HC Deb 28 May 1962 vol 660 cc1117-26

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

10.40 p.m.

Mr. E. H. C. Leather (Somerset, North)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education the most vexed single question within his purview that still exists in my constituency. I would hasten to add for the record that the spelling on the Order Paper of these two villages in my constituency is wrong in both cases. The one is Paulton and the other Timsbury. We are very jealous of these ancient names in Somerset.

The position which arises in the secondary school which we should like to share between the two villages is a bad case anyway, and it is the more particularly glaringly bad, and sticks out like a sore thumb, because—it is only fair to say this—my hon. Friend and the Minister and their colleagues in the Ministry over the last few years have done an outstandingly good job in north Somerset. We have had nine fine new schools built in our part of the county in recent years, but this makes the one really black spot left behind look much worse.

It also does something much more serious. This is not just a point of local pride, I want my hon. Friend to understand, and I hope that he will consider what it means. It means that the children from one very small section are placed by circumstances within the control of the Ministry—at any rate, within the control of the Ministry and the Treasury —at a positive disadvantage with the children of every neighbouring school for miles around. I should not like to be misunderstood, and I should like in my few brief remarks to pay tributes where they are deserved. The headmasters of these two schools, their staffs, the governors and the pupils themselves do an absolutely splendid job in the appalling conditions. Paulton school is a school which those who know it are proud of, but they do work in awful conditions.

These villages are both industrial, and the great majority of the people who live in them work either in the coal mines or in the printing industry, and there are growing light industries in every direction. In a growing industrial district like this it is important that the children take the G.C.E. and some technical training, and it is very important especially for boys in getting suitable jobs. The youngsters in Paulton school can share in none of this at present and those in Timsbury school only in a very restricted fashion.

I shall not bore my hon. Friend with too much detail, because I know that he has already given the matter great study, but the basic facts, for the record, are these. The proposal was first put to the Ministry in March, 1960, and it was hoped very much that it could be got into the 1962–63 building programme. It was not. It was put up again. It has now been turned down for the 1963–64 programme. If I had power to enforce any decision on my hon. Friend, I would say, we want it put back in the 1963–64 programme. If he cannot promise that, at least we should like an assurance that it is going to get absolute top priority in the 1964–65 programme. It is the worst case left in our part of the country, and there is a real sense of grievance which I think is justified.

The backbone of our educational structure, of all this tremendous expansion and improvement over which my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend have presided, stemming from the Butler Act of 1944, is a great achievement. But in my part of the country it has hardly yet started to function.

The Minister has made much of his great aim to allow youngsters to stay on at secondary school beyond the age of 15. At Paulton, we have not even started this. The children cannot stay on. If they did, the school could not cope. At Timsbury, while it is possible, it is most difficult and only a very limited number take the benefit of what we want to give them.

The Paulton school is the key to the problem. It is an ancient girls and infants school converted years ago. It was out of date before the war. My hon. Friend has had a report, and I will not harry him or the HANSARD reporters with the gruesome details. But I think that he will agree that the report reads like a kind of prehistoric catalogue.

There are no facilities for physical education, but one room with a weak floor can be used if it is not raining too hard. There is no outside space. There are no playing fields or changing roams. There is only one hot water tap in the school, and this is in the housecraft room. The science laboratory is in a temporary hut put up many years ago. I doubt very much if the building would be passed by a factory inspector as being even reasonable. There is no equipment and no possibility for any kind of metal work, although this is important to the relationships of technical training and apprenticeships in engineering.

The staff facilities for the devoted people who work there are quite deplorable. There is one tiny staff room. /f they are all in it at once, not all of them can sit down, because there is not enough room. There is one wash basin and one w.c. I suppose we should not leave this catalogue without putting in all the facts: the w c does for both male and female staff. It is all somewhat primitive.

These are the basic facts, and I know that my hon. Friend will not dispute them. I believe that they are all on record in his Ministry, in the inspector's report in 1960. I am not arguing on grounds merely of emenity, of having everything nice and of looking after the little darlings. I think that sometimes we can overdo these things and sometimes be extravagant. But at the moment in these schools we can do nothing to help the children to get a technical education, although they live in the kind of community where this is badly needed.

