HC Deb 10 April 1962 vol 657 cc1287-94

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

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I welcome this opportunity to raise a matter of importance to many of my constituents, namely, the rebuilding or repair of Tetbury Primary School. There are in my constituency probably some 700 parents whose children go to this school—and they are the very youngest children, to whom the parents have a special responsibility to see that their education is started in the best possible way. This touches a personal and private part of the lives of these parents, so the condition of the school is of major importance to them.

The school is a Church of England establishment, built in 1850. It cannot be said to be of remarkable architectural importance. Indeed, some of the windows and part of the premises could possibly have been designed in a different way without any criticism being levelled at them. It houses the junior and infant classes. It was built for perhaps 300 children, but today there are 423.

The classrooms are too small. All except three have to be divided up by temporary partitions. Temporary partitioning is not a sound-proof method of division, so it is easy for the children to hear what is going on next door and to be diverted from their studies by what seem to be the more entrancing studies of their neighbours on the other side of the screens.

One of the classrooms measures 8 ft. by 11 ft., and in that a teacher and thirty-three children pursue their studies to the accompaniment of noise from six basins and a boiler adjacent. The dining room has to serve approximately 250-odd meals, which have to be served in two shifts because of the lack of accommodation. As this room is also used as a classroom, two-and-a-half hours of instruction are lost each week.

The two cloakrooms are much too small, one of them being merely a passage. One of the rooms used for the infants measures 12 ft. by 18 ft., and is used as a cloakroom, washroom, sick room, staff room, interview room and, if my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary goes there, it will be used as a Minister's room as well.

As one can imagine to be the case in such a building, the toilets are completely inadequate. The 168 infants at the school have only five toilets—all outdoors—and one urinal. There is no hall—no place for physical instruction or drama or other such functions. The original hall, which would perhaps be adequate for these things, is constantly in use, divided into classrooms, and is not available for other purposes.

The staff, who do not expect to be treated any better than their students in this matter, nevertheless have a rather hard time of it. The headmaster and the secretary have a small hut, such as builders erect on sites in order temporarily to home their workers, measuring lift, by 7 ft., in which they carry out their business. There are four masters at the school, as well as several mistresses of course. The masters have no toilets in the school and have to depend on what I can only call local hospitality in that regard.

There does not seem to be any prospect of any improvement. The population of the Tetbury area is rising, albeit slowly for the past few years, but there are projects which have recently been put on foot for building other houses in the area. There is a seven-acre site in the centre of the town which is being developed as a private housing enterprise and the Tetbury Council has recently found it possible to restart council housing—it has already completed important projects and others are coming to fruition.

The population of Tetbury will increase, and in the neighbourhood, within motoring distance, there are many projects and modern industrial enterprises. We have a nuclear reactor at Berkeley and many small, medium and even large engineering business in the area. It is an area which attracts the young married couple with scientific or expect qualifications, people who may attach even greater importance than ordinary parents to educational facilities in the area to which they are moving. I have not the slightest doubt that if the educational facilities in the Tetbury area for primary school children were more elaborate and more adequate, the population of Tetbury would increase, especially with people particularly keen about the education of their children.

What I have said can leave my hon. Friend in no doubt that the standard of education has suffered because of the lack of facilities for primary school children in Tetbury. I know that I do not need to convince him, because I am sure that he has acquainted himself with the lamentable facts in connection with this school and I know that he will do whatever he can. But while we hope that he will be able to do something, events cannot be allowed entirely to take command and rule themselves.

Local people who are interested in this school have played their part well. Moneys have been collected and a site for a new school has been bought. My hon. Friend may know that in February, 1938—before the war—moneys were collected and a site acquired and for all that time the people of Tetbury have expected that the new school would shortly be begun. Plans have been agreed between the local education authority and the diocesan committee. At the moment there is a plan for a new junior school, leaving the present school as a school for infants. There is a project for an entirely new school, but that is by the way and does not prejudice the present position.

The local education authority included this new school in its 1963 projects at a cost of £61,000. It was twelfth in a list of thirteen, but it was top of the Church of England list for the diocese. It was, therefore, with the greatest dismay that it was ascertained that it was not to be in the 1963 programme, nor, we understand—although we have not received it yet—is it likely to be in the 1964 programme.

In addition, there is a new anxiety because there is a new secondary school projected for Tetbury alongside the new site of the primary school. Although it may be unlikely, and we cannot be sure about it, we have a dark suspicion that the two schools will simultaneously start to be built next door to each other in one town, and we fear that if the secondary school, which is needed as well, is started, the primary school will be put back further still.

It has been suggested that this site should be tinkered with and improved; that we might put up a few more nissen huts and things like that on the site, but it is very difficult because the site is restricted partly by a road, and partly by a steep slope. It is proposed that the road should be extended, and therefore the site is not suitable for extension or improvement. It is felt that the money spent on improving this site would really be money wasted, and that it would be very much better to start afresh elsewhere.

It is said that this is a replacement programme only, and of course we realise that there are parts of the country, and indeed parts of Gloucestershire, where there are no schools whatever and that if population went to those areas, no instruction at all could be provided unless money were spent on providing new schools. But, as I have tried to argue, this is not entirely a replacement programme. The population is rising. Housing projects are before the bodies concerned and before private enterprise, and I suggest that the population would rise faster if the educational facilities were available, which they are not at the moment. It is not entirely a replacement programme.

The parents of these children are not unreasonable about this matter. We realise that there are areas not far away, in Bristol and Cheltenham and elsewhere, where new schools have to be provided, but these proposals have been before us for more than twenty years. The parents of children attending this school were promised that there would be a new school whilst they were at school, and now they see their children going to the same building to which they went. It is very disheartening and I ask my hon. Friend to give us, if not a promise, at least the hope of some definite date when something can be done about it.

