mothers earn a second income for the family, and so I should probably not be successful in getting it changed, as well as being out of order on the Motion for the Adjournment.

What is particularly surprising in that when our starting age for compulsory schooling is the lowest in the world, we should also, by regulations made as recently as 1959, insist upon immediate full attendance, both morning and afternoon, of all children over the age of five who attend State schools. In the Education Act, 1944, which imposes upon parents the obligation to send their children to school and upon local authorities the obligation to provide schools, the arrangement of the school day is deliberately left to the local education authority.

The Act of 1944 is the basic Act which set up the post-war system of education. It is comprehensive, and it is drafted in clear and simple terms. There can be no doubt that it did not set out to draw up a Napoleonic Code of education under which standardised curricula and time tables would be devised centrally and complied with universally. The most remarkable feature of the Act is the small scope of the powers conferred upon the Minister of Education by it.

On the other hand, the local education authorities form the keystone of the arch, and the special rights of parents are explicitly recognised and safeguarded under the Act. Nothing in it, nor in any Education Act passed since, nor in any regulations made under any Education Act, would make it possible for a Minister of Education to require of a child of five years of age—or, indeed, a child of any age—to attend a morning and an afternoon session in a normal school day.

This power was first exercised in the Education Regulations, 1959, and they were made under the Local Government Act, 1958, which introduced something which we call the block grant or the general grant, which included education, and I well remember the time when this new system of giving grants to local authorities was commended to us and obtained our approval, mainly upon the argument that it would increase the responsibility and the discretion of local authorities. It is, therefore, a little surprising to find that the Education Regulations, 1959, which make such punctilious provision for the attendance of children at school, among other matters, should be made under Section 3 of that Act, which is the default Section. The rubric to the Section is Power to reduce general grant in case of default and then the Section goes on to provide that: if the appropriate Minister is satisfied that a recipient authority has failed to achieve or maintain reasonable standards on the provision of any of the services giving rise to relevant expenditure … the grant may be withheld.

Under that Section any departmental Minister may make regulations for prescribing standards and general requirements for the administration of any of the services ranking for grant expenditure. It was under that Section—a Section not particularly concerned with education but with all Departments of the Government—that the Minister of Education of the day made the Education Regulations, 1959, specifying in detail a great many matters which he could not control under the Education Act, 1944, or any other Education Act. Therefore, we have the extraordinary position that so far from increasing local discretion and responsibility the general grant provision in the matter of education unleashed a sort of bureaucratic outburst which clamped a Napoleonic system upon the schools of England and Wales.

Since 1959 there has been no discretion anywhere in the educational system, in the case of parents, head teachers, local education authorities, or even in the Minister himself, because he retained no right to dispense with the Regulations and so had no discretion with regard to the attendance of a child at two sessions of every school day.

Up to that time I know of no case when parents had been prosecuted for failing to send a child of five to school both morning and afternoon. Since then, to my knowledge at least one prosecution has occurred, and I believe that in other cases there have been threats of prosecution. It seems a remarkable operation that all the majesty of the State is harnessed to compel a child immediately after its fifth birthday to attend regularly on two sessions in every school day regardless of the opinion of anyone near to the child.

These regulations of 1959 do not apply to private schools because they are grant regulations, and therefore the private schools have remained free in the matter and enjoy the discretion which was taken away from the State schools. The normal practice in them is for a child of five to start mornings only, and gradually, as he or she gets used to the atmosphere and the new experience, to go progressively on more afternoons a week until before the age of six there is school attendance on both parts of the day.

I know from experience with my children that at first even mornings only was very tiring, but they get used to it gradually and no harm is done to the child if the new experience is not one of dramatic and insistent suddenness. To persuade my hon. Friend that this is no personal quirk, I will read a few quotations from letters written by parents, teachers, and a chief education officer. The first letter is from a constituent of mine who wrote: Having had a Froebel training, and having taught in both State and private schools, I have always felt that afternoon school makes too long a day for some five-year olds. This was one of the reasons for trying to get my daughter"— into a private school But I was unsuccessful and she has started at the … village school. She says that she kept her daughter at home in the afternoon for three weeks, but then the coercive processes of the local education authority began to operate on her and, rather than have her child involved in a court case, she yielded and sent the child throughout the day.

