HC Deb 01 June 1961 vol 641 cc580-6

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

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)

In October of last year I was invited by the Governors to visit the King Edward VI Grammar School at Totnes. I was shown round by the headmaster, the chairman and a number of governors, including the then Mayor of Totnes, himself an old boy of the school. I found the school which was built originally as a boarding school, in the main street in Totnes. The boys are no longer boarded but a much larger number are being taught than the facilities allow. Heating is by gas fires and the boys are so cramped for space that I should imagine that the boy nearest to the fire is half-cooked. Outdoor clothing is hung in the class rooms and I can imagine the pools of water and the steamy atmosphere which must result on a wet day.

The toilet accommodation is inadequate and the gymnasium is an old chapel some distance up the main street. Changing facilities in the chapel are non-existent. The boys must change at the school and go up the hill and across the main road wearing their gym clothes. The chemical laboratory is completely inadequate and I fail to see how the most brilliant scientist could teach science in such conditions.

Because it is in the centre of the main street, there is no adequate space to extend the school in the way required to meet modern conditions. It was therefore decided that a new school should be built to replace both this school and the girls' school, which is not such an old building. The question which everyone concerned is asking is, "When?"

Following my visit to the school I wrote to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education and in his reply of 14th November he said that the county authorities intended to include this project in the proposals for 1963–64. They also proposed to do what they could to improve the conditions in the existing school. I wrote again pointing out that money spent on improvements to the school likely to be pulled down would be wasted. In his reply of 24th November my hon. Friend agreed that, the more we spend in patching up, the longer the replacement of old and inadequate buildings will be delayed. On 28th November the chairman of the governors informed me that the chairman of the county education committee and the county education officer had inspected the school and had expressed concern. I accompanied them to the Ministry on 7th December, where we met an official and a schools inspector. While not wishing to betray any confidence, I may say that my impression upon leaving was that all those present were seized of this problem and were prepared to treat it as urgent. However, on 18th March of this year I received a letter from the mayor containing the news that the governors had been told that funds would not be available until 1965–66, and the committee of the governors had adopted a resolution viewing with great concern any suggestion to delay the building beyond 1963–65 as promised. This was confirmed by the Minister in reply to a Question by me on 4th May. However, in answer to my supplementary question he said: I agree that the school has poor buildings, but it is for the authority to decide its priorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1961; Vol. 639, c. 1574.] It is not my job, nor is it my intention, to apportion blame for the hold-up. All that concerns me is whether another generation of boys, fitted for and deserving of a grammar school education, is to be condemned to receive it under the present unsatisfactory conditions.

I am informed that the school has recently been inspected, but my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary may not yet be in a position to comment upon the report. I beg him, however, to give the decision his closest attention, because I believe that this is a special case which requires special attention.

11.5 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) for bringing forward this matter and providing us with an opportunity to discuss what is, I am sorry to say, characteristic of a number of the problems my Department has to face at the present time.

I should also like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the zeal and persistence with which he has pursued this matter over quite a long time. I hope that his constituents will not feel that such delays and hold-ups as there may have been in the matter are in any way attributable to lack of effort on his part. That would be far from the truth. No hon. Member could have represented his constituents' interests with greater forcefulness than has been the case with my hon. Friend.

I am glad also to have the opportunity to explain once again how it comes about that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education finds himself so frequently in this kind of difficulty. It is certainly not of his choosing, and it is one which he tries to avoid so far as he can. We are faced, in the Ministry, with the very difficult job of apportioning a limited amount of money for school building projects among a great number of applications for funds for this purpose, many of which are rightly of a very high priority and yet many of which, by nature of the limited amount of money available, at the end of the day must find themselves excluded from one year's building programme or another.

