HC Deb 03 August 1965 vol 717 cc1622-35

9.12 a.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

After having sat here through most of the night, and seen many of the late hours frittered away by members of the Government, with comparatively little opportunity for Members on this side of the House to raise certain points, I must confess that I was delighted to hear the result which has just been announced.

I particularly wish to raise a constituency point, in connection with certain educational matters in the county of Leicestershire. I make no excuse for bringing this subject up now. I think that the question of feeding the minds of children is a more appropriate breakfast-time topic than the question we were considering a moment ago, relating to various defence projects.

In recent years I have visited a good number of primary and secondary schools in my constituency, and I must confess that I have been appalled at the conditions I found in many of the junior schools. All too often one finds a school site with, perhaps, the original buildings, built over a hundred years ago, where the pupils are spread out into a series of other premises which are quite unsuitable and quite impossible to adapt properly for the purpose of education. I have been into these primary schools and I have had the pathetic duty of seeing the way in which the teachers try to cope with classes of young children in buildings which are quite unsuitable and hopeless for the task.

I well recall seeing classes of children being taken in an ex-Baptist chapel, where, indeed, if the school was not on holiday, they would be assembling this very morning. Again, if the schools in my constituency were not on holiday, children would be assembling for education in ex-factories, huts and a variety of halls, some of them quite a distance away from the main junior school building, and in a number of other unsuitable premises. It does not require a great deal of imagination to think what an appalling task it is for teachers to try to supervise properly, yet alone instruct properly the minds of young junior children in premises of that kind. In many of these junior schools it is the normal procedure to go outside for the lavatories, and in the depth of winter this can be harmful to the health of children.

I should like to refer to the School Building Survey of 1962, which, after a year or two spent in amassing a great number of interesting statistics, was issued last year. Amongst its many statistics is the fact that in the North Midland region there are 864 primary schools which were built before 1875. The Leicestershire Education Authority forms part of that region with 13 other education authorities—one out of 14—and yet no fewer than 127 of the 864 primary schools built before 1975, or 15 per cent. of the total, are to be found in Leicestershire. This fact is probably the chief reason why the education authority for the County of Leicester, which has one of the most rapidly expanding population rates in the country, has continually to bring into use and to struggle to adapt many old, unsuitable halls and buildings.

We have a whole day before us, but I will not trouble the House by bringing too many specific examples to the attention of the Minister. There are, however, three examples which I should like to draw to his notice. The first, which has concerned me for years, is the condition of the primary school in the village of Huncote, in Leicestershire. The Leicestershire Education Authority has submitted a project for a new primary school to be included in its next building programme to the Minister. I hope that he has not yet made up his mind on the subject and that he may be receptive to what I say.

Huncote and district is a rapidly expanding area with new housing estates. There are 114 pupils in the school and yet approximately half of them—about 54—have to be instructed in buildings which were never erected as school building and are hopelessly inadequate for the task. I have with me a recent letter from the Clerk of Huncote Parish Council in which he refers to the appalling conditions—one cannot describe them as less in the 20th century—under which staff and pupils exist at Huncote.

He says, for instance, in this letter written to me last month, that less than half the children at present are housed in that school, and the remainder are in what was a Baptist chapel and subsequently a hosiery factory. Further temporary accommodation is a church hall without any normal facilities and with totally inadequate sanitary arrangements. He goes on to say that in Huncote a new housing estate of 250 houses has now started, and 150 of the houses are already in the first phase, and a number are scheduled for completion in July next year. He says that the temporary accommodation available, and which is being considered by the education department, cannot possibly cater for the children who are likely to come from those homes. I am afraid that even if the Minister were to give his approval to the construction of a new primary school building in Huncote it could well prove to be too late for the large numbers of new children who will be attending school, or seeking to attend it, very shortly.

