HC Deb 09 May 1966 vol 728 cc177-86

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

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the question of primary education in the Leeward Islands. The background to this short debate was the fact that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association sent a delegation out to the Leeward Islands last November consisting of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Ben Ford), Mr. William Clark, who was then the Member for Nottingham, South, and myself, on a three-week tour of Antigua, Montserrat, St. Kitts and the Virgin Islands.

We visited these islands and were very greatly impressed with their beauty and the charm of the people. So delightful were they that the shock of seeing the conditions in these primary schools was that much greater. The islands have been British Colonies for several centuries—it was Christopher Colombus who discovered them in 1493. St. Kitts was colonised by the British in 1623 and the Virgin Islands in 1666. The British colonists then were the planters and the owners of great estates. They purchased slaves brought from Africa, and as a result, nearly all of the inhabitants of the islands are of African and slave origin.

The estate owners then were not interested in educating their slaves because they felt that knowledge was quite incompatible with slavery. But the Methodists, the Baptists and the Moravian Church were extremely worried and their missionaries went out and did very noble work in beginning religious education before slavery was abolished in 1833—one hundred and thirty-three years ago.

After the abolition of slavery a few schools were established, part Government and part Methodist. It is interesting to note that the Government inspector, Mr. Latrobe, reported to this Parliament in 1836 saying that the public money had been well bestowed and conscientiously applied, but that he wished that it had been ten times the amount. That was over 130 years ago and I am really saying very much the same thing today.

I referred to the shock which it gave us to see the conditions under which these children are being educated, and I would like to give an example. In one place which the hon. Member for Bradford, North and myself visited there were 480 children being educated in an old Methodist school 50 ft. by 30 ft. These children were clean, well-behaved and I can only describe them as thoroughly lovable.

There were 480 of them divided into 13 classes in this relatively small room, with no partitions at all. They were very squeezed up, and one class was learning history while another was learning arithmetic and another English. The concentration of the teachers was very great, and it was obviously very difficult for them. It is great credit to these teachers that they were able to carry on loyally with their jobs and loyally to Britain. These children go on from primary schools to secondary schools where they take O and A levels, just as English children do. Their papers are sent to Cambridge where they are marked. It is astonishing that they do so well in examinations. Here again, credit goes to the teachers and the ability of the children.

I was speaking to an English schoolmaster who had been headmaster of a British secondary modern school. He said that if these children had been given a better start in primary schools, as children in England are, they would be up to the standard of British children in taking O and A levels.

I should like to quote as examples one or two of the schools. I will give one example from each island. On Antigua, the New Winthorpes School has only one classroom, of 1,932 square feet. There are 420 children in it, divided into 10 classes. On St. Kitts, the boys' school in the main town of Basseterre has 640 children in one room, with 4.6 square feet for each child. In this country, the recommended area is about 40 square feet per child. There are 511 children in the girls' school in one room occupying an area of 2,720 square fee—5.3 square feet per child.

In Nevis, at the St. Thomas' School, 516 children are being educated in 10 different classes in one room. In the Island of Anguilla, in The Road School, there are 481 children in one class—2.5 square feet per child compared with over 40 square feet in this country. In the Island of Tortola, the main island of the Virgin Islands, the position is not so bad. There are 160 or 170 children in one room. In Montserrat, in the Cork Hill School, 249 children are being educated in one room.

I obtained these figures as the result of Questions asked in the House. I should like to take this opportunity of apologising to the officials in the islands for the work which must have been involved in measuring these schools to satisfy the curiosity of the hon. Member for Banbury.

What are we to do about this problem? It is urgent, particularly in view of the constitutional talks and changes which are taking place in some of the islands. I should like to see a major effort made. I should be interested to hear if the Under-Secretary of State has any suggestion about what could be done. Clearly, the great need is to build separate classrooms for the large numbers of children who are in one classroom. To this end, I have consulted one of our leading exporters of prefabricated buildings, who has given me various figures of low-cost buildings.

Buildings can be sent out for about 6s. a square foot. These are steel structure buildings. I have all the particulars here and I will hand them to the Minister after the debate. These buildings can be easily erected and completed with local labour. I hope that the Minister will find time, while he is at the Colonial Office, to go to the Leeward Islands to see things for himself. If he wishes me to accompany him, I shall be only too delighted to do so.

This is not just an emotional matter which I am raising. There is a certain realism about why I want this problem put right if we can do it. Education in the Leeward Islands is of great importance because they are becoming independent and are going through various stages. But when they are independent they need to be economically viable. They have to build up their various trades, tourism, hotels, and light industry, staff their hospitals and civil service and get their agriculture going. The basis for the achievement of these things is sound education. We can make it much sounder if we get the matter of primary education right.

