HC Deb 28 June 1962 vol 661 cc1530-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Robert Woof (Blaydon)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise a matter which has caused some public disturbance in my constituency. I feel bound to go to the limit in speaking on behalf of Durham County Education Committee and the Blaydon Urban District Council. The position which has arisen is due to the refusal of the Minister of Education to include the proposed Blaydon-Winlaton modern school in the 1963–64 school building programme.

My attention was called to this problem principally by the Blaydon Urban District Council. Being responsible for exercising judgment in respect of local needs, the authority feels deeply disappointed with the view taken by the Minister of the prospects for the area. A real sense of grievance has been created as a result of the authority's failure to gain the Minister's support, and the clerk to the urban district council has accordingly written to me entreating me to plead with the Minister on behalf of the council. The fact that I am directly associated with the area in question obliged me to write to the Minister, and I took the opportunity to appeal to him to reconsider his decision.

I should like to refer the Parliamentary Secretary to the reply which I received from his right hon. Friend, in which he states that: First priority had to be given to projects required to provide school places for children in, for example, some large new housing estates and New Towns, who would otherwise have no schools to attend. In the light of events, I will set aside all temptation to provide an analysis and evaluation of such a restriction, but I must express some disturbance of mind at the thought that the progress of education, which is dependent on a programme of school building, may be retarded.

I do not intend to under-estimate the Minister's reply, and it is right to make it clear that he further states, in his own hand-writing, that he will keep the project in mind. This is a somewhat encouraging feature of his reply, but as it appears to be the only pledge made by him it far from satisfies the wishes of all concerned, and in the circumstances I feel compelled to go into some detail on the matter, because I want to bring the present position into prominence.

The issue interests me profoundly. I do not wish to consider it in a narrow or one-sided fashion. I simply wish to state the facts in proclaiming the need for this new school. I must postulate what I regard as a valid reason which must be borne in mind. Broadly speaking, it concerns the fabric of the communal provision of housing accommodation for the education service. Even though the present situation is a long way from meeting current demands, the work which has been executed as an obligation and responsibility by the Blaydon Urban District Council has been carried out in a very commendable way. To draw an arbitrary conclusion, I would have to concentrate on the summary of the Minister's distinction in respect of resources available to be applied to school buildings on new housing estates.

This begs so many questions that I cannot possibly deal with it properly in the time at my disposal, but it is clear that for some years there has been a need for an upward movement in this respect in the Winlaton area. This can be dealt with only in terms of the density of population requiring accommodation, and anyone who studies the situation there must appreciate the way in which the local authority has sought to tackle the problem, especially in the replacement of houses that have long outlived their habitability.

Much attention has been devoted to the type of property built in the last century, during the period of unregulated urban growth, and these landmarks have slowly disappeared. There has been a considerable transition, both in respect of enlargements and improvements, due to the fact that no less than 1,850 houses have been built since the war. The analogous change in the order of the housing estates has increased the population to nearly 9,000 people and in all the throes of planning, a way has been left open for every consideration of educational need.

Such changes, no doubt, are advantageous and welcome to general progress in this as in other similar housing developments. Though varied and necessary, they illustrate how common features of change are to be observed. They have been going on steadily for some time and will continue to breathe a fresh atmosphere.

To all appearances, this has become cumulative in effect, and for obvious reasons the wielding of educational needs of the area has been simultaneously determined. The more we observe this, the more we should recognise that the implications of continuous integration in the structure of the neighbourhood could not occur without changes in functions. Inasmuch as it has become the transcendant objective of the authority to raise the standard of housing facilities, however, I regret to have to say that there remains a lack of providing well-meaning intentions for educational opportunity.

Far from wanting to misrepresent the facts, I must state that a school already exists, but it is of such a quality and size as to be extremely inadequate to meet present-day educational demands. Moreover, much evidence of practical value can prove how all the physical changes have helped decisively to mould a pressing desire for a new school. But because the conditions are prejudicial to the advance of education, and as an aim of sincerity in being determined that something must be done, one must judge the merits of the proposal submitted to the Minister by examining it from the standpoint of seeking a remedy to remove defects which stand in the way of establishing a more secure dominance.