We invite authorities to submit their proposals to us year by year. We have reached the stage when we are asking them to submit their programmes one, two or more years in advance in order to get a long view of likely demands, and to give them a long time to prepare their plans and the opportunity to get their schools on the ground as soon as possible when each new building year arrives. First, we have been compelled, in the years since the war, including the early years of this five-year building programme, to give priority to all projects which are designed to provide new school accommodation either in the new towns or in new housing estates. That is an overriding and absolute priority to which we must devote the first of our resources year by year. Secondly, we are compelled, by the terms of the 1944 act, which is the basis upon which all our work rests, to provide resources to complete the reorganisation of schools into primary and secondary schools, so that all children can get the education appropriate to their age. Thirdly, as a result of the outline plans that the 1958 White Paper described in detail, we give most of what is left of the resources to providing for the improvement of existing secondary schools.

I come now to Devonshire. I hope that my hon. Friend will not think me wrong when I claim that Devonshire has had a fair share of the available resources over the years—about £400,000 a year for new building projects in the county. I know that is not enough. I appreciate that. No sum, whatever it might be, would ever be enough to meet all the needs of every single one of the 146 education authorities with whom our business is concerned.

Nevertheless, it is quite an appreciable sum. This county, as it happens, has not had a great deal of demand for new additional school places, for it has not been an area which has been receiving large increases of population. Devonshire also, by virtue of the fact that it had an efficient and zealous education authority in the years before the war, managed to provide itself with school plant which meant that, when we came to the post-war stage, it had not great demands for complete reorganisation of its schools into secondary and primary, so that the greater part of the school building programme carried out by the Devon authority in recent years has been for the improvement of existing secondary schools.

However, this school is bad, and is housed in inadequate and unsatisfactory premises. I do not dissent from a word that my hon. Friend has said in his description of the premises. I think that he would want me to pay tribute to the staff for the excellence of the work they do, not only on its merits, but particularly in the light of the circumstances in which the work is performed. This I do gladly. The school has quite a good record, and I am happy to acknowledge that from this Dispatch Box.

However, this school is not the worst, and here we come to the question of allocating priorities within priorities. Devon has other secondary schools which have made, so far, a greater and more clamant call on the resources of the county. The local education authority must decide, subject to agreement with my Department, what its priorities shall be, and there is a great deal of discussion and "to-ing and fro-ing" between my Department and the local education authority until agreement is reached. Up to now, other school improvement projects have taken a priority above this school.

We now come to the point of deciding what is to happen in the immediate future. There are still other schools in the county which, however narrowly, will come in front of the King Edward VI School in any list of priorities, in the programme for 1963–65. I know that does not give the governors or the local education authority any pleasure or satisfaction. I know that they only reluctantly accept that as a judgment on the situation. Nevertheless, the evidence before me leads me to accept it as a fair conclusion. The local education authority and the governors have now decided—and only recently—that this school should be replaced jointly with the replacement of the girls' grammar school, and that there should be built instead of the two, one three-form entry mixed grammar school, which will cost about £200,000, and I am sorry to say that this sum cannot be found out of the reserves available to my Department or from the share of Devon until, at the earliest, 1965–66.

I understand that it is the intention of the local education authority at present that this should be the number one priority on such a list, and no one in my Department would dissent from that as a way of dealing with the problem. I would hope that the local education authority, having already earmarked the site, I understand, would have its plans ready, discussed with my Department, and agreed, so far as possible, so that as soon as we get to the stage of deciding how the projects for 1965–66 shall be slotted into the actual building operations, it would be ready immediately to go ahead.

I realise that this will not give much satisfaction to my hon. Friend or to the people of Totnes and district. I very much hope, however, that they will see that the conclusion I offer has not been reached without close examination of all the facts and possibilities. A good deal of money—about £7,000—has been spent in recent times in trying to improve the immediate working machinery of the school. I would not for a moment use any pressure on the authority to try to spend more if the school is to be completely replaced, but I would hope that by the continued skilful and intelligent use of such resources as the school has, it may be possible to bridge this gap without inflicting too great hardship on the staff or pupils, and that the school will continue to perform well until it is properly replaced by a new building.

Nothing will be lacking in my Department to see that all the necessary preparations go forward as efficiently as possible and as far as possible so that by the time that it gets into its building programme in 1965–66 everything will be ready for a prompt start. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that assurance as being in the best interests of the children in this area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter past Eleven o'clock.