HC Deb 26 February 1964 vol 690 cc588-98

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

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Walker (Smethwick)

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Education for being here this evening at this relatively late hour. It shows his great concern for detailed matters of education problems and school building and, I think, the importance of the subject that I am raising not only for my own constituency but because of the principles at stake.

The schools in Smethwick have been a matter of concern for many years now, and recently have become the centre of a certain degree of controversy. This is because a small but influential number of Conservatives in my constituency—including my opponent—have seized upon the number of immigrants in some schools to urge a kind of segregation of immigrant children—those who cannot speak English very well—within the schools, advocating that they should be taken out for a certain number of hours not only to learn English but to be taught a number of subjects, such as history, geography, and so on.

This seems to me to be clearly opposed to what the right hon. Gentleman said at Southall on an earlier occasion, when he expressed a view that I was glad to hear. I think that it is right to take children who do not speak English out of the classes to teach them the language, but for the rest of the time, even if they do not benefit very much from the education, they should be in classes with the English children, because this is one of the best ways of breaking down segregation and getting the children together in the normal running of the school.

But the real issue of concern about which I wish primarily to talk is the question of school building and modernisation and the consistent refusal of the Ministry to approve, except to a small degree, proposals put forward by the local education authority.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the local education authority has a very long record of excellent work in education, going back for two generations. It has pioneered many developments in this little borough. It has always acted responsibly and carefully. It has never put forward just propaganda or grandiose schemes. I want to say that by way of introduction, because otherwise it might be thought that it had merely put forward proposals without much care. That is certainly not true of the Smethwick authority.

If the right hon. Gentleman says that the same sort of policy is being applied in other places by the Government, this does not seem a very good argument. It shows that the wrong policy is being pursued in those other places as well as in Smethwick.

I begin the story in the years 1960–61 and 1961–62. In the programmes for those two years, the local education authority put forward four schools with a value of about £388,000. One school was granted in that period by the Ministry, St. Philip's Roman Catholic School, to a value of about £37,000. In 1962–63, the authority put forward four proposals, and again only one was granted, a Church of England primary school. Certainly both these projects granted were urgently necessary. These were very old-fashioned and poor schools.

In 1963–64, three school projects were suggested and none was included in the major building programme. In 1964–65 proposals were again made on the same lines and once again none was included in the major building programme. Thus, for two years, there has been total stagnation. Very important projects are being held up.

One of these is the Uplands Secondary School, of which the right hon. Gentleman will be aware. It needs remodelling at very considerable cost—£141,000—and it will be urgently required to meet the raising of the school leaving age.

Of a different kind I would single out the Corbett Street Primary School, which has very old premises in a part of the town which really needs a new school. I think that would be too expensive, but certainly the school badly needs modernisation.

I know the priorities that the right hon. Gentleman has set and I agree that broad priority should he given to new places for the new towns and for the development areas and to getting rid of all-age schools. But if these priorities are applied too sharply quite clearly they gravely affect a constituency like mine where there are these old buildings and where redevelopment is going on which may not come within the priorities laid down but which, to a degree, claim a priority that the Ministry cannot deny.

This local education authority has had a very good reputation over many decades. The continued refusal of the Ministry over the last two years to meet any of the proposals put forward has caused deep resentment, and even more moderate proposals have been put forward for the years 1965–68 for the Holly Lodge Boys Grammar School and the Uplands Secondary School adaptations and alterations to which I have referred.

I do not ask for preferential treatment, but for consideration of the problems which exist in my constituency. I do not want to overstate it, but I think they have a claim to rather more consideration than the Minister or his Ministry have given to these claims.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I intervene only very briefly, because I contested the constituency of the right hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) two elections ago and in general I should like to associate myself with his plea for more consideration for school building in this excellent small local education authority's area.

Having stated my general association with the right hon. Member, I must draw attention to the particular points with which he opened his speech. There may be no doubt that the presence in classes of substantial numbers of children who cannot speak the English language is very delaying to the education of English-born children. The point the right hon. Member very wisely made about the need to take them out of their classes to learn the English language must be emphasised. But he said that he wanted them to be brought back into their classes for history and geography. It seems perfectly ridiculous to try to teach history and geography in a language the children do not understand. They should be taken out of the classes and, in small groups, given intensive coaching in our language. I agree that once they have learned the language they should go back to their classes, but it is no service to the English children of the borough if their classes are invaded by numbers of immigrant children who do not understand the language.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Does not the hon. Member agree that it would not be the English children who would be held back, but immigrant children? They would benefit by mixing and living together. It is quite false to say that the English children are held back.

