HC Deb 04 November 1966 vol 735 cc932-44

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

3.53 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I wish to raise the matter of the reorganisation of education in Ruislip and Northwood. This is a burning question in my constituency. Nevertheless, I shall seek to approach the matter in a strictly non-party spirit. I trust that as a result we shall be able to arrive at a sensible and acceptable solution of a real problem in my constituency.

Although many people in Ruislip and, in particular, Northwood are interested in the public schools, I do not propose to raise that matter today. It is now the subject of a Royal Commission under Sir John Newsom. Although the Commission has only just begun its work, there has already been much comment and criticism. I am sure that Sir John Newsom, like Lord Justice Edmund Davies, will welcome all the criticism and comment available from the public and Press, particularly on public schools, because so many people talk about that subject when they have scarcely any knowledge of it. At the same time, I do not propose to deal with the direct grant schools, which have been working so efficiently, or excite any further controversy on the subject of one school against another.

I am sorry to have to raise this matter on the Floor of the House this afternoon, because education is strictly a matter for local authorities, but I am unhappy to have to report that at the moment there is a situation of real crisis in Ruislip and Northwood on this matter. There is an apprehensive atmosphere; there is great anxiety among both parents and teachers as to the future of the children in my constituency. I am sorry to have to say it, but one has to face facts: there is a lack of confidence in the local education authority. I do not wish to criticise that body; it is doing voluntary public work with great eagerness and zeal. I do not suggest that there is anything sinister or wrong in the motives and policies which it is pursuing. If it is to blame in any way it is through lack of experience.

The real cause of its troubles is Circular No. 10/65. Paragraph 44 lays down that plans should be submitted within a year of the date of the circular. Those words are the virus that has caused the disease from which my unfortunate constituents are now suffering. It is only fair to say that the local authority has held many meetings in connection with this matter. At the same time, owing to the circular that I have mentioned they have been conducted in what, of necessity, has been a somewhat uncertain and hurried atmosphere. Some of the public meetings have been extremely noisy and rowdy, so strong have been the feelings of the various parties or persons putting forward their different points of view.

No criticism of any kind is to be made of the local authority in the matter of holding public meetings. I have the number with me, and it is large. I will not trouble the House with the figures. I have no doubt that the Minister has them. But it is noteworthy that the Inner London Education Authority, which is not a new authority—as is the Hillingdon authority—and has great experience in these matters, has not yet been able to conform with paragraph 44 of the circular, as the Hillingdon authority has. But although enormous scope has been given for public expression in the matter there has been no true consultation.

I want to give one example to show what I mean by true consultation. There was a meeting at Uxbridge on 5th October—almost a month ago to this very day. One of the speakers was a Mrs Dean, an officer of the Hillingdon Federation of Parent-Teachers' Associations, representative of no fewer than 10,000 children in schools today. She said, and I agree with her: The consultation has not been as real as the number of meetings has indicated. We asked the chairman of the education committee to meet our chairman, in July. The letter has not even been acknowledged. If Hillingdon borough are really sincere about consultation they must meet us in a different atmosphere than mass meetings. I hope that I have made that point clear. I do not make any criticism that meetings have not been held. The criticism I make——

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Crowder

The criticism I make is that there has not been proper consultation, but, of course, consultation must mean a genuine interchange and understanding of other people's points of view, and a certain give and take on both sides. Because these proceedings have been so hurried, the consultation has not been present. It was only as late as May this year that it was suddenly decided to alter the age of transfer from eleven years to twelve years. This caused great anxiety.

The education authority in Hillingdon claims that there has been full consultation. Have the parents been consulted about this alteration of the transfer age? The answer, I am sorry to say, is that they have not. It was sprung upon them as late as May this year, as I have said. That means that the parents want to know what will happen to the children in their last year at the primary schools if the transfer age is raised in this way.

The parents want to know among other things what the children will be taught, who will teach them, what size of classrooms will accommodate them, whether there will be education during that last year, in respect of crafts, science and languages. Naturally, the parents are feeling that, in that last year, the children will be in a sort of mark-time period, a limbo or no-man's land of education. That is why the problem—and I invite the Minister's attention to this—is causing more concern almost than anything else in the constituency.

The plan for the increase of time to be spent by pupils during that extra year must be defined and explained as to its scope and extent, because, according to my information, it will increase the infants' school population by nearly 50 per cent.—this at a time when the present amenities, accommodation and equipment in the infants' schools are being strongly criticised as being insufficient, out of date and in need of modernisation.

One is forced to the conclusion that the new transfer age was forced upon the planners in Hillingdon by a shortage of money and their eagerness to press on with comprehensive education, taking all risks regardless of the consequences. One must pause there to think for a moment. However much they may be advocates of comprehensive education, they should remember, in the risks they are taking through lack of money in pressing on with this scheme so hurriedly in this way, the children and parents involved.