The second case to which I draw my hon. Friend's attention is quite shamelessly lifted from a B.B.C. programme, but it is not necessarily any the worse for that. The parent of two young girls says that they came home very tired, and she adds: I find it difficult to understand why, when all psychological thinking in this country is in favour of mothers staying with their children almost completely up to the age of 5, what magical thing happens at 5 that they should then be compulsorily whisked away for 6½ hours … Yet another parent speaks of the sudden plunge from the quiet routine of home life into the six and a half hour day of the outside world. Miss Orchard, the headmistress of a State school, said in this programme: Children, when they start school, tend after a week or so perhaps to acquire an illness which is really the result of their emotional upset at starting school. They drop off in ones and twos during the first term or two because of this. They are children who dislike being parted from their mothers very much. Then she goes on to give particular examples from her own experience.

I find that a great many parents feel this about the complete lack of discretion in anyone at all about sending their children to school twice a day. Certainly parents have no discretion. Here is what a head mistress said. She was asked what she would do if a complaint were made to her that a child was being overstrained: I would say certainly for a day keep her off and let her have a rest. I certainly would not be able to give you permission to keep her off every afternoon for the rest of the term. She repeated that: I would certainly say keep them off for a day or two, but I could not give you permission indefinitely to do that without referring to the education authority. I come to the next stage of the argument. I referred my constituent's case to the education authority and the chief education officer wrote back. I found his letter extremely sensible and reasonable: I know there are some people who take her view, although I think they form a small minority of the population. At the moment there seem to be very many more who want their children to take full-time attendance at school well before the age of five. That is what one might call the repository element, I think, I find that those who plead for a gradual introduction after the age if five usually have enlightened views about the education of a young child and are prepared to play their full part in the development of their children. Then he says: Of course I am bound by the law in this matter and I have no authority to approve part-time attendance at school after the age of five. I agree with the view of the law on education taken by the chief education officer. It is quite clear from the regulations of 1959 that he has no discretion. It has been taken from him quite explicitly. Regulation 10 reads: On every day on which school meets there shall be provided for the pupils in all schools of classes mainly for pupils under eight years of age at least three hours of secular instruction divided into two sessions one of which shall be in the morning and the other in the afternoon. It goes on: unless exceptional circumstances make this undesirable. I hope that my hon. Friend will not skate out under that one. It is clear that it refers to some exceptional circumstance like the school being regularly burnt down at lunch-time. It does not refer to the fact that someone thinks that it is an undue strain on children of five to send them to two sessions each day. I do not think that that escape is available to my hon. Friend.

If I am right about this, the position in law is that the parent has no discretion in the matter at all and some times is prosecuted for keeping a child at home on the ground that it is over-tired or over-strained. The best that the parent can hope to do is to get a medical certificate to say that it produces an illness. The head teacher has no discretion and must insist on the child attending. The local education authority has no discretion whatever and must insist on the child attending. Under the regulations, the Minister has no discretion, either; except by laying a new set of regulations, he has no discretion. The whole thing is absurdly rigid.

I will sum up my views by quoting the leading article of The Times Educational Supplement of 10th March: Why is it that an efficient private school can recognise that the mornings are enough for its earliest entrants while the local authority school insists on exposing its infants to the full rigours of the live-long day? The answer lies in the rigidity of the statutory system … Anyone who has experience of private and State schools in this matter must recognise that the gentle introduction the private sector gives has much to commend it. Can we not really get down to considering whether here the independent schools have not a practice which the State schools might do well to copy? These are the points which I wanted to put before my hon. Friend. I know that the Act speaks of full-time education, but there is no escape for my hon. Friend there because that is a general expression. It appears, for example, in the attendance Section, Section 36, imposing upon parents the duty of securing the education of their children which reads.

It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise. If that is satisfied by the parent sending his child regularly to a private school which meets only in the morning for five-year-old children—if that meets the duty of providing efficient full-time education—how can it be argued that the phrase "full-time" in the statute makes it incumbent upon the Minister to make regulations in the form of those which he made in 1959?

There are three solutions. He can restore discretion to the local education authority, he can give it to the head teacher or he can give it to the parent. I should regard any of those as progress in the matter and should welcome any, but I commend that he gives discretion to the parent. That would merely involve a slight adjustment of the school timetable so as to concentrate the formal instruction in the morning and the halma and dominoes in the afternoon. If that were done it would be open to those parents who want to send their children in the afternoon to send them without there being any disparity in the curriculum of formal instruction between the children of those parents who hold them back in the afternoon and those who send them. I hope that my hon. Friend can announce that this change will be made.

12.28 a.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) has left me little time to deal with a matter which is both wide-ranging and of considerable importance and interest. I wish to acknowledge at once that there is more than one educationally respectable opinion held on this point and, secondly, that there are many parents who will share same at any rate, probably not all, of the views expressed by my hon. Friend.

