HC Deb 05 August 1966 vol 733 cc971-80

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

3.25 p.m.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter which causes deep concern to many of my constituents, especially in the large villages of Paulton and Timsbury and the smaller villages nearby. I am grateful also to the Minister of Stale for coming to reply to these arguments. I live in the village of Timsbury, but this in no way affects my decision to raise this matter. I have no more personal interest in this problem than I have in any other matters of concern to my constituents, in whatever parts of the constituency they live.

The governors of the existing Paulton and Timsbury secondary modern schools, the parish councils of the villages, many of the staff and the parents are strongly opposed to the proposals of the Somerset Education Committee for the reorganisation of education in this area. There are good reasons for this opposition. Paulton and Timsbury and the surrounding villages will get a raw deal if the proposals go through—they are not in the best interests of secondary education in the area.

I would make it clear that there is no controversy over reorganisation on comprehensive lines. This is generally accepted in the area. The controversy centres purely on the method by which the reorganisation should be carried out. The case which I wish to put is that there are strong arguments for a full and independent inquiry into this matter before any action is taken.

The reorganisation affects five schools—the grammar school at Midsomer Norton, the secondary modern schools at Midsomer Norton and Writhlington and the secondary modern schools at Paulton and Timsbury. Instead of these five schools, it is proposed to have two or, more likely, three comprehensive schools based on the existing schools at Midsomer Norton and Writhlington. Two of the existing schools are within the Norton-Radstock urban district and the other is on its boundary.

Before the principle of comprehensive reorganisation was laid down by the Government, the intention was that the existing secondary modern schools in Paulton and Timsbury should be replaced by one new secondary modern school in Timsbury to serve the whole area. This was firmly in the Education Committee's building programme for 1967–68, it was approved by the Department of Education and Science and the land for the school has been acquired by compulsory purchase. Under the new plan of the education committee, the new school will not now be built.

This whole question needs reconsideration, for several reasons. The first is that it is strongly felt in the area—I think, naturally—that the new school should proceed as planned, but that it should be a comprehensive school rather than a secondary modern school as originally envisaged. Second, if this new school is not built, Timsbury and Paulton will suffer a double blow. They will lose not only their existing school which they have had for many years but also the new school which was firmly promised and was firmly in the programme for next year.

This could, and, I believe, would, have serious repercussions on the education and social life of the area. It would also mean that the children of the smaller villages, who are at present served by the Paulton and Timsbury schools, would, in a number of cases, be a very long way from secondary education. These special circumstances deserve careful consideration.

The Minister will agree that if reorganisation is to succeed, it must not ride roughshod over local feelings. It is equally important that interest in our schools on the part of parents and the community generally should be encouraged. One of the most encouraging features in recent years has been the way in which interest in local schools has grown. But this will be discouraged if secondary schools in the country areas are centred on the largest centres of population.

In addition to these general arguments, two points are in dispute. The first concerns the likely school population of the area. Somerset Education Committee expects a 20-forms entry in the whole area by 1975, broadly divided into seven in the Midsomer Norton area, seven in the Writhlington area and six in the Paulton-Timsbury area—yet the Paulton-Timsbury area, with an expected school population nearly as large as the Midsomer Norton area and nearly as large as the Writhlington area, is to have no secondary schools, while Midsomer Norton and Writhlington are to have two, possibly three.

On the basis of the county council's estimates of school population, it can be argued that the Paulton-Timsbury area has a strong case for its own school. However, population estimates are notoriously unreliable and it is believed locally that the county council's estimates will be substantially exceeded. Paulton and Timsbury in particular are growing fast now that their sewerage schemes are either completed or nearing completion. I am as convinced as it is possible to be—because this must, to some extent, be speculative—that the populations of these areas and the surrounding ones are almost certain to grow substantially in the coming years.

