HC Deb 02 August 1962 vol 664 cc923-34

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

9.57 p.m.

Mr. John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to discuss the sorry history of this year's secondary education selection procedure in Bournemouth. As this matter concerns not only my own constituents but also those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle), I have asked my hon. Friend to join me in the presentation of the case, and I shall be grateful if you will permit him to follow me so that he may add further to the points that I shall make.

I want at the outset to tell my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education how much we both appreciate his presence here tonight. It is unusual for a full Minister— if I may so describe my right hon. Friend— to reply to an Adjournment debate. This demonstrates what a very serious view he takes of the situation which has arisen in Bournemouth. I should like also to say— and I am sure my hon. Friend joins me in this— how grateful we are to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) for the very great interest which he took in this matter and for the care with which he studied the representations made to him while he was Parliamentary Secretary.

It is not possible in this short debate to go over all the history. Inevitably, much detail would have to be omitted. Briefly, the facts are that since 1953, the Bournemouth Borough Council, as the town's local education authority, has been operating a two-tier system of selection for grammar school places. The examination consisted of two parts. Only those who achieved a certain standard in the first part were invited to sit for the second part. The standard of eligibility for the second part was made up of two distinct categories— those who secured 360 marks and those who secured less than 360 but not less than 340, provided that they also had the recommendation of their primary head teacher that they were suitable for grammar school education.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Eden

This scheme was introduced for two reasons: to relieve the grammar schools of some of the pressure arising out of the increased numbers then coming forward and by introducing a G.C.E. course in the secondary modern schools to provide an alternative route to "A" level.

It is a fact that over the years many late developers have been able, on leaving their secondary modern school, to go on either to grammar school or municipal college to take their "A" level. Work in the secondary modern school was given a new sense of purpose and it is not by accident that Bournemouth can now boast of having some of the finest modern schools in the country. As the secondary modern schools have very properly drawn ahead, the grammar schools, in spite of the steadily increasing population, have remained fixed at one for boys and one for girls.

Out of a list of seventy local authorities showing the percentage of children in grammar schools, Bournemouth's name appears second from the bottom— sixty-ninth out of seventy. This is especially surprising in the light of the Moray House Report which shows that out of forty-seven local authority examined, the mean intelligence quotient of Bournemouth's children was the highest of all— Bournemouth being first out of forty-seven for intelligence, yet all but bottom for grammar school places.

With these figures as a background, it is not altogether surprising that the council was anxious to give further consideration to the selection procedure. Discussion and argument which extended over a considerable period, reached their climax on 1st May when it was decided to abolish Part II of the examination and to recommend that the education committee be instructed to make provision for grammar school education for those passing Part I— passing, in this context, as made clear at a meeting of the secondary school Governors on 8th May, applied to all those who having taken Part] were eligible to sit for Part II.

Unfortunately the May resolution came right in the middle of this year's selection process. The children bad already sat for Part I and notices had gone out to those qualifying, inviting them to sit for Part II. With Part II cancelled, it was generally assumed that all those children who had been eligible to sit for it would instead automatically be offered places in the grammar schools. Indeed, they were encouraged in this belief by the discussion in council which made it perfectly clear that the main purpose in cancelling Part II was to increase this year's grammar school entry by about a further 160 or approximately 10 per cent. of the number who originally came forward for the first part of the examination.

When asked by the chief education officer, grammar school heads confirmed that in an emergency they could this year accommodate an extra 125 pupils— that figure being the forecast before the supplementary Part I examination had been taken, of those likely to be eligible for Part II but who had not got 360 marks. In the event, that figure was increased by nine making a total of 134.

The parents of these 134 children assumed, as indeed did their primary schools and opinion generally in the town, that they would go to grammar schools. But on the 5th June the council changed its mind: only those who had gained 360 marks in Part I were to go to grammar schools. On 8th June, the rest the 134— were offered G.C.E. courses in secondary modern schools.

You can understand, Mr. Speaker, that this came like a bolt from the blue. Without previous warning, without having made any effort to disillusion the parents— if, indeed, there had been any misunderstanding of the position— without a word of explanation, the authority informed them that their children would not, after all, be going to grammar school.

Uproar followed. The parents formed themselves into a special association. With commendable restraint but with very great tenacity they fought for their rights. They lobbied councillors, Mem- bers of Parliament and Ministers against what they legitimately regarded as a flagrant breach of faith by the education authority. The council remained adamant. It refused to allow the 134 children to go to grammar schools even though the grammar schools were ready to take them.