As I have said, it is not in the 1963 programme. We fear that it may not be in the 1964 programme. Can it be in the 1965 programme? It is not so much for the sake of the parents, who after all are forced to send their children there because there is no other school, but for the sake of the staff who are devoted to their work in this school. They know how much they are needed because the buildings are so bad, and because the conditions are so difficult they feel an added sense of responsibility to the children they teach and to the parents whose children they have in their charge. If they are given no idea when these conditions will come to an end, they might lose heart and consider that, from a professional point of view, it might be worth while teaching in a school where they can teach adequately.

One knows the difficulty of teaching large classes in inadequate premises, and as professional people they rather despair at times, but if they could be given some idea when this will come to an end I am sure that they would redouble their efforts over the next two years to have the satisfaction of saying that they had seen it through and seen a very much better situation by the time they left.

If my hon. Friend is not able to say exactly what year it will be put in—and I know that the Treasury accounting system is a difficult one even for so powerful a Minister as my hon. Friend to get over—if he could give some definite edge to his remarks, it would be extremely well received and it would be a measure of hope to the people who have for more than a generation been putting up with conditions which militate against the object which my hon. Friend has in mind, namely, the better education of the children of our country.

10.50 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend has fought a prolonged and earnest battle over the conditions at the Tetbury Church of England aided primary school, and has made repeated representations to my Department and to my right hon. Friend for a new building to be provided in an early building programme. A deputation of which he was a member was received at the Ministry in November of last year. I think I can assure my hon. Friend—both on the strength of the representations that he has made, and from the inquiries that I have caused to be conducted—that all the facts of this school are very well known within the Department, and it will not be for lack of any information about the desirability or otherwise of a new building that I may have to fail my hon. Friend in allowing him to extract from me the kind of promise or assurance which he seeks tonight.

We know that this school falls short of the modern standard for a school building serving the purpose that this one does. We know that it requires to be replaced at the earliest opportunity, and the best assurance I can give my hon. Friend is that on the strength of that knowledge we will try to see that this is done at the earliest opportunity. But when that will be is difficult to forecast.

I will not dispute any of the conditions which my hon. Friend has described, for they are precisely as we know them to be. I have some mild disagreement with him about the figures, but not sufficient to quarrel with him. I am informed that there were 136 infants and 231 juniors in January of this year, and I am advised that the figures show a slight tendency to decline rather than to rise. But the movement is so slight that we need pay no real attention to it. Apart from that, I accept all that my hon. Friend has said about the school.

Having said that, my hon. Friend and his friends in the neighbourhood may say, "If that is so, why cannot we have our new school?" I join him in praise and admiration for the efforts that parents have made to raise money, acquire a site, set their target and plan and conduct a campaign for twenty-five years. It is a very praiseworthy example of parental interest in the well-being of the children, and I am happy to see it happen in a case like this. But, as my hon. Friend has said, this is not the only school in the country—nor is it the only school in Gloucestershire—that requires to be replaced with new buildings. It will be a long time before we shall be able to claim that all our schools measure up to the modern standards that we have set ourselves in our post-war school building.

My hon. Friend will be aware that we are at present carrying out the programme set out in the White Paper published in 1958, called "Secondary Education For All. A New Drive," and our main building effort is directed at present to securing the objectives set out in that White Paper. In the building of secondary schools we provide improved conditions for some of the neighbouring primary schools when older children move away into new buildings. We are required also, at the same time and as part of the same effort, to make sure that wherever there is a new population, a new town, a new housing estate, or growing areas, to provide accommodation to make sure that there is a school place for every child who seeks it.

If it were to happen that Tetbury became a growing, developing area, with a great influx of new population, producing new school children in large numbers, we would have to make sure that there was school accommodation in the area suitable for the needs of those children; and some of our financial resources would have to be diverted in order to ensure that that was done. This is going on all over the country, and these two objectives—the improvement of our secondary school accommodation and the provision of what we call "roofs over heads" for the children appearing in the new areas—require the greater part of the available resources. Very little of our resources remain for purely replacement projects. Such as they are they must go at present to replacements in those areas where the secondary schools are so much below the standards which are required today that they are not capable of providing the conditions under which modern secondary education can be provided.

This work is going on at a great pace. Today the educational building programme is bigger than ever in our history. But much remains to be done and I hope that as our economic circumstances improve we shall be able to add to the impetus and the "steam" behind the building programme, and deal as early as possible with cases like the Tetbury Church of England aided primary school.

The most that I can promise my hon. Friend—I hope that he will not think that it is too little—is that we are, as I have said, aware of the circumstances of the school and we should like to see them improved and the present school replaced. I agree that this is not a case for tinkering with the present premises. The site is hemmed in and there is no room for physical expansion. I hope that we can provide a school in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, I hope that the constituents of my hon. Friend will not feel that the education provided in the school is bad. My investigations revealed that the school has a good record and a skilled and devoted staff are working under difficult conditions and achieving splendid results. I pay tribute to their work and to the work of many other teachers who are in similar conditions. It is true that a good teacher will teach better in a good school, but the important thing is to have a good teacher. Even in poor premises a good teacher will do a good job.

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to escape without giving the firm promise about the date by which it would be possible to provide new premises for which he seeks. I should like him to assure his constituents that we are aware of the problem. We are filled with admiration of the efforts of the parents and we hope that they will bear with us for a little longer while we tackle the even more urgent problems connected with the provision of educational facilities in other parts of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.