The second main point in dispute concerns the wishes of the people of the area. In deciding not to have a school in the Paulton-Timsbury area, the education committee has relied heavily on the alleged wishes of the parents of Paulton. It claims that these parents would prefer to send their children to Midsomer Norton, and possibly, the education committee says, there would not be sufficient children to make a viable, comprehensive school.

This claim is disputed by the Paulton school governors and others. The questionnaire which was sent to Paulton parents some time ago did not explain the proposals and implications of reorganisation. It is felt, I believe rightly, that the questionnaire was almost certain to produce the answer for Midsomer Norton.

Further, my information is that the education committee gave an undertaking that a meeting of Paulton parents would be held to explain the position. This meeting did not take place. But, whatever the preference of the Paulton parents may be in the light of the full facts, the views of the governors of the two schools at Paulton and Timsbury, the views of the parish councils of the two villages and the views of the parents in Timsbury are clear. They are in favour of the original proposals. Those views, in my opinion, have not been given sufficient weight by the education committee.

I contend that, in the circumstances, only the most conclusive and indisputable evidence that local feeling had been accurately assessed can justify the withdrawal of secondary education from the Paulton-Timsbury area and I do not accept that the reasons advanced are conclusive or indisputable. I am very reluctant to criticise the Somerset Education Committee on this matter and I admit that the issues are exceedingly complex. It has had a very difficult job to do to try to reorganise in the area, bearing in mind the schools which exist, and one of the many complex factors it has rightly had to consider and bear in mind is the need for early improvements in the very difficult conditions in which the Writhlington school operates.

However, I am bound to say that, in trying to find a fair solution, the education committee has not produced an acceptable plan for Paulton and Timsbury and the surrounding villages. I am not asking the Minister of State to form a judgment at this moment. I know that he has not had sufficient time to be able to do so. What I do ask is that he will agree that the case has been made out for a full inquiry so that all concerned can have the opportunity of staling their case. I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that this request is reasonable and will act on it.

3.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Edward Redhead)

I appreciate very much the manner in which the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) has raised this matter. He has expressly stated that he is not opposing the introduction of comprehensive education as such into the area. He will, I am sure, pardon me if I say that that is a welcome and refreshing statement from the benches opposite. It is rare that we hear from hon. Members opposite an unqualified statement of that kind and I welcome him very much to the fold of those converted.

Mr. Dean

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to get the wrong impression. I make it clear that I am deliberately withholding my personal opinion of the pros and cons of this matter because I want it to be considered in the light of local feeling and avoid any personal feelings I have being brought into it.

Mr. Redhead

Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that a Conservative Member should appreciate the introduction of comprehensive education. I hope that he will not be the last and that he will carry his conviction to many of his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman properly said that he is concerned most with the method that he understands is proposed by Somerset County Authority to introduce comprehensive education in the Norton-Radstock area. I shall confine myself to that limited question. The hon. Gentleman will understand that my reply is a little tentative in character. Indeed, he himself has acknowledged that I have had but little time to examine the proposals from Somerset in response to my right hon. Friend's Circular No. 10/65 calling upon it to put forward plans for the reorganisation of secondary education in the area, of which the Norton-Radstock district forms part.

The proposals of the county authority had not been officially received when the hon. Member originally gave notice to raise this matter today. They came in only during the last couple of days, along with a flood of such schemes which are now reaching us, I am very gratified to say. There has not yet been time to examine this plan in very close detail. What I have to say is therefore very largely based on information gleaned from preliminary inquiries. Of necessity, various matters to which the hon. Member has alluded will be the subject of further investigation and inquiry to satisfy ourselves as to the facts if there is, as there appears to be, some conflict of evidence on some of the points he has raised.