Indeed, only a few miles away is the new county technical college at Radstock. It is a pride and joy of my constituency and a joy of my life. It is an absolutely first-class school. It has opened up new horizons to young people in our part of the county which never existed before. Nevertheless, it can produce a greater sense of frustration, since only a limited number can go to it. There is tremendous room for expansion there. It has a fine headmaster and a fine staff. They would dearly love to take these children from Pau1ton, but cannot because the children cannot get the kind of preliminary training to qualify. This has created a justifiable sense of grievance in the community.

The position at Timsbury is certainly not nearly so bad, but it is far from good. The school is small and crowded and unsatisfactory. It can cope with the over-15s and it can cope with some technical training, but only on a very restricted basis. Thus, is both villages we have primary schools which are quite pre-Flood.

This project was put forward by the governors of the two schools in 1959, for the building of one new school—at a spot convenient to the two villages, which are only three miles apart—which could take the secondaries of bath. We could have all the advantages of a fine modern school with staff facilities, playing fields, and so on, without extravagance. I have studied both the plans in the county education department and the county architect's estimates and they seem to me to be well within the quite proper limits laid down by the Ministry. The two secondary schools could be moved to this building. The Timsbury primary school could be moved without any trouble, and the Paulton secondary school could be adjusted, at moderate cost, to suit the much more modest needs of the primaries.

This one project would revolutionise the educational picture in this important and growing part of my constituency. I ask my hon. Friend to take this one back and have another look at it. I can promise him, at any rate, in the words of one notorious figure, this is my last territorial demand on his Ministry. We have further expansions in our part of Somerset which are necessary, but there is no case anywhere in our part of the county which is comparable with this in the need, in the sense of social injustice and in the sense of grievance from which we suffer.

I do not know whether even at this late date my right hon. Friend may be able to go back to the Treasury and say, "The programme is big, but it is not big enough. The needs of our young people are tremendous. Education is our greatest national investment. We must have a little more". It is not unknown for us to have to consider Supplementary Estimates, even for so well-run a Ministry as the Ministry of Education. Is there a chance and, if there is, can we get this school back into the 1963–64 programme? If, alas, the answer to that must be, No", can he assure us that in the programme for the following year this school will be given the priority which everyone concerned with it, reasonable responsible people, and certainly myself, solemnly believe it should have?

10.53 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather) for providing us with an opportunity to examine a situation which he described with balance and accuracy, even if the terms which he felt compelled to use painted a very dismal picture in the end. I share his concern that we should still be making use of school buildings of the kind that he described, and we know perfectly well how much greater the opportunities for the children would be if we could provide the new buildings to replace them.

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the fact that poor school buildings, while always unsatisfactory, become a thousand times more unsatisfactory as new buildings for other schools appear within reach and when parents are able to compare what their children are getting with what is being provided for the children of their neighbours, and to some extent that is a feature of this case.

But my hon. Friend quite rightly made the proper argument which is that the pace of education and the pace of demand for education are both changing dramatically and are forcing us to consider new and higher standards, not just in the provision of buildings, but in the products of those buildings and in the opportunities which are offered to the children who go to those buildings. We want to see all our children housed in good modern buildings, with proper facilities for pursuing education to the limit of their capacity, staffed by enough teachers with the right qualities, striving to make the most of their opportunities and carrying the education of the children as far as it can go.

It is quite legitimate for my hon. Friend or any critic to ask why we do not do it. The answer to my hon. Friend's request this evening is the answer we must give to that question: we cannot do everything at once. There is going on in this country—as I took the opportunity of saying in the House a few days ago—the largest educational building programme that the country has ever been engaged on, and we have to divide the resources that the building programme requires as wisely as we can, although this might not necessarily seem to some of our disappointed suitors as fairly as might be. This matter must rest upon a system of priorities.

The House must always have in mind the White Paper on Secondary Education For All, issued in 1958, on which is based the policy we are administering at present, that over a period of five years—1960–65—we would invest £300 million in providing new primary and secondary school buildings to achieve three aims, the first being the provision of new school places for children wherever they may be whenever they may appear. That is to say, in new housing areas in new towns and in growing areas of old towns, we would have to provide school places for all the children who appear.