Mr. Wells

In my submission it is not false, and that is precisely the point. Teachers with fairly large classes have to devote more time to coloured children than they normally do to other children and therefore English children get held back. If we could have special classes for them, all the benefits of integration which the right hon. Member rightly puts forward would be obtained.

11.18 p.m.

The Minister of Education (Sir Edward Boyle)

I should like to say a word on the point the right hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) mentioned at the start of his speech and which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) has mentioned. Then I shall go on to school building. Then, if time permits, I should like to say a word about staffing of schools in Smethwick.

First on the point about immigrant children, I have discussed this with the Birmingham local education authority. I spoke on it at a meeting in Southall and heard the views of many teachers on it. Most of them are of the opinion that an experienced primary teacher can manage the educational problems perfectly well provided that the proportion of immigrants does not rise above a certain figure. That is why I have always said on behalf of the Government—not just as my policy but as Government policy—that I will give encouragement and such help as I can to any authority which attempts to spread immigrants around the schools so that one does not have too big a concentration in a particular school. I agree that it might well be the case that in some schools there is an advantage in having special English classes.

But I should not like it to be thought that in large parts of the country, or any substantial area of the country, native-born children are being held back in their education because of immigrants. I do not believe that this is so. The point which we must avoid is getting such a big proportion of immigrants in a number of schools that the education problem becomes unmanageable, and above all I hope that we shall avoid the problem whereby one gets de facto segregation simply from the situation developing that way. This may be impossible to avoid in one or two cases—I fear that this happened at Southall—where an area becomes so exclusively occupied by immigrants that there is only a small proportion of other parents who can send their children to a particular school. I repeat that I will give such help as I can and certainly encouragement to any authority which tries to prevent a particular school from becoming purely an immigrant school.

I pass to school building. The right hon. Gentleman is correct: the programmes which Smethwick has put forward between 1960 and 1965 have been modest and what Smethwick has received has been modest. The authority has put forward only five school proposals during this time. The right hon. Gentleman's speech might mislead a reader of HANSARD, because some of the projects were submitted for two or three years, but in fact Smethwick put forward five projects of which two were accepted, to a total value of only £88,000. One has to remember that while Smethwick tackles its problems with great spirit, it is a small authority with a very small school population of only 9,000, which represents a drop of 10 per cent. since 1959—a drop matched by no corresponding drop in the total school population of England and Wales. There has been emigration as well as a birthrate which has tended to decline.

This has presented a problem from the point of view of the school building programme, because between 1960 and 1965, following the White Paper policy of 1958, my predecessor and I gave priority, first of all, for projects needed for roofs over heads; secondly for the elimination of all-age schools; and thirdly for secondary improvements and replacements.

In this period the authority put forward two secondary projects. The first was to replace the James Watt Technical School, and the second was the Uplands Secondary School project. I should like to say a word about each of those. I should like to make it plain that the original project to replace the James Watt Technical School was the same kind of project as the Holly Lodge project subsequently proposed.

The selective school project proposed between 1960 and 1963 was originally put forward as a proposal for a four-form entry mixed school. My Department gave good reasons, which if they were not accepted were finally understood by the authority for thinking that that was not a proposal which could be fully justified.

It was in 1961 that the authority decided instead to propose the replacement of the James Watt school by enlarging the Holly Lodge Boys' Grammar School from three-form entry to four-form entry, and the authority put this forward again for the 1963–64 programme. We have done a substantial volume of secondary replacement between 1960 and 1965, and I can only say that, after considering all the projects put up, it was impossible to give this one as high a priority as some other projects put forward by other authorities.

There was also the proposal for the Uplands Secondary School, which has never been pressed as strongly by the authority as the Holly Lodge project. The authority made no formal representations at its exclusion, and the deputation which came to the Ministry after the announcement of the 1964–65 programme did not press very strongly, I understand, for this project.

Now I should like to look forward to the years after 1965. As the right hon. Gentleman and the House know, the total amount allocated to school building will be very considerably bigger in terms of building starts. There will be an increase from an annual level of starts of £ million to an annual level of £80 million. In terms of programmes announced to authorities it will be increased from £50 million to £80 million, that is, comparing 1964–65 with the two following years.

Very modestly, I must say, the Smethwick authority has put forward only two proposals for 1965–66 and 1967–68.

Mr. Gordon Walker

They are moderate.

Sir E. Boyle

I freely admit that some authorities whatever their past experience are very much less moderate in their demands and also very much less moderate in the place they attempt to get in their local Press on these subjects. I have more than once got myself into trouble by saying that local authorities would, I think, be surprised if they were to get all they put in for. I am thinking particularly of one large authority which said publicly that it could do £5 million or £4 million a year and put in for £18 million for 1964. I still think it would have been a little surprised if it had got all it asked for.