On the 23rd July, it went one better and threw out the May resolution altogether, reinstating Part II. At only three days' notice, two of which were taken up with the town's annual school sports, the 134 were invited to sit for this crucial examination. Many flatly refused to do so but were subsequently given a second chance. One cannot blame them for their attitude. In the end, 113 out of the 134 finally took the examination, 56 of whom passed and have been offered grammar school places.

I feel sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that this has been a shameful episode in the history of education in Bournemouth. I am sure, also, that he will understand the parents' feeling of anger and bitter resentment not only at the reversal of the original decision, but also at the highhanded manner in which this whole affair has been conducted.

I put in one plea on behalf of those who have been diverted to G.C.E. courses in secondary modern schools. It is that instead of being dispersed throughout the schools they should be kept together so that they will be encouraged to maintain the highest possible standard of work and conduct. At any rate, I urge the Council to review the working of the transfer system at the earliest stages to make sure that the brightest children who did not succeed at 11-plus are given the opportunity as they progress to pass over to grammar school for their remaining school years, and I urge my right hon. Friend to speed on the establishment of more grammar school places, which are so clearly needed in Bournemouth.

There are lessons here for us all to learn. Perhaps most important of all is for the Authority to remind itself that it is not dealing with units or statistics but with human beings possessing feelings and emotions, and the Authority's sense of public relations needs to undergo a drastic reappraisal. The whole of the marking system is wrapped in mystery. Why? Do not parents have a right to know? The whole method of selection must not only foe fair, but must be seen by parents to be fair.

The Council should set out in clear and unambiguous terms exactly what the selection procedure is to be. It should conduct an inquiry into the causes of this year's confusion and should now be taking steps to ensure that a similar situation cannot arise in future.

Finally, it would be a simple act of courtesy, if nothing else, if the authority were to write to parents apologising for the grotesque manner in which the selection procedure has been distorted this year. Will my right hon. Friend look into the whole question of grammar school provision in Bournemouth and do what he can to ensure that the selection processes are fairly conducted from now on?

Whilst the events of this year have understandably generated a most unfortunate atmosphere of distrust and hostility, my earnest hope— I am sure that it is also that of my right hon. Friend— is that if only for the sake of children harmony will speedily be restored. Let the parents now accept the position for this year and let the authority, profiting from its mistakes, act with greater frankness and greater humility in the future.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for calling me as I am very glad indeed to follow in support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Eden) has said. This matter has led to an untenable and deplorable situation. I am hopeful that this debate will bring about a satisfactory conclusion to the matter and that the wrong which has been done can be rectified, even at this late time.

This is no time to be mealy-mouthed. Unpalatable as it is to me, I feel that the sorry story of a council whose lack of wisdom and misunderstanding must be told, because so much unrest and unnecessary distress to both children and parents could have been averted by more careful thought and planning. It seems that complete absorption in an administrative wrangle at the expense of a small group of young children regardless of the effect on those children has brought about the difficulty which we now have to face. Most regrettably through the muddle-headedness of the education committee the council has been brought into disrepute and the good people of Bournemouth have all but lost confidence in it.

One thing is very certain; it is most important that such a situation should not happen again. As there is no independent educational advice available to the education authority, it is not perhaps fair to lay all the blame on the council, but if there is a lesson to be learned it is that in the days to come the council must see that future policy within the Act is properly interpreted by the right men. This seems to call at once for changes in the borough education office. Without question Bournemouth is ripe for more grammar schools, and, as my hon. Friend has shown, there is a clear need for more grammar school places in Bournemouth. In support of this, I quote an extract from a letter I have received from the headmaster of St. Paul's School, Bournemouth who says: As a headmaster of thirty years wide experience I know how we have suffered under the peculiar Bournemouth scheme and all primary heads of experience, if honest with themselves, know this. Over these ten years many of our best pupils, real G.S. material, have been thwarted of their rights and directed to secondary modern schools. A member of the staff, giving evidence recently before the education committee, said: While I, and I can speak for all my colleagues at Bournemouth Grammar School, would like to see an additional grammar school, or schools here, I wish to emphasise we are not in any way criticising or jealous of the excellent results obtained by the secondary modern schools and certainly do not wish to abolish G.C.E. streams in them. We think, and they very sincerely, that children capable of benefiting from grammar school education should receive it in a grammar school and that this should not depend so much on the town in which the parents happen to live. It is obvious to me, and I am sure to this House, that the administration is at fault and that a certain power is standing in the way of this vital development. Our children in Bournemouth are entitled to these grammar school places. I hope that the Minister will take special notice of this tonight. I have very much on my mind the serious breach of good moral conduct by the authority in respect of seventy-eight children who, having had the misfortune of not passing Part II of the examination, are now through the injustice of the council's ruling, to lose the opportunity of a grammar school education.