Again, we have a similar problem in Market Harborough in Leicestershire, where I have been approached by the managers of all the primary schools in the town who sought an interview with me so that they could put specifically some of the difficulties under which they are labouring. I am going to see them very soon, but in the meantime I wish to quote from a letter relating to the junior Church of England controlled school at Market Harborough. It has 338 pupils at the moment. Only 184 of them are housed in the main building. No fewer than 154 pupils, nearly half of them, are housed in outside buildings such as a small old schoolroom almost opposite the main building and a R.A.F.A. hut on the south side of the Coventry road approximately 100 yd. distant from the building, and a building on the north side of the Coventry road approximately 100 yd. from the main building. There are two classes there.

Obviously, having classes some distance from the main building necessitates about 150 pupils being marched to and fro and across the main road. Two classes have actually to cross the busy main road, the main Coventry road, which today is an artery connecting with the M.1 for all eastbound traffic. Two classes have to cross the main road and about 150 pupils have to march to and fro as often as six times in a day.

Another village example, which is fairly typical of the ones I have illustrated, and many others besides, is at Stony Stanton. I shall not trouble the House with the details of the trouble at Stony Stanton except to say that a new junior school is urgently needed for reasons similar to those I have already given. It has been submitted for the Ministry's approval, but so far that approval has been withheld. I implore the hon. Gentleman to consider what I have said, and to look into a case of urgent need for a new junior school at Stony Stanton. He would make himself ex- tremely popular in that part of Leicestershire by doing something about it.

Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)

Does not the revelation of these deplorable difficulties in these areas, as portrayed by the hon. Gentleman, point to a lack of vigilance on the part of the previous Administration?

Mr. Farr

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his remark. I do not think so, because, as I thought I had made clear earlier in my speech, this problem relates to schools built before 1876. Although we had a long run in office, it did not extend over a period of 90 years.

What has happened in Leicestershire is that while primary, or junior, educational standards are very low indeed, and woefully lacking, a lot of the money—and some say an undue proportion—which has been allotted to the county has been spent on secondary education, and we have a comprehensive system of education of which we are all very proud. I think that possibly rather more emphasis has been placed on the secondary schools, which in many cases are first class, and not enough has been spent on junior schools such as those to which I referred.

I should like to deal now with the abolition of the discretion formerly allowed to education authorities to carry out works up to a cost of £2,000 off the ration—the so-called mini-minor projects. Recently I received a list of some of the projects which were planned to be carried out in 1966, before this Government axed this scheme. This list of off-the-ration schemes includes such essential items as the provision of internal lavatory accommodation at a number of schools, at a cost of £2,000 or £2,500, staff rooms, and staff lavatory accommodation, additional cloak rooms and washing facilities, covering parts of playgrounds to provide covered ways, and various other projects which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree are essential these days in any school which is worthy of the name, and which can make a great deal of difference to the lives of not only the pupils, but the staff. In many cases the pupils are only more adequately housed than the staff who endeavour to teach them. They have no proper recreation or resting facilities, and no proper place to wash their hands or to hang their clothes.

Earlier this year the Ministry announced that to compensate for the loss of the mini-minor discretion the local works programme would be increased from £18 million in 1964–65 to £21 million in 1965–66, and I should like to take this opportunity to point out that in fact this is an Irishman's rise in that it represents not an increase of £3 million, but a decrease of about £2 million. To maintain the mini-minor works expenditure at the 1964–65 levels, about £23 million would be required to be allotted, compared with £21 million which has been allotted.

In Leicestershire the education authority and the county education committee view with the gravest possible concern the abolition, the cessation, the temporary withholding, call it what one will, by the Government of the mini-minor allocation. It has been running for a number of years now and in that time a considerable amount of small works of the type to which I have referred have been carried out. I have a long list of small schemes costing up to £2,000, or even £2,500, the figure to which a Conservative Government would have increased the off-the-ration level. There are pages of these schemes, which are absolutely essential if our schools are to be modernised in the country areas.