Some critics say that the island Governments could have spent more on schools out of their Colonial Development and Welfare funds. But the island Governments reply that the allocation of C.D. and W. funds was too small and that they had to concentrate on economic projects rather than on education. If we in this country had been more generous the islands might be more viable and might not be needing this money, which I hope we shall be able to put into primary education.

To put the situation into perspective one has to turn to the publication produced last week, "Education in 1965". On page 116, I see that the value of work under construction in this country at the end of 1965 was £204 million. All I am suggesting is that we want to bring this into balance to the needs of our people in our Colonies before it is too late.

In this same publication, I find the figure that the average area per pupil in primary schools is 41.3 sq. ft. when the area in the schools of which I have been speaking is 2.5, 4.5 and 5 sq. ft. per pupil. I hope that when we consider our own schools, we shall remember those in our colonies in the Caribbean and, I imagine, elsewhere also. Certainly, I believe that in the Windward Islands the situation is much the same as in the Leeward Islands.

It is not only the Government of the day that we have to persuade about this. It is the people of our own islands, our own electorate, whom we have to persuade. All of us, as Members of Parliament, know that great pressures are built up by constituents to improve this or that primary school. What our electorate must also realise is that we have a responsibility to our Colonies, where primary schools are in a far worse condition than they are in this country. In all fairness, I must confess that that I blame my own party for not having done more when we were in power. But I blame us all. I blame our whole country. We must all share a measure of responsibility for this state of affairs.

I am eternally grateful to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for having organised the delegation, because had I not been selected to go with it, and had it not been organised, I would never have found out about this and I would not have been trying to raise this question in the House of Commons. I raise it with a slight sense of feeling that I am, in a way, the representative of the Leeward Islands speaking up for them in the House of Commons.

I recognise the obstacles which exist in this problem, but I hope that we can make a united effort to try to overcome them. I hope that this short debate will stir the conscience of the Government of the day. I am not shooting at one Government; if anything, I am shooting at my own party for not doing more when they were in office, but I do not want to make a party issue of this. I hope, however, that this short debate will stir the conscience of the Government of the day to take such action as they can.

Basically, in the eyes of God, the children of these islands are just as important as our own children in this country. We owe these people a very great debt. We have taken a lot in the last century out of these Caribbean Islands. In our own eyes, too, they should be just as important, because we assumed the role of colonial Power and we must repay the debt which we owe to them.

We in Britain must honour the obligations and responsibilities which the status of a colonial Power put upon us. I hope that as a country we can do something to help the primary education of these children in these very loyal Colonies of ours out in the Caribbean.

10.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. John Stonehouse)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for the concern which he has shown about this very important subject, and also for the assiduity with which he has pursued his inquiries. He certainly has armed himself with a wealth of detail about the subject. During his visit to the Caribbean the hon. Gentleman acquired a reputation for himself as something of a life saver. He is continuing in this reputation, because the lives he now is seeking to help are those of the young folk in the Leeward Islands who will depend for happiness and prosperity on the educational facilities which are made available for them individually. I think the whole House will be grateful to the hon. Member for having drawn attention to the subject.

I start, however, by pointing out that, as we move now into the period of greater constitutional responsibility devolved on the islands themselves, it becomes the responsibility of the people in the islands to decide how to allocate what are freely admitted to be the all too scarce resources. So far as the school accommodation and improved teacher training go, we can help by providing Colonial Development and Welfare funds to supplement the contribution which is made on the spot, but although my right hon. Friend approves each territorial development plan as a whole the allocation of funds for particular projects, whether economic or social, is decided by each local administration and endorsed by the local assembly. Since those administrations are now largely in charge of their own internal affairs it is only right that they should use the aid we provide by a yardstick of priorities determined there and not determined here.

Hon. Members may say that the size of the cake is likely to determine the of the individual slice apportioned to education or anything else, and that aid as a whole should be stepped up, but it can also be argued that the problem in the area is not only the size of the cake but the way that the money is spent. I think it is agreed that many of the small islands cannot sustain the efficient administration required for the correct and best use of the resources which they have.

A positive step has now been taken this year to help those islands both individually and collectively in carrying forward their development plans. I am referring to the British Development Division of the Ministry of Overseas Development, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, was set up in Barbados a few months ago. A cadre of advisers is being recruited to this Division, including an educational adviser and a public works engineer. These two officials will, I am sure, help enormously in the planning and building of new schools. I fully echo what the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, that there is a desperate need for new schools to be built; many of the schools which are now being used are gravely inadequate for the schoolchildren who depend on them. I do hope that the educational adviser also will be able, as I am sure he will, to offer help and guidance in the expansion of the teacher training programme.