The vital matter must be one of priorities and money available. It was that which prompted my recent Questions to the Minister. I am somewhat concerned to know why it is that he has been unable to reply to the Question which I asked on 27th October. I asked the Minister what is the estimated number of children in the area of the Inner London Education Authority and in each of the Greater London boroughs for whom additional school accommodation will be required when the school leaving age is raised in 1970–71. The Answer which I received from the Minister was: The data required for making an accurate estimate of the numbers is not yet available."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1966; Vol. 734, c. 226.] I am glad that the Minister himself is here in person, because in Ruislip—Northwood we have a number of grammar schools which are extremely efficient, part and parcel of the district, and very much loved, both by parents and the children working in them. We are very proud of them and we think a great deal of them. The other day I read in the Daily Telegraph of 25th October a report of what the Minister said at Twickenham. Reports, of course, are not always right, but he is reported to have said: The grammar schools inculcate into their pupils a moral attitude that encourages snobbery. It may have been a slip of the tongue. The Minister may have been thinking aloud, or he may not have been thinking at all—I do not know how it came about—but I say, not in any party spirit, but with great respect to him, that when Ministers of State go to the provinces and say things of that sort about grammar schools, it does not help that happy give and take of consultation and interchange of views for which one looks in arriving at a happy solution to this problem.

The plan, which I have with me and which is in the Minister's hands, has been much too hurriedly produced. It has not paid sufficient regard to the practical difficulties of the money which is to be available, of building and of the numbers of pupils who will be available within the ensuing years. Again, with great respect, may I give some advice to the Minister? Will he do to that plan what at the comprehensive school at which I was educated was so often done to my weekly essay—tear it over and return it to the Hillingdon education authority with the words, "Do it again; do it unhurriedly; be more painstaking and more thorough"?

4.9 p.m.

Mr. John Ryan (Uxbridge)

I am most grateful to have a few minutes to speak in this debate. My constituency of Uxbridge is part of the London Borough of Hillingdon, as is the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Crowder). His case is that the plans of the local educational authority were drawn up in an atmosphere of hurry and that that had an adverse effect on the consultative process and the necessary dialogue required by the Minister in his Circular 10/65. That is fundamentally untrue, and I should like to outline the consultation, and the form of the consultation, which has taken place in this London borough.

As soon as Circular 10/65 was received, three working parties of teachers and education experts were set up by the education authority on which there was no political representation whatever. These three parties were given the task of drawing up draft schemes. Six public meetings were held under the auspices of the education authority. A public meeting is worth nothing unless it is well attended and the attendance at these meetings was excellent by any standards with an average of over 200 people attending. Altogether about 600 people attended these public meetings. The next step, after the draft schemes were published, was for meetings to be organised by the boards of school managers in the borough.

There were 17 county schools and 3 voluntary church schools. No less than 65 consultative meetings were held under I he auspices of the school managers, and again these were extremely well attended. In addition, after the schemes had been considered, another 6 public meetings were held when the draft schemes were presented for consideration. That makes a total of 12 public meetings and 65 consultative meetings throughout the borough.

In addition, the chairman and vice-chairman of the education committee spent a whole day, which was well publicised, in the council offices, holding themselves available for any individual or group who wished to make representations to them and the chief education officer about the scheme.

Mr. Crowder rose——

Mr. Ryan

I am sorry, I cannot give way. I have only a few minutes. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to debate this on a public platform anywhere in the borough of Hillingdon, I will gladly do so, but I do not want to take up the Minister's time.

Finally, the education committee held, on 5th October, a delegate conference, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. This was publicised to almost every recognisable group of people in the borough, trades unions, church organisations, voluntary organisations, and organisations of all kinds in which the ratepayers of the borough were active. All of these organisations were invited to the conference, under the chairmanship of a distinguished local educationist who is an independent chairman of the campaign for State education locally.

This has been the consultation process in Hillingdon, and it is one which has earned the respect and admiration of distinguished and dedicated educationists throughout the country. Kathleen Gibberd, writing last autumn in the New Statesman, cited the method of consultation and the anxiety of the education committee in Hillingdon to be slow and deliberate in its actions as a model for London and the rest of the country.

I would like to pay tribute to the distinguished educationists who are the full-time officials of the Hillingdon Borough Council and to the extremely hard work and dedication of the chairman and vice-chairman of the education committee. This was not an election subject in the borough and I was glad, because it is no service to the educational future of children to be drawn into the political arena. I deeply regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman has, for party political motives, introduced this theme into Parliament, when the Minister is considering the detailed and fundamental questions raised by the scheme.