Even at this late hour, in my view something can be done for them. We know— and this my hon. Friend has said — that there are proper places available in the grammar schools, and all it needs is for my right hon. Friend to direct the council to implement its decision of 1st May and its obligation, redeeming itself and providing the places for these seventy-eight children.

If my right hon. Friend is unable to accede to this, may I ask him to support my hon. Friend's plea that these children should be kept in distinct groups. This, then, can well pave the way for a new grammar school, which is so urgently needed. But in any case, may I be assured that all the children's work will be closely reviewed at the end of the first year with a view to moving up to grammar schools? For those fifty-six children who have passed Part II, may I ask for the Minister's undertaking that they will not be required at any future date to undergo any further selection procedure or tests?

In conclusion, may I thank the Minister for the careful and close attention which he has already shown in our sad dilemma and, with respect, ask him in his wisdom to intervene even at this late hour and to proceed with an inquiry at once into the whole selection procedure as it is in Bournemouth and into the ability and competence of the officials in charge of education there?

10.17 p.m.

The Minister of Education (Sir Edward Boyle)

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Eden) and Bournemouth, East and Chrisrtchurch (Mr. Cordle) for raising, as they have properly done, the question of this year's secondary selection arrangements in Bournemouth. This was one of the first matters referred to me when I came to the Ministry. It is a matter to which I have given a certain amount of attention and thought, and I am grateful for this opportunity of speaking about it.

In the light of the lucid speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bourne- mouth, West— and I think that some of my hon. Friends present may well have been surprised at some of the facts which he gave us this evening— I do not think that I need rehearse the history of events in Bournemouth since last spring which have led to the need for this debate. I will simply say that at a critical point in time the Bournemouth Council took a decision affecting the future education of some 1,500 children. In my view, this decision was not sufficiently considered, and I am bound to conclude from the evidence which I have studied that it was not properly explained to those people, namely the parents, who had the best right to know what their authority was planning. In any event, I say quite categorically— and I shall return to it in my speech— that it was a decision which ought not to have been taken in mid-stream of this year's 11-plus arrangements. I realise that the results have caused a great deal of anxiety and unhappiness for the parents and the children concerned.

The parents affected reacted quite properly by organising themselves into a group, choosing spokesmen from among themselves, presenting their case publicly in a reasoned way and seeking redress from their Members of Parliament. I have met representatives of the parents. The meeting between us was confidential, but I should like to say that, having in my time received a good many deputations, I have never received a deputation who put their case in a more lucid and temperate manner.

I do not want to dwell too long on the past. During the last few weeks the Bournemouth authority has arranged supplementary tests for those children who were unexpectedly deprived of their chance to qualify for a grammar school, and in the end more children have been offered places in grammar schools than was earlier thought possible. But it remains true— as I realise— that some children were taking these tests at short notice after a period of uncertainty and in an atmosphere of worry, and this must leave some parents— those whose children did not get through the examination— with a sense that these tests were not carried out under ideal arrangements. I fully appreciate that.

Nothing can now altogether eradicate these feelings, but what has happened has happened. There is, I believe, no way of eradicating history here, and I think that the important thing is to learn from it for the future.

I believe that a number of lessons can be learned. I think that they are applicable generally and not merely to Bournemouth. First and foremost, it is essential, in my view, that any decisions taken by councils affecting secondary education arrangements should not be brought into effect in the middle of one year's process of selection. I hope that these words will have a wider audience than merely Bournemouth, because this is a point of principle of great importance. What may appear a perfectly reasonable resolution of a council, taken by members in all good faith, can cause serious harm and an alarming loss of confidence among parents if it is carried out without regard to timing.

Further, decisions which directly affect parents, children and teachers must be fully, openly and carefully explained by those who take them, otherwise people are at the mercy of unreliable report and gossip, which in themselves add to the anxiety and loss of confidence. Do let us remember that the ordinary parent, understandably enough, is not all that well informed about selection procedures— the 11-plus and all that. This is a difficult subject— a subject, dare I say, where even in the House there is sometimes less than perfect information among hon. Members. How much more must this be true among the public at large.

My second general point is this. This year's troubles in Bournemouth have centred on the arrangements for the 11-plus test, but a wider issue lies at the back of all this, namely, the whole pattern of secondary education, the proportion of grammar school places, the provision of academic courses in the modern schools, and so on. These are very important issues.