At the other end of the scale, Smethwick over the three years has not put in for a primary replacement project; but has again submitted the Holly Lodge Boys' Grammar School project for expansion and adaptation to four-form entry at the very modest sum of £100,000 and has also asked again for the Uplands Secondary School project at a cost of £160,000. I was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman say the Uplands project is really needed to provide for the days when the school leaving age will be raised. Of course, that particular argument, as he will realise, does not make this as urgent as some other secondary projects. Granted that that time may come, that is a strong argument, but it is not an overwhelming argument for including a project in the very next year.

It would be quite wrong of me to give any commitments in answer to an Adjournment debate when I am considering the whole field, but I will bear in mind Smethwick's programme's back history in this matter as well as the proposals which Smethwick has put forward for the next years and I will certainly bear in mind the number of times the Holly Lodge Boys' Grammar School has figured in the list and the fact that Smethwick did not have any secondary replacement or improvement between 1960 and 1965.

I do not want this to be taken as a commitment but I shall be giving a great deal of personal attention to these programmes in the coming weeks and I will of course bear in mind the history of school building in Smethwick, the disappointments there have been, and the general modesty of Smethwick's proposals when considering the next phase in school building.

I say that not only because Smethwick is only two constituencies away from mine. I can well remember the time when I shared a boundary with the right hon. Gentleman and I recall that, speaking in Handsworth in support of my opponent, he said he would make a better representative of Handsworth than the existing Member. I will not give the point more relevance than it deserves.

Since I am speaking on the subject of education in Smethwick, I hope I shall not be trespassing on the patience of the House if I say a brief word on the subject of the staffing situation, because the staffing situation is a serious problem in Smethwick County Borough. There are all the staffing problems which exist in Birmingham as a whole and in some other places as well. Last year the Smethwick authority was 9.3 per cent. below its quota of teachers. A return just received shows some improvement this year, but at 1st February the authority was still some 6.8 per cent. below its quota and only three or four other authorities fall so far short.

I am glad to mention the figures because the quota is often under fire, in very good faith, by people who think it wrong and unfair that teachers should be the only rationed commodity. As Member for a Birmingham constituency as well as Minister I have a double interest in the matter. It should be realised that this is one of the very severe problems which afflict a certain number of county boroughs, not least in the Midlands area. The gap has been filled, but not to any significant extent, by married women returners or part-time teachers, most of whom are usually qualified teachers; but, in addition, there have been employed in Smethwick a number of temporary and occasional teachers. One in seven of Smethwick's teachers is unqualified, which is six times the number in the country as a whole. It is only because of these teachers that the teacher-pupil ratio in Smethwick is up to the national average.

I think that there is one more hopeful factor for the future. The Birmingham area, as a matter of deliberate policy, had a large share of the national expansion of the training colleges, and this should help all local education authorities in the Midlands area. Fewer than 2,500 students were attending colleges in the area towards the end of the 1950's. There are now nearly 5,000 and by the end of the 1960's there will be about 8,000.

As a part of this expansion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame Edith Pitt) will know, a new day training college for mature students was opened at Bordesley last September. The hon. Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) rightly often asks me about the development of the day training colleges. I express the very strong hope that Smethwick will do its utmost to recruit its share of additional teachers coming forward from these extra places.

Mr. Gordon Walker

It will.

Sir E. Boyle

I am sure it will, but I make the point that we are expanding teacher training in the Birmingham area fairly fast at the present time, and this seems to me to give an opportunity to boroughs such as Smethwick.

I conclude by saying that we often discuss major national educational policy in this House. I think perhaps we do not always realise the problems that afflict some county boroughs with special difficulties like Smethwick, or the extraordinarily devoted work that is being done by teachers in these county boroughs, often under conditions of very great difficulty. I can assure hon. Members in all parts of the House that in our policy at the Ministry we want to help these boroughs as much as we can, and see that no intolerable burdens are put on them by reason of the large influx of immigrants. But I must say that while it is for individual authorities to decide on the arrangements that they think best for coping with this problem, I very much hope that we shall, in our educational policy, bear in mind the interests of all children educated in schools in this country. I believe this means making very great efforts to prevent particular schools from becoming, in effect, purely immigrant schools.

I have slightly widened the original proposed range of the debate, but I wanted to make these points about schools and staff, and to assure the right hon. Gentleman once again that I shall take a personal interest in the Smethwick school building programme between now and when I am able to make the next announcement.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven Minutes to Twelve o'clock.