It is a most regrettable aspect, when every possible opportunity was available for consultation all along the line in the preparation of this scheme, and when the altitude of the local education authority was one of total receptiveness to any intelligent and sensible idea.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

I wish to support what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) has said. My claim to do so lies in the fact that a large number of girls at St. Mary's Grammar School and a large number of boys at St. Nicholas come from my constituency. Indeed, some of the staff of those schools also live in my constituency. In spite of what the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Ryan) has just said, they certainly do not feel that there has been sufficient consultation or consideration given to this problem. I can assure the Minister that if he cared to meet these people, he would find that they are certainly not snobs in any way.

The staff of St. Mary's have adopted a most reasonable attitude to the whole problem. They thoroughly investigated it and looked at the proposals with the greatest care, without any dogmatism. In my experience, having consulted with both parents and staff, I feel that they are no more doctrinaire on comprehensive education than I am. They look at it entirely on the merits and as to its suitability for a particular area and the children in it. The conclusions which they reached were, first, that there ought to be further consideration rather than the immediate adoption of this present scheme. They do not believe, in the first instance, that it will achieve the real flexibility of the large comprehensive school. Secondly, they believe that it would disrupt, if not destroy completely, the life of some very good established schools. Thirdly, they believe that the redrafting of the staff involved would break up and change the established community pattern and the loyalties of all the schools in the area. They believe that there should be a further fair analysis by the chief education officer of the local education authority and that there should be more careful investigation of the three-tier system, the possibility of new purpose-built comprehensive schools and the possibility of linking present schools. Living in Harrow, as they do, the parents who have consulted me have noticed the care and concentration of the investigation with which the Harrow Borough Council have approached this problem.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East) rose——

Mr. Grant

I will not give way. I want the Minister to have a chance to reply.

Harrow sent representatives all over the country to investigate all different kinds of education before they arrived at their conclusion, with the result that they have produced a plan based on the immediate system, which preserves the very best of a very fine educational system.

Mr. Roebuck rose——

Mr. Grant

I will not give way. I very much hope that this borough will take a leaf out of Harrow's book and think again about this matter. I impress on the Minister that those of my constituents who are concerned in the matter view with the greatest anxiety this educa- tional reorganisation, which they believe will have the most profound effect on the future of children not only in Ruislip but also in Harrow.

4.17 p.m.

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

The hon. and learned Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Crowder) will appreciate that his constituency is but a part of the Borough of Hillingdon. The proposals of the local education authority for that borough, as he said, were submitted, in response to Circular No. 10/65, to the Secretary of State in August of this year. In common with all other schemes submitted, they are now under active consideration within the Department. With the greatest respect, I must echo the view which has been expressed in this short debate, that it is perhaps somewhat premature to raise issues of detail about these proposals before the Departmental examination has been completed. I can assure the hon. and learned Member and the House that all schemes, including that of the Borough of Hillingdon, are being subjected in my Department to very close and very vigilant examination in all their details.

Mr. Roebuck

Would my hon. Friend make it clear that, irrespective of the examination in his Department, he will give a very clear indication to the House that schemes which are submitted to the Department and which do not eliminate selection will be rejected very promptly?

Mr. Redhead

My right hon. Friend has made it abundantly clear that the essence of the whole of this exercise is to remove selection and to eliminate separatism in secondary education. I can assure my hon. Friend, therefore, that any scheme which does not comply with that fundamental requirement will not be approved by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Roebuck

That will be very good news in Harrow.

Mr. Redhead

It will be appreciated, in the circumstances which I have described, that the scheme is being examined, that it would be highly improper for me to comment in advance on the details of that scheme in any way so as to suggest that I had pre-judged the issue. Such matters as need to be the subject of further reference to the local education authority obviously belong to that authority in the first instance. But I again assure the hon. and learned Member that the plan will be very carefully and meticulously examined in all respects.

The hon. and learned Member touched on two issues. First, he referred, though he said that he would not refer in detail, to the direct-grant and public schools. He will appreciate that the Public Schools Commission is dealing with the latter problem and that, again, it would be quite improper for me to enter into a debate on the subject until it has reported. As to the direct-grant schools he will know that local education authorities have been conferring with the governors of such schools in those areas to seek ways and means by which those schools can co-operate and join with the local education authority in whatever schemes may be possible. The Secretary of State will obviously give consideration to the report of local education authorities of such consultations as may have taken place, and their outcome. Again, it would be premature for me to comment.

The hon. Member also referred to the grammar schools, and here I am very grateful to him for affording me the opportunity to put the record straight. The Press report to which he referred, and upon which he relied as to the alleged statement of mine, I say at once was neither complete nor accurate. For the record, what I said was something that has been said repeatedly not only by myself but by the Secretary of State in the first instance.

