HC Deb 30 June 1964 vol 697 cc1140-5

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make the afternoon attendance of young children at school discretionary. May I, at the outset, make clear what I am not seeking to do. I am not seeking to change the minimum age for compulsory schooling I am not seeking to alter the present provisions for school, morning and afternoon, for those who wish it. I am seeking to relieve the position of those parents who have children aged 5 and who find that immediate compulsory attendance at school by these children morning and afternoon, for six and a half hours a day, five days a week, imposes undue strain upon them.

In this country we have the lowest starting age for compulsory education in the world. I think that only two other countries have compulsory education starting at 5—Ceylon and Paraguay. I do not want to change the starting age, but it being the case that we have the lowest compulsory education starting age in the world, I wonder why we should be so rigid and fierce in demanding immediate whole-day attendance for children of this tender age.

It was not always so. From 1870 until 1959 the matter of afternoon attendance at the starting age of 5 was left to local and personal common sense. It is not, strangely enough, a provision of any Education Act which causes the difficulty which I seek to remedy by my proposed Bill. The 1944 Act was the basic Act setting up a post-war system of education. It imposes their respective duties on parents and schools. It is a comprehensive Act. It is simple and clear in its terms. It did not set out to impose a Napoleonic code of education on the whole country, nor prescribe what a school ought to do. It is, in fact, remarkable for the extremely limited powers which it confers on the Minister of Education. The keystone of the arch is the local education authority. Everything, or almost everything, under the 1944 Act was left to the discretion of the local education authority.

Under the 1944 Act and, indeed, under the Acts which preceded it way back to 1870, neither the Minister not the local education authority can lay down what constitutes a school day It was left to discretion. Section 36 of the 1944 Act, which imposes on parents the duty of sending children to school and on local education authorities the duty to provide schools. state that It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise. So far as I know, no parent of a 5-year old child has ever been prosecuted under that provision for wanting to introduce the child gently and progressively after its fifth birthday into the State system. There is no definition in that or any other Education Act of what is full-time education or regular attendance at school. That was all successfully left to common sense and local discretion. Private schools almost universally have a starting age of 5, with morning attendance only, and then, as children get familiar with the change from home to school, attendances gradually increased—afternoon attendances—until, well before the age of 6, children are attending school for a full week. Suddenly, in 1959, this sensible arrangement was replaced by the most punctilious prescription, and not under any Education Act. In 1958, we had the Local Government Act, which introduced something called the general grant, or block grant. This was commended to us at the time—I think rightly—as increasing the responsibility and discretion of local authorities. On that basis it secured the approval of this House. Under the Local Government Act of 1958 there is a default section, Section 3. The rubric to that Section states: Power to reduce general grant in case of default. The Section provides that … if the appropriate Minister is satisfied that a recipient authority has failed to achieve or maintain reasonable standards on the provision of any of the services giving rise to relevant expenditure … the grant may be withheld.

That Section does not apply particularly to education. It is a default Section dealing with the whole of local authority services. Under it any departmental Minister may make regulations prescribing standards and general requirement" for the administration of any of the services ranking for grant expenditure.

Under that Section of the Local Government Act, 1958, the Education Regulations, 1959, were made, prescribing in exact detail what constitutes a school day and laying down by central prescription, I am sorry to say, many matters which could not be prescribed either under the 1944 Act or any other Education Act. It is from Regulation 10 of the default Regulations that we have this legal requirement that a child, on going to school for the first term after its fifth birthday, must go in the morning and afternoon for five days a week, otherwise its parents will be prosecuted.

From that time on prosecution and threats of prosecution of parents have gone on, not because local education authorities wanted to do that but because they had to do it. Otherwise, they would be in breach of the 1959 Regulations. A constituent of mine, who wrote to mo in 1961 because she had been threatened with prosecution, said: Having had a Froebel training, and having taught in both State and private schools, I have always felt that afternoon school makes too long a day for some five-year-olds. This was one of the reasons for her trying to get her daughter into a private school, but she was unsuccessful and the child started at the village school. She kept her at home for two or three weeks in the afternoons, but then the coercive process began. In order not to have to go to court, she gave in and sent the child to school.

About the same time these prosecutions were exciting public attention. There was a programme on television about them. A headmistress of a State primary school made the position clear as she, and as I, understand it. There is either a medical certificate from the doctor saying that the child is ill or the child must go to school. She said: I would certainly say keep them at home for a day or two, but I could not give you permission indefinitely to do that without referring to the education authority. I shall not give her name. She also said that she thought this was wrong.