As the hon. Member said, there are five secondary schools in the area: the Midsomer Norton Grammar School, the Midsomer Norton Somervale Secondary Modern School, the Writhlington Secondary Modern School, the Timsbury Secondary Modern School and the Paul-ton Secondary Modern School. The authority's reorganisation scheme proposes the closure of the Timsbury and Paulton schools, both of which are old and inadequate. A project to replace both these schools was included in the first part of the major building programme for 1967–68, which was announced in March, 1964. When proposals for the second part of that financial year came to be considered the authority already had in mind its intended scheme of reorganisation under Circular 10/65.

It therefore proposed that the allocation made for the replacement of Timsbury and Paulton schools for a new school at Timsbury Secondary School should be reallocated and applied to the new Midsomer Norton Grammar School, constituting it a five-form entry comprehensive school; the Somervale Secondary Modern School, to be reconstituted a five-form entry comprehensive school; and Writhlington Secondary Modern School, to be reconstituted a seven-form comprehensive school.

This modified programme was approved by the Secretary of State, but it was made clear that that approval was without prejudice to the Secretary of State's consideration of the eventual proposals of the authority in response to Circular 10/65, and it was also without prejudice to his eventual decision on proposals involving public notices under Section 13 of the Act.

The reorganisation scheme is therefore to close Timsbury and Paulton and to reorganise the three other schools—Midsomer Norton Grammar School, Somervale Secondary Modern School and Writhlington Secondary Modern School—as comprehensive schools, ultimately as six-form entry, six-form entry and eight-form entry respectively, it being anticipated, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that the area as a whole will be productive by 1975 of 20 form entries.

The only suggested alternative, I understand, is that the Timsbury and Paulton schools should be replaced by a new comprehensive school of six-form entry for that area at Timsbury, as originally contemplated by the authority, that one of the Midsomer Norton schools should be reconstituted as a seven-form entry comprehensive school, and that Writhlington school should be reconstituted as a seven-form entry comprehensive school.

It is agreed that in Timsbury and Paulton combined the potential number of pupils to support a six-form entry school is to be anticipated. I shall come in a moment to the question whether this is an accurate estimate of the likely population growth. But the authority has gone to a great deal of trouble to ascertain the views of parents in Paulton, both of children now attending the secondary modern school and those with children in the contributory primary schools of Paulton, as to whether, when the Paulton school is closed, they would prefer their children to attend school at Timsbury or at Midsomer Norton.

The questionnaires were issued in December last year to all these parents. I am informed that more than 84 per cent. of the parents whose children attend Paulton Secondary Modern or Paulton Contributary Primary Schools opted for the Midsomer Norton proposal, while of the proportion of such parents who live in Paulton, 91 per cent. preferred Midsomer Norton. I take note of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman considers that these questionnaires were weighted in their phraseology in such a manner as inevitably to produce a preference of that kind.

I am bound to say, that having examined copies of the questionnaire, I find it difficult to accept the hon. Gentleman's point of view about that, but, nevertheless, I have taken note of it, and I have taken note of the fact that he feels that for one reason or another this was not fully appreciated by the parents, and that on reflection they have a somewhat different view from that which was gleaned from the answers.

Mr. Dean

I am sure that the Minister will recognise that those questionnaires did not in any way attempt to suggest the implications or the details. They merely asked the simple question, and that, in my view, in the light of the knowledge of local circumstances, the way in which people normally go to a shop, and that type of thing, would almost certainly produce the answer for Midsomer Norton.

Mr. Redhead

Nevertheless, and it is relevant to what I shall say in a moment, the authority subsequently, in May of this year, circularised all the parents concerned with a complete statement of its intentions under the reorganisation plan. Judged from the response to these questionnaires, those people in Paulton who preferred Timsbury, plus those from Timsbury itself, were judged by the authority—and it would be justifiable for one to place reliance on these returns—as insufficient to support a viable school at Timsbury itself.