The Leicestershire Education Authority regards the reimposition of rationing of the mini-minor programme as tragic. The Minister will be interested to hear of the effect that this will have on the Leicestershire Plan, which has pioneered comprehensive education successfully in the county. It now looks as if the implementation of the Leicestershire Plan for comprehensive secondary education for the county by 1967 will no longer be possible, as a result of the tragic reimposition of rationing of the mini-minor programme. Secondly, it will mean a virtual moratorium on all secondary improvements, extensions of grossly undersized classrooms and increased numbers of staff rooms and head's rooms where none exist at the moment. It will affect school meals projects, the enlargement of car parks, and the development of grounds, etc.

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that this is not what I think; this is the effect of a letter from the Leicestershire Education Authority. It says that this reimposition of rationing will spell the end for the time being of the small improvements to old sub-standard schools where mini-minor projects provided the sole way by which the Committee could demonstrate that they were not callously indifferent to the conditions under which their employees work. The effect on morale of this sort of moratorium will … be long-term in effect and once more the Committee can only appeal to the patience and loyalty of teaching and non-teaching staff. There is much more, which I will not go into at half-past nine in the morning. Suffice to say that it makes distressing reading. I have sent a copy of the letter to the Minister of Education and Science. I regard the imposition by the Government of this rationing of mini-minor works as one of the most retrograde and regressive measures they have taken in education.

Once again, I ask the hon. Member to see if he can be a little more understanding on this point, which I raised with him a month or two ago at Question Time. I know that the answer at the time was not an encouraging one. The Government said that my request, namely, that mini-minor projects below the cost of £2,000 for improvements to playing fields, etc., should be allowed, could not be agreed to. I tried to make the point that we are not trying to get a foot into the door to prise it open so as to get back to the old method of carrying on the mini-minor projects, much though we should like to. What I am concerned with is that the Director of Education has a real case, in view of the fact that, in a month or two's time, all over Leicestershire, a number of ground staff who are taken on in the summer for school playing fields, but who are not needed in the winter, will become redundant.

I sincerely ask the hon. Member to be a little more encouraging. If the Director of Education can satisfy him that there is a real risk of a number of skilled playing field maintenance employees becoming redundant in the winter, can he hold out any hope of allowing that valuable team of experienced men to be kept together, by employing them, perhaps, on some essential playing field modifications costing less than £2,000? Many of them are needed to improve the playing fields.

In Leicestershire we are proud of our system of secondary education—the "Leicestershire Plan", as it is called. I admire the comprehensive system. I have seen it work and I know how dedicated to its progress are all those who are concerned with it. But just as we are proud of our secondary education so we are ashamed of the medieval condition of many of our primary schools. We believe that in the county in recent years we have not had our fair share of the national cake of expenditure on new school building. Much though I regard the Minister of State with warmth and friendship I assure him that I shall do my best to be as troublesome as possible for as long as I possibly can unless a radical improvement is brought about.

9.32 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. R. E. Prentice)

I can speak again only with the leave of the House. While I voted for the Closure just now I had mixed feelings about it because I always welcome an opportunity to take part in the discussion of school building and I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) said that he would pursue the Government on this matter. I always think that if Governments are nagged and prodded about such matters it is good for us and good in the long run for the progress of education. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put his case.

I should like to deal first with the general level of school building with broad reference to major works, which was the subject of the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, taken in conjunction with what he said at the end about the feeling in Leicestershire that people there had not had their share of the national cake. If the hon. Member is saying that the nation over many years has not devoted enough resources to school building, I would agree with him.

The hon. Member referred to the school building survey. He will be aware that it was prepared by the late Government. It could have been published by them. It was not. Whether that had anything to do with the proximity of the General Election is not for me to say at the moment, but it has since been published by us. It showed that the kind of conditions which the hon. Member graphically described in Leicestershire are conditions which exist all over the country. About two-thirds of our school buildings have one or more of the serious defects listed in the survey—defects which mean that they do not measure up to the standards laid down in our regulations.