Let me say first of all that the choice of the age of five is no innovation thought up suddenly and rather wildly by some enthusiastic education reformer. It has respectable roots buried deep in the history of education in this country. In the short time which I have had at my disposal I have traced it back as far as 1861, and no doubt it has beginnings even earlier than that. Its origin at that time was not quite as respectable as I hope to show that it is today. I understand that a Commission—the Newcastle Commission—reported in 1861 that because of the demands of the employment market children could not be expected to stay at school after the age of eleven and it was therefore important to concentrate as much as possible upon the education of infants and young children.

Ever since then, very frequently almost regularly, the question of the age at which a child should be required to attend full-time regular schooling and the conditions and circumstances under which the schooling should be provided have been considered by my right hon. Friend and his predecessors. I hope that my hon. Friend and those who share his views will not think that this matter has had anything less than the most careful and thoroughgoing consideration.

I will now say something about the legal position in which my right hon. Friend finds himself. I realise that it was unintentional, and I acquit my hon. Friend of attempting, beyond the use of occasional extravagant language, to mislead the House, but this is not a new proviso battened on to our education system in 1959. Nothing new was done in 1959 which altered the practice which had existed for a great many years before 1959. In that year it became necessary, as my hon. Friend suggested, as a consequence of the passing of the Local Government Act, 1958, to rest the regulations under which our schools were conducted upon a different Act, but there have always been Regulations for translating the Statute itself into the requirements of my right hon. Friend.

Section 36 of the 1944 Act requires that parents shall arrange for their children to attend full-time education suitable to their age, ability, and aptitude … by regular attendance at school … What the Act does not do and what my right hon. Friend cannot do is to interpret that Act in any way which would extend the meaning of those terms. So he must frame regulations which rest upon the best interpretation he can place upon the terms in the light of what he believes to be the intention of Parliament at the time. Any further interpretation of those terms must wait upon a decision by a court of law.

As my right hon. Friend sees it in drawing up these regulations, the Act requires that the child shall attend school full-time and shall attend the school regularly. He must therefore try to decide what is meant by the expressions "full-time" and "regularly". This he does by the regulations to which my hon. Friend drew attention Therefore, a child of the age of which we are speaking can satisfy those requirements only if he attends school full-time, that being interpreted as meaning during the time for which the school is open for the provision of education for children of that age, and does so regularly—that is, by attending whenever the school is so open and providing education for that kind of child.

My right hon. Friend therefore applies these Regulations to the system as it exists in this country at present. We live in a country which has provided over a very great many years a pattern of education based upon the regular attendance of children from the age of five for full-time education. It would be very easy to design alternative systems. Indeed, as we have heard, there is one in existence in certain private schools in this country. Those schools have been set up, patterned, organised and run for varying periods on the basis that they will provide education in a morning only—during one session in the day. The education provided in that way is taken by my right hon. Friend under the use of his powers under Part III of the 1944 Act to be sufficient. But the maintained school system has been organised on a different basis. There may be two opinions about which is the better, but the fact remains that the maintained school rests on the basis that there will be 400 sessions in a year, representing morning and afternoon sessions on 200 days.

I do not pretend, and I have not the time to argue the case in very great detail now, that the school system as we practice it would come to an end if a few mothers decided that their children could not stand the strain of a morning and an afternoon session, but the fact is that the system is so framed that the child will get the greatest benefit out of taking part in both sessions, and the class itself will work better under such a system. A child not only takes away from the school community but contributes something to it as well and while there it is the child's part in the corporate life of the school that matters.

Our great problem is not to find means of providing escape routes either for Ministers or for parents who want to deny their children such education as is available for them, but to provide more and more education, not only all the way up the scale but in the nursery schools and for children of nursery school age where those schools do not already exist.

My hon. Friend may have left the impression that this rigid, Napoleonic structure which he described in such frightening terms meant that parents and children were bullied and browbeaten and driven into impossible corners by the wickedness of my right hon. Friend, by immutable laws administered by education authorities, and by the horrible unbendingness of head teachers. I can assure him that he lives in a different world from the education system in which I spend the greater part of my life.

I can recall no case being brought to my notice where parents have objected to the way in which the system has been administered. My researches in the Department since I knew that my hon. Friend wanted to discuss the matter, have failed to throw up the single case of a prosecution to which he has drawn attention this evening, and I venture to think that that case rests on some slightly different foundation from the points he has argued tonight, but perhaps my hon. Friend and I can discuss the matter at a less late hour, when our minds are clearer.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday 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 twenty-two minutes to One o'clock.