The hon. Gentleman referred to an alleged promise by the county authority that there should be a meeting of parents of the Timsbury and Paulton areas to consider this matter. I am informed that verification of the minutes and records of the appropriate meeting of the said council reveals no reference whatsoever to such a meeting, and I am told that it would be contrary to the authority's normal policy to undertake consultations in this context by means of meetings. This is my information, but I have taken note of what the hon. Gentleman said.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that both he and those for whom he speaks in the area have considerable doubts about whether the authority has taken due account of the expected rise in population in the Timsbury and Paulton areas, and he alleges that it is rising faster than has been assumed by the county authority in these proposals. Thus far at any rate I have found no apparent evidence to support that suggestion, but I am informed that since the hon. Gentleman expressed this view in communications to the authority, further reference has been made to the area planning officer who has confirmed his original advice, and confirmed that in his opinion there is no justification for the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman in this respect.

I want to make it quite clear to the hon. Gentleman that in answering him in this tentative fashion I am not closing the door to the fullest possible consideration of the proposals submitted by the authority in response to Circular 10/65. The hon. Gentleman has asked for a public inquiry of an independent character into the whole of this issue so far as it affects this area. I presume that he has in mind a public inquiry to be held under section 93 of the 1944 Education Act, which would enable evidence to be given by interested parties to an independent inspector.

I am bound to admit that it has not been the practice in matters of this kind to exercise the opportunity to call a public inquiry, nor do we feel that it would serve any useful purpose in a case of this character, when all the relevant information can be made available by other means.

In the first instance, may I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the scheme of the Somerset authority in its entirety which is now under consideration by the Secretary of State is one on which any body of persons with a view locally about it is perfectly free to communicate with the Secretary of State stating the objections, whatever they may be. I give him the assurance that in common with all other schemes of this kind, objections of that character will be carefully considered before the Secretary of State expresses his view about the authority's proposal.

As I have said, the authority has already issued a general statement to all parents concerned about the nature of its proposals and their purposes, and it has advised parents who have any views to offer in relation to those proposals to communicate with the authority itself. I must also make it clear that it is open to any person concerned to make representations direct to the Secretary of State, and I offer the assurance that any such representations will be carefully considered.

Mr. Dean

May I get this clear? Do I understand that the representations to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred would be under Section 13?

Mr. Redhead

I was coming to that. What I have referred to so far are representations that can be made in an informal way. There is no statutory provision for them at all. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that no statutory approval is required for schemes of reorganisation in general. However, when such schemes involve the closure or enlargement of schools, as they do in this instance, they will require the issue of public notices under Section 13 of the Education Act, 1944.

The proposals which concern us today will require the specific statutory approval of the Secretary of State. The notices having been issued in due form as required by the Statute, the Secretary of State cannot give his decision upon them until after the expiry of two months from the date of the notices, during which period it is competent for the governors of any affected school or any 10 local government electors to lodge statutory objections to the proposals. Those must be considered by the Secretary of State before he gives his final decision on the proposals which are made.

Both generally and specifically, in regard to Section 13 cases, I think that the hon. Gentleman will be assured that there will be adequate opportunity for all points of view to be submitted to the Secretary of State, for all objections to be considered, and for an opportunity to check any question of a conflict of evidence that may have been revealed in the course of this short debate.

I would add that the hon. Gentleman's own observations, which I appreciate come from a direct personal knowledge because he lives in what must be the very delightful village of Timsbury, will similarly be taken into account before decisions are reached on these proposals. That is consistent with the attitude which the Department is adopting to all proposals submitted in response to Circular No. 10/65. It cannot be too widely appreciated that these plans are not being lightly treated. We are not just giving easy decisions about them. We require to be satisfied that any proposals not only bear the mark, stamp and label of being comprehensive proposals but that they are calculated to fulfil the purposes and objectives of comprehensive secondary education.

These opportunities will be available following the issue of these notices on the Section 13 cases, and I once again give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that all valid objections and representations will be most carefully considered. I hope that he will feel assured that his purpose in asking for a public inquiry will be as amply fulfilled by the opportunities to which I have alluded.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Four o'clock.