I wrote to the Chief Education Officer for Buckinghamshire and got a very sensible answer. He said: I find that those who plead for a gradual introduction after the age of five usually have enlightened views about education of a young child and are prepared to play their full part in the development of their children. Of course, I am bound by the law in this matter and I have no authority to approve part-time attendance at school after the age of five. I agree with his view of the law. I think that he is quite correct, because Regulation 10 of the 1959 Regulations reads: On every day on which school meets there shall be provided for the pupils in all schools of classes mainly for pupils under eight years of age at least three hours of secular instruction divided into two sessions one of which shall be in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Under that Regulation neither the parent nor the head teacher, nor the local education authority nor the Minister himself, unless he lays new regulations, has any discretion in any case unless there is a medical certificate.

I raised the matter on the Adjournment but, I am sorry to say, I did not have a great deal of success. I sum up by quoting from The Times Educational Supplement: Why is it that an efficient private school can recognise that the mornings are enough for its earliest entrants while the local authority school insists on exposing its infants to the full rigours of the live-long day? The answer lies in the rigidity of the statutory system … Anyone who has experience of private and State schools in this matter must recognise that the gentle introduction the private sector gives has much to commend it. Can we not really get down to considering whether here the independent schools have not a practice which the State schools might do well to copy? The hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), with whom I do not often have the pleasure of agreeing, has recently been the chairman of a Labour Party study group which has been going into this matter. That group has recommended, I am happy to say, what I was commending on 31st July, 1961. I must be non-partisan in this matter. I did not get a very sensible answer from my hon. Friend on the Government Front Bench on that occasion and the hon. Member for Coventry, East has had a most unfavourable and disagreeable answer from his right hon. Friends. His study group recommended: Instead of accepting the proposal to propose entry to primary schools until 6, we would prefer to see attendance at school become compulsory for only half a day from 5 to 6, and voluntary for the other half of the day in a play centre in the school. That is exactly what I proposed three years ago, although I put it slightly differently. I suggested that the formal instruction should be concentrated in the morning and the halma and dominoes in the afternoon. That is the practice now in a great many State schools, but attendance for halma and dominoes in the afternoon is compulsory. It will not be for long that the hon. Member for Coventry, East and I will be in agreement, so perhaps we had better make the most of it.

We are not alone in this strange alliance, for London County Council, in the evidence it gave to the Plowden Committee, which was published a few weeks ago, made almost exactly the same point. It went even further and suggested—admittedly, as a temporary measure—what I am not suggesting, that there should be mornings only for 5-year-olds and no school in the afternoon. I am proposing that school should continue in the afternoon, but that attendance should be voluntary. The L.C.C. Education Committee has said: There is an educational case for the first term or two of schooling being part-time. I add only these comments from others. The Chief Education Officer of Leeds described the sudden plunge into school of a 5-year-old as a traumatic experience for most children. The reform I am urging has been supported by articles in The Times, The Times Educational Supplement, The Guardian—repeatedly—the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, the Economist and almost all the educational journals. In my area the Association for the Advancement of State Education has sent around a questionnaire. Almost half the answers from parents have indicated that they consider the school day far too long when the 5-year-old leaves home and starts school.

I shall not be told today, but I may be told some other time, that there is a committee sitting on this question. There is, but my experience has been that there is nearly always a committee sitting. There was not a committee sitting when I raised the matter in 1961 and I did not get any further. Now there is a committee sitting, and probably when I next raise the matter there will not be a committee sitting. This change could be made without legislation. It could be done by changing the Regulations. I have not been able to bring about a change in the Regulations by persuasion, so I seek to bring in legislation now to compel it.

In the Long Title to the Bill I use the ambiguous word "discretionary" because I do not mind whether this matter is solved by giving discretion to the parent, to the head teacher or to the local education authority. I would not mind any of those solutions. But if I were given leave to introduce the Bill I should propose that discretion should be given to the parent. What I think is absurd is that no one near the child should have any discretion. If all three agree—the local education authority, the headmistress and the parent—still the wretched child must go to school in the afternoon for five days a week. For these reasons, I beg to ask leave to present the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be brought in by Mr. Ronald Bell, Mr. F. M. Bennett, Mr. William Clark, Mr. Godman Irvine, Mr. Goodhew, Mr. John Hall, Mr. Kershaw, Mr. Kitson, Mr. Graham Page, and Sir Ronald Russell.