The figure was given that to put the school buildings of the country into proper condition £1,368 million would need to be spent. That figure is perhaps in some ways artificial but at least it shows the scale of the problem which we face. Whereas the school building programme, both major and minor, in the current year is £100 million compared with £80 million last year, I would be the first to admit that this is only scratching the surface of the problem and that now and in future much higher resources should be devoted to it. But the resources which we can spare for it depend upon the economic conditions that prevail and on other demands on the national purse. Nevertheless, we can claim—not only in view of what the hon. Member said but in view of the debate which we had some hours ago in the middle of the night—that, whereas it has been necessary for the Government to hold back on a good deal of expenditure, we have exempted school building from the measures announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hope that the hon. Member will agree that this was a good thing to do.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

All school building?

Mr. Prentice

Yes, all school building has been exempted from those measures.

Therefore, of course, I would accept the general proposition that the school buildings of Leicestershire and elsewhere are unsatisfactory. It is only fair to remind the House that, besides the actual state of the buildings, we face throughout the country a problem of very rapidly rising numbers. Just over 7 million children are in our schools now and over 9 million will be in the schools in 10 years' time, so a big increase in school building will be needed to keep pace with rising numbers, even if we were never to replace any of the substandard schools to which the hon. Member referred.

If on the other hand, the hon. Member is saying—he did say this towards the end of his speech—that the county has not had its fair share, I must take issue with him. The simple fact is that resources have never been sufficient, but, of those insufficient resources, I am convinced, Leicestershire has had a fair share. A bigger proportion of Leicestershire schoolchildren are going to school in post-war schools than is the average for the rest of the country. This is due not to the fact that any Government have favoured Leicestershire as a favourite county, but to the fact that the county has a rapidly growing population and has had to provide a larger allocation of resources to meet the extra numbers. The number of children in school in Leicestershire has gone up from the figure in 1946 of 41,111 to the figure this year of 69,049.

This has meant that many new places have had to be provided. Of course, I accept that, therefore, the contrast is all the more unfortunate between those children who are going to school in the new, post-war schols and those still going to school in the old schools. This is unfortunately the case in all those counties where the population has been going up quickly. The real answer to the basic problem raised by the hon. Member is the need for the national economy to grow and, within that growth, to provide on a bigger scale in future for school building generally.

As to the three schools which he mentioned specifically, we are at the moment considering a number of urgent propositions put to us by the county. I have not got the list with me. I know that they include Huncote School, which was one of those he mentioned. It may well include the others, but I am not sure. I will see that a letter is sent to the hon. Member about the three schools in question.

I should like to join with him in his reference to secondary reorganisation in Leicestershire. We in the Department regard this as one of the success stories of recent years. Leicestershire was in many ways a pioneering authority on the two-tier system of reorganising secondary education on comprehensive lines—to such an extent that people throughout the country speak of the "Leicestershire Plan".

Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they assume that this plan is for a system of junior high schools with a transfer based on parents' choice and that this is the permanent intention of the authority. This is regarded in the county as a transitional scheme, the objective being that all children will transfer, so there will be no sectional schemes in the secondary range at all. This is a development which we welcome, and it is in line with the circular which my right hon. Friend sent to local authorities recently.

I want to turn to the vexed question of minor works and the mini-minor concession. This is something about which I have spoken in the House on more than one occasion, which is not surprising, as it is a very vexed question and has raised a good deal of controversy.

Let me explain to the hon. Member that, first of all, the allocation for minor works in the current year is up from £18 million last year to £21 million this year, but within that increased allocation we have said that all minor works must be included, however small they were, whereas under the old system these very small minor works under £2,000—the so-called mini-minors—could be carried out by a local authority without being included in its allocation. This led to a misunderstanding, and it is quite clear that this misunderstanding is still widespread. There must be a misunderstanding in the minds of the Leicestershire Education Authority, from the terms of the letter to which the hon. Member referred and which he said was a recent letter.