I should like to turn now to what is actually being done or is in a planning stage to improve schooling conditions in the Leeward Islands. The first point I should like to emphasise is that rebuilding is a continuous process. It may not be proceeding as fast as we might wish to eliminate the worst features which have been referred to, but I can assure the hon. Member that all the local administrations are now acutely aware of the needs of the situation. In St. Kitts and the two islands associated with it the plan is to provide additional accommodation for 5,000 children in the three islands over the next five years. Work is already in progress on two schools, each providing accommodation for about 500 students, in St. Kitts and Anguilla. Construction of a somewhat larger school in St. Kitts is due to begin soon.

In Antigua, first priority is being given to a rebuilding programme to replace the present unsatisfactory accommodation in rural parts of the country. The Government hope to rebuild eight village schools soon. In Montserrat, the Government are making a determined effort to replace all remaining one-roomed schools as soon as funds can be found. A new school will be opened this year, and two more have passed the planning stage.

In Tortola, the main centre of population in the Virgin Islands, there is recognition that school accommodation has been neglected in recent years, and a six-year rebuilding programme has been drawn up. The aim will be to close all the schools at present housed in church or chapel buildings and to transfer the children to new and functionally designed school buildings. The first stage of the building programme will be the erection of a comprehensive school in Road Town, which will eventually accommodate 800 students. Plans for the school are at present under preparation, and it is hoped that it will be completed within the next 12 months. Thereafter, a string of new primary schools will be built throughout the island.

All these developments are being financed from Colonial Development and Welfare funds, so that we have a big part to play in it.

The hon. Gentleman raised the interesting idea of a contractor in this country providing buildings which could be easily erected on the spot, and I would be very grateful to have details of it from him. I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Overseas Development, and I will see that the fullest inquiries are made into that very helpful proposal.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the importance of proving some assistance during the present stage of constitutional development. I agree that there is a great deal of responsibility being transferred now, and it is very important that the people, particularly the younger folk on these islands, should be properly trained to take the political responsibility which is being devolved upon them. But I must be frank with the House. There can be no question of any special bonus being provided on the transition from colonial status to free association with Britain.

What we should like to do is to give the special help that we can through the Development Division in Barbados so that the Government help can be there in the form of advisers. We want to be able to assist the local administrations to get on with the effective job in the future.

Important as the provision of new school building is—and I acknowledge that—it is important to improve teaching standards as well. There is a considerable amount of assistance being given by the Institute of Education of the University of the West Indies in that direction, and a contribution is being made by the facilities for teaching training provided by the Leeward Islands Training College in Antigua. The College, which provides a full-time two-year teacher training course, is being supported by all the administrations. In-service training is undertaken by tutors of the Institution of Education resident in the islands. These courses, which last two years, are supplemented by shorter courses which are held during school vacations. In addition, in 1965–66, nine tutors for the Leeward Islands have held Commonwealth teacher-training bursaries here in Britain. In 1966–67, the number is expected to be increased to eleven.

Efforts to improve school accommodation and to extend teacher training facilities are satisfactory as far as they go, but I should be misleading the House if I were to suggest that they were fully adequate to deal with the tremendous explosion in population which is, as the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, developing in the Eastern Carribean. In the Leeward Islands, the highest rate of population increase is occurring in St. Kitts, where the population of school age is already approaching 50 per cent. of the total population. The rate of increase is slightly less in Antigua. Population projections based on the 1960 census figures show that the population of St. Kitts, which at present is estimated as 66,000, will have more than doubled in 20 years' time. In the case of Antigua, the population at present of about 60,000, will have more than I doubled in about 25 years' time. An even higher rate of population increase in projected in some of the Windward Islands.

These forecasts are frightening in their implications, and given the demands that the rising population will make on all the services that are required in the islands, it is quite clear that even if teacher training could be expanded sufficiently to permit double shift schooling, no programme of educational expansion which these islands can afford can possibly cope in the long run with a population explosion of this magnitude. As hon. Members know, there are many other problems in these small islands, but the problem of population explosion transcends them all.

To summarise the position, I would say that unsatisfactory conditions still exist in many schools. We freely acknowledge that some of the conditions are very serious indeed, but local administrations are making a determined effort to improve accommodation. The immediate aim in all the islands is to eliminate one-classroom schools. Teacher training, both institutional and in-service is being expanded with the help of the University of the West Indies. On both buildings and training Britain is helping through advisory services now being set up in the British Development Division in the Caribbean, and by way of grants.

I should like to conclude my remarks by endorsing what the hon. Gentleman said about the value of the C.P.A. visits. I think we all feel that hon. Members who can go out and see at first hand some of these conditions cannot only add to their own information as well as to their own enjoyment, but can assist a great deal in bringing to the attention of this House some of the conditions which are all too far away from us.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.