I will not linger over the history of the school except to say in merest detail that it was built in 1877. In its day, it would have been admirable, but, in line with the character of old schools, it has not the facilities to allow scholars to pursue vocational training which is deemed necessary. One's mind hurries back to the time when limitations were placed on vocations; and whatever encouragement may have been given, it remains true to say that nothing exceeds the general appreciation of attempts to succeed in the task of raising personal capacity and attainment.

With several other sources of interest, it may be deemed natural for many past images to be recalled in those early strivings to control the essential steps of learning. While I believe, however, that there can be no greater ecstasy than that which comes from educational advance, I must at the same time confess to the House that education is a subject which I would prefer to leave to the experts. Even though they may differ over details, I must regard its full purpose as being to fight life's battle, thus enabling people to adapt themselves to their environment.

No less do I realise the precariousness of the present difficulties of the school in question. In many essential respects, the effectiveness of a case will not be clear unless the conditions under which it operates are specified. Therefore, while prevailing impressions and my own judgment might be imperfect, I cannot do much more than acquiesce in revealing comments made by Her Majesty's inspectors in reports on the conditions of the school.

The dominant theme is that inadequacy of accommodation through buildings being dispersed in so many units makes the administration of the school very difficult. It has been possible to continue its use by the provision of overcrowded temporary classrooms. I may add that I find it useful to pursue the point a little further, as it is reasonable to assume that the main object is to underline the need for replacement. But because such explicit conclusions provide candour and firmness of opinion, one would at least think that it would influence some verve in getting rid of the old board-school type of building.

I suppose it is necessary to supplement generalisations by specialisation as what matters most is the work done in the school. But to work in dismal conditions is a difficult task. It may well be that enterprising teachers have assisted bright scholars to achieve remarkable results, for which, incidentally, they have most deservedly gained a large measure of respect and esteem in the locality. To take cognisance of these facts is vitally important. After all, we should be concerned at the extent of intolerable conditions. If there is one thing which is truly admirable it is perseverance. It can be a preserver of peace. While this remains the case everything justifies the conclusion that the schools will not be able to cope with the effects of the significant change in new housing development and all the additional school places required.

I believe that such a background makes it reasonable to accept that it is not paradoxical thinking on the part of Durham County Education Committee and the Blaydon Urban District Council to press for the new school. The special interest and claim to consideration is not conclusive as they proudly point to one of the objectives of the Act of 1944 which happens to be in the concept of commitment to provide real secondary education for all children.

Looking at the brighter side in so far as professed ideas are concerned, we know that many modern schools have achieved considerable success, especially from the vocational aspect, in preparing scholars to look ahead to the kind of work when they leave school. As I understand it, vocational preparation is accepted as a medium for gradual adjustment with a view to realising one's own potentialities and can only be a subordinate part of preparation for life itself.

Perhaps it is better to think that most people can look with just pride on the immense progress of education underlying an equal advance with its application to higher mental development. But while there is so much to be proud of and so much to boast about, we find, unfortunately, a very different picture in the antiquated provisions which I have tried to outline.

Co-ordination of definite interest in the practical affairs of education is universally discussed, but I am very much afraid that nothing could be more harmful to real progress than having to endure outmoded establishments. It is virtually impossible to evade the problem in its bearing on rising and permanent demands. The pressure cannot be withstood permanently for it implies if the authorities are to look forward confidently that something very different from the present set-up will be needed to establish a much wider foundation.

The basic issue is the gnawing problem to contend against the anticipated increase in the school roll. Such a prospect is undoubtedly provided by the dimensions of housing development which indicates how service may best be performed in the transition from school to work. It is in this respect that I believe it is only when scholars stand upon the level of equal opportunity that the differences in human endowments are manifest.

Naturally, our concern is increased to the extent to which facilities are available, but I also believe that the justice of the claim rests on the location of the proposed modern school through being situated on the outskirts of the Tyneside industrial area where a wide variety of industries and employers of labour look for broadly educated entrants who can be trained. It is for the reason of these specific problems that I would appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to consider with his right hon. Friend to let this project proceed. It cannot be waved aside. Overwhelming fristration must be avoided as any further prolonged delay will have a detrimental effect in giving the school a vital feeling of purpose, and this depends entirely on making the right choice to be of general benefit to all concerned.