We know, and we know by reason of the objective survey made by Professor Brian Jackson—to which I would refer anyone interested in the subject—that grammar schools tend to inculcate certain social attitudes into their pupils. I added on that occasion that I had heard some people use rough talk about snobbery. In saying that, I was merely recording the fact that those observations are heard from time to time. I did not necessarily endorse them. I would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to believe that if I thought that the teachers in grammar schools deliberately and consciously set out to inculcate snobbery into their pupils, I would be hardly likely to acquiesce in my own daughter attending a grammar school. The report is a travesty of what I said, and I am glad to be able to put the record right and to supplement it with what I said in addition.

This is not in any sense an attack upon the educational accomplishments of the grammar schools. On the contrary, part of the purpose of the exercise of reform along comprehensive lines is to make the advantages of the grammar schools available to the many children who, under the existing system, are denied that opportunity. I am glad of the opportunity to put that point right.

The plan of the Hillingdon authority provides in the long-term for the establishment of 19 all-through comprehensive schools catering for the age range 12 to 18 plus. Only one completely new school—a sixth-form entry Roman Catholic school—is contemplated, and the remaining 18 will be created by expanding the existing school buildings. Two, and ultimately three, will be for Roman Catholic pupils, and one for Church of England pupils. The schools will vary in size between six-form and eight-form entry. In giving these details. I am not now commenting on whether they represent a viable scheme, or whether, as a result of examination, the Secretary of State will seek further information or ask the authority to look again at the scheme.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to what he alleged was the lack of consultation in arriving at this scheme. I must make it clear to him that although Circular 10/65 places upon authorities the obligation of consulting teachers in the manner stated in the Circular it expressly says: Parents cannot be consulted in the same way as teachers; but it is important that they should be informed fully and authoritatively as soon as practicable in the planning stage. Explanations by elected members and officers can be given at meetings in schools, in booklets and through the Press. The circular goes on to emphasise the importance of informing parents.

I have noted what the hon. Member said. I have noted also what my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Ryan) has said on the other side of the picture. It is perfectly true that whereas, in the first instance. Circular 10/65 stated that the age of transfer from primary to secondary education should still be regarded in accordance with normal practice as 11-plus, subsequently the Secretary of State, conscious of certain difficulties that some authorities have incurred, extended a degree of local option to the authorities in framing their plans whereby they could put up to him schemes for an age of transfer above that of 11.

The hon. Member is, however, at fault in saying that when Hillingdon took advantage of this—admittedly, at a somewhat late stage in preparation, and no blame attaches to it because the intimation of the possibility came only about the time to which he referred—he was wrong in saying that that change of transfer from 11 to 12 was forced upon the local education authority by reason of lack of money. There was no force about this at all. This was a local option.

Nevertheless, when the Secretary of State extended it, he made it abundantly clear that any authority which desired to avail itself of this opportunity would have to satisfy him that it would not occasion any disruption of the existing educational standards. He had particularly in mind the undoubted repercussions that any change of this character would have upon primary school provision. Therefore, he indicated that any such proposal would be subjected to very critical examination in the light of that fact. That, I can assure the House, will be undertaken in respect of the Hillingdon plan.

The hon. Member, I think, used the term "the whole virus" in regard to the manner in which Hillingdon has prepared and submitted its plan, the uncertain and hurried manner of its preparation and suggested that this was due to the order of paragraph 44 of the Circular. He may have taken note of the fact that that Circular goes on to say, not only that the plans should be submitted within one year of the date of the Circular: although the Secretary of State may exceptionally agree an extension to this period in the case of any individual authority. Had there been in the mind of the Hillingdon authority a desire for any further opportunity for more adequate preparation, it could, and doubtless would, have availed itself of that facility to apply for an extension of time. Sixteen authorities have sought such an extension of time and have been granted it for varying periods up to six months. Thus there was no force behind this, no sort of dictatorial injunction to the authority that it must submit a plan within 12 months. It is, therefore, quite wrong of the hon. Member to speak of force of this character at all.

A number of objections have been received to the scheme submitted by Hillingdon local education authority. Some of them are related to difficulties apprehended in respect of primary schools and others make reference to other problems. These objections will be considered, examined in detail, the observations of the local education authority will be sought upon them, and the Secretary of State will reach his ultimate decision in the light of his objective judgment of all the relevant facts. Not only will he take note of the authority's submissions, but he will take note of and give consideration and such weight as on examination seems justifiable, to all objections.

I can assure the hon. Member that his observations and those of the hon. Member for Harrow——

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.