HC Deb 14 February 1966 vol 724 cc917-24
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement concerning voluntary schools in England and Wales.

Representations were made to me jointly by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Free Church Federal Council, about the need to provide a further measure of financial help to voluntary aided schools if they are to play their full part in forthcoming developments in primary and secondary education.

These developments include the large increase in school building programmes envisaged by the National Plan and made necessary by the rapidly growing school population, the raising of the school-leaving age, and the provision of new housing. It is also the desire both of the Government and of the Churches that financial problems should not hamper cooperation on the part of voluntary schools in local plans for the reorganisation of secondary education.

The Government have, therefore, held discussions with the representatives of the Churches. They have also consulted the representatives of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. The Government have concluded that a further measure of Exchequer help for aided and special agreement schools is justified, and that this help should be provided as follows.

First, they propose an increase in the rate of grant to all approved aided and special agreement school presents from the present 75 per cent., which was fixed in 1959, to 80 per cent. Secondly, they propose to enlarge the scope of Exchequer grants and loans to cover projects providing "new places"—that is, completely new schools, or those enlargements of existing schools which are not at present eligible for grant.

Both these changes will require legislation which the Government hope to introduce as soon as practicable. The opportunity will also be taken to remove certain minor anomalies in the present law so that local education authorities can in a wider range of cases meet the cost of the enlargement of controlled schools where both the authority and the managers or governors agree that this should be done.

These proposals have been accepted by the Churches, although they fall short of what the Churches have asked.

Sir E. Boyle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in general, my hon. Friends and I think that this decision to go for 80 per cent. across the board, to put it that way, is right, partly because the burden on the church schools has proved so much bigger than that which was envisaged at the time of the 1944 settlement, partly because of the administrative difficulty of distinguishing between new places and the provisions for displaced pupils, and partly because we consider it right in itself that we should help those religious denominations which have done so much to help themselves? However, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman four questions arising out of the statement?

First, can he undertake that we will have legislation on this subject during this Session—in which case my hon. Friends and I will fully co-operate?

Secondly, would he confirm that the sentence about the National Plan in his statement does not exclude the possibility of replacement projects for the denominational schools? We feel anxious about the omission of any reference to replacement projects.

Thirdly, on the question of reorganisation, while we do not want to handicap and hamper co-operation where this is felt appropriate by school governors, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that this extra grant will be available to improve aided schools, even when the governors feel, on educational grounds, that they should not co-operate with his circular?

Fourthly, does he agree, since we are doing so much for the voluntary schools, that with this 80 per cent. grant we should bear in mind sympathetically the legitimate concerns of those parents who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religious denomination?

Mr. Crosland

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks and for the prompt and constructive way in which he responded to our representations on this matter.

We hope to introduce legislation as soon as practicable, although I cannot say precisely when. This is really a question for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

On the question of the National Plan and the assurance he sought in his second point, if I understood that point correctly, I can give him that assurance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what would happen in a case where the governors of a school were reluctant or disinclined to co-operate in a local comprehensive reorganisation scheme. At the moment, this looks to be a hypothetical question, because the attitude of all the Churches is that they are extremely anxious to co-operate with their own local education authorities.

The right hon. Gentleman's fourth question raises very much wider topics which will certainly be of interest to the House when we debate this subject, but I would prefer not to say anything specific now.

Mr. Grimond

While accepting these proposals, about which we were consulted, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would answer two questions? First, while I appreciate that we must await legislation, can he say whether the new rate of grant will apply to contracts let immediately, otherwise is there not a danger that contracts will be held up until the new legislation is through? Secondly, does the 80 per cent. apply to primary and secondary schools?

Mr. Crosland

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman not only for his remarks now, but also for the speed and promptness with which his party replied to the representations which were made.

The answer to the second part of his question is "Yes". The new rate applies equally to primary and secondary schools. The answer to the first part is "No". We cannot make these provisions retrospective. Nor can we give a blanket endorsement now, before legislation.

On the timing of this matter, we propose to follow precisely the methods laid down by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd), when he introduced the 1959 Act.

Mr. L. M. Lever

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the various denominations will be grateful for the improvements which are being made in the percentage of grant? Is he further aware that the various denominations are called on to bear a greater burden than they should be bearing as part of our educational system?