12.30 a.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof) for giving us the opportunity to consider this quite important matter, and I am sure that the House is grateful to him for putting the considerations involved so clearly. We in the Department know that these two schools are unsatisfactory in many ways, and we ourselves would like to have them replaced. We know how much the local authority in Blaydon would like to see them replaced and how much Durham County Council would like to see better schools provided. I hope that the House will allow me again to retail the conditions under which we must apply our building resources at the present time.

We have to make quite sure that wherever there is a need for a school place for a child that school place will be provided. That is our first priority. Durham County itself has a good deal of experience in this matter, for it has experienced the building of at least two new towns and has seen great shifts of population from one side of the county to another and great new housing estates develop. It knows that in these conditions new schools have been provided wherever needed to meet the demands of those populations. That is our first priority and that priority we have always met.

Our second priority has been to see that the requirements of the Education Act, 1944, and, more particularly, the requirements of the 1958 White Paper, have been fulfilled—that there shall be provided for the senior children proper secondary education. This has involved us in making sure that we can separate senior children from the juniors and in the abandonment of all-age schools which were a heritage of the periods before the war. This means that we must be ready to provide new secondary school accommodation wherever it is needed in order to complete the reorganisation of all-age schools.

This is not yet complete across the Whole country, and in the County of Durham there are still some all-age schools to replace; but our second priority is to do just that. We are pressing forward as hard as we can to make quite sure that at the end of the five-year period that reorganisation programme will be complete, or that at least there will be committed building programmes projects which will secure its completion.

My right hon. Friend has given an assurance to Durham County Council that we will do our best to see that within that five-year programme Durham County itself, which has a very large backlog of this problem, will be able to satisfy the requirements of the 1958 White Paper. That is our second priority. I must tell the House that during the four yeans so far of the five-year programme we have found that most of our resources have been absorbed by these first two priorities.

There still remains the third of the priorities, which is the replacement of old, unsatisfactory and inadequate schools by new, modern and more satisfactory buildings. The schools to which the hon. Member referred are in almost every sense unsatisfactory. There is no difference between us as to whether these schools should be replaced by new buildings. Of course they should. We are experiencing here, as we are in many other places in the country, the results of raising standards. As we build new schools anywhere, everyone must look across his frontier and see these new schools and ask "Why cannot my child be educated in a school as splendid as that?". As these new schools appear in new areas, so there grows the air of discontent surrounding them. I think that I know the hon. Gentleman well enough to be sure that he will join me in paying tribute to the staffs of these two schools in their present buildings for the magnificent efforts they make and the splendid results they achieve, in spite of the difficulties under which they labour.

We are not complacent just because the results are good. We want to see the buildings replaced. I cannot say when it will be possible for us to promise that new buildings will be provided for the Winlaton County School and the Blaydon East County Secondary School. I do not know. This depends to some extent on the priority that the Durham County Council gives to the replacement of these schools. I must not suppose that there will be a battle between the Blaydon Rural District Council and the Durham County Council as to where the priority ought to lie. I do not know how that hand will be played when the times comes. I know that Durham County as a whole has a number of very serious and pressing problems. The years before the war were not easy ones in counties like Durham. It was not easy to make provision for all the social services which made demands on the limited resources available.

I know that in recent years Durham, like other counties, has been trying to catch up on the long backlog, not of neglect, but of competition for limited resources. I think that we are now getting to a stage when we can see the end of this rather difficult road, but it will be some years yet before we manage to satisfy ourselves that all that is desirable has been done. I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that his constituents are not neglected or overlooked. Their interests are as near to our hearts as are the interests of any other part of the community. We want to see real secondary education for all the senior children in the country, wherever they may be. We want to see an equality of educational opportunity broadly available across all the different communities which make up the land. It will not be easy, nor will it be accomplished quickly. But I should like the hon. Gentleman to be assured and I should like him to assure his friends at home that that is our target. We will work towards it with the greatest diligence and with the best will that we can muster.

I promise the hon. Gentleman that if the Durham County Council in considering its requirements for the 1964–65 programme, for which we have invited its submissions, cares to give this project—I know how difficult its other demands are likely to be—a high priority, we in the Department will consider it very carefully indeed. I will keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman in the hope that together we can be quite satisfied that the kind of conditions he has described and the demands he has made have been fully, carefully and fairly considered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to One o'clock.