That we have managed to do, up to now. I think that alone of all the civilised countries we can claim that there has not been a time since the war when there has not been a place for every child where that place was wanted and when it was wanted. There has been some overcrowding and some use of poor, old buildings and substitute buildings, temporarily, here and there, but over the country as a whole, with the enormous boost in the school population from 5 million to 7 million children in those years, we have always managed our first objective, to get a place for every child.

The second objective was to carry out the intentions of the 1944 Act and to provide real secondary education for all our children. In its simplest meaning this requires us to separate the children from the old all-age schools into their separate categories of junior schools and secondary schools This process is very nearly complete through out the whole country. There are still one or two areas where, for special reasons—as a rule site difficulties and that kind of thing—there are still all-age schools to be reorganised, but the second objective is within sight of achievement in the next year or so.

The third objective of the policy outlined in the 1958 White Paper was to tackle this kind of problem, where secondary education as we now conceive it—and it is a comparatively new concept—can be provided for all our children. The newness of the concept to which I refer is the idea that there may be children, even after the selection process has done its work—however it is done—who still nevertheless want to go on in the secondary modern schools to a length of study and possibly a level of study that was not deemed either necessary or desirable only ten or twelve years ago. That is the third objective, and it is at this point that we find ourselves compelled to disappoint some parents and children in some parts of the country.

The intensity of the problem varies from one part of the country to another, and sometimes for curious reasons that might seem unfair and illogical. Sometimes, because we have to commit so much of our present resources to the provision of new school places and so much of what remains to the completion of the reorganisation process, there is no money available for the replacement projects, of which this school is one, probably in an area which has done exceptionally well of its own accord in the old days, in getting rid of its all-age schools and keeping its primary schools up to date. So it may sometimes seem that a good local authority, with a good record in the past, may appear to be penalised at the present time. I should be sorry if any local authority thought that was being done deliberately. It is the force of circumstances that compels us to use the resources in the way in which I have described.

How does this policy apply to Timsbury-Paulton? Of course we want to see a new school there of the kind my hon. Friend has described 'providing facilities and amenities for the children of these two villages and the surrounding catchment area. The project was put up for a bid for a place in the 1962–63 building programme. I will not go so far as to say that had the authority given this project a higher priority on its list, it would have got a place in the building programme. I doubt whether that would be true. But the authority, with its county-wide responsibilities, concluded that it had other and more urgent projects to press. It is not for me to query the judgment of the authority. It was probably right. We were not able to go far enough down the list of priorities to catch that project. So they put it up again in a bid for a place in the 1963–64 programme, the details of which we announced a few months ago.

Again, the Somerset authority, using its knowledge of its schools and probdams, gave other schools a higher priority, and again, unfortunately, we were not able to cast our net wide enough to embrace this project. Whether we can go back over any part of the 1963–64 programme is a difficult question to answer. My hon. Friends knows that we are limited for all sorts of reasons in the amount of money we can devote to the school building programme. I should not like to hold out any hope of the 1963–64 programme being extended in a way to enable us to help the constituents of my hon. Friend. But I should not depart from my duty as I see it if I said that, if any change were possible, we would certainly consider the plea that my hon. Friend has made tonight.

We have recently asked local authorities to let us have their ideas about what they would like for the 1964–65 programme. This is the fifth and final year of the five-year programme referred to in the 1958 White Paper. A good deal may depend on the degree of priority which the Somerset local education authority gives to this project in its submissions to my Department. We shall certainly give full weight to what the authority has to say. I cannot promise that the school will find a place, for I cannot foresee what Somerset may offer in the way of other projects for the county as a whole. Nor can I tell how much weight will be attached to the different claims that will come from different parts of the country, with the different kinds of items and projects which have to be satisfied.

I hope that if all goes well, and Somerset gives this priority in its list, and if claims on our resources are not too great, it may be possible to foresee a place for this in the programme. Beyond that it would be outside my power to go, for there are too many incalculables. I can go home tonight fortified by the thought that I may be able to satisfy my hon. Friend's last territorial demand, but I do not want him to feel that he has necessarily made his last speech on this subject in this House.

I will certainly do what I can to see that the children in this part of his area are not more heavily prejudiced in their ambition to get the best they can out of the education system which was designed for their benefit. If we can help in any way, we shall certainly be anxious to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.