Mr. Crosland

On the general point, it is my view—which I think is shared generally in the House; certainly, by most people in all parties—that, although, of course, the denominations would like more than we are now suggesting, in the circumstances this represents a reasonable and responsible offer. My strong impression is that it is accepted truthfully on the part of the denominations themselves.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

As a Roman Catholic, I join in the general welcome which was given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle). As the Minister said, the denominations would have liked more—indeed, we would have liked 85 per cent. It should be remembered that the Catholic community now spends, or is committed to spending, more than £40 million. Nevertheless, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is a considerable step forward, particularly from the point of view of new primary schools, and that this is especially welcome because I believe that the fiction, heartbreak and lottery of the displaced pupil will now—I certainly trust that it will—vanish under this arrangement?

Mr. Simon Mahon

May I, on behalf of the Catholic Educational Council, thank the Minister for his statement and for the important change which covers all school places on an 80 per cent. block, so to speak? May I also thank the Government, the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. Friends and the Leader of the Liberal Party and his hon. Friends for the manner in which these negotiations were carried out? May I also hope that the relationship between the Churches will be maintained and that this relationship will be fostered?

May I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever) also draw attention to the heavy burden which is placed on Church schools—in my constituency 50 per cent. of the children attend Church schools—and to the fact that we are extremely grateful to the Minister and all concerned for this great advance?

Mr. Doughty

I wish to thank the Minister, on behalf of all denominations, for the announcement that he has made and to ask two questions. First, will the grant be made irrespective of the views taken by the governors of schools to the right hon. Gentleman's Circular No. 10/65? Secondly, would the right hon. Gentleman approach his right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works to see that, where there are restrictions, licences are freely granted, remembering that many schools are held up not necessarily from lack of money, but from lack of building permission?

Mr. Crosland

I will take the hon. Gentleman's second point up with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works. To answer his first point, schools in this category, from the building plans point of view—whether or not they are comprehensive and whatever kind of comprehensive pattern into which they may fit—will fundamentally be in no different a position from local education authority schools, where, again, the same problem may or may not arise. This should not give rise to concern, given the good will which now exists.

Mr. Bishop

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this announcement will remove much anxiety from both diocesan and other authorities who are very keen to co-operate in the reorganisation of education? Is he also aware of the great need there is to expedite this arrangement as quickly as possible in order to make the co-operation more effective?

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be great satisfaction in the educational movement not only at the terms of his announcement, but also at the fact that it has been reached by the same method of consultation with the Churches and all parties that was used in regard to the church schools provisions of 1959? Will he also take note of the fact that it would be very much better were he to use the same spirit of conciliation in his approach to the comprehensive problem?

Mr. Crosland

Perhaps, on this occasion, I can ignore the tail-end of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because I wish to preserve the general spirit of good will and amity on this issue. It was the right hon. Gentleman who was responsible for the 1959 Act, and when we came to decide the methods by which to approach the problem we tried to follow the good example that he has set in everything except the tail-end of his remarks.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Is my right hon. Friend aware that an improvement in this grant has been long-awaited, especially in the larger urban areas, where the problem is particularly serious? May I take it from the concluding sentence of his original statement that there will be a further improvement in the grant as soon as economic circumstances permit?

Mr. Crosland

I do not think that I can commit myself to any future improvement on the very day we are announcing a considerable improvement now. Of course—and I want it on the record—although the Churches would have liked more, I believe that we are making what most reasonable people in all parties and denominations will consider to be the most generous settlement any Government could at this moment possibly have made.

Mr. Gurden

Is this settlement a direct recognition of the very high value the Minister places on these schools? Will he assure us that there will be no intention at any time of encroachment on the limited independence of these schools?

Mr. Crosland

The answer to the first part of that supplementary question is, "Yes, Sir." The answer to the second part is also "Yes, Sir." But is raises, when hon. Members say that the schools should have had a more generous settlement now, one argument against, which is that if we had accepted what most Roman Catholics had wanted namely, 85 per cent., it would have inevitably called into question that which the hon. Gentleman does not want called into question—the whole distinction between the controlled and the voluntary-aid school. None of us wants to reopen this major question now.

Mr. Fell

Will the Minister enlarge slightly on his answer to my right hon. Friend in so far as it affects denominational schools in an area where there is a comprehensive scheme coming along? Will he state quite clearly that, whatever the attitude of the denominational schools to a comprehensive scheme, this will not affect the right to the 80 per cent.?

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir. As I said earlier, I do not expect this problem to arise in any acute form, because in almost all the instances I have heard of there will be co-operation between the denomination concerned and the authority introducing the scheme. I therefore think that this will turn out to be a hypothetical question, and as it is a hypothetical question at the moment, I would rather not get involved in giving an answer about a situation that may not arise. If this is not so, perhaps the hon. Member will write to me about it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The ecumenical period is over. We must now get back to normal Parliament.