I have noticed with interest what my hon. Friends have had to say about the grammar schools in Bournemouth and I am sure that the Bournemouth authority will try to look at all these issues calmly and objectively. They matter very much indeed to the parents and children of Bournemouth, and they must be regarded seriously. They are certainly matters which I am very ready to discuss further with the Bournemouth authority.

In everything affecting education we must all be willing to learn from experience and to adjust our minds quickly. I am very conscious, returning to the Department after a lapse of time, that none of us can assert that we know all the answers to any educational question. The pace of change in our world is rapid, and we must be ready to be flexible in our approach to all these matters.

There is one other factor in educational planning to which we must pay increasing attention. Do not let us ever forget the ever-growing conscious interest which parents all over the country are taking nowadays in the educational system. Everything joins together to convince parents that success for their children depends on the education which they receive. Parents want to see good primary schools, good secondary schools and every kind of opportunity for further education after school. Parents may not be expert on the particular details of secondary school selection. They may not be interested in a particular organisation of schools or a particular set-up for secondary education. But all parents are profoundly interested in what the system offers to their own children and they want their children not to have just one chance but as many chances as they need to get as far as they can up the educational ladder.

These last few minutes I have digressed just a little from the particular difficulties in Bournemouth because I think that it is important to consider what general lessons there are to be learned from events in this one area.

For the last few minutes of my speech I will come back to Bournemouth. I said earlier that, although the authority had arranged that children who were ruled out on their first decision about this year's tests did in fact get a chance to qualify for a grammar school place, none the less there remained a number of children out of this group who had failed to qualify in either of the later tests and a few who did not take the tests, for one reason or another. Between 60 and 70 of these are children who were recommended by their head teachers. These children will be able to go to one of the secondary modern schools in Bournemouth, with the opportunity of taking a course leading to the G.C.E.-"O" level and if they are successful they will be able in due course to transfer to the sixth form of a grammar school.

But I am fully aware, as my hon. Friends may tell, that some of the parents in this group are left with a sense of injustice, and I have considered this point very carefully. After all, these are objective matters to us in this House, but I can well understand and, I hope, enter into, the feelings of the parents concerned. It is with that thought in mind that I am asking the Bournemouth authority to take special steps to watch these children in their first year at the secondary modern schools so that in any case where it appears that a wrong decision may have been taken this year, the boy or girl is offered a transfer to the grammar school. This must, of its nature, be a rather informal and personal arrangement for this small group of children. None the less, I believe that what I have said is right, and I hope that the Bournemouth authority will take the special steps I have just mentioned.

There cannot, I must say frankly to the House and to those outside it, be any question of the results of this year's 11-plus tests being scrapped, and everybody starting again. Apart from anything else, a serious injustice would be done to the great majority of children were such a course to be entered on. But, having ruled out that possibility — and, I am sure, rightly ruled it out— on the one side, I repeat that it is of special importance that the Bournemouth authority should take special steps to watch the performance of these particular children whom I have mentioned.

I hope that having explained to the House how I view the matter, and having made myself perfectly clear on what, I agree, has been a distressing episode, I very much hope now that the children and the parents involved will be able to look to the future, and feel that their case has been looked at in the Ministry with all the care we can offer. I would only like to add that I am sorry that my return to the Ministry should coincide with an episode that I personally regard with very great regret indeed.

On the whole, I think that our educational system works well. We have very much to be proud of in our educational achievements, but do let us remember that the success of our educational system must in very large measure depend on the work of the local education authorities, and on all those who, whether as administrators or councillors, have special interest in and concern for our educational system, looking carefully and objectively at the interests of the children, and being very careful never on any account to pass resolutions or take action that can lead to a sense of injustice.

I do not think that I ought to say more this evening, and I end by thanking my hon. Friends for raising this issue, as they have very properly done, and for acting in the finest traditions of the House as representatives for their constituencies.

Mr. Eden

I should like to thank my right hon. Friend very much for his reply, but may I ask him to clarify the position? Did he say that these children could be kept together in a single group, or in groups, or are they to be dispersed throughout all the secondary modern schools in Bournemouth?

Sir E. Boyle

I am sorry that I did not answer my hon. Friend on that point. I think that there would be very great difficulty in keeping them in a single group, or in two or three groups. I must simply stand on what I said earlier; that I am asking the Bournemouth authority to watch these particular children, and their performance in the first year in secondary modern schools. I have considered my hon. Friend's point, but I do not think that it would be practicable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.