The misunderstanding arises in this way: people have assumed that because these mini-minors were off-ration for the local education authority therefore they did not count as part of the minor works allocation throughout the country. Unfortunately they did. Every year the Department had to lop off from the minor works total a sum representing mini-minor works. The Department had to estimate what would be spent in mini-minor works, take that off the total and allocate what was left.

The mini-minor concession, being off-ration locally, was a very attractive proposition, and many enterprising authorities, including Leicestershire, were making larger and larger use of it in successive years. The result last year was that the Department estimated that £3 million would be spent throughout the country on mini-minor works whereas in fact about £7 million was spent on them. This meant that the control of school building was becoming ineffective. All hon. Members will agree that in so far as the Government have to control the level of capital expenditure on all social services, they must make their control effective. If they decide, as the last Government decided last year, that the total for minor school building should be £18 million, they must see that it is about £18 million and not let a situation develop in which the whole estimate goes wrong.

We therefore had a choice in the current year between two alternatives. We could either do what in fact we have done—make a larger allocation and include the mini-minors within it—or we could make a realistic assessment of what the mini-minors would cost. We considered that about £10 million would have been spent on mini-minors this year if the concession had remained.

I am sorry to inflict more arithmetic on the House, but I want hon. Members, and particularly the hon. Member for Harborough, to understand why we acted in this way. Out of the £21 million for minor works, some £4 million are allocated directly from the Department to the voluntary schools, leaving £17 million, and this £17 million we have allocated to the local education authorities of England and Wales. If we had had to take from that figure £10 million for mini-minors, we should have allocated only £7 million for all the work costing between £2,000 at the lower level and £20,000 at the upper level for the whole of England and Wales.

In other words, local education authorities would have found that well under half the minor works amount would have been allocated but they would still have had the mini-minor concession. This would not have been a good bargain at all. It would have led to two distortions. One is that enterprising authorities would have taken more and more of the limited share of resources, leaving less for the rest and, secondly, more and more of these resources would have gone into jobs costing less than £2,000 and there would have been less remaining for jobs between £2,000 and £20,000.

Mr. Farr

I am obliged for that explanation. Nevertheless, there is a feeling among a number of local education authorities that, while they can understand what the Minister has done, it would have been fairer if he had made a more realistic adjustment of the figure—instead of increasing it only by a small sum, say £3 million, he could have increased it by the £7 million which they were already spending in the previous year. The result of what he did is that they had to retrench and retract, and this has come as rather a shock to them.

Mr. Prentice

I am well aware of the feelings of local authorities on this matter. Indeed, we have received a number of deputations on the subject. If the figure which we inherited from the previous Government had prevailed, there would have been not £21 million but only £19 million—so that there would have been a much bigger problem for the local education authorities.

I emphasise that having made this allocation—a larger allocation—it is still up to the authorities to spend the money as they wish. In other words, it is not fair to say that this spells the end of certain small jobs of work. Neither is it fair to say that Leicestershire cannot spend this money on the ground staff to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It can employ staff on various jobs. Authorities may spend their allocation as they choose on these works. Leicestershire has a larger allocation. It was £185,000 in the last financial year and in the current year it is £256,000. I appreciate that it would like a bigger allocation still, but that brings us back to the problem of the total resources available.

Having left the mini-minor works problem for a considerable time, I am convinced that we had to make that decision and that it was the only way by which we could get a reasonable allocation of the limited resources available for this purpose. I understand that it has been a confusing problem and I suppose that when commenting on the subject, either in the House or elsewhere, I should have a blackboard and chalk with me. I appreciate why there might have been some misunderstanding among local education authorities about it.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for having raised thin issue. I will write to him in connection with the three schools he mentioned. I hope that he will join with me in expressing the sentiment that what the country must do in future is to devote more of its resources to these problems so that the difficulties we have discussed—such as buildings and facilities—